In its fifth issue, East of West has begun to develop into one of the most compelling love stories on the stands today, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t easily suffer love stories. Way I see it, East of West has thus far been about world-building, with issue four implementing a “scorched earth” policy of rending form through force. Here, however, the tempo changes from a war march to a heartbeat, as most of the issue revolves around a tense discussion between Death and his once-thought-perished wife, Xiaolian, who herself is now Empress of The People’s Republic, this universe’s chinese-run portion of a very divergent and divided future America. Furrowed with repressed rage and bruised with discontent, the heated exchange is simultaneously threaded with the tender, tragic backstory that brought them together, and ripped them apart. It’s hard and bitter, but sweet and powerful. Not a lot of books can pull this much meaning from a relationship, but East of West #5 does it nicely.
While the pace this time may have slowed from the action-packed fare that preceded it, this issue commits itself to establishing a new wrinkle in an already well-creased story. In the new character that is revealed - the so-called “Beast of the Apocalypse” - the story has a brand new and intriguing fulcrum from which to swing, setting a new motion that has given East of West a renewed sense of purpose ... not that it was lacking it previously. His modern-day appearance - a great take of commodified and corrupted “innocence” - succeeds in setting an uncomfortable existence for the character, and allows for some very interesting possibilities, all of which are sure to end in Death.
Meanwhile, we get some great dialogue from middle-badddie Chamberlain, whose mischievous ambition and ridiculously classist demeanor make him, for me, one of the most fun “villains” to read. Otherwise, apart from an appearance from surly Texas Governor Bel Solomon, whose motivations remain unclear, we don’t see much else in the way of other characters, certainly not the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And while I did note the lack of the series’ usually more holistic take on storytelling, I did enjoy how Hickman and Dragota made time this issue for a bit more introspection.
Saying that, I do love this world: its anachronistic grapple with time; its sleek, slick yet pregnant minimalism; its biblical rhythm. The backgrounds aren’t necessarily flush with activity, and there did seem to be a greater attention to detail in its earlier issues, but it’s not jarring at all for the overall story; besides, there’s so much going on, you kind of need the focus Dragota brings to the table here. When he does allow himself to expand, however, be prepared to step back: it’s a pretty awesome visual feat.
One stylistic thing I do want to know is why Death used to be black and is now white. At least, I don’t think it’s been mentioned, unless I completely missed it. I know that sounds like a small aesthetic to dwell on, but given the stock this series has already put into the power behind its characters’ physical alterations, I’m also guessing it may be a big deal. It’s probably a physical reflection of the character’s new ways, but it will be interesting to see if what happened within the past events we got a glimpse of this time had something to do with it, or if it was something even worse ... if that’s possible.
While it is action-laced and perhaps a bit more wily than other examples, as with most Hickman stuff, East of West remains a pretty slow burn;. Of course, given the man’s rep, that simmer is bound to bloom into a pretty incredible boil.
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragota
Colorist: Frank Martin
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: 8/14/13