What makes comics so great? As fangirls and boys, we have the tendency to wax philosophical about our beloved medium; about how dynamic and powerful it can be, how original and grand it has become as a unique story delivery system. But we don’t always or immediately point out evidence as to why it works so independently of others. Well, if it pleases the court, I submit East of West #15 as Exhibit A. This issue continues to follow a radically fractured world, built on the fault lines of fiercely-bordered nations, rapidly racing toward its own inevitable apocalypse. And it’s fucking great, in both sense of the word. As has been the narrative device in those past, the meat of this issue is mostly focused around an individual; a biopsy of one sickness amongst an infection of same in a terminal global body. It just so happens that this time, that being is the one pegged to destroy it.
The so-called “Beast of the Apocalypse” finally embraces his birthright in issue 15, and I personally think each moment of his nativity is exceptional; from the way he rips out his own umbilical chord, to the concise and almost adorable way he builds a relationship with his bulbous robot wet nurse. The names they develop for themselves throughout the issue, and the frighteningly enlightening nature of their relationship at its end, constitute a goddamn clinic in gripping, precision storytelling. But there is one moment in particular that, in my eyes, achieves a state close to comic book perfection.
I don’t want to ruin it, and I’m sure you’ll notice it when you see it, but I will say it involves both the storytelling itself, as well as Hickman’s iconoclastic classic layout structure. It revolves around a question and answer that can only truly be posited in a comic book framework, starkly contrasted as it is between an intricately veiny, wet afterbirth and a blank page punctured by the gravity of one single, definitive word. It’s not cinematic, televisual or otherwise; it is pure comic book, and can really only exist as such. When that hits you, it’s brilliant.
There are readers out there who think East of West is perhaps too complex, or that its long-form approach to narrative has somehow lost the plot, but what Hickman has achieved here shows mastery of a medium. Of course - as is also very comic book - he couldn’t reach that point without Dragotta’s visuals, which continue to impress as much as the writing.
Whether it’s the pale, eyeless and childishly agape face of the Beast as he both endearingly and terrifyingly ponders - again with one otherwise innocuous word - his full mastery over space/time, or in the violent fruition of his total physical power as he brings it crashing about the head of the living manifestation of Conquest, Dragotta’s manicured line work bristles with an energy that is as comfortable in the resting potential of a stone-cut carving, as it is in the over-the-top kineticism of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Saying all of the above, there are a few, relatively banal problems with the issue, mostly concerning the Horsekids’ tough talk against the Beast. For some reason, it gets downright hammy, and is completely unbefitting of the issue’s incredibly high sentence. I guess that’s the point in a way: these two (for all intents and purposes) children having a petulant mix-up, but at least Conquest’s smack-spitting fell flat for me. I know it’s a weird thing to latch onto, and it didn’t mar the experience completely, but it just felt measurably unnecessary.
That one scene notwithstanding, East of West #15, like most of the issues before it, stands as proof positive of what makes comic book storytelling so singular. Its collection of frozen moments play off each other so incredibly well, and will lead you to an ending that is blindingly bright and beautiful, but at the same time sickening and hopeless. It’s a story that sticks with you, and one that begs you to flip back and repeatedly experience those sections that make its whole so great. What more could you ask for in a comic book?
Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Dragotta Colorist: Frank Martin Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 9/10/14 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital