Can a series propel itself forward with nothing but foreshadowing? Somehow this seems to be what writer Jonathan Hickman is trying to do as his seminal series (soon to be adapted to Amazon if the rumors prove true) grinds on in a fascinating, if frustrating pace. Regardless of flaws, it is perhaps unsurprising that I will follow this bizarre and tantalizing series to its end.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for East of West #40!
So what is it about?
Picking up where the issue #39 left off, Death and his son Babylon find themselves at the mercy of the Horsemen War, Famine and Conquest. Meanwhile at Armistice, Death’s (former?) allies Crow and Wolf meet to talk with Death’s wife Xiaolian. Each of the two stories are given adequate development and it’s good the series’ focus returns to its central cast.
For the shorter story centered at Xiaolin, it is clear times have changed. Now on the warpath, the wife of Death is hellbent on leading her forces against the remaining Chosen, while it seems Crow and Wolf — following their religious journey the last few issues — have taken a stand against her. It’s clear that though the two sides once allied with the Horseman Death, now things might not be so friendly. Though no blood is shed between them there’s certainly a fight brewing.
The longer half of the issue is devoted to Death’s journey — more specifically, his fight with an army of insane robots dispatched by the Horseman to delay him while they confront his son (and potential antichrist) Babylon. Series artist Nick Dragotta shines expertly here as Death makes a brutal stand, outnumbered and nearly outmanned by a seemingly endless swarm. Blood, viscera and pain are all present through out the panels. Every strike, gunshot and wound is felt. It’s a beautiful clash of color and emotion.
When the dust finally settles and the blood stops flowing, Deaths stands wounded but triumphant, while fellow Horseman War looks on, teasing a monumental revelation of the past between the two and an inevitable showdown. Babylon is nowhere in sight, having absconded with the two remaining Horseman.
Okay that’s a lot to take in.
Yes, this issue is quite packed to the brim and not just with plot. Nick Dragotta draws a beautiful, haunting and massive world. His art is something out of classic American artwork smashed into a science fiction universe in the vein of Firefly. Every line and expression of characters feels right where it should belong. Even in moments with multitudes of characters crammed into a confined space, everyone is given proper definition and a distinct spot. Sadly, this issue can’t be saved with just amazing art.
What’s the downside?
East of West has never been the easiest series to follow. Johnathan Hickman has always leaned towards the storytelling method of “2 + 2”, hoping the audience will put the pieces together and explain the story themselves. The flaws of that method though are more apparent here than previous issues. Newcomers and even series regulars may be confused by character choices and motivations.
The world of East of West is vast and still has touched many relevant themes through out its run. Political corruption, religious fanaticism and revenge all run deep, but at times the story arc can be so muddled as to render the message it is trying to convey simplistic or overcomplicated. However, the creative team avoids outright alienation through the continued use of foreshadowing. There are numerous dangling lures enticing you to read further, tempting readers with the promise of a reckoning worthy of Sergio Leone. Hickman has built up a powder keg of plot points closing towards an inevitable violent confrontation. Much like the cast of this book, I feel compelled to go along no matter how complex the plot proves. The journey will be long and the road hard, but should future issues prove better, then I shall see it through to the inevitable, unavoidable and irresistible conclusion.