These days, thanks to his years of work with legacy Marvel Comics properties, Jonathan Hickman is regarded as one of the kings of long-term comic book storytelling. He is supremely skilled at planting seeds early on that become hugely impactful plot points, and at recontextualizing scenes by returning to them 30 issues later and revealing information that fills in gaps the reader had no idea existed. Within Marvel, that deftness has, of course, given us the 2015 universe-resetting Secret Wars event and, more recently, revitalized the entire X-Men franchise. But even with the huge swings Hickman has taken over the last decade or so, working with legacy characters within a shared universe at one of the Big Two meant he had at least some limitations. East of West – the sci-fi/western end-of-days epic Hickman co-created with artist Nick Dragotta – has no such boundaries. Over 45 dense, exciting issues, Hickman and Dragotta flex their world-building muscles, and boy are those two jacked.
East of West takes place in the 2060s in an alternate America that endured a prolonged version of the Civil War, a war so fierce that it ended only when a comet struck the center of the country and put the fear of God into its fractured leaders. The aftermath nonetheless left the country irreparably divided to the point that it was split up into seven distinct nations – the Union, the Confederacy, the Republic of Texas, the Kingdom of New Orleans, the Endless Nation, the People’s Republic, and Armistice, where the comet made impact.
As if that alternate history wasn’t fertile enough ground for a comic series to explore, Hickman and Dragotta add another layer to their future America in the form of “The Message,” a prophecy of the apocalypse supposedly written independently and in three pieces by a Confederate general, a Native American chief, and, decades later, Mao Zedong. In the days of East of West, The Message is dogma for the Chosen, figureheads of each of the Seven Nations who have been brought together by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with the goal of speeding along the end of the world. There’s a hell of a lot going on, and that’s all before we even get into the story of the series!
Revenge and Family in the Pre-Apocalypse
All of that complex and intricate background works so well because of the simple, straightforward emotional core at the center of East of West. The fourth Horseman, Death, is on a quest for revenge, ten years after he was betrayed by the other three Horsemen and the Chosen. It turns out the agents of the apocalypse don’t take kindly to one of their number falling in love with a human – Xiaolian Mao, one of the warrior daughters of the ruling family of the People’s Republic, pictured above warding off assassins in the buff – and exchanging his end-of-the-world duties for those of a husband and, crucially, a father. So the Chosen and the Horsemen War, Conquest, and Famine track down Death’s family while he is away and destroy his newfound happiness. Death discovers the betrayal and in classic Western-hero fashion rides to their aid, only to arrive too late. He dies – at least temporarily, and having taken the other Horsemen with him – thinking that his wife and newborn baby are dead as well. A decade later, though, Death has resurrected with a singular purpose – to bring, well, himself to the Chosen and his three former compatriots.
Hickman and Dragotta revisit the Horsemen and Chosen’s betrayal of Death – particularly the final showdown in which all of the horsemen were killed – multiple times throughout the series. In classic Hickman fashion, each flashback reveals slightly more information and keeps Death’s search for revenge – and for his family – the emotional core of the story. Yes, it turns out that the Horsemen and their allies lied – gasp! – in Death’s final moments. We learn within the first few issues that Death’s wife and son are in fact alive, both having been secreted away for the past ten years. Xiaolian has been held prisoner by her father, while the baby was taken by the Horsemen and the Chosen to be raised to one day become the Beast of the Apocalypse.
These three – Death, Xiaolian, and their son, who was brought up without a name but eventually dubs himself Babylon – are the heart of East of West. Hickman and Dragotta make an incredibly smart story decision to give Death a greater goal beyond revenge. While a rampaging Horseman is undeniably fun, he has no character arc if his only purpose over 45 issues were the punishment of his betrayers. But the most fearsome former agent of the apocalypse having something to fight for, rather than only something to fight, adds depth that elevates the comic and gives the reader something tangible to latch on to in the wild world the book’s architects have created.
A Fully Realized Dystopia
That world is one of the most unique environments I’ve encountered in comics. Hickman and Dragotta play in multiple genres, combining elements of magic, horror, sci-fi, and westerns to create their version of America. Robotic dogs and horses and flying trains coexist alongside prophecy, demons, blind oracles, and the literal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The most incredible thing is that it all works, largely thanks to Nick Dragotta’s art and Frank Martin’s colors. Dragotta’s human characters are all sharp angles and exaggerated facial features, and that heightened quality of the more recognizable figures makes the otherworldly elements of the book – the various forms of the Horsemen at different phases of their existence; the demon Buer, a hulking mass of teeth and tentacles; the look of Death’s shapeshifting allies, Wolf and Crow – fit seamlessly.
Beyond his character work, Dragotta also takes plenty of opportunities to indulge in splash pages worthy of the epic story he and Hickman are telling. Many of these are centered on the environment rather than an action set-piece. From the Chinese architecture of the People’s Republic to the Endless Nation’s amalgamation of Native American culture and super-advanced technology to the stark, soulless White and Black Towers that loom menacingly over the capital cities of the Union and the Confederacy, respectively (demonstrating in no uncertain terms that those two countries are opposite sides of the same coin), each of the Seven Nations has a distinct aesthetic that makes the world feel lived in.
Furthering this impression is that even amid the supernatural goings-on that are part and parcel for this world, the humans that ostensibly run things behave in awfully familiar ways. The powerful Chosen are quick to betrayal and war, injustice and revenge. They connive and scheme against one another for spite or a bigger piece of the pie, even as they work behind the scenes to hasten the end of everything. After all, it’s simply in their nature.
Defying Expectations to Save the World
The heroes of East of West, though, are the characters who defy their nature, who act counter to expectations with more than their own status or well-being in mind. Death has forsaken his entire reason for existing in the name of love and family and spends the series fighting to restore what was taken from him. His son, Babylon, has been trained, educated, and manipulated from birth to become the Beast of the Apocalypse, but proves to be much more independent-minded than the Horsemen and their allies anticipated. The unnamed Ranger, on a parallel crusade to Death’s to execute the Chosen in a very Frank Castle-esque definition of justice, simply refuses to cower to the powerful. And a little over halfway through the series, Death’s ally, Wolf, finds himself in a position of critical importance (I won’t spoil exactly what or how – it’s a twist worth experiencing cold) and, instead of letting the role define him, he bends it towards a more noble, compassionate purpose.
In the end, beyond the grotesque demons, the sentient rhyming eyeballs (yes, really – they’re the Oracle’s eyes, it totally works), and the cyborg bounty hunters, East of West – like so many iconic stories that came before it – is a story about hope in the darkest times. Hope that prophecy and destiny may not be inevitable after all. Hope that the impending end of the world might be avoided, and that we don’t have to submit to our basest nature even though society is collapsing around us. Hope that, when it would be just so easy to give up and give in, there are those of us that will rise above and fight against overwhelming odds to do the right thing. Even – nay, especially – if it requires dismembering a Horseman of the Apocalypse.