“First I’ll build a sword
Get some words to explain
It’s a plan, brother, at least
And I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace”
By Jonathan Hickman, Nock Dragotta & Frank Martin
With nearly three dozen issues published, it is instructive to glance over the pacing of Jonathan Hickman’s creator owned series, East of West. The first two arcs were densely plotted, bursting with exposition yet simultaneously possessing a full-throttle forward momentum. Character beats would explode into bristling action set-pieces viscerally rendered by co-creator Nick Dragotta. Then Hickman reined in the violence a little, shifting focus to the various political machinations of key players. The series did not grow tamer as much as take a breather while various characters gathered their strength. At the same time, Hickman sowed plots and divisions amidst the parties, steadily ramping the tension back up again. In recent issues the simmering pot approached full boil as several conflicts come to a head, resulting in this week’s rampant carnage. Yet, in the midst of this hectic activity (stunningly illustrated as always by Dragotta) Hickman delivers a thoughtful script which continues elaborating on the themes of his story.
The issue opens with a funeral, in which The Endless Nation is saying farewell to their Chief Narsimha. It is a somber ceremony. As he has in other titles, Hickman shows an interest in rituals and their social functions. Through communal mourning, the Nation demonstrates their solidarity. Here they are united behind the memory of an honored leader, whose spirit they now offer to the heavens. It is an assembly with two audiences, one spiritual (“the sky gods will look down [and see] . . . this was a great man”) and temporal (“it is a warning to our enemies”). This devotion is their strength as they prepare their armies for battle.
Unraveling, meanwhile, is a more fitting description of affairs at the White Tower in the heart of what was once the United States of America. The country has long been torn apart by corruption and inequality. President Antonia LeVay imagines herself ruling with an iron fist but her repressive strikes are increasingly missing their marks. A militant insurgency is growing ever more brazen to the point of recently striking at the citadel of power itself. #33 finds President LeVay holed up in the besieged Tower more worried about keeping the plebes away from the cellar’s fine wines than she is about the deteriorating situation. As such an attitude suggests LeVay has long been due a reckoning from her people. History teaches that eventually dams burst and revolutions flood previously fallow lands. The true test comes from what happens next.
Even more than the previous lesson, history also instructs that violence begets violence. The rebel forces are brutally efficient, acting out of a pure animalistic drive for revenge. There are no grand speeches about fairer systems of governance or the better angels of our nature. There is simply bloodlust. There is no doubt such ardor is justified, yet, so was the passion which produced the Reign of Terror. Indeed, in a previous issue, Hickman and Dragotta draped the rebels’ attack on the White Tower in the imagery of September 11th. In #33 their treatment of a high level government official resembles a witch being burnt at the stake, an act long considered by “enlightened” thinkers as a symbol for religious barbarity. Old monsters produce new ones. As his plotting grows more desperate, Shakespeare’s Richard III mused that “I am in/So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.” Throughout East of West, Hickman has expanded this individual psychological state to encompass nearly all of human civilization. Humanity is on the brink, the Doomsday Clock is at 11:59:59 and personages, such as Madame President, gleefully try nudging the second hand past that final marker. As the book repeatedly reminds readers: “You have earned what is coming to you.”
Yet, in all this bleakness, Hickman offers rays of goodness. The narrative drive pivots on a character’s resolution to honor love over duty. It is not easy decision, tearing at her sense of self, but, remains the only choice she could make and be true to that self. Fully aware of the possible bloody retribution which might follow, she still acts according to her heart. In such a way, there is a brief moment, a mere three panels at the bottom of a page, where the din of battle subsides, offering a view of another way. Will it be enough? Not likely. This world is too far gone for much value being placed in mercy. Still, it is a quality which Hickman cannot entirely abandon. The bloodletting has only just begun (which given this series’ history is really saying something). The question remains what, if anything, will remain in its wake.
Artist Dragotta continues to excel in his work for the series. His dynamic action sequences have a sweeping fluidity. Such scenes have a strong propulsive quality, teeming with adrenaline as characters surge from one panel to the next. As equally important as this visceral charge is the clarity of his layouts. No matter how chaotic, the reader never loses the thread of what is unfolding. This is also assisted by his expressive figural work which keeps at the forefront the emotional components of Hickman’s script. These talents serve Dragotta equally well in the quieter sections as well. He invests Narsimha’s funeral with a stately air benefiting of the occasion. Most powerful though, is the execution which closes the issue. Here Dragotta depicts the action in all its justice and brutality. It is a moment full of terror, even if the reader has little sympathy for the victim. Much of the credit for this effect goes to colorist Frank Martin whose contributions to the series has been a vital element of its success since #1. The sequence begins against a blueish-black twilight sky. Then the flames rise, their yellow and orange hues immediately dominating the page and consuming their prey whose body seems to melt as a wax candle. It is a searing sequence which calls back to the ceremony at the beginning of the issue. Both acts are ritualistic expressions of the communal spirit, verdicts on those who wish to rule.
Through such finely tuned collaboration, Hickman, Dragotta and Martin have produced another excellent installment of their stellar series. The questions they ask are vital, if not easily answered. For raising such resonant themes within the framework of compelling storytelling, East of West #33 is This Week’s Finest.