Pick of the Week
What did the
Art by Nick Dragotta
Size: 32 pages
Hey! Remember BraveStarr?
“This is the world. It’s not the one we were supposed to have, but it’s the one we made. We did this. We did it with open eyes and willing hands. We broke it, and there is no putting it back together.”
Comics have wrought and witnessed the End Times so often, Walter Kovacs has thrown down his alarmist sandwich board and crumpled to the curb, head in hands. We live at the brink and have long since transferred our mail here. Envelope says Ragnarök. Return address too. Don’t always bother with the umlaut, but it always gets here.
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have whistled for the Horseman once more. The fact that, initially, only three arrived is not what sets this Armageddon apart from all those that came before. It’s the world they’ve been summoned to obliterate.
East of West sounds like one of Rod Serling’s squint-eyed directives to the Twilight Zone, and indeed, this world seems just through his diastema in a realm of alternate history. Though largely set in 2064 and jutting with futuristic spires, the heartland remains arrested in other aspects of its development, drawing aesthetic cues from the bloody days of its frontier youth. Outlaws traverse the dusty landscape on mechanized cricket mounts and drown their synthetic livers in rustic cantinas, wooden saloon style doors hinged firmly in the past. It’s not simply a Westworld for 2013 though. Not with a Golden Gate Bridge re-imagined quite that way. Not from these creators.
It starts with a Confederate soldier’s sudden revelation, struck enlightened like Saul on the road to Damascus. It starts with the consolidation, the union, of America’s Indian tribes under one man called Red Cloud. It starts with the exile of Chairman Mao, a time for repose and addendum to “The Little Red Book.” It starts with three horseman climbing naked and androgynous from the soil only to find their fourth missing, a traitor.
What happened next remains to be seen, save for flashes of betrayal and of wanton genocide. But its fallout is as compelling a landscape as has been terraformed in American comics. I’d say it reminds me of no other realm in science fiction or fantasy, but unfortunately I’d be lying. Anyone playing Ken Levine’s astonishing Bioshock Infinite this week won’t escape the eery parallels, particularly in Elijah Longstreet’s ascendance as Prophet. They even share some crow imagery. Luckily, the two stories diverge from there, Bioshock to the clouds and East of West to solid earth, heaped as it might be with bodies. The series is still new, but I wonder whether it’s a glimpse at our nation’s sins made manifest. A bald depiction of the scarlet letter forever branded on America, not for adultery, but for human bondage and derision. Or maybe it’s just a cool, nihilistic revenge saga.
It’s a fascinating vision of an alternate tomorrow, and as with any new vision of revised demarcation, it’s presented piecemeal. It doesn’t simply toss some goggles and dirigibles into the mix, label it steampunk and call it a day. There are cultures involved here not typically tapped for Harry Turtledove style What-Ifs. This series wells the Trail of Tears, subverting one of the nation’s most appalling sins and imaging a world where native groups came together to form a powerful, influential sector. The two Indians we do meet are practically metahuman, walking gods. The Union and Confederacy each maintain sovereignty over much of their original territory during the Civil War. Part of this is felt. Part of this is yet to be felt. I know, because there is a map.
And maps are one of my check boxes.
Nick Dragotta is operating at a different level than in previous works. Or perhaps this milieu best suits his style set. I was won over instantly with the prologue. His depiction of the three young horsemen during this and a chilling followup scene straddles the line between ethereal and feral, resulting in the scariest depiction of children since the Japanese horror movie boom of last decade. Then of course, there’s the reveal of Abaddon, a character turn, no…introduction that occurs pages and pages after we first see the man.
“Now…Say my real name, you son of a bitch. Call it out!”
The Grey Walker’s transition from cool calculation to brimstone heat might be the perfect metaphor for the best Hickman collaborations, juxtaposing his usual clinical detachment to the wild and woolly ferocity of his best artistic partners. It’s positively Kubrick.
Like The Manhattan Projects, East of West also feels like the ideal balance of Hickman’s triply austerity with his ability to entertain on a more visceral level. There’s a film strip history lesson and a lot of grim portent in lofty prose, but there’s also some pew pew and some robot horses. Fun for the whole twisted family.
Much has been said of Hickman’s prolific frequency, his perceived inability to pause amidst this spree of creation. His boundlessness. It’s not so much that he has more bright ideas than other comic writers. It’s simply that he has the gumption, the audacity, to bring all of them into being, and the discipline to make that abandon seem predestined. As such, he juggles a multiverse.
As for this particular world? I’m ready to ride off with it into its apocalyptic sunset.
Will always remember BraveStarr