Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s East Of West #5. Written by Jonathan Hickman (Avengers, The Manhattan Projects) and drawn by Nick Dragotta (FF, Vengeance), this conclusion to the first arc solidifies the emotional stakes of the story while setting a clear path for the future. (Warning: Major spoilers ahead!)
Jonathan Hickman kick-starts Marvel’s latest end-of-the-world scenario in this week’s Infinity #1, but the extra-sized superhero comic pales in comparison to the apocalyptic narrative unfolding in his creator-owned Image series East Of West. Partnered with artist Nick Dragotta, colorist Frank Martin, and letterer Rus Wooton, Hickman has created one of the year’s best new titles in this sci-fi Western about an alternate-reality America on the brink of Armageddon. The book has been heavy on style and atmosphere, but East Of West #5 firmly establishes the emotional stakes as Death and the woman he loves have their first conversation after a 10-year separation. Hickman has been gradually building toward this issue’s reveals, which provide readers with the true meaning of “The Message” that has been the guiding force for this book’s antagonists, and by the end of this first storyline, the overarching direction for the title is clear.
The design work on Hickman’s projects has always been phenomenal, and the all-white pages with sparse text and graphics serve the same purpose as a title card in a TV show, setting the tone while giving the opening scene added importance by separating it from the rest of the issue. Through Image, the creative team has complete control over the production of the book, and East Of West, with those bold, graphic pages and no ads interrupting the story, is a sleek, attention-grabbing package that is going to look even better when collected in trade paperback.
Hickman’s work is full of big ideas that blossom beautifully over time, but emotion is often sacrificed in favor of those more ambitious story threads. East Of West certainly has a high concept, but it’s quickly shaping up to become Hickman’s most personal story, especially after #5. The issue is strangely reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated in the way it tells the story of two grieving parents working out their issues in a fantastic setting that amplifies their problems. Xiaolian was a warrior who caught Death’s eye and was courted by the lone Horseman, giving birth to his child before he left her to pursue other obligations. A visit from the other three Horsemen and her sister cost Xiaolian her hands, her son, and her freedom, and she still hasn’t forgiven her husband, even after exacting her bloody revenge last issue. Hickman has been laying these pieces out over the course of this first arc, but #5 is when he assembles them, explicitly detailing the history of these characters to propel the story forward.
A large part of that backstory is tied up in “The Message,” the blanket religion of this world. East meets West in “The Message,” which combines apocalyptic Christian mythology with the tranquil imagery of Buddhism as it describes the coming of the Beast Of The Apocalypse through the union of Death and Xiaolian, who is represented by the lotus flower in the prophecy. The meshing of belief systems is a great way of keeping this version of America a melting pot despite the territory being split into different countries, including the Native Americans’ Endless Nation, the Kingdom Of New Orleans, and the Republic Of Texas. Bits of “The Message” have been spoken before, but this issue reveals what all that “A cup of a cup. A chalice of a chalice.” stuff was about by dropping the bombshell that Death and Xiaolian’s son is alive and imprisoned by those that believe that he is the Beast. Death’s romance with his wife has wilted, but he hopes to regain her love by saving their son, ending the first arc by giving the lead hero a clear destination for the future.
Hickman and Dragotta have done exceptional world building with this series, creating an immersive setting that pulls the audience into the operatic story. It’s fitting that the artist on this title would combine the best aspects of Eastern and Western graphic storytelling, and there is a distinct manga influence in Dragotta’s character work and action sequences that blends beautifully with a more European approach to atmosphere and setting. In an interview with Robot 6, Dragotta describes the creative process between him and Hickman in reference to a page from last month’s phenomenal issue, which depicted Death’s attack on Mao’s fortress in brutal detail:
“The page in question was done completely Marvel-style. Here’s what Jonathan gave me in the outline. ‘Page 6 — Back on Mao and his two daughters as they watch the fight. Commenting on the strong magic of the Avatars. Impressive, but the Maos are confident of victory.’ That’s it. From that I created the 18-panel page, Jonathan then went back in and wrote dialogue over it.”
That intense creative synergy is why the pacing of this title is so smooth. There’s a conversation happening between the writer and artist as Dragotta visually structures initial ideas that Hickman later fills out with words, forcing the artist to convey raw emotion without textual help. Number 5 was done full script because it’s so dialogue heavy, but that strong connection remains. Dragotta’s characters are incredible actors, making this an almost entirely conversational issue just as engrossing as last month’s epic action sequence.
Dragotta’s evocative character designs visually reflect the characters’ personalities in clever ways. Death is a ghostly cowboy dressed in a suit-and-spurs ensemble that strongly contrasts to the slick kimono-style tunic worn by Xiaolian. (In the flashbacks, her clothing is more Western.) Her red hand prosthetics are a constant reminder of the blood she’s shed over the years, and their permanent color suggests Xiaolian will be responsible for more carnage in the future. The Beast’s mother and father are visually at odds, but the child’s design is an even bolder shift, with Dragotta embracing the book’s sci-fi elements to make the boy a haunting fusion of man and machine. The full-page splash of the Beast hooked up to a giant machine, surrounded by a heavenly blue glow, is a striking image given even more weight by the child’s body language. He has the same sunken posture as his father, but whereas Death appears to be caving under exhaustion, the Beast looks pitifully resigned to his sad permanent state. The helmet over his eyes is a particularly creepy touch, robbing the Beast of any hint of expression as he absorbs information from a teaching robot.
Frank Martin is an artist who understands how color can be used to convey emotion, and the blue of the Beast’s scenes emphasizes the sense of holy righteousness held by his jailers. The defining hues of the book are complementary shades of orange and blue: orange to evoke the dried land of the desert, and blue to evoke the boundless sky. These colors are used for emphasis, with orange appearing during more active dramatic moments while blue is applied to quieter, more ominous scenes. The last image of this issue shows Death venturing off into an orange sunset as he takes the first steps to rekindling old flames, and the tone of the image would be much different if the sky was blue. There isn’t any optimism in that orange landscape, providing a hellish backdrop for the start of Death’s next journey.
The world may be ending, but hopefully the destruction is delayed long enough for this creative team to fully explore the possibilities of this collaboration over an extended period of time. If this is what they can accomplish after just five issues, it’s going to be an incredibly entertaining apocalypse.