The great thing about Westerns, as I often explain to those who don’t understand the genre, is that you can really “go there”. It’s a genre that contains within it the whole spectrum of that curious sort of American Protestant apocalyptic vision, and the landscape and generic symbols (or “texts” if you want to get all scholarly about it) has long been reduced to sharp, spare iconography. Just seeing a man on a horse silhouetted against the desert is enough to conjure a whole galaxy of references and resonances. Once the genre has been reduced (or refined) to a series of images and poses and thematic motifs, it becomes endlessly exportable, and Japanese Samurai stories as well as Chinese Kung Fu stories have known this for many years. When used effectively (as in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, for example) it seems fresh and interesting and compelling, creating unconscious connections between cultures that appeal to those with universalist instincts.
But that was over 50 years ago. East of West adds the science fiction element to the mix, proposing an alternate history involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that started near the end of the American Civil War and continues to this fictional setting in an alternate 2064. It all appears to be very original, but upon close examination, it’s really a comic that is more of a genre “Neapolitan”, with a touch of Blade Runner mixed with a touch of a Western with more than a little Manga (there’s even an almost direct nod to Akira). Sometimes that sort of thing can really work, but in the first five issues of this Eisner-nominated comic, it seemed like the creators were straining to wring a drop of originality out of the combination. Full marks for ambition, but ultimately it comes across feeling like a sprawling and slightly disorganized collection of well-trodden paths. It seems to lack a bold, original vision and instead reads as a collection of interesting images and ideas that must have seemed cool, and still do, taken one at a time. But at least in the first five issues one searches in vain for a truly original, driving force.
It is absolutely not for lack of talent or technical skill, though. Written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Nick Dragotta, East of West has a distinctive and interesting “look”, incorporating minimalist grey-on-white colour schemes in the covers and bridging pages and absolutely first-rate cinematic splash pages. The use of colour is lush and rich all the way through, and Frank Martin’s work on the colours is to be commended. For example, the use of primary colours for three of the four “horsemen” (yellow, cyan and magenta) as well as an apparent luminosity setting for the fourth horseman (pale white to dark black) is not only a nice artistic choice but an interesting way to specifically reference the comic book medium. This little colour note is typical of East of West: flashes of brilliance everywhere on the periphery and a clear talent for the vocabulary of comics but somehow a bit inert at the centre.
In this alternate history, in 1862 the Native American tribes united under a single ruler, creating an effective “third man in” for the Civil War that made it drag on for decades. Later on, the Chinese also had their hand in the American experience, with an exiled Mao leading a strong faction to conquer “one third” of the American continent in the early 20th century. This led to the formation of the seven American states, including one dominated by Native Americans, two for the South (Texas, of course, was established as an independent Republic) and one for the North. In the North, the “White House” became the “White Tower”, and the Confederacy established a mirror-image “Black Tower”.
Also integral to this alternate history is the appearance of “The Message”, a spiritual and apocalyptic prophecy revealed in pieces to three major factions: Native Americans, the Southern Confederacy and Chairman Mao himself. This prophecy was accompanied by a gigantic comet hitting the middle of America in 1908, which became the occasion for the warring factions left over from the Civil War to finally reach an easy peace. Those who were familiar with the message knew it to be prophesizing the end of the world, in classic Biblical terms involving the four horsemen, etc. The comet site and the explosion it makes even conjures up our twentieth century version of the apocalypse: the atomic bomb. This is all very familiar turf for the western genre, from the Clint Eastwood film Pale Rider to the famous HBO series Carnivale.
The creators also mix in a bit of conspiracy theory, for those who like that sort of thing, suggesting that a cabal of elites called The Chosen are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, for the usual self-involved reasons. Mainly that they will be left standing among the righteous, even if the world itself is a ruin.
In any case, in this story, the angel of Death, a cowboy dressed all in white (literally a “pale rider”) and the three other apocalyptic figures re-appear in 2064. It turns out that Death has a different agenda from the other three, and is on a personal quest to rescue his wife, the Chinese Empress Xiaolian, and their son, as well as to hunt down and destroy The Chosen. Apocalypse, it seems, can only happen on certain terms for these eternal spiritual forces. So, this adds the layer of the classic “revenge story”, told in approximately 87000 Manga books.
Besides the narrative cliches, there’s also a character problem in East of West. One need only look to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to see how the forces of Death and Dreams can be given creative and distinctive character forms. But here, Death is more of an archetype than a character. Allowing that this might change, and Death undergoes the most growth of any character in these five issues, it still doesn’t rank high on the list of all-time comic characterizations. Sex Criminals, which has also run for five issues, is also an Image comic and is also nominated for an Eisner, has an incredible amount of character development. We know those people, and I didn’t get the sense of truly knowing any of the East of West characters in the same amount of time.
All of this genre mashup seems like a rich stew, and taken on an idea-by-idea basis it is intermittently effective. Classic scenes from films like Once Upon a Time in the West are re-created, with the Pale Rider striding into a saloon and interrogating the bartender over many whiskies. We also get a touch of The Fifth Element in the portrayal of the Roman decadence of the sci-fi super rich and powerful with their flying cars and enormous steel and glass towers of technology. (It seems science progressed a LOT faster in this alternate timeline, because I highly doubt we can make it to that level of technology in fifty years. Maybe some of us will be around to see for sure.) There’s also a good level of swordplay and Asian imagery in the Chinese scenes that will appeal to those who love the deep mythology and iconography of Kung Fu, itself a cultural cousin of the western as well as the Medieval fantasy world.
It’s all… very heavy. Deadly serious, with little room for wit. Perhaps that’s what is particularly missing for me, as a reader (remember, I like books such as Sex Criminals and Manifest Destiny, which squeeze more than a little smart humour in around the genre mashups). But I suspect it will appeal to fans of Manga and those who like their fantasy stories elaborate and heavy. Of course, there’s a chance that things will get more original and lighter as the story goes on.
Myself, if I want to see an Asian-tinged Sci-fi Western, I’ll stick to Serenity, which besides having much more compelling characters, is much lighter on its feet.