‘East of West’ is one of the best fantasy/sci-fi comics out now

(Image Comics)

“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.”

The Apocalypse is at hand, but Death has gone rogue. East of West, which debuted in March of 2013, is a cross-genre epic, a dark and serious work for mature readers. The series is garnering lots of praise for creator-owners Jonathan Hickman (currently writing Avengers and New Avengers for Marvel Comics) and Nick Dragotta (who worked with Hickman on Fantastic Four). There is No Us collects issues #11-15 (April-Sept. 2014).

(Image Comics)

East of West is hard to categorize. There are elements of at least six genres here: dystopia, dying Earth, weird western, girls with swords, Lovecraftian horror and alternative history. I was at different times reminded of such varied classics as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, John Albano’s Jonah Hex, Frank Miller’s Ronin and Mike Mignolla’s Hellboy. Like the best comics creators, Hickman and Dragotta draw heavily on classic pulp tropes to create something completely original.

The first issue established the historical framework for the series. In 1864, with the Union on the verge of victory in the Civil War, all of the Native American tribes in the West united into a single “Endless Nation,” and turned the war into a decades’-long stalemate that splintered the United States into seven pieces. In addition to the Union, the Confederacy and the Endless Nation, a monarchical African-American state called the Kingdom arose along the Mississippi, and Texas became a an independent Republic once more. In addition, Mao Zedong lost to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, but was able to establish the People’s Republic of America across the Pacific. A sixth unit, the Burning Plain, appears to lack political organization and much of population. The seventh unit is Armistice, the site of a meteor crash and a neutral zone where the leaders of the different nations can engage in statecraft with one another.

(Image Comics)

It is in Armistice where much of the action in There is No Us occurs. Xiaolian, the great-granddaughter of Mao, calls a council of heads of state. She is not only the premier of the P.R.A., but also Death’s former lover and sworn enemy of “the Chosen.” The Chosen are a shadowy cabal of religious fanatics holding high positions in all five nations. Their goal is implement “the Message” . . . and bring about the end of the world.

The Chosen are well on their way to achieving their goal, as the Four Horsemen are already at work. These immortal beings exist in an endless cycle of reincarnation, and at this stage, War, Famine and Conquest appear as six-year-old children. This juxtaposition of youth with utter carnage makes them all the more terrifying. Dragotta’s rendering of Famine as a bone-thin child is wonderfully disturbing.

(Image Comics)

For reasons that have not yet been made entirely clear, Death has stepped out of this cycle and retains the form of a completely white cowboy, a ghostly version of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. Death is now working against the three other Horsemen in a race to find the Beast of the Apocalypse, an ultra-powerful agent of destruction who also happens to be a guileless young boy.

There is No Us weaves different story arcs together well, giving each its own space to breathe while highlighting the connections between them. The mysterious nature of “the Message” becomes clearer in these pages, but questions still remain. Hickman is a master of the art of the slow reveal, giving his readers just enough information to understand what’s going on and leaving them thirsting for more. This series is building up to an explosive conclusion, and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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