Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing East of West 13, originally released July 2nd, 2014.
Shelby: It’s no secret ’round these parts how much I dislike the trope of “Two Heroes Meet For The First Time And Punch Each Other.” It’s such a transparent trick to introduce conflict to an issue, and is so often completely avoidable. I just feel like shaking these characters sometimes, and telling them if they just took two seconds to talk it out, the fake conflict would be gone and we could get back to the story. It’s rare for that sort of conflict to play out in a way that makes sense in the context of the issue; so rare, in fact, that when Jonathan Hickman uses it in the latest issue of East of West I didn’t even realize it.
In order to really grasp what’s going on at this point, we have to go all the way back to issue 10: remember how Death and the gang had just defeated Wolf’s father Cheveyo in a Dead Country showdown just in time for the Ranger to shoot Cheveyo in the head? Turns out, that has some pretty heavy repercussions; because Cheveyo could straddle the line between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and because of the way he died in the place he died, all sorts of nasty things from Dead Country were planning on coming over and hanging out. Death leaves Crow and Wolf to deal with that so he can go punch the Ranger for a while. Wolf strikes a fancy bargain with the spirit his father was possessed by/borrowing so the nasty things are appeased, and Death finally gets through to the Ranger when he mentions he was dealing with the Chosen only to find his son, whom was taken from him by them. At that point an armada of Endless Nation warships pass overhead, reminding everyone that time is actually pretty short.
As much as I love the story Hickman has laid out, and as much as I love the challenges it presents, it’s artist Nick Dragotta who continues to take my breath away with this title. The fight sequence between Death and the Ranger is so striking (bad pun, sorrynotsorry!) that it literally took my breath away when I first saw it.
I don’t think I’ve seen such raw, kinetic energy in a panel before. Dragotta has given us some shocking, gruesome scenes in this title, but never this much white-hot rage. It’s a stunningly beautiful representation of what Death is going through; he was this close to finding his son, until this man took that away from him. With all the riddles and hoops he’s had to jump through, here is a problem he can just punch in the fucking face.
Dragotta also really upped the ante with Wolf and Crow’s confrontation with the spirits of Dead Country.
The whole scene has a Cthulu-meets-the-Southwest vibe that I adore. It’s actually a pretty touching moment between Crow and Wolf. She knows the pain he feels at the loss of his father, but she also knows they are in some serious trouble, and he’s the only one to get them out of it. Wolf cannot take the time he needs to grieve, both because of the impending doom of the immediate situation and because of the impending doom of the entire situation, and it pains Crow to have to be the one to remind him of that fact.
I really like the way the Ranger and Death have come together this issue. Their missions are actually very similar; the Ranger wants to kill the Chosen because he doesn’t believe they have the right to assume they are above everyone else and to take and meddle and manipulate the populace as they see fit. Death is really just an example of the Chosen doing exactly that; they took from him what they felt they needed to take. Both men seem to hold the Message in complete disregard, which is an especially interesting perspective for one of the Four Horsemen. Patrick, what did you think of this latest issue? Did you find it a bit of a relief to take a break from all the heavy political machinations and just get some good, old-fashioned fisticuffs and demon battles? Any theories as to why Crow, who is apparently some sort of spirit, would rather walk the world as a person and aid Death on his quest?
Patrick: My working theories on both Crow and Wolf are that they are basically just the Endless Nation’s version of the horsemen, meaning that there’s some kind of divine role that they’re supposed to play, but also have the agency to express their own wants, appetites and desires. I guess that doesn’t really explain why they’re so buddy-buddy with Death, but his struggle throughout this series is maybe the only thing about this world that I truly understand. A man searches for his lost son. Pretty simple — especially when you compare it to those aforementioned political machinations. Hell, part of the reason the showdown between The Ranger and Death is so exciting is because it’s the first conflict in a several issues that makes sense on a gut level. Why are they fighting? Because they shot at each other – period. There aren’t thirteen different levels of subterfuge between intent and action.
It’s also such an exciting fight because it looks and feels great. Weirdly, neither the Ranger nor Death draws blood at any time during their actual showdown. Even as they’re pummeling each other with fists, the only real damage they’ve done is that which starts the fight. Shelby, I was much more aware of Hickman using the Lets You And Him Fight trope — partially because The Ranger wraps everything up with a neat “well, why didn’t you say so!” — but also because there’s such a clear and evident joy of speed and motion in Dragota’s art. What the fight boils down two is just the actions of two men, from two perspectives. There are several individual pages devoted to showing a single moment from both of their perspectives, and the inevitable narrowing of the gap between them. My favorite is the first one, which zooms through the desert, taking the reader from the target back to the shooter.
Not only does this establish an absurdly impressive stage for the showdown, setting the reader on the insanely kinetic path of the bullet that kicks off this issue expresses that kind of bald literal excitement that the Lets You And Him Fight trope is supposed to evoke. Dragota uses a lot of more pedestrian tricks to accomplish that same excitement later in the issue – like drawing both characters charge at each other with those anime-esque motion-streaks behind them – but the page above is so much more innovative and cool. I mean, seriously, you can almost feel with wind rushing by your ears the camera zooms out over the lake.
Since that conflict is so clear and fun — and fun is not usually an adjective I apply to East of West — it makes it a little bit harder to understand what exactly’s happening to Crow and Wolf. I had to read through the issue a couple times before deciding that the earth literally was changing shape around them, and that they weren’t just experiencing some kind of half-dead-demon magic or something. Such as I understand it, Wolf has offered his soul to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead. Again, the motivation here is delightfully simple, even if the mechanism by which its achieved is maddeningly ambiguous.
I mean, look at that thing. Dragota’s using some loaded imagery here, and that form in the sky emphasizes the Christlike sacrifice he’s about to make. But there’s also a lot darker shit going on up there – it almost looks like a man hanged from a ceiling fan, which is a common enough form of suicide that an Indian inventor made an anti-suicide fan. That is a decidedly less heroic sacrifice.
But it all ultimately comes back to Death, and his slightly-less-lonely quest to find his son. I really like seeing the Nation mobilized for the war forecast in the previous issue, as it fills an already dreadful mission with even more dread. The world can go to hell in a handbasket, but we’ll always have a clear emotional moral center at the heart of this thing. It’s just that he’s Death incarnate.
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