By Darryl Ayo
East of West, number seven
By Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta
With Frank Martin & Rus Wooton
Image Comics, November 2013
Review: I like the comic book series “East of West” and I liked the seventh issue more than some of the prior issues. Frank Martin is one of my favorite comic book colorists and Nick Dragotta structures his spatial compositions in a way that appeals to my particular interests in comic book drawing. I mostly enjoyed reading issues one through six and as time goes by I feel that the writing has gotten stronger whereas most serials settle into a groove and begin to deteriorate as their central mysteries are revealed to the audience.
When I set down the previous issue of “East of West,” I thought to myself “that was really good.” Upon completion of the current issue (number seven), I thought to myself “that was better than the last one.”
End “East of West” review.
Commence “East of West” overview:
1. Under the breath.
One distinguishing quirk of “East of West” is the tendency for characters to speak under their breath, indicated by a smaller, italicized lettering style with more white space in the word balloon to indicate the airy nature of talking under one’s breath.
I have to say, this comic series features the most passive-aggressive horsemen of the apocalypse that I’ve ever seen. They are positively annoyed. Early in the series I was thinking “really?” But as the story rolls on, I began to enjoy this sniping, bickering culture on the page.
2. Culture on the page.
People think poorly of writers at times when a dominant voice appears throughout a script. I have always argued that people tend to talk alike, especially when they are close enough in life that they coexist in the same story. Coworkers, allies, enemies, etc.
In reality, I find that I often don’t share speaking quirks with my own coworkers and some of my friends but sometimes I just feel that…it’s okay for characters to share a linguistic style in fiction. I’ve gone to bat for Brian Bendis, Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith over this so I’m going to go to bat for Jonathan Hickman too. It isn’t the speaking style that differentiates the characters in “East of West,” it’s the characters’ goals and points of view.
What Nick Dragotta brings to this comic most of all is the vastness of space. Space on earth. Not to rag on anybody who draws differently but I appreciate that Dragotta shows the reader just how much physical space is involved in these scenes. We see portraits of characters when the story requires it but we also see wide vistas, landscapes and the true danger for the characters between “here” and “there.”
4. Cold open.
For some reason, Jonathan Hickman structures his comic books approximately like television dramas. They usually begin with a small segment before launching into an elaborate titles sequence. It’s a gimmick and I like this gimmick. I like the way it reads.
It makes the comic more leisurely and more urgent at the same time. The hard line between any issue of “East of West”‘s cold open and the remainder of that given issue underlines the division of scenes and asks the reader to pause and consider the story mid-issue. Most comic books feel written with the idea of readers charging through the installment very quickly.
Contrast with the stylistic quirk of comic books where one scene ends but its dialogue carries over in a caption into the following scene, stitching both (and as it continues, all) scenes together, implicitly asking the reader not to pause but rather to continue reading at the same pace. Scenes segue into one another. In Hickman-written comics (including “East of West”) at least that introduction scene will stand apart and allow for some reader breathing space.
5. Weird racial stuff?
In “East of West,” the character Death travels with two Native American magical beings who are magical in that mysterious way that a character becomes when they are a white character’s henchman, speak in riddles and paint their body all-white or all-black. It has the feeling of some of the classic “inscrutable/mystical” stereotypes but I’m not really sure. I grew up on the classic X-Men comics which were full of these sorts of characters and Death’s two companions feel less like character than Danielle Moonstar or James Proudstar. Death’s pals just feel like walking magical “exotic” weapon-people.
There’s the Chinese expansion dynasty in North America which Death (who, being from Western mythology, is coded as “white”) defeats with complete ease. Death has to win. He’s the protagonist and also a horseman of the apocalypse. But I still have a pang of regret at that. China sets up a sovereign state on North American soil and it’s toppled because some white guy has a crush on the king’s daughter.
This comic “East of West” has a somewhat different approach to pacing than most contemporary mainstream comic books. Where many comics have a leisurely storytelling pace, they tend to focus more tightly on the protagonist or protagonists. By shifting the focus of the narrative to various factions more frequently, “East of West” manages to retain the popular conversational pacing of today’s comic books but also cover a lot of narrative ground, making each installment feel large. This isn’t particular to Hickman’s writing but it feels particularly effective here.
End “East of West” overview.
Hickman & Dragotta have a comic book called “East of West” and I read it every time it comes out.