When it comes to world building, there are few who can match Jonathan Hickman’s scope. His work on Avengers has shown us what he can do when given a pre-existing universe. East of West continues to show us what he can do when he is building his own. Like any world, there is a hierarchy here; within that, splintered and dispersed throughout the Seven Great Nations, additional hierarchies exist on top of that. This is a familiar trope in fantasy, but, not so much in a western. That is what makes this book so interesting. I’m not sure there’s ever been such a successful merging of genres before in comic books. Not one that feels so natural, anyway. After nine issues, this book has effortlessly combined these elements with the larger concepts of religion, obligation, social upheaval, and retribution to create what could be the most cynically sprawling 26 pages that you can buy, today.
The last several issues have felt like flipping through a ViewFinder, with the connective tissue being the story of Death and the Horsemen. We have seen the Justice of The Rangers, we have seen the burning fields of The Union, and now, we look inside the walls of The Kingdom. The Kingdom itself is a seaside metropolis, full of towering skyscrapers, a thriving nightlife, and floating pyramids above the ocean. A completely modern city-state with the Old World sensibilities of a monarchy; a city-state that is self-funded from the spoils of natural resources. But it is also a city-state that has an inner turmoil brewing among the royalty. I am immediately reminded of Casterly Rock in Game of Thrones. Luckily, that is where the Lannister comparison stops.
The introduction of The Crown Prince, John Freeman, is a startling one. We first meet him, possibly post-coital, absorbing a plea for help from The President of The Union. Immediately after that, he shows the reader why he is next in line for the Throne via a quick neutralization of a sibling rival. This is a man who acts based on a complete understanding of his obligations, both to his own beliefs and to his nation.
Speaking of obligations, let us now discuss the moments shared between Death and The Oracle. We do not know the details of what transpired between her and The Four Horsemen. All we know is that whatever happened was an atrocity and there must be recompence. This is where Death and his obligations come face-to-face. Whatever his role was, he must pay for what he did, and, depending on how he chooses, he could lose everything. He is willing to sacrifice something, but, is he willing to give more than that? A pound of flesh, it is not. But the cost is gruesome, nevertheless. Let’s hope that it isn’t too much of a handicap for the Pale Rider. His journey is only beginning.
What we see after this is a prolonged dialogue between The King and his Crown Prince. While this is a risky choice for a comic book, to dedicate pages 14-26 to one large discussion, it is a choice that pays off. It is thanks to the bold and expressive work of Nick Dragotta that twelve consecutive pages of a conversation feel neither boring, nor do they lack in spice. The King has intercepted the plea for help from The Union and wants to see if his favorite son is capable of handling this new opportunity. This is where the theme of retribution enters for the nation of The Kingdom. A nation comprised of freed slaves and their kin, they are not unfamiliar to the concept. But, in a new twist of fate, the same people they fought along side have now come to them with their hands out; seeking assistance in the form of a new debt. Debt, as we quickly learn, is chains. This has now become a conundrum for John Freeman.
The President shares the same religion as The Crown Prince and from what we have seen, the followers of The Message take their beliefs very seriously. So, how does one put a member of their own congregation in chains? Can he play both sides? Does he trade loyalty and virtue for power and expansion? Will he even get the chance?
We are now nine issues into the a series that appears to have only just begun to spread it’s wings. This installment, while not nearly as action oriented as the Rangers issue or socially resonant as The Union issue, proves to me that this team knows how to cause a stir without firing but a few well-placed shots. I am looking forward to seeing more of the internal conflict within The Kingdom. But, I must admit, I long ever more to see these characters interact with the ones we have already met.
Based on the powerhouse artwork, the richness of the characters, and the insight it gives to the overall story, this book has earned a very regal 9 out of 10.
Mike Sains is a Staff Writer at Capeless Crusader. When he isn’t writing, he’s podcasting at various places online. When he isn’t podcasting, he’s collecting comic books, FunkoPop! figures, and vinyl records. You can hear him on Geek Girls, Nerd Boys, The Tower of Sour, and The Inverse Delirium, all available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @MikeSains.