You Should Be Reading This: East of West
One of the best parts about being a part of a team that's building a website from scratch is that you get to experiment with trying out new columns and features. The field is wide open for subject matter, and I'm hoping to have the time to write about all the things that make my life such an awesome geeky experience. I'd say that it's like playing jazz, except that I hate that saying with all my body and soul.
At any rate, I'm excited to present this first edition of "You Should be Reading This", a look at some of my favorite comics, past and present. I've been a comic book reader since I was a kid, and while I can't afford to be as avid a fan as I used to be, I read as many comics as often as I can.
While Superman and DC Comics have always been the main pillar of my fandom, I can hold my own with any fans of Marvel, Image, Vertigo, and Dark Horse, and I can't wait to talk about what makes them all unique and wonderful. Comics are as important to me as any form of entertainment, and now there's place where I can finally talk about it.
So with that preamble out of the way, it's clobberin' time...
Comic Book Series: East of West
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Publisher: Image Comics
New Issue due out June 29, 2016
Imagine if you will, a movie or TV series that was part The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Game of Thrones, Blade Runner, Firefly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with just a touch of Cronenberg-ian body horror. Now doesn’t that sound amazing?! Wouldn’t you tune in every week for that type of show or put down your hard earned money to see that in the theater? That is the type of story writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta are crafting each month in the panels of East of West and have been doing so for 26 incredible issues. I will say that the mythology, and even the basic premise of the books are complicated, but a patient reader will find ample rewards within these beautiful, action packed pages.
Here is the long and the short of it; envision what would happen if the apocalypse took place not in the future, but had happened during 1860s. What would America look like? In the world of East of West, America’s Civil War ends not in reunification but in the permanent division of America. Instead of one or even two nations materializing, though, it ends up splitting the land into seven different empires. The Union and Confederacy remain, but then emerges The Kingdom, ruled by a population of freed slaves, The Endless Nation, governed by Native Americans, The Republic of Texas, and the PRA of Mao, as California and the west coast are commanded by the communist forces of China. Finally, there is Armistice, a portion of the former United States that is dedicated to the real rulers of these lands, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
Now take that premise, and fast forward to a dystopian future within that world.
That’s where the story of East of West takes place. Its hero is literally Death, broken off from his three siblings to take revenge on them for denying his love to a mortal woman and absconding with their child, who they believe will bring about the destruction of the world. Filled with gigantic battles, ample amounts of gun fights and duels, and enough devious political maneuverings to rival House of Cards, this is a comic series of nonstop enjoyment and wonder.
It’s also the sort of really complicated but worthwhile premise that Jonathan Hickman seems to absolutely thrive on. The author is a part of a new wave of comic book writers, along with Jason Aaron, Robert Kirkman, and a handful of others who have been able to work within the system of the Big Two comic publishers to great success, but who have also taken the industry by storm by sinking their teeth into original, creator-owned projects that don’t necessarily fit into the classic mold that DC and Marvel have been using for decades. Hickman has done some excellent books for Marvel over the last few years, but to see his original works at Image (Pax Romana, The Manhattan Projects, and now East of West) is to see a creator in his true element, unleashed from the confines of structured comics universes that prefer the status quo.
East of West works as well as it does because it’s based on one of Hickman’s favorite subject matters: Alternate Histories. The Manhattan Projects (which I promise will eventually be covered here) works under the guise that the men who created the Atom Bomb were also genius superheroes, who fought aliens and cults within the U.S. government. Pax Romana is a brilliant graphic novel about a group of soldiers who go back and conquer the Roman Empire. Even many of Hickman’s Marvel books, including his run on Avengers, are about a secret group of illuminati trying to change the world in the background. What I love about East of West, is that it has all of the same detailed world building and conspiracies, but after you get past the initial background of the story, he tells it in a very accessible and addictive fashion.
It also helps that artist Nick Dragotta is doing his own incredible work. His art reminded of Tim Sale at first, but now I can spot the little differences and love what Dragotta is doing on the page. (Author’s Note: I’d also check out his beautiful issue of Superman: American Alien) His gorgeous John Ford-esque vistas are matched with detailed and ferocious combat for breathtaking images of dynamic action and brutal gore. If Sergio Leone had ever directed a science fiction/fantasy movie, I’d want it to look like this.
I've heard it said before that the great American contributions to mythology and fairy tales are the western and the comic book, but rarely in the last decade have the two worked in harmony so well. East of West feels like an epic fantasy in the vein of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, but what makes it stand out is how American it feels. Where most of the examples of this type of adventure are steeped in European traditions, this book revels in being made up of the different American cultures that make us what we are. Characters from the different regions are distinctive and carry with them the societal ills that have effected their people, and the weight of those issues permeates the book, making it a cypher for today’s problems while still placing the characters in the context of the story of this apocalyptic future.
If you tire of the same old superheroes and villains fighting it out over and over (I'm not, but what do I know?!), East of West may be exactly what you're looking for. Whether you love big fantasy epics, dystopian sci-fi or spaghetti westerns, this book has you covered. It's not the easiest series to jump right into, but I can't wait to see where it goes next.