Jonathan Hickman has carved quite the name for himself in the world of comica. Where Grant Morrison is associated with psychedelic trips, Mark Millar with high-octane ultra-violence, and Brian Michael Benids with superhero soap operas, Hickman has his reputation firmly planted in his love of high concept science fiction and intricate plots. Seriously, no one does sci-fi quite like Hickman, and the first time I read one his books, the first volume of The Manhattan Projects, it took me a solid week to process what I had just read.
He's a skilled writer with a unique voice to say the least, but there is one slight problem, his schtick is starting to wear thin on me. Hickman has such a clear and definitive writing style that often his characters become overpowered by it, reduced to cogs in the overarching plot machine. Don't get me wrong, I love what the man does, but I would just like to see him change it up a little and tell more character driven stories in his creator owned work. This is where East of West comes in, his creator owned series from Image with artist Nick Dragotta.
What struck me about the first volume of East of West was how different it was for Hickman. Sure you had all the usual Hickman trappings like a bizarre alternate future complete with enough dirty politics to make Game of Thrones seem civil, but you also had very personal struggles at the centre of it all. I would almost go so far to say it was a love story. Almost.
Two volumes later and a hell of a lot has changed. For starters, and much to my disappointment,Hickman has widened the narrative camera to make it less about Death and his angry (ex?) wife Xiaolin, and more about their overall role in preventing the fulfillment of the Message. Sure, they get plenty of page time and Xialoin is as badass as ever, she is after all the woman who conquered Death, but it's obvious that the focus of East of West has has shifted
The main part of this shift comes in the introduction of the Endless Nation; technologically superior Native Americans who dress like rejected members of Daft Punk. Things begin to heat up when The Endless Nation declares war on the rest of the dystopian and divided America, plunging the continet into war. And just like that it seems the world is one step closer to the apocalypse. It's a unique and strangely fragile setting, a tribute to Hickman's world building chops. Indeed this complex setting easily overshadows any of my gripes with his at times average characterizations.
Where Hickman's work ends, Nick Dragotta's begins. Somehow he makes bringing Hickman's impossible vision to life look easy. Splash pages of enormous cube like space ships barely suspended in atmosphere, towering ivory spires, and the subtlest of facial twitches all grace the page effortlessly. Make no mistake, Dragotta is at the top of his game, keeping even the longest 'talking-head' style conversations visually interesting.
At this point it would be a crime not to mention the impressive colour work of Frank Martin. His pallete constantly changes to evoke the emotions of a particular scene whilst still maintaining a visual cohesion amongst the issues. A surprising amount of storytelling takes place through Martin's colour choices, and like Hickman's previous creator owned work, The Manhattan Projects, East of West relies to some extent on a certain level of colour coding, with Death and his two companions (the closest thing to 'heroes' this series has to offer) decked out in various combinations of black and white. It makes for a stark contrast between Death and his posse, and the richly coloured backgrounds.
Overall I like East of West. I'll even go as far to say I like it a lot. Even through I would love to see Hickman push himself and deliver a more character based story there are plenty of character driven moments to punctuate all the political scheming and drama. If you haven't read Hickman before then East of West is a great place to start, although I would recommend you start at volume one given the complexity of the story.