Today, Drew and Taylor are discussing East of West 17, originally released February 4th, 2015.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Drew: Myths are almost all told from a third person omniscient perspective in the past tense; not only do we get a glimpse into the separate actions of both the Tortoise and the Hare, we understand that this race already happened. That second part is natural to storytelling in general — everything from personal anecdotes to the high-flyingest science fiction is told as if the events already happened. Curiously, both tense and narrative mode tend to disappear when working in a visual medium — the illusion that these actions are actually playing out in front of us is strong enough to override any confusion about who is telling this story, and when. To give visual storytelling a mythic quality requires making the past tense nature and omniscient narrator explicit, perhaps with a framing device a la The Princess Bride, or perhaps just with that innocuous introduction I included above. East of West 17 finds writer Jonathan Hickman slipping his narrator in, lending the proceedings the mythic qualities they rightly deserve.
That narration comes in the issue’s closing moments, as Death and Xiaolian rekindle their passion. It’s a passage so clever in its myth-making, that I’m just going to go ahead and include the whole thing.
The first panel reminds us that we’re being told a story. Hickman’s narration points us back to the very first issue of the series, where narration first described “The Message”, but I’m most impressed with how Nick Dragotta picks up on that emphasis on storytelling, showing us the reaction before showing us the action, that is, prepping us with an audience analogue. The second panel makes the mythological aspects explicit, partially by the parable-like “a lotus, the death and resurrection of love”, and partially because of the woman turning into crows. The third panel makes the past-tense nature of the narration explicit, and the fourth panel drives hit home with a promise about the future of this story. (I’m not sure the vaginal imagery of that closing image ties into that, necessarily, but it certainly seems like it could imply a second Mao-Death child.)
It’s a hell of a way to end an issue, pulling the camera back to remind us of the true scope of this series. That reminder is rather precisely placed, as this issue otherwise had us fully invested in the moment-to-moment realities of the characters. That those realities are entirely a matter of perspective is made quite explicit in poor Babylon’s story, where Balloon is manipulating him to believe the world is much worse off than it actually is. Death later explains that “kids aren’t born evil”, but we really see the contrast of Babylon’s natural inclinations and Balloon’s intentions in their interactions here.
Babylon is reprimanded for his casual language (and I love that he believes (at least jokingly) in “haunted forests”), but his innocence really shows in how he sees Balloon. I realize this is all a part of Balloon’s illusion (Frank Martin’s colors make that crystal clear), but I think that only makes Babylon’s innocence all the more heartbreaking. Balloon knows the best way to manipulate him is by appearing as a friendly cartoon character, effectively preying on his youthfulness.
The tension between youth and a jaded elder hoping to impose their own worldview touches our other stories. Archibald Chamberlain is breaking in his new Chief of Staff — his own niece — and while she offers some insights on his rise to power and next steps, Archibald isn’t about to be schooled by a young’un. It’s a surprisingly impotent powerplay for a character who has otherwise been utterly ruthless, making Constance Lee an instant favorite.
John Freeman actually acts as both the youth and the elder here, debating policy with his father (via the vizier) and teaching his younger brothers a thing or two about fighting skills. I don’t think it ever occurred to me how intriguing the notion of a romantic relationship with the King’s top advisor would be, but Hickman milks it for all its worth here, with Drogotta juxtaposing violence and sex AND power in a rather potent mix. Dragotta uses that same trick with Death and Xiaolian, intercutting their romantic reunion with a wrestling match outside their tent. The violence always seems to parallel the ideological battles of the dialogue, but I’m not sure where that leaves the sex. Is it the opposite of that violence — a union of sorts — or are they one in the same? Hickman leaves this notion intriguingly ambiguous — especially with the knowledge that Xiaolian and Death will never see each other again.
Taylor, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this issue. For all of my complaints about the plodding pace of the early issues, Year Two has been downright thrilling. Hickman is still working the slow burn, for sure, but moments like Babylon’s exchange with Balloon, or Death chastising Xiaolian for disregarding “legends” means a lot more now that we know the characters.
Taylor: The slow burn is has and continues to work wonders for me. I find the world Dragotta has created to be so totally captivating in it’s bleakness and weirdness that any information I can get about it makes me happy. Yet, for all the bleakness that East of West would seem to hold, I’m finding more and more that perhaps not everything is as bad as it seems.
Figure one of this idea can be seen in the scene you mentioned earlier Drew. In it, we gets panels of Wolf wrestling with a member of the PRA juxtaposed with panels depicting the lovemaking of Death and Xiaolian.
As you said Drew, the coupling of violence and sex is made pretty explicit here. Whereas you see them as perhaps being one in the same, I see them as being distinct yet part of one singular cycle. If we stretch the metaphor out and equate the violence of the wrestling match to death and the lovemaking between Death and Mao to life, we have a tidy message: from death comes life and from life there is death. Of course the fact that Death himself is involved in the sex in this scene just drives the metaphor even deeper. Death, we like to believe, is the absence of life. Here, however, we have death actively engaging in an act that creates life. Maybe this final meeting won’t end in a new life being made, but symbolism of the act certainly can’t stand for nothing.
The juxtaposition of this scene is mirrors that of one which comes earlier in the issue as well. When John Freeman is discussing his recent political machinations with his father’s vizeir, violence and something akin to sex ensues.
All sorts of metaphors can be made about Freeman’s gun in this case. In theory, a gun is a device used to kill, no matter what any spokesman from the NRA might say. But as is used here, the gun — quite obviously a phallic symbol in this case — is emptying it’s chamber and at the same bringing a woman some amount of pleasure. Again, here we have a mixture of death and sex (and thus, birth) all rolled up into one scene. It gives me pause to think what this repeated message in the series means. Could the deaths of virtually everyone on the planet give rise to new life much in the same way a forest fire actually promotes healthy forest growth? I suppose only further reading of this series will tell us.
Ultimately, this idea of rebirth has me seeing this series in a new light. So far, we’ve been led to believe that the rapture is going to be a bad thing. That’s a natural response. We like our planet and even when it’s distorted and strange like in East of West, we mourn its potential loss. But, upon further examination, would we really be all that sad should the earth and its inhabitants in this series be destroyed? At the beginning of issue 16, we saw the Horseman (minus death) overlooking a battlefield strewn with bodies. The horseman reflect how much these people seem to hate each other and just how nasty they truly are. That being the case, should we really be all that sad should they be taken to task by Babylon?
After all, there is hope in Babylon. As Death notes of his son, children aren’t born evil and from what we’ve seen of Babylon up to this point this statement holds true. He’s being manipulated by Balloon, sure, but how long can that ruse last and what happens if and when it ends? Whatever the case may be, Babylon is the linchpin to what this story will mean. Is it truly about the death and destruction of the human race? Or is it more hopeful than that? Is it possible that from death (or Death) life can be reborn? Babylon is the holder of these secrets for now, and until that time I can’t wait for this legend to continue.
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?