Almost from issue one, East of West has been criticized for being confusing thanks to its gigantic scale. The pre-apocalyptic epic encompasses seven nations and has more main characters than any story this side of Game of Thrones. However, in 2015, author Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta proved themselves more than up to the task of fleshing out and exploring the massive world they created. We got in depth looks at each nation and some surprising emotional moments out of unlikely side characters, creating one of the densest most-rewarding stories in comics right now. Issue 23 wraps up the year in style, by taking a closer look at Crown Prince Jonathan Freeman. Last month's silent action issue aside, East of West follows the format of each issue providing two or three extended sequences with a given set of characters (much like how the chapters in a Tolkien or Marten novel alternate between characters). Issue 23 presents two such scenes, one where Archibald Chamberlain considers that fallout of his incursion into the house of Mao and one where Prince John meets with Doma Lux to discuss money. Both pieces are chatty and subdued (possibly to make up for the last issues silent piece) but manage to shed more light on the motivations and tactics of the respective members of the Chosen.
The opening sequence in which Chamberlain confronts the Japanese contractor he hired to do away with Xiaolion is a slow burn with an explosive though unsurprising finish. Chamberlain reminisces about a lesson his father taught him and sets up the issue's theme of nostalgia (more on that in a moment). Discussing his own ego, Chamberlain remarks 'I think we spiders all appreciate the fine craftsmanship and beauty of a well-spun web'. As it turns out, his estimations may indeed prove correct as despite the disastrous failure of the assassination, Archibald's back-up plans have destroyed any evidence of his wrongdoing. This scene also makes what is, as far as I can recall, the first reference to the world outside of America in the series, and the brief references to 'Imperial Japan' hint at some tantalizing possibilities going forwards (as if the scope of the series needed to be any wider).
The bulk of the issue is spent with John Freeman who, as it turns out, is taking money from his country against his father's wishes and giving it to the union. He is discovered by his political semi-ally and lover, the vizier, and must explain himself to her. The sequence is replete with moments displaying Freeman's self-assuredness, though my favorite is when a security robot tells him to identify himself, he casually responds 'Pfffft, do it yourself". The dizzying scale of the money John has siphoned is a comedic but effective portrayal of the Kingdom's strength, and their inevitable entry into the war is an exciting prospect. All that said, the emotional center of the issue is Freeman's explanation of his actions to the Vizier.
John recalls his time of training under Cheveyo and describes Wolf as his true brother (in contrast to the rabid political rivals who make up his biological family). At the center of this training and his current subterfuge is the belief that he is chosen for a religious Kingdom far larger than that that of his father. In the issue's first scene Chamberlain suggests that nostalgia displays a weakness and an inability to let go of old wounds and Freeman seems to be bearing this out. His loyalty to the dream that Wolf has long since abandoned has put him on a path towards betraying his father and his country (in parallel to the violent ambition of his brothers).
As per usual Dragotta's art is gorgeous and vibrant, especially brilliant in the memory of Wolf frolicking with the prince. The body language is enthusiastic and childish (pairing brilliantly with Hickman's off-putting ability to write warm children's dialogue) and gives the memory a tangible sense of nostalgia, making clear how Freeman feels about the events without having words describe it. The action is as always sharp and Dragotta gives what could be visually dull dialogue sequences an added flair by constantly adjusting the angle and emphasis of his images.
At this point with Dragotta and Hickman's work cohering so flawlessly, I have likely tapped only the bare minimum of what is going on in this issue. Suffice it to say there is no better comic available at the moment and if you've read the previous twenty-two, this issue will not disappoint. One can only hope 2016 keeps up the quality.
East of West #23 Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Dragotta Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 12/30/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital