East of West 15

Alternating Currents: East of West 15, Taylor and DrewToday, Taylor and Drew are discussing East of West 15, originally released September 10th, 2014.

Taylor: Some of the oldest and most enduring philosophical questions ever asked have to do with the nature of reality. Actually, maybe that’s basically a working definition of the subject in general. The question of what is reality is one that spans the world. The Taoist philosophers of Ancient China believe that what we perceive is actually an illusion. Likewise, in the West, the Ancient Greeks believe that reality is but a shadow of some ideal world crafted in our minds. That two such disparate cultures should come to similar conclusions shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it’s long been known that we can’t trust our senses to accurately inform our world view. Given the ubiquity of this idea, it’s not surprising to see it spring up in the latest issue of East of West. The series is nothing if not philosophical and the question of reality seemed like a matter of ‘if’ not ‘when’. While this doesn’t surprise in issue 15, what does is just how destructive this question might prove to the world of the Seven Nations.

As the War of the Seven Nations heats up, the House of Mao begins to make its own preparations for battle. The interests of the Republic, however, are somewhat more complex given that their leader is the mother of the Beast, the supposed destroyer of the planet. As it turns out, the Beast is making preparations for his departure from his sanctuary with his trusty computer DHF001-DFF09.666, or as he later names it, Balloon. While leaving, the Horsemen show up to try and kill and the Beast, mistakenly believing that the Message is bogus. It only takes Conquest having his head smashed to convince them of their mistake. The Beast makes his escape from his stronghold just as missiles blow it up, causing Death to think his son is dead.

Once again artist Nick Dragotta and writer Jonathan Hickman have hit it out of the park. What makes this particular issue enjoyable, like so many others, is the focus on a single character against a backdrop of the grandest design. In this case, our attention is focused on the son of Death and his lover, the Beast.

Despite the fact that the Beast is fabled to destroy Earth, I can’t help but find him charming and enticing to watch. A lot this stems from the dialogue Hickman writes for him. Throughout this issue the Beast speaks like an average kid his age. He uses lexicon the likes of which I hear my students speak at the school where I teach. This makes it easy to forget he’s going to destroy the Earth. My favorite play on this juxtaposition of destroyer of earth and kid comes right after he brutally crushes Conquest’s skull with Balloon.

That dick.On the one hand, he kills someone in cold blood because he didn’t speak to him respectfully. On the other he peaces out with an “okay, bye” as if he’s running home after hanging out in the park. It’s weird, a little eerie, and totally delightful. The Beast is both innocent child and destroyer of life as we know it.

This innocence becomes a crucial crux of the issue as we later learn that Balloon is modifying what the Beast see’s through his eye tubes. The Beast, having spent all of his life in isolation, really knows nothing about the world. Everything that he does know has come from his “trusty” friend Balloon. This means that everything the Beast knows has been filtered through a third party. That’s a clear distortion of reality and one that could have dire consequences. As we learn at the beginning of the issue, the Beast has run through simulations of what life outside of his cell will look like, but the issue of how accurate those simulations are is problematic.

Appearence and reality.The Beast seems fairly assured that simulations, especially of the sort that are hyper realistic are essentially just as good as reality. However, we discover later in the issue the simulations run by Balloon may be less that accurate. This means the Beast is operating under a flawed view of the world, making the Message he is supposedly fulfilling all the more cryptic. Who made this prophecy and whose seeing it through to completion?

Dragotta’s art is once again spot on in this issue. In drawing the Beast he makes him a kid who seems harmless until we actually see him in action. The design of him in his outing gear is especially pleasing because it emphasizes his innocence despite us knowing what he could do to the planet. The final page of the issue is an excellent example of this.

What's the difference between reality and illusionNot only is he standing in a field of beautiful sunflowers, but Balloon looks exactly like his namesake. Take away the dialogue from this scene and you have an awkward looking pre-teen enjoying a sunny day. Of course, the dialogue does matter, and the fact that he’s stating his intention to destroy such beauty serves to pull at our emotions in a remarkable way.

So Drew, what do you think of the Beast? Do you find him as oddly likable as I do? And what about Balloon, is it just another run of the mill evil computer or is something more going on? Also, is there anything Dragotta can’t do?

Drew: Dragotta is definitely on fire this issue, but I think the MVP award might actually belong to colorist Frank Martin. This series has me so used to washed out deserts and sterile rooms that that closing image is breathtaking well beyond the surprise of Balloon’s deceit. Like The Beast (or Babylon, as Balloon christens him), we’ve been lead to believe that something as beautiful as a bright yellow sunflower couldn’t exist in the world of East of West, which makes this reveal all the more surprising.

Taylor, I’m absolutely with you on finding Babylon endearing, which I think is due in large part to his youthful qualities. You’re right to point out his childish idioms, which Hickman hilariously juxtaposes with moments of highly technical babble, like when he explains why he’s unfamiliar with names.

techno-babble

He’ll casually drop ten-dollar words like “taxonomical” while standing over a dismembered body, seeming for all the world like a ruthless killing machine, but then turns around and names his robot friend “Balloon”.

Beyond his language, though, I think the philosophical notions Taylor brings up also work to make Babylon somewhat childish. I think accepting the world as it is presented to us is inherently childish — something many of us violently outgrow in our teenage years. That Babylon has yet to have such a moment of rebellion not only reminds us of how young he is, but maybe absolves him of some of the horrors he seems set to commit — would we even consider these actions his if he’s effectively a brainwashed minor?

Intriguingly, Hickman and Dragotta give us a hint of Balloon’s distortions of reality earlier in the issue, when we get Babylon’s perspective on the approaching Horsemen.

Scary HorsemenAt the time, I assumed this was Balloon feeding Babylon historical information about what the Horsemen looked like in previous incarnations, which only demonstrates the limits of my own perspective. And I’m kind of thinking that’s the point. That benefit of the doubt helps make the final page reveal all the more surprising, but it also makes me suspicious of what else Hickman and Dragotta might be hiding from us. After all, they’re our Balloon, feeding us all of the information we have about the world of East of West. Is it possible our storytellers have a motive beyond the telling of the tale (or perhaps some secret motive within the tale yet-to-be-revealed to us)? Time will tell.

As for the reasons for Balloon’s deceit, I think that actually speaks to the way the Chosen have interpreted the Message over the years — specifically, that they see it as a prescription of what should happen, rather than as a description of what will happen. That confusion seems to exist when interpreting real-world religious texts, so I suppose I can’t hold it against the Chosen for trying to “manufacture the apocalypse” (as Bel Solomon put it way back in issue 5), but I will say that it’s not really faith if they felt compelled to pull some strings for it. Last month found Ezra once again fulfilling prophecies, but those continue to feel organic in a way that the Beast’s upbringing simply doesn’t. But then again, I’m not a zealot of the message the way some of the Chosen seem to be — it’s hard for me to see bringing about the end of the world as just, let alone by any means necessary.

You know its a good series when an individual issue has you remarking both on the depth of the world as presented AND questioning whether or not you’re getting the whole story. I never doubted that Hickman could deliver an impossibly large world, but I continue to be surprised at the subtle ways this series reflects and amplifies aspects of the world as we know it. It’s an epic, to be sure, but that size is just a means of getting at the much more interesting philosophical underpinnings of our reality.

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?

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One comment on “East of West 15

  1. Great issue and great review. Are you guys going to pick up the guidebook for the series that comes out next month? Well, more like guide-issue, but I love those sort of things.

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