East of West

Today’s post is about Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West! There is…everything in this series: blood, gore, body horror, and, in later issues, techno-psychological horror. Sometimes there’s not even blood or gore but things just look gross. Proceed with caution – or at the very least, don’t read while eating lunch like I did. If you’re into Westerns, dystopias (as I am!), cyberpunk, political intrigue, or alternate histories mixed in with some folklore and creative liberties, you’ll love East of West.

Plot: The Four Horsemen want to bring about the apocalypse, but Death has abandoned them to pursue his own agenda.

Initial thoughts: I’ll preface this by saying as of this posting, the series is only up to #19, so my opinion of this story may change later. I’ve heard many a good thing about East of West, which perhaps created too much hype for my expectations. The entire time I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how Pretty Deadly is a similar concept (without the cyberpunk) except executed in a superior way. The art is enjoyable but nothing noteworthy. I’m not big on the Western genre to begin with, so that’s one personal mark against it already. Despite its flaws, it’s an engaging enough and complex story that I’ll stick with it. The narrative is odd, splitting issues through multiple narratives instead of focusing on only one side at a time, which takes some getting used to. I will say that despite my unimpressed initial reaction to the comic, I wanted the next issue (or volume) by the time I reached #19. What they’re doing with the Beast is far more interesting than the political build up.

That said, East of West has some pretty amazing world creation, which you can learn more about through this special feature issue. though it becomes more problematic the more you think about it. There are seven different factions in this historical recreation of colonial American history: the Kingdom of New Orleans, the Endless Nation, the Republic of Texas, the People’s Republic of America, the Union of the United States of America, the Confederate States of America, and the religious state Armistice. If you don’t see the trend, these are major factors of American colonial history, divided into ethnic, racial, and national divides based on contemporary history and politics (with a splash of the Armistice as the Vatican, just for flavor); it’s the USA of the past – except in the future.

Anyway, the setting is an extremely segregated world, which is one of my critiques; it is as if there are no black people anywhere except for the Kingdom of New Orleans, and this restriction of any racial minority outside their respective political affiliation overlooks the history of racial mixing in the USA, such as that of black and indigenous people. It also, well, overlooks anybody who isn’t Chinese, American (Northeastern or Southern), Texan, indigenous American, or African-American. Another big problem is the presentation of the Endless Nation is as if all indigenous tribes fit neatly into one culture or nation, which is not the case. Many of the characters are presented as ethnically stereotypical, such as Xiolian embodying the Dragon Lady caricature. In fact, nobody seems to really get outside of their trope, most regretfully of all is Death, so cannot escape being the Western heroic outlaw. Furthermore, the stereotypes and nations provided are woefully narrow in representation. As somebody who normally has to rely on Mexican representation to remotely see anything like my culture, that was a big let down, especially because Mexico has had such a turbulent and constant history with the formation of the USA. East of West operates as if nothing outside of this neo-USA does not exist – and if it does exit, it does not matter.

Itty Bitty Research: Bad ex-Catholic that I am, I didn’t even know the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were in the Book of Revelation. Ironically, I think I know a bit more about my ex-faith than I ever learned in eighteen years of my life. The Four Horsemen are specifically stated in Revelation 6:1-18, which can be read here. In Hickman and Dragotta’s world, each of the horsemen has a corresponding color, which is also present in the Bible. In the Bible, War rides a red horse, Famine rides a black horse, Conquest/Pestilence rides a white horse, and Death rides a pale horse, but in East of West, War is red, Famine is green, Conquest is blue, and Death is black/white.

The only one that corresponds is War. Revelation 6:4 says, “And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.” Obviously, we can make the connection between the East of West and Revelation imagery through the color. The question on my mind, then, is why keep only War corresponding to the color in the Bible? This is, unfortunately, not something I can answer quite yet.

Famine is green, which is not mentioned in the Bible, but the color has associations with nature. Famine is the inversion of nature, or the lack thereof, so the chosen green tone’s sickly color fits nicely within the visual imagery. While Famine’s visual reading doesn’t correspond with the Bible, it makes sense.

Conquest is blue, and I’m not sure what to make of this at all. Blue isn’t necessarily associated with conquest, unlike Famine’s relationship to nature. To me, this visual reading makes no sense, and I can only assume it is because Hickman and Dragotta wanted to keep with the color scheme.

Of all the horsemen, Death, who appears as both black and white, is the most troubling. In the Bible, death appears on a pale horse, unlike either of the colors Death embodies in the graphic novel. Instead, we see Death as black in flashbacks and follow Death as a white man in the narrative. We know that Death has switched from black to white, potentially upon the matter of Death’s losing something. Two positive readings of this transition are a (possibly moral) purification process (where black is sinful and white is purity) or a gaining of something (black is the absence of color whereas white is all colors, therefore Death has gained something). A negative reading, if we invert the Western meanings of blackness and whiteness, is that Death is deteriorating, possibly becoming more deathly. Some non-Western cultures view white as a color of Death, befitting of his title but troubling in terms of what this means for the narrative, or reincarnation, which is equally apt but troubling for the narrative. Black and white are also at extreme polar ends whereas “pale” in somewhere between the two, undefined and limitless in possibilities. Black and white are also the colors of Death’s companions from the Endless Nation, so perhaps there is some kind of fusion or foreshadowing of Endless Nation’s relationship to Death there.

While I don’t expect the authors to stick strictly to the Biblical imagery, this knowledge is confusing to place within Hickman and Dragotta’s story. It’s certainly something I hope is explained later on. There’s also the matter than in Revelation, descriptions of angels and other “good” figures coming to the moral rescue of mankind is present, whereas this is entirely absent from East of West. Where is God in this story? Are we to understand God is uncaring? Or perhaps, in Nietzsche’s words, dead? Some would say that these questions make East of West brilliant, but I think it just makes it convoluted and pretentious. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3.5/5

Works Cited: Hickman, Jonathan, writer. East of West v1. Art by Nick Dragotta. Colors by Frank Martin. Letters by Rus Wooton. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2013. Print.

—, writer. East of West v2. Art by Nick Dragotta. Colors by Frank Martin. Letters by Rus Wooton. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2014. Print.

—, writer. East of West v3. Art by Nick Dragotta. Colors by Frank Martin. Letters by Rus Wooton. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2014. Print.

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