It isn’t the biggest news that I’m a fan of Hickman and Dragotta’s East of West. In fact, I’m pretty vocal about it, and have spent a significant amount of time wildly demanding to friends, family and unsettled passersby that it is one of the best ongoing books on the stands today. And yet, while I will continue to argue that it is a prime example of the comic book medium’s unique storytelling potential, that isn’t to say it’s perfect. In issue 17, East of West exposes its underbelly; on one hand by showcasing how exploratory the series can be in its approach to character-driven narrative, but also in revealing some of its seldom-seen, but not unheard-of weaknesses.
Overall, you may not describe East of West as a “family” book, but you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so of its seventeenth issue. A little misleading, perhaps, but not wrong. This has always been a book about the geopolitics of an alternate apocalypse, where concepts like Death, Conquest and even hell itself are given form and flesh. But here, Hickman instead dwells on the tender tendons of the-ties-that-bind, as throughout the issue, we are welcomed into several intimate family encounters.
Whether it’s President Archibald Chamberlain’s nepotism, John Freeman’s romantic relationships with his father’s vizier and his pseudo-brothers, or the multifaceted family dynamic going on between Death, Lady Mao and their child (the hellbeast of the apocalypse); in each, Hickman says something intriguing about how the ideas of legacy, family and power coalesce at his end of the world.
The problem for many readers will be the pacing of this issue, and I don’t disagree. Apart from a few sparse bouts of background gunplay and amateur dirt wrestling, East of West #17 doesn’t contain much of any appreciable action. It’s definitely a far cry from Horsemen bathing in blood, or a war between a hyper-tech aboriginal nation and the Republic of Texas; both of which we saw last time. And there is nothing so grand - either visually or in its writing - as has appeared in issues previous.
Of course, sometimes the quieter moments of war speak with as much sound and fury as the conflagration itself, but while I will say there is significant menace in this issue’s rolling thunder, it may not strike you so electrically. It is, in short, a very subtle, perhaps more slight issue; still enjoyable, certainly, but not indicative of the series as a whole.
The same is true of the art. I love Dragotta’s stuff, but like Hickman, it can sometimes feel distracted. That’s how his art this time feels for me: like clearly masterful work done by a preoccupied hand. I think a story as subtle as the one being told in East of West #17 has to rely on the punch of its visual direction; but like the issue’s dialogue, nothing really stands out for me here, and everything feels like it lacks polish.
Dragotta’s art clearly benefits from more kinetic scenarios, making this slower issue also feel restless in parts. The one exception is arguably a full-page, intertwined series of two very different, shall I say, “physical exertions.” And while this is an impactful moment, it also comes across as slightly maudlin and - dare I say it - a little cliché. It’s clear what they were going for here, and it’s handled respectfully, but with a much heavier hand than I thought necessary.
All of this criticism is relative, of course, since on its worst day, East of West is a better comic than most others on their best. So while I do think the incongruous slow pace / hurried presence of this issue does cause it to drag, it’s still an integral piece to one of the best ongoing stories in the industry. Buy it, but don’t dwell on it.
Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Dragotta Colorist: Frank Martin Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 2/4/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital