Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
I did not enjoy reading “East of West #14.” Not really even for a moment. On the other hand, I have really, passionately loved this comic book series from Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Image Comics. It’s a good, possibly even great, dystopian future, blending American politics, history, and religion into a startlingly well-realized hell on earth. So why couldn’t I get into issue #14? Is “East of West #14” just a down issue, or is there something else at play here?
Part of the dilemma here is that issue #13 was a stellar, self-contained masterpiece. The entire issue brought all the tension of the world to a head as the leaders of each tribal faction (The Confederate States of America, the Union, the Nation, etc) aired their grievances. I wrote glowingly of the issue, remarking that even at its most dense and sprawling East of West is still well worth a monthly read.
Well, “East of West #14” really puts that to the test. Hickman and Dragotta pick up many of the pieces of that explosive leadership summit with some surprise revelations and the first drums of war. This feels like it should be exciting, and seeing the Nation soar in ships straight out of Star Wars over the Badlands is a great visual, but issue #14 is largely transitional.
In the grand scheme of what will undoubtedly be a terrific epic collection, this is a necessary issue. Stories need the time to lay seeds and connect threads and re-awaken vicious, monstrous, human-spawn-prophets. I get it. But reading East of West in this manner, on a month to month basis, really begins to highlight a lot of the problems.
First off, you would never hand a friend a copy of this issue, the same way you would never in good conscience hand a friend a copy of Finnegans Wake and say “enjoy!” This is some heady, dense prose, with every line wrapped in 30 pages of scholarly analysis. Hickman’s always written this way, as if the gods were reciting proverbs in his dreams, and inevitably you leave most of his comics thinking he’s one of the seven smartest men in the universe. It’s part of why he wrote such a fantastic Reed Richards, and why his work from Manhattan Projects to New Avengers is so consistently fascinating. I love pretentious comics that you can unpack, read and reread again, learning something new with every analysis.
But “East of West #14″… I mean good lord. Every other sentence out of someone’s mouth is an attempt at an instant quotable, all glimmering language concealing the fact that no one is really saying anything. Maybe I just need more coffee, but I can’t help but feel that at some point Hickman is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. “The trees couldn’t smell then… and we knew it meant the end.”
Having ranted all that, criticizing East of West for being insanely smart feels incredibly reductive and flawed. I realize that my argument is basically, “This comic is making me think, someone make it STOP!” Again, as a whole, East of West should be celebrated for its vision, for Dragotta’s ability to bring this devastatingly recognizable apocalypse to life, and for being six times smarter than your average comic.
Just wake me up when the annotated omnibus collection hits.
The worst tendencies of a great series all rear their ugly head in a sprawling issue that moves the needle but fails to capture an interesting storyline. East of West is a very good comic book series with the potential to be great. I just suspect it’s going to take a long while, and on a month-to-month basis this means some comics are going to be a slog.
“East of West #14” earns 4.4 / 10