Goddammit. Every time I say I’m going to stop reviewing Jonathan Hickman’s Image series East of West, it pulls me back in again, like the mob. Or heroin. Indeed, it seems to know just how to tap into and rile up my addiction to great comics. Saying that, this has to be where I check out of East of West; not because I don’t like it, but - as I’ve mentioned so many times before - because I’m running out of ways to tell you how fucking good it is. Issue 18 of this now mid-apocalyptic adventure story predominantly follows a meeting between young “would-Beast,” Babylon, his Balloon and probably my favorite member of the Chosen, Ezra Orion. In the process, we learn new and interesting wrinkles around the origins of Young Mister Babylon; most notably, how a collective within the Chosen secretly shaped his role in the apocalypse to their own ends by manipulating the child’s education and world view. Although, exactly how that will help them and their masters remains ... opaque.
We are also treated to a game of fetch between our wayward little antichrist and Ezra’s toothy, tentacular hell-beast, Buer (a very interesting name in demonology, taken from the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum - look that shit up), which Babylon sees as “a giant rat gerbil thing.” And it’s kind of crazy-adorable, if it weren’t also simultaneously so nauseatingly disconcerting. Seriously, the way Hickman and Dragotta make this interaction - not to mention a smiley-face balloon - so insidious and evil in the ultimate corruption of the innocent is downright creepy, and part of what makes this book so addicting.
In these scenes, as well as those near the end of the issue, which feature the Lady Mao and her husband, Death, in an overture that is at once deeply romantic and political, Hickman once again does an incredible job of moving this world’s story forward by incremental, character-based gestures and sly hints of world-building conjecture.
As is evidenced with this and last issue, however, East of West seems to be in a holding pattern, where not much is, at least ostensibly, happening -- but then, not much happens during the circling of buzzards, apart from the coming of death. And Death is most definitely coming to East of West.
Dragotta’s work in issue 18 shines, once again, just as brightly as Hickman’s, and he pulls off some very neat visual tricks. This is particularly true in the manipulated feed of Babylon’s visor, where everything not only looks safer and cuddlier, but simultaneously more pixelated and hyper-real. That play against the reality of Babylon’s situation - and his interaction with it - makes his such an interesting and entertaining story.
Of course, this visual experience is heightened all the more with the deft and deathly talents of Frank Martin’s color palette, which continues to be understated, yet dynamic. The entire team here - as ever - works extremely well together, not just in setting a scene, but in the gasps for air between them, and in the fusing of synapses that tie them together.
I’m a big fan of Hickman’s instantly-recognizable, one-sentence page breaks, but they would fall flat without Dragotta and Martin’s ability to step up and hit the ground running with incredible flourishes thereafter. Even if the last few issues, and this one, have been somewhat slower than the pacing of the series as a whole, East of West manages to bring into the fore what makes comic book storytelling so damn unique - that singular interplay between a narrative and visual presence - all wrapped around an apocalypse tale that continues to baffle the mind with how crushingly endearing it can be.
I promise this will be my last review of this series. But what I can’t promise is that I won’t keep reading it, or continue to buy its volumes in trade. I suggest you do the same for as long as this creative team is producing East of West, which I hope will indeed last until the end of days.