East of West #1 (2013)
This singular blend of Sci-Fi, Western and post-apocalyptic madness brings the weird for what is possibly the strongest debut of the year so far.
In an already strong year for Image Comics debuts, East of West drops like a beautifully bizarre mash-up of Preacher and Jonah Hex, although neither tag truly does it justice. Jonathan Hickman certainly likes a challenge, not only penning New Avengers as part of the Marvel NOW! relaunch, but taking over writing duties from the ubiquitous Brian Michael Bendis on Marvel’s flagship Avengers title. Yet as fans of his other Image series The Manhattan Projects will know, Hickman is at his finest when he cuts loose on his own revisionist version of the world.
Indeed, there’s no mistaking anything in East of West for something on our plane of existence. Set in 2064, against an alternative timeline in which the US was divided into seven nations following an apocalyptic event during the Civil War, Hickman does an amazing job of world building in this first issue. Of course, this twist is just one layer to the fabric of this stunning debut, with the principal plot driven by none other than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Reborn into the world as children, Death has gone rogue and they must find him. There’s also a plot to kill the President of the US.
Almost as if Hickman decided to unleash every cool idea he’s ever had for a comic all at once, it is possible that a single read may not do this first issue just. Indeed, to fully soak in the plethora of ideas and deceptively simple nature of this world, it is a book that demands multiple reads. On the surface, it may have the trademarks of an old-school Western, as there are quite literally the “cowboys and Indians” of the classics. Yet it is filtered here through a dark lens, sent into the future and grown organically in a dystopian petri dish. The Four Horsemen are cannibalistic Children of the Corn, and the familiar scene of a lone gunman walking into a bar is also given a blood-splattered coat of fresh paint.
Dragotta re-teams with Hickman after a successful run on FF in the last few years, and this might be his crowing achievement. Also liberated from the shackles of drawing capes, Dragotta does the amazing work of bringing Hickman’s headspace to life. Accomplishing a seamless blend of Civil War era costumery with intricate slick future tech, it is a design that it visually compelling even when drenched in blood. Major props must go to colourist Frank Martin, who chooses a subdued colour palette that knows exactly when to burst into life. Witness the stark contrast in styles between the flashbacks to the Civil War (“The Third Great Awakening”), and shots of Death riding what can only ben described as a cross between a mechanical horse and one of the speeders from Return of the Jedi.
Make no mistake: this is dark and bloody territory. Yet it is also a rewarding and compelling read. It seems there is another Image title that will make four weeks seem like an eternity at least 12 times a year. Judging from the hyperbole around the web, a cacophony of praise that we’ve just happily added to, this series has a strong foreseeable future.
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