The debut of Image’s East of West is nothing if not timely with the similar-in-theme video game Bioshock Infinite. So precisely-timed, the videogame released one day before the first issue. Both stories involve a bygone era (at least on the surface) combined with impossible technologies and ultra-violence. Fans of that strange mix of the archaic and the futuristic (à la Cowboys & Aliens, for example) will find a lot to like in this weird and wild new ongoing series.
East of West #1 spent much of its time in both specific and vague exposition. We know the story takes place in a futuristic United States around the year of 2064 and that the primary historical divergence from our own timeline happened just after the Civil War when a comet struck the United States, causing the Native Nations, the remains of the Confederacy and the Union to sue for peace for the sake of survival. We also know that three newly reborn Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine and Conquest) are running around in children’s bodies coldly murdering people by the hundreds while the still-adult fourth Horseman (Death) wanders the great plains in full-on Desperado regalia looking for payback. Virtually everything else in this evolving story remains a mystery with only the tiniest hints of this universe’s past, present and future offered.
The second issue removes all pretense of setup and dives right into this still-unbelievable world. While Death continues his Wild West quest seemingly for the sake of revenge only, the other Horsemen are busy culling the Government of the United States until an appropriate “candidate” is found to become President. That candidate must believe in “The Message” (always capitalized, always in bold type). The Message, though not fully spelled out, involves the end of the world and the cabal of world leaders who have come together to lay the groundwork for making their jobs, by definition, superfluous.
The influences of Westerns, alternate history works (like Harry Turtledove’s Civil War novels) and, obviously, the Book of Revelations is written all over this book, especially in the second issue. However, the creative team of Jonathan Hickman (story) and Nick Dragotta (art) go beyond their work on FF and construct an entirely new world that grew out of our own. This future Earth is divided up like the future world of Grendel Prime in Matt Wagner’s future Earth stories. The People’s Republic (implicitly “of China”) is still around in this world but so is the Endless Nation (implicitly Native Americans), the Kingdom of New Orleans, the Republic of Texas and the nation of the Black Towers (implicitly the Confederacy, judging from its counter-balance to the US’ White Tower).
The world is rich and goes far beyond merely merging antique clothing with science fiction gadgets. Dragotta’s art does make great use of this merging of eras and cultures, creating a United States capitol that looks like it belongs on Star Wars’ Coruscant and handling a scene by a campfire with Native Americans with equal aplomb. Dragotta also shows a bit of a Katsuhiro Otomo influence in the resurrected child versions of the Horsemen. These characters (with no revision) would look well at home in Akira, as might Dragotta’s technological skyscrapers and land craft.
A manga influence is also seen in the motion lines of the violent scenes, of which there are incredibly many. Decapitations, fountains of blood, piles of bodies. This is not a book for those weaned on Little Lulu or Richie Rich (even the more “edgy” Casper or Spooky issues).
But is this violence merely gratuitous and is there enough story to counterbalance such gratuities? The East of West world is very well realized and the art is fittingly fantastic, sure, but there is a sense that there may be more style than substance in this burgeoning saga. There are enough enticing hints to suggest that the creators have a solid plan for the future of the series. However, the series is also overwrought (so far) with often disparate stories, seemingly borrowed from other sources. With violent and vague plot points connecting these, the evolving elements may clarify and solidify the saga or the entire shebang could collapse under its own weight.
What is important to note, regardless, is with these hints and promises, not to mention cliffhangers and (so far) well-told stories, there is enough potential in both substance and style to give East of West a shot… with both barrels. While it may have many elements of other stories and may be a timely entry in the continuing revised history and mixed-era science fiction sub-sub-genre, the planted seeds of a storyarc set this one aside from the pack. Whether that is ahead of or behind the pack remains to be seen, but with that said, there isn’t another comicbook on the racks quite like this one. In more ways than one, the answer all comes down to “The Message”.