As is occasionally his want when untethered from the editorial oversight of Marvel, Jonathan Hickman begins East of West #24 by a piece of violence so grisly and disgusting that I was immediately turned off to the issue. I am not normally bothered or particularly grossed out by violence in comics, but it's a torture sequence that felt like it crossed a line into poor taste which has been problematic before in an otherwise controlled intelligent book. And then, to my immense relief, the rest of the issue was a truly excellent tour of the series current cast along with the perfect amount of forward motion. It didn't quite redeem what still feels like an unfortunately nasty opening, but the series remains one of the best on the stands. The violent opening in question follows the crazed Prophet Ezra Orion as he creates the parchment (of a type very much not available from Staples) necessary to convey seven religious invitations. Watched over by his demonic monster companion (formerly a tumorous growth... this series has indeed been distasteful in past), Ezra argues like a petulant comic writer (an self-aware joke by Hickman) about the wording of his invites. The prophet is a madman, as ugly and twisted inside as he is outside, but the scary implication is given that he may understand what is going on more than any other character in East of West. The scene ends with Ezra sending the out his invitations by the demonic equivalents of Hogwarts owls.
The rest of the issue details the responses to the messages from each of the recipients, or at least, scenes of them receiving them. After the violent twists of the last few volumes, its little surprise that Antonia Levay and John Freeman receive their fleshy invites, respectively, with concern and hesitation, not know which way this new force will pull them. Chamberlain receive his in the presence of his talking eyeball (not a euphemism but always a delight) while Xiaolin shoots hers down with an arrow. However, as interesting as each of these scenes is, as mostly wordless one page moments, they are little more than trifles on the way to the main course.
This main serving comes in the form of the reintroduction of three recently-absent groups of characters who each receive their invites with distrust. First up is the three horseman who are interrupted while performing a grizzly ritual of their own in a location from the series' first issue. It's an as-ever scary look at the devious little monochrome tykes with some fun implications of future horror. Next we are given the return of Death and his witchy friends (band name, called it!) who are preparing to separate temporarily. I always enjoy seeing Death's softer side, and his sadness at the thought of losing the witches goes beyond strategy: they're his friends. The final sequence has, well, I won't spoil it here, but it's another group longtime readers will be happy to see again.
Issue 24 is a clear setup for the next arc, as more than a few hints are dropped that some of the biggest unfulfilled showdowns may finally be in the offing, but it's also an effective reminder that Hickman hasn't forgotten or abandoned any part of his byzantine story. Dragotta's work is as ever on-point, and while it may not contain any single stunning moment, seeing him switch between eight different unique settings in a single issue is a sheer joy. In other words it's a rock-solid but never astounding issue that sets the book up for a third year of quality tensions and possibly a few too many eviscerations.
East of West #24 Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Dragotta Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 1/27/15 Format: Print, Digital, page