The combination of novelty, quality, and what one might consider a sign, if one were more inclined to believe in signs, means that there are spoilers ahead for…
East of West #36
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Cover: Nick Dragotta
“Dying as you lived is a just end…but an end nonetheless.”
My dad has been gone for over eleven years, but I often dream of him.
Even in dreams, though, I know that as much as I want him to be there, he can’t be there, he shouldn’t be there, and so my mind creates some justification, some illusion for how this can be the case. “It was all a mistake!” “That part was the dream.” “There was some scientific breakthrough or supernatural occurrence!”
I have that sort of dream often enough that I sometimes don’t even bother with the mental handwaving. My dad is there. That’s all I need to know.
Of course, the illusion doesn’t last – typically not even all the way through the dream – but for that moment, that single moment in which I can believe that he’s really there, I believe it, unreservedly.
I had one such dream not long before reading this issue, and though this is perhaps not an ideal jumping-on point for the series, given how much has happened so far, and how much keeps happening, having such a dream before reading the latest in an arc titled “Things Fathers Do With Their Sons” felt like something of a sign, which felt like even more of a sign, given that one of the central premises of the book is built upon the receipt of signs.
It’s especially on-the-nose that the son in this case lives in a world of illusion, though one of the major differences between us is that while my father is dead, his father is Death.
To provide some background and to bring non-readers as up-to-speed as possible, East of West takes place in the future of an America whose history deviated considerably from our own during its Civil War. Their war raged on for another fifty years, and grew to involve more than the forces of a single divided nation, ending, finally – or at least moving in the direction of becoming a Cold War – in 1908 when what we refer to as the Tunguska Event happened…in Kansas.
The site of the impact became known as Armistice, and the remainder of what we know as the United States of America was divided into six separate nations:
The Union – The northern states involved in the Civil War
The Confederacy – The states that seceded from the Union
The Kingdom of New Orleans – A nation formed by freed slaves
The Endless Nation – A technologically advanced nation of indigenous peoples
The Republic of Texas – Kind of speaks for itself
The People’s Republic of America – A nation of Chinese exiles and immigrants
Simultaneous with the impact, two parts of a message made themselves known. For fifty years “the Message” remained incomplete, until Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic, writes an addendum in 1958 that makes the meaning clear: the end is nigh.
Several years later, the Four Horsemen arrived at Armistice and begin killing everyone who makes a pilgrimage to the holy site and built a structure around it to prevent further intrusion, with Conquest taking the child of one slaughtered pilgrim and raising him to be the carrier of the Message. Representatives known as “The Chosen” are selected from each of the Nations to help bring about the end.
Things proceed according to plan, until Death turns his back on the apocalypse after falling in love with Mao Xiaolian, the daughter of the Premier of the PRA, and the two have a son. However, Xiaolian’s sister betrays her, and the life she tries to build with Death and their son comes to an end.
That was part of the prophecy, however, and their son is taken to Armistice to be raised to be the Beast.
Though the cause isn’t clear, at some point, as the result of some conflict, three of the Four Horsemen are killed. Death, who does not know that his wife and son are still alive, was believed to have died as well, but was saved by the intervention of Wolf and Crow, two members of the Endless Nation.
The series begins with the regeneration of the three Horsemen, and Death, who is represented as a thin, pale, Spaghetti Western, “man with no name” type, learning that his wife and son are still alive, and largely follows his quest to reunite his family.
By this issue, Xiaolian has taken control of the PRA, and Death has found their son and is in the process of bringing him home to his mother.
Elsewhere, the Union has fallen to a revolution, which makes it ripe for conquest by the Endless Nation, led by Wolf, who has not only ascended to the rank of Chief of Chiefs of the Endless Nation, but has also – by devouring the former carrier – become the carrier of the Message.
That conquest takes up the bulk of this issue, with a brief scene of the three Horsemen closing in on Death and his son, and an interlude in which Death answers some questions that his son – Babylon – has about his mother as the mother and child reunion gets closer to being only a motion away.
“To put it plain…your mother is nothin’ short of the most impressive woman I’ve ever met. But that’s not even the best part.”
“What is, dad?”
“For the first time ever, someone made me not wanna be a monster. And now, I get to do somethin’ for her. Bring you home.”
After completing the conquest of the Union – as part of his effort to “heal old wounds” – Crow steps down as Chief of Chiefs and heads to Armistice, to set about the work of his other job: bringing it all to an end.
East of West can be a difficult book to keep up with, even if you’re a regular reader. Particularly given that its erratic publication schedule makes it difficult to be a “regular reader.” Consider: this is the 36th issue, in 2018, of a “monthly” series that launched in 2013.
Beyond that, it’s complex, with a lot of questions that have yet to be answered, and a narrative approach that doesn’t lend itself to anything other than a very careful reading.
While I like the art a lot – I’m particularly fond of the use of negative space in the designs for Wolf and Crow – some of the characters aren’t quite distinctive enough to be immediately recognizable, which can lead to confusion, particularly if it’s been months since you read the last issue (#35 came out in November of last year).
I’d probably be better-served if I switched to trade-waiting on this, but at this point it seems like it’s a little too late.
That said, for as much as I forget what the hell happened in the last issue far too often, it is a series that I enjoy, and this was a strong issue.
While there was very little focus on Death and Babylon, the relationship between fathers and sons remains pivotal, in the form of the lessons that Wolf learned from his which allowed him to join the old ways (magic) and the new (technology) to allow the Endless Nation to take the opportunity that the collapse of the Union presented. While the idea of combining magic and technology is hardly novel, the particular application of that idea in this issue provided a powerful concept presented with striking imagery.
That entire approach – taking an idea that is almost cliché and reshaping it into something new – is central to East of West and the world in which it’s set. We see it in the core concept, which is, ultimately, a collection of answers to a series of “What if?” questions, and in the art, in which we see things that are familiar presented in new and interesting ways, such as the futuristic White Tower as the seat of the Union’s government, or in the robotic horses that are disturbingly reminiscent of the walking, door-opening horror shows being created right now at Boston Dynamics, or in the High Plains Drifter look of the rider of the pale (robotic) horse.
Even Babylon himself, as the presumed Great Beast, is familiar; the boy who is prophesied to one day bring about the End of All Things, but who, for right now, in many ways, is just your average ten-year-old who wants to have fun and spend time with his dad.
Of course, where it takes a decided turn is in the details; Babylon has spent his entire life living inside a virtual reality, tethered to a floating, robotic nanny he calls “Balloon,” who controls everything that he sees, capturing all visual input and translating it all into a far rosier picture of the world around him before allowing it to reach his mind.
Beyond any of the other “What if?” questions at the center of East of West is a more essential idea, as expressed by series writer Jonathan Hickman, one that, in addition to the personal connection of the dreams of my dead father, prompted me to select it for the Spotlight this week:
“The things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us. The end times are imminent and we all hate each other too much to come together and solve our problems.”
That part, given the current, perhaps perpetual, state of things rings much more true to me than some of the scenes in the previous issue in which we saw an unconventional father and son engaging in some of the more conventional father-son activities.
I loved – and still love – my father, and I know that he loved me (and, perhaps more importantly, in some ways, he liked me), those sorts of bonding activities weren’t a big part of our relationship, in no small part due to my own lack of interest in, or aptitude for, them. The things that divided us – time, most notably – were, perhaps, stronger in some ways than the things that united us, but, to finish out the full quote from Hickman, “Our final destination is imminent, and it is the Apocalypse. And then, in the face of all that despair and gloom, somehow there is still hope.”
EAST OF WEST VOLUME 1: THE PROMISE – This is the world. It is not the one we wanted, but it is the one we deserved. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse roam the Earth, signaling the End Times for humanity, and our best hope for life, lies in DEATH!
S.H.I.E.L.D.: ARCHITECTS OF FOREVER – Leonardo da Vinci. Galileo Galilei. Sir Isaac Newton. The titans of history, they discovered the truth of reality in mathematics and the limits of possibility in science – and pushed past those limits with their boundless imaginations. And each has weighed the same question: What is man’s destiny? For these men were also all members of the Brotherhood of the Shield, a secret organization that has been safeguarding humanity and shepherding the future for almost 5,000 years. They turned back the Brood in ancient Egypt. They kept a Celestial from destroying Earth in first-century China. They stopped Galactus the first time he visited our planet during the 16th century. And still they watch over us all. But during the late 1950s, the Brotherhood faced a test like none other: the Night Machine, a super-powered being driven to bring about the organization’s utter destruction. His vicious attack on the High Council’s Rome headquarters causes a line to be drawn between the members of the Shield, and the questions about man’s destiny will be resolved once and for all! Collecting S.H.I.E.L.D. (2010) #1-6 and material from S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 DIRECTOR’S CUT.
Just like the world, this post is coming to an end, and so we’ve reached the point at which I must deliver the Message to you:
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