In superhero comics, every character’s existence is defined by his or her ability to regularly save or threaten the world. Writer Jonathan Hickman is at his best when given free rein to methodically destroy everything. His run on Avengers and New Avengers culminated last year with the crossover event Secret Wars, which constituted nothing less than the complete destruction of the entire Marvel Universe.
The only obstacle to enjoying Hickman’s narrative carnage is patience.
When reading East of West, it is common to feel confused. About what’s happening, who’s doing what, and why. Somehow, that’s not a bad thing. This is a theme of Hickman comics.
I get confused even typing out a rough synopsis:
East of West presents a dystopian future based on a slightly different past. After the Civil War finally ends in 1908, due to a meteor strike, America breaks into seven independent regions: Armistice, the Union (the Northeast), the Confederacy (the South), the Endless Nation (Midwest and Great Plains), the Kingdom (New Orleans), the Republic of Texas, and the PRA of Mao (the West Coast).
Into this world, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are reborn as prepubescent children, marking the beginning of the end times. Except there’s only three horsemen — War, Conquest, and Famine. Death is still running around in his adult form.
Death is madly in love with Xiaoling, one of the daughters of Mao III, with whom he has a son.
The prophet Ezra foresees that Death and Xiaoling’s son will grow up to become “the Beast,” who will one day bring about the end of the world. War, Conquest, and Famine take an interest in the infant, kidnap him, and train him to become “the Beast.”
This makes Death understandably upset. Along with his mystical Native American allies Wolf and Crow, he set out for revenge. This leads to Death killing the president of the Union and assaulting the PRA capital of New Shanghai in order to free Xiaoling from her father.
Still with me? OK. MEANWHILE —
The three horsemen decide (for reasons that I do not entirely understand) that the vice president of the Union and the next SEVEN politicians in line for the presidency are not up to snuff, so they kill them. The Cruella De Vil–esque Secretary of the Interior, Antonia LeVay, becomes president.
Death’s son, by the way, is somehow a delightful and well-adjusted kid, and is now calling himself Babylon, traveling around with his best friend/teacher Balloon, a robot AI that looks like a soccer ball.
That’s the broad-strokes version of East of West, as of the August release of Issue 29, of a planned 60-issue run. There’s never been a better time to get onboard, because Hickman’s comics, often befuddling on an issue-by-issue basis, are best enjoyed when they can be binge-read.
Hickman always has imbued his titles with more ideas than could be cogently contained in a single 32-page issue. He first broke into the industry with The Nightly News (2007), published by the creator-owned Image Comics. News, a noir-tinged indictment of mass media, which Hickman wrote and illustrated, combines the semiotics of graphic design — simple shapes, solid colors — with comic book illustrations. It reads like Marshall McLuhan crossed with Jim Jones with a sprinkling of Alex Jones.
Secret Warriors (2009–11), was Hickman’s first ongoing series at Marvel Comics. Chronicling an off-the-books espionage strikeforce assembled by Nick Fury, the run contained classic Hickman themes: apocalyptic beasts, god-children struggling with immense power, unreliable narrators, and narrative confusion.
With 2009’s Fantastic Four, Hickman used alternate-reality versions of Marvel’s ur-super genius Reed Richards to explore whether intellect and rationality, without emotion and morality, is inherently evil. In Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates — which takes place in Marvel’s influential non-canon universe, much of which would go on to form the basis of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — he straight up turned Richards into a supervillain, making him the leader of the future-reality techno-threat The Children of Tomorrow. Hickman wrote only the first 12 issues of Ultimates, but the world he created there — a fractured America, broken into independent regions ruled by various armed parties — is a clear precursor for East of West.
Hickman’s run on Avengers (2013) started at the dawn of time and moved incrementally forward from there. I bailed out after five issues, only to circle back around two years later so I could read the whole arc at once. (Like I said, this is how to read Hickman.) Every comic book writer who works with established characters gets criticized for the way they deviate from established canon. The critique with Hickman, and it’s occasionally a fair one, is his iterations of Captain America, Thor, Captain Marvel, et al, no longer speak like “themselves,” but like first-year philosophy students on ayahuasca.
With East of West, Hickman is totally in his anarchic, big-idea element. Unrestrained by the demands of corporate IP, he and Nick Dragotta are building their version of a corrupt, dystopian America, brick by brick, in order to eventually destroy it. Dragotta’s artwork grounds Hickman’s more ethereal flights of social theorizing and give the characters weight and body. Despite the sci-fi-western settings, the illustrations have a timeless quality, reminiscent of late–19th century woodcut illustrations. This allows Hickman’s big ideas and fortune-cookie-on-acid dialogue to float over the panels like heavy air.
The vitality in Dragotta’s art is important because Hickman likes to work in tropes. Some characters are actually characters with emotions and drives that the reader can understand. Others — and this happens quite a bit in East of West, especially with the politicians — are almost caricatures. You know everything you need to know about what kind of leader President LeVay is from just looking at her lounging imperiously in her aircraft. This feels deliberate. Hickman and Dragotta obviously enjoy playing with the established semiotics of the form.
The politics of East of West are interesting, if dour and often paranoid. The PRA of Mao, for instance, an atom-thin analogue for China, conspires to wage war on the Union by calling in debts, which it controls through third parties, in order to bankrupt the Union. The Kingdom of New Orleans is rich in oil, and its crown prince, John Freeman I, treats the Union the way a pusher might treat an addict.
“It’s a reflection of our modern-day culture, more than anything, and how divided we are,” said Dragotta of East of West in 2013. Whether or not the book actually has anything substantive to say about our increasingly segregated world, it’s fun to go along for the ride. Even if you don’t know where you are.