With East of West wrapping up its seven year journey into the Apocalypse, John and I are taking a look back at the Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooten series from Image Comics!
In addition to the CBH Deep Dive podcast, I’ve also included our “Journals From Armageddon,” an email conversation John and I had prior to this conversation. Check out part one here covering East of West #1 to #29 (the first two in-universe years of the Apocalypse), and we’ll be back in January 2020 with part two covering East of West #30 to #45, the final year of the Apocalypse!
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Journals From Armageddon
I thought for this month’s deep dives we could start a back and forth about thoughts and questions we have as we read/re-read East of West. Think of this as a completely optional series of thought starters and possible dialogue to run as a companion on CBH once we’ve recorded our episode on part one.
Now, part one is going to focus on the first two years of the Apocalypse (up to around issue #30 in the series), but obviously big picture questions and thoughts are fair game. I haven’t read the most recent issue in the big East of West finale, but otherwise there aren’t really any spoilers I’m worried about.
Line one, panel one: “The dream is over.”
Ok, I won’t be breaking down this book on a line by line basis (#EastofPedantic) but this is the only line of dialogue for nearly three pages while Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooten’s art do the work. I can’t read this line and think of anything other than John Lennon’s broken crooning on “God” from his first post-Beatles solo album.
It’s a pretty famous song for a number of reasons, not least of which is that “The dream is over” sequence is the most deliberately Lennon addresses the end of the Beatles. It’s the build to that moment which feels more relevant to Hickman’s thematic opening statement here, as Lennon delivers an impassioned series of “I don’t believe in…” statements culminating in “I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That’s reality.” It’s about as direct a “kill your idols” song as a flippin’ Beatle could deliver, and that’s literally what we see the three horsemen discussing in this opening sequence.
Another band of four, the horsemen just broke up too! Death is missing from their crew, and the remaining three horsemen are ready to set the world on fire if he won’t rejoin.
Even the Apocalypse isn’t going according to plan. The dream is over.
From there we get our first all white text transition with “The things that divide us are stronger than the things that bring us together.” The combination of these statements quite quickly builds a unified pessimism at the hear of this world. The trick will be filling it with purpose and life.
- The theme of breaking up the team
- the fact that we’re hearing it now from a man beyond death
- The sheer aesthetic match of the song itself!
- the immortality of the human soul
- the value of the culture’s moral systems and rituals
- and the unknowable will of the Gods
- The realization that we could all die at any moment, consumed by some arbitrary mass death event (disease, floods, volcanos, war, etc).
As a rule, people don’t do well with arbitrary things—particularly not ones with such incredible power—so we made…
- A mental shield that makes all people secretly believe they’ll be the first to cheat death.
- Need for order and meaning
- Avarice, petty divisions, and lust for power
- No fire and brimstone, rain of frogs, etc
- No divine or demonic armies
- No Hieronymus Bosch or Zdzisław Beksiński influence
- No Messiahs or saviors
- “Villains” like Conquest, Famine, War, and the Chosen all represent a call to (terrible) order. A desire to stay on script and follow the rules.
- “Heroes” like Death, Xiaolin, Chamberlain, and Freeman all represent a form of chaos. A defiance of that prophecy, and one that drags of players off script as the story goes on.
- Who or what represents “hell” in these films?
- Who or what is the “Messiah” archetype?
- What constitutes the common, necessary elements of the “prophecy?”
- Do they say anything about the immortality of the human spirit?
- …our morals and rituals?
- …the will of God?
- Apocalyptic beasts
- Delivering Philosophy
- Fractured America
- God Children
“Holy” Trinities support the story…
- Death • Xiaolion Mao • Babylon
- Death • Crow • Wolf
- Cheveyo • Wolf • Crow
- War • Conquest • Famine
- Conquest • Ezra Orion • Hellbeast
- Andrew Chamberlain • (ex)President
- Bel Solomon • The Ranger
- Dali’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony
- Dali’s Elephants, 1948
- Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou
- Boston Dynamics’s Spot
Me: Hey, ya ever listen to solo Lennon?
You: Here’s a concise summation of humanity’s fixation with the Apocalypse.
Clearly, I’ll need to bring my A game.
One of the more intriguing components of the Apocalypse in East of West is that this is round two. It’s not just the certainty the devout have towards The Message so much as the fact that we know the Horsemen already tried and failed to deliver. The question becomes less “Is Armageddon on the horizon?” and instead “Will it take this time?” We’re made aware of the horsemen’s previous existence in this world through efficient flashbacks, primarily centered on the forbidden romance between Death and Xiaolion Mao but so many big picture questions remain early on.
The horsemen are fully developed in these flashbacks, but have lost their Death. What were they trying to accomplish? What did they accomplish? What happened exactly to reduce them to children in our narrative?
And perhaps more importantly for the belief in The Message and the inevitably of Apocalypse – was their presence made known far and wide? Certainly the Chosen operate with a degree of secrecy, but what does this world know?
I think your analysis of “End Times” is extremely astute, and goes a long way to explain the evergreen nature of the themes driving Hickman and Dragotta’s success with this book. Armageddon stories are always appealing. In Patton Oswalt’s memoirish autiobiography he posits that creatives all inevitably fixate on either zombies, spaceships, or wastelands. It’s genuinely difficult to break free from these categories, and East of West falls neatly into the “Wasteland” archetype. Voracious consumers of fiction are predisposed to consider tales from the wastelands, the trick is imbuing the collapsing world with enough detail to separate the fallout from the mushroom cloud.
As you note, though, the actual end of the world is almost background noise. It’s the world we read (with open eyes) but it’s not why I’ve come back multiple times. When I try to articulate why I keep coming back to East of West it’s Dragotta’s cityscapes and spiderhorse mounts, and Hickman’s cryptic quotables from every character’s lips, but more than anything it’s the politics! The regions and leaders of this not so hard to imagine America 2069 are fascinating. I’m as invested in conversations between Chamberlain and Bel Solomon, or the mystery of the Endless Nation as I am in anything War, Famine, and Conquest could conjure up for our pale white rider.
To your first question regarding the connection between The Western and the Apocalypse, I am no scholar of the genre, but there’s quite clearly something to this. Look at the Fallout video game franchise where post-annihilation survivors pick life up where Clint Eastwood left it in the 60’s/early 70’s (particularly in “New Vegas”). Even modern wasteland staples like Mad Max: Fury Road are all desserts and mob justice.
You know, it’s less likely to get lumped in as part of the same genre, but if you look at The Walking Dead through the same lens, you can see a lot of the same ingredients too. The protagonist is a small town sheriff just trying to protect his family and do what’s right!
To answer another of your questions, we also saw the “Hell” of the Western wasteland utilized in The Immortal Hulk, where the fresh Green hell is John Wayne era Americana. This feels like an increasingly modern take on “hell” (they don’t even have working outlets here!) but I think it’s primarily about the removal of societal standards due to some cataclysm.
For my money, East of West transcends some of these connections by blending western tropes with fantastic machinery and societal structure. It may be Armageddon but The World still seems very much able to run as a segmented whole. It’s a Western where the cowboy walks into a futuristic White Tower to assassinate the daggum president of the Union!
Oh, and yes, I’ll be coming back to Secret Wars. Always. And forever.
A few stray thoughts and questions:
I find East of West very re-readable, in part because I’ve been reading it over the course of seven years and can barely remember what happened in comics I read last week. What do you think makes the book re-readable, or do you disagree?
I mentioned above, but I find the politics of this world fascinating, and perhaps a bit ahead of their time. As political discourse has become even more divisive since the book launched, do you find these elements more or less compelling?
The introduction of Babylon is a game-changing moment for the book. What do you make of Hickman’s vision of “The Beast”?
Ok another big picture thought: What was about this time period that helped titles like East of West lead to a modern golden age of Image Comics?
I’ve written about this recently in response to this idea that Image’s incredible output from 2012 through 2015 is almost inimitably great, and they’ve been declining ever since. East of West in particular fits into an astonishing class of 2013, alongside four other series that I still have/had on my pull list (in some form) in 2019.
Image’s ability to churn out “hits” like this has faded considerably. I was reminded of this during the week listening to Contest of Challengers, the podcast of Challengers Comics in Chicago. East of West ending is yet another death knell for an era of loyal fandom, at least as it concerns Image.
So while the big picture market questions intrigue me (what precisely was in the water during this stretch?! Or, how much of this trend is Comixology Unlimited, Hoopla Digital, _Insert Easy Pirate Scan Here_ related?), for our purposes I wonder:
How does East of West compare to the rest of the Image renaissance?
East of West is (allegedly) going to make it to TV – How does it compare to its peers in terms of potential success?
Is East of West actually Hickman’s best creator-owned work?
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