Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing East of West 9, originally released January 29th, 2013.
Taylor: When successfully writing a story about a fictional world, there is one thing the author must do if they want their work to be believable. It’s not necessarily high-flown concepts or a strong thesis, though those certainly help. Instead, it’s important for the author to create a world that follows its own rules and mythologies. The author must not break away from these or else the world he or she so deliberately built will come crashing down. In the land of comics where fantasy worlds become reality on a regular basis, Jonathan Hickman has established himself as a skilled observer of this rule with such titles as The Manhattan Project and of course East of West. In the latter, Hickman has created a bleak landscape where death roams the world, both literally and figuratively. The world Death inhabits, along with its inhabitants, is fascinating and dark, and learning more about it is part of the joy of reading East of West. Issue 9, like issue 8 before it, indulges the reader with world building which is both a delight and a little frustrating at the same time.
John Freeman is the crown prince of The Kingdom, a country that controls the deep south of North America and which has made its riches from oil in the Gulf of Mexico. As the next in line to the throne, John is challenged by those who would take his place as crown prince. This usually comes in the form of illegitimate brothers, but none of them possess the martial prowess to usurp John’s place in the patriarchy. Recently, John has been asked by the alliance to supply them with funds so they can prepare for war. John’s father, the King, knows this and urges him to oblige them, for someone who owes you something is someone you own. While this is being established, Death continues his negotiations with the oracle, who, in exchange for information about his son, takes Death’s eyes so she may see again.
This issue perfectly encapsulates what I’ve come to love about the series. The world of the Seven Nations is engrossing and it’s a delight to learn more and more about how it came to be. Hickman is a master at taking the familiar and twisting it so much that it’s barely recognizable. However, that small amount of recognition is what grounds his story in reality, which is enough to keep it familiar to readers. This familiarity makes his alternate history fascinating, for at heart who doesn’t like the things they are familiar with?
In the case of this issue, The Kingdom and Crown Prince John Freeman take center stage. Hickman is so good as to give us a brief history of The Kingdom and we find out that it’s the product of former slaves turned union soldiers turned oil tycoons. Subsequently, the crown is controlled by former slaves who have turned their empire into a futuristic version of the ancient Egyptian empire. Artist Nick Dragotta, renders this style perfectly on several pages, but the full page spread of John halfway through the issue really caught my attention.
John just looks fucking cool in this picture, end of discussion. However, what’s particularly striking about this page is how it blends all of the stylistic elements of East of West into one picture. Not only do you have the retro-futuristic stylings of Dragotta on display (which is the perfect mixture of old west and science fiction) but the world-building tidbits of Hickman are dropped in the dialogue as well. Kings, courts, guns, huge collars? It all adds up to a scene that is impossibly cool and it reminds me of the delightfully bizarre world created by Janelle Monae in her music. It’s a testament to both Hickman and Dragotta that all of these disparate elements seems at home here. Together they’ve created a world that is totally believable, even if at first blush kings and gunfights don’t seem to fit together in the same narrative.
However, this world building does have a cost as the main narrative of the comic has come grinding to a halt. Death has now been stuck in the vault with the Oracle for the past three issues and with it all of his progress and movement has been lost. The amount of time he has been down in the vault is confusing and it’s hard to gauge exactly how much time he has been out of the loop. While I understand that time is passing at different speeds for different characters, it’s a little frustrating to have that dragged out over multiple issues. Also, the oracle’s words confound the Message, which further makes it seem as if Death is operating on a different set of rules than the rest of the characters who inhabit East of West.
This is all nitpicky stuff at the end of the day, however. Hickman is so good at what he does that I’ve come to expect a lot from his output, so any qualms I have with his work are minute at best. Drew, do you agree? Do you think Hickman has built a convincing world with sound rules, or do you think he’s breaking them with Death and the Oracle? Also, John Freeman is awesome. Do you want to see more of his story as much as I do?
Drew: I’d love to see more of John’s story, but I have to confess to being more interested in the world around him. Hickman’s Seven Nations are at once alluringly alien and disturbingly familiar, and I can’t get enough of seeing how he refracts well-known stereotypes through the lens of this alternate future. I relished seeing how the Texas Rangers were given Judge Dredd-like authority, or how Mao’s descendants rebuilt Shanghai in San Francisco, and I was thrilled to see this issue focus in on the Kingdom.
The creation of an African-American nation is obviously a long way off from history as we know it, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see how it was shaped in similar ways. Most notably, the costuming and design of the Kingdom calls to mind the pan-African stylings of 70’s funk and Blaxploitation, creating a similar sense of a people who are African in spirit, if not necessarily by birth. That’s a tricky subject to parse even in the real world, so I won’t aim to analyze the psychology of the Kingdom, but I do think it’s interesting that they are the richest nation in East of West. Indeed, the correlation between socio-economic status and race seems to be flipped in the world of the Seven Nations. How exactly that played out in their history is the stickiest subject of all, but Hickman does make some hypocrisies patently clear.
Namely, the king’s philosophical aversion to being owned. That’s a straightforward enough concept to understand — on that’s not entirely unfamiliar in our own world, either — but one that seems to fly in the face of their own patriarchal system. With the idea of slavery such an active part in the nation’s psyche, their embrace of a system that favors some people over others as a matter of birthright seems hypocritical. Then again, even the supposed “democracy” of the Union seems all about the order of succession, so perhaps the Kingdom is just being more transparent about the way their system works. Or, perhaps Hickman is simply making sure his world has the same kind of cognitive dissonance we’ve come to expect when thinking about our government.
But you’re absolutely right, Taylor: John Freeman is an awesome character. For a full explanation, we need look no further than his father’s own vizier, who John happens to be sleeping with.
Hmm…so he’s an erratic rogue, who ALWAYS shoots first? I think the parallels to another famous futuristic cowboy would be overwhelming, even without the well-placed capper of “scoundrel.” He’s the Han Solo Lando was always meant to be. That’s a bit of a broad archetype — especially in sci-fi epics, but I can’t help but love any and every character that pays homage so transparently.
As for the slowed-down action with Death, I actually don’t mind the way Hickman has hit the breaks so firmly. In fact, that story had been developed so much leading to these doldrums that I kind of appreciate the breather. The Death/horsemen threads tend to develop the mythology, while the threads following the Chosen tend to develop the world (which, as I mentioned above, I’m particularly partial to). Moreover, I think giving their only appearance this issue over to the bit about the oracle’s eyes emphasize just how important that detail is. We’ve seen those eyes before, or at least one of them (remember the Hunter?), and how exactly those eyes came to work against the Horsemen fascinates me. It may also call back to the lots the rest of the Horsemen cast way back in issue one (there was an eye there), but exactly what that means remains to be seen.
This is such a rich fictional world, I’d probably be happy just to see how any of these characters do their laundry, but I have absolute faith that Hickman is taking us somewhere worth going. That can be reassuring when we get an issue as seemingly discursive as this one, but honestly, this issue is good enough for me to love it without caring where it goes. Just give me more of this world, and I’ll be perfectly content.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?