East of West is an ongoing series that hasn’t exactly been getting the attention it rightfully deserves. So, if you haven’t been reading this series, then you need to run to the nearest bookstore and get started. It’s a comic book published by Image, and is a guarantee entertainer for someone looking for a change from the usual DC and Marvel routine. Created by writer, Jonathan Hickman who has worked for titles such as Avengers and New Avengers, and artist Nick Dragotta, East of West is a Sci-Fi Western that starts off in the year 2064, the first year of the apocalypse
In an alternate history, the Civil War continued until the year 1908 when a comet hits Kansas. In the aftermath of this disaster, the United States of America splits into seven different Nations: The Union, The Confederacy, The Republic of Texas, The People’s Republic of America (PRA), The Kingdom of New Orleans, The Endless Nation, and The Armistice. Furthermore, towards the end of the Civil War, two very different men become prophets of the Message. One was a former Confederate soldier and the other was the Native American chief who united all the tribes into the Endless Nation. These two men deliver the first two parts of The Message, and fifty years later, Mao I, the first leader of the PRA, finished The Message on his deathbed.
The main characters are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Conquest, and Death. The Horseman are believers in the Message and want to kickstart the Apocalypse. To assist them in this goal, they choose different people from the seven nations known as the Chosen. The Horsemen’s and the Chosen’s plans progress smoothly, until ten years prior to the start of the series, Death falls in love. Xiaoling is the daughter of Mao III, the ruler of the PRA, and a powerful warrior. But when they meet, they decide to abandon their duties, get married, and run off into the sunset. Unfortunately, the other horsemen and Xiaoling’ sister, one of the Chosen, did not appreciate the happy couple’s actions. They betray Death and Xiaoling, ambush them separately, and kidnap their newborn son. To complicate matters, their son is believed to be the prophesied Beast of the Apocalypse.
The series starts off with Death and his mission for vengeance. Helping him, are two witches, Wolf and Crow. To complicate matters, the other three Horsemen are continuing their plans to bring about the Apocalypse, and amidst the agendas of the Horsemen, the Chosen are wrapped in their own cutthroat machinations—clawing out political power, wrestling with their consciences, and pondering the words of The Message. Like modern religions, some followers take their scriptures for metaphors and spin these metaphors in whatever way suits them, while others believe that their gospel is unflinchingly literal. None of the characters are good or bad. There is no clear cardboard cutout protagonist, but the most savage characters, act in belief of The Message. There is deception, double-crossing, and assassination, in the quest for power. They say this is because of the Message and the threat of the Horsemen, but there are implications that it is just the regular human self-absorption. Maybe it is both, and this is one of the aspects that make East of West so interesting. It is a study on the effects of religious extremism on society. How does one determine justice and mercy without a higher law? Does anything matter if it is not specifically written out in scripture? What are you willing to do in service of the word ?
And to match the seriousness of these themes, is the tone of the series. East of West is bloody, grim, and commanding. “The end times are nigh,” is the catchphrase of the comic book, so Hickman does not pretend to tell a fun little story. This world is brutal and unforgiving and Dragotta does a great job designing it that way. He doesn’t overcook the art. There isn’t any oversaturated colors to distract the readers. The artwork is straightforward, but still manages to convey the tone of any scene with precision.
More of this art shows with each nation’s unique technology. They are creative and intriguing, but also pragmatic. The Union and Confederacy possess standard futuristic armor and rifles. The Republic of Texas have a group of lawmen known as the Rangers. They are essentially Western-esque sheriffs. One of them even has a robot dog that can track anyone on the planet and change into a sniper rifle. The PRA was a group of Chinese exiles who managed to carve out territory along America’s Western coast. They have two separate sects of warriors: The Dragons and The Widowmakers. While both sects specialize in melee as well as projectile combat, the Widowmakers also function as spies. Then there is the Endless Nation. A lot about this country is still wrapped in mystery, but they possess the most advanced technology—advanced AIs, powerful weapons systems, enormous warships, and a connection to the supernatural plane of spirits. The final nation, Armistice, only has one person. It was built upon the impact site of the comet and it only has a population of one person: Ezra Orion. He is the adopted child of Conquest and the keeper of The Message.
If the religious overtones are the heart of East of West, then the flesh is the diverse
group of characters from the seven nations. One of my favorites is Archibald Chamberlain, one of the Chosen from the Confederacy. He is direct in his duplicity, telling everyone he knows he is only concerned with himself and his own schemes to seize power. He neither cares about The Message, not a capable warrior, nor empowered by some mystical force. He relies on his sharp wit, careful manipulation and acquiring leverage over anyone who sees to do him harm. In fact, he is the first character to escape Death, who is introduced as an unstoppable force of nature. He is indeed the pale rider, dressed from head to toe in ivory white, with skin to match it. His speech is like someone from the wild-wild west, wields a revolver like a gunslinger out of a Clint Eastwood movie, and, while not as sadistic as his other Horsemen siblings, willing to kill on the drop of a dime. Another intriguing character is the crown prince of New Orleans, John Freeman, the first of fourteen other princes also named John Freeman. As one of The Chosen, he is tasked with bringing about the Apocalypse, but unlike the others, he is not in a position of complete power and is conflicted with a sense of duty to his people. In fact, his intentions are quite unclear, and it is unknown who he truly supports. Then there are the other three Horsemen fueled by an unknown supernatural force, virtually immortal, and currently in the bodies of ten year old children. While they seem to function as a force of nature, their only purpose being to start the Apocalypse, they are sadistic and petty. War, Famine, and Conquest are the closest things to villains in the story, considering humans as little more than cattle.
To keep the intrigue amidst the logic of science, the magic is left unexplained and chaotic. It is simply a fundamental law of nature, neither explained nor fully understood. It is tethered by marginal set of rules and full of mystery. This magic, however, is developed to be formidable and useful in a world of advanced technology. Death’s partners, Wolf and Crow can change into the animals of their namesakes; the Endless Nation can commune with the spirits of the dead, and can even possess other humans. Furthermore, the Four Horsemen are implied to be connected to deeper planes of reality, able to summon various beasts and interact with other supernatural forces.
The combination of all these different elements is what makes East of West a page-turner. It puts religion, politics, action, futurism, and mystic into one package. If done haphazardly, this could have been a recipe for disaster, but as it is, East of West manages to balance all these aspects excellently, and though it’s too early to say if it will become a masterpiece, it certainly leaves me wanting more. If you are not reading East of West, you need to get started.