Jonathan Hickman is producing Brian Bendis levels of output, last week alone there were four books penned by him. What is impressive is that they include creator owned and mainstream work, which are of a consistently impressive level of quality. It is quite easy to familiarise yourself with his style of narrative and there is underlying theme throughout all his books: the apocalypse. Manhattan Projects sees the greatest scientists trying to prevent world scale destruction and progress humanity further. In Avengers there are unearthly beings who threaten the existence of Earth but interestingly the key heroes are not the regular crew, but new Avengers he has introduced. With New Avengers we have the introduction of another new character that heralds the inevitability of Earth’s destruction, and the Illuminati test their morality in being the saviours. East of West is another apocalyptic comic, set in 2064 and the world is run by a chosen few world leaders. They are bound together in their belief of The Message: A diktat predicting the end of the world. The only thing in the way of the prophecy’s enactment is Death, of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. For some unknown reason he has left the other three horsemen behind as children, and is keeping the company of two other vicious and terrifying warriors. The world intelligentsia are waiting the arrival of Death, with baited breath and daggers behind their backs.
This book is a masterpiece in compelling storytelling. The world is constructed wonderfully with subtly revealing dialogue and minimal information overload splash pages. Hickman is able to build his plot without losing suspense or disappointing the reader with big reveals. The players are unique and clear in their motivation and personality. Though they may relate to classic character tropes e.g. Brother Death and the Illuminati, but they are given a fresh outlook keeping them interesting. There are subtle nuances of conspiracy and scripture throughout this book, with symbolism and quotations on many of its pages. Dragotta’s art takes Hickman’s premise and turns it into a tangible world, which is inspiring and overwhelming. The backgrounds are technological and grim giving almost a sterile quality to the postmodern world. The chosen leaders are arrogant with ruthless facades, the horsechilds are excitable but vicious in their violence and Death embodies fear itself. The action sequences are not clearly displayed but more alluded to, except in their aftermath. This prevents the book becoming a gore-infested horror comic, which is far from its point. The atmosphere is better maintained this way and the themes of power, conspiracy and fear can remain pertinent. Mention must be made of Frank Martin’s colouring which focuses on blues, oranges and white, reflecting the semblance of sunlight on an early evening, where a lot of this book takes place.
East of West is a perfectly crafted book superseding his previous work. However the essential characters are quite cold and the world seems uninhabitable, suffering a bleak future. It is compelling to find out the underlying conspiracy together with the role of Death and his horsemen, but where does salvation lie for the reader? This is the difficult question because as a comic, the reward may simply lie in its immaculate art and precise concepts. However I have no empathy with any of the characters and there are no relatable concerns or tribulations for the reader to emote with. The cast have few endearing features and the main protagonist is Death, who is a vengeful violent being. This is thematic with Hickman’s work with his current books, as the Avengers are not featured heavily in Avengers and New Avengers focuses on the “superior” Illuminati. It may be a classical way of thinking and reading comics, but it would increase the enjoyment of the book if you developed a rapport with the protagonist. There is often another theme running alongside the unlikeable heroes motif: the decline in morality. How far will his naturally zealous personalities go in pursuit of the greater good? This is prominent in New Avengers, especially with the expulsion of Steve Rogers. Death in particular is often portrayed as an antagonist but in this case it seems likely that he represents righteous fury as opposed to wickedness, which will provide opposition to the Prophecy. The final pages of the book provide an intriguing twist in four horsemen lore, which may develop Death into the hero we all yearn for.
“Above all, few are chosen”
I like what you say here. With the introduction of “A cup, of a cup. A chalice, of a chalice”, we may indeed add another dimension to Death. I think it is far too early in this series to make any full judgments as to character motivation or makeup, though. This is a slow burn of a book. I think it needs more time. Which is ballsy of Hickman, to say the least. He’s banking on the fact that we trust him based on what he has done in the past. I do think he has maybe one or two more issues before the faithful begin to question how long he will keep us dangling.