East of West has always had its greatest strength in wringing complex characters from stereotypes. There’s a reason that the great nations of the world that Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta created have simple, one-word names: the Union, the Confederacy, the Kingdom, the Republic, the Nation, the People. The characters have the same schema: Death, Conquest, Mao, Babylon, the Ranger, and so forth – with a few small exceptions, of course. The world of East of West may not stand up to close inspection, but it doesn’t really have to. We get the broad strokes from a glance.
The final volume of the series follows the same principle. Individually, many of the issues don’t quite hold up, and the story feels often disjointed, leaping from one set-piece to another. Read this issue by issue, and it’s flawed, without a through line. But step back, and look at the final volume as a whole, and it all comes together.
That’s not to say it’s flawless. Many of Jonathan Hickman’s works struggle to end well – Manhattan Projects goes with a whimper, and Fantastic Four was clearly truncated to a great degree. East of West’s final volume has the same issue. The war between the Confederacy and the Maoists comes to an end rather too quickly, and the Endless Nation and the Kingdom both of sort of just disappear into nothing. Moreover, many of the greater mysteries posed by the book go unanswered. We never learn what the deal was with the Oracle, why the giant meteor hit, why the Horsemen exist, why Babylon was so uniquely important, or why Death’s Native American friends became the standard Jonathan Hickman Totally White People. (See also: New Avengers, Black Monday Murders, X-Men, etc.)
But, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. East of West has always been a book that cared more about trappings and themes then it did about facts and answers, and it has that in spades. The fight at the end, where the Horsemen fight to the death against, well, Death, feels like a western. The anticipation, the tension, the rapid snap as the two fighters leap into action – it’s all there. The end, as Balloon shuts down the program governing Babylon’s vision as Mao appears and Death dies has the same sort of emotional power as something like, say, the end of Shane. There’s a deep sense of visceral emotional power that more then makes up for the details that fall through the cracks.
A great portion of that is due to the artwork by Nick Dragotta. His art is great, not just at the battle scenes – which it is, to be clear – but at the emotional content. His faces are expressive, and you can feel the raw emotions – the sadness, the fury, the regret, the joy – coming off the characters every time you look at a panel. But this is a western, and westerns relish in the vast horizons of the American west. Nick Dragotta does that spectacularly well. When I look at the great plateaus, the vast prairies in his art I feel the same sense of awe that I do when I visit Yellowstone.
Hickman and Dragotta finish their western epic with an emotional conclusion that, while it may drop some plot points, hits your heart hard.