East of West 18

east of west 18

Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing East of West 18, originally released March 12th, 2015.

Taylor: Somewhere in several reading and writing classrooms, there hangs these words:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Depending on how maudlin the teacher, these may or may not be accompanied by a picture of two paths in a forest, to really drive the point home. Most of us take these words as offering a message of support — your life choices are good and you can sleep comfortably at night knowing you made the right choice. But what if these words held a deeper, darker meaning? East of West 18 asks this question, and in doing so once again calls into question the nature of our own perception of the world.

Babylon and Balloon are continuing there adventures outside of the Babylon’s chambers. In a forest Balloon realizes that they are being followed by a beast. This beast turns out to be the Prophet Orion, one of the chosen. He gives Balloon a data upgrade and also let’s us know that Babylon is both prophecy and project, which means that maybe the earth isn’t doomed after all. Elsewhere, Death sets out in search of his son. But will he find him in time?

This issue, like so many others in this series, entertains us while also making us consider our own reality. This philosophical bent starts off right away with a conversation between Babylon and his teacher, Balloon. The topic of discussion in this case is what to do when there is no way out of a given situation. Balloon says the best way out is through and quotes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to back up his point. Babylon has a different take on the situation however.

The Road Not Taken

Babylon sees Frost’s immortal words not as something which offers advice, but more as something akin to a cautions warning. He points out how Frost had a miserable life and that the road he took was a cowardly one because he lacked the courage to end the pain. That Babylon would take this view on the poem is perhaps a little shocking. After all, for several episodes he’s embodied a certain youthfulness that lacks cynicism. But can we actually say he’s wrong here? Isn’t poetry very much up to interpretation? The idea of the poem having some truth outside of our perceptions is a lie and Jonathan Hickman points this out with aplomb here.

Other instances where we have to double back and reconsider our thinking on something abound in this issue. My favorite comes between Babylon and Orion’s arm-beast. While Orion and Balloon discuss the future of Babylon, and perhaps the world, Babylon and the arm-beast are having a great time together. Nick Dragotta captures this weird union wonderfully in a couple of the panels, the one below being my favorite.

Hampster Dance

Babylon doesn’t realize that the arm beast is actually the horrible looking thing we all know it to actually be. Instead, because of Balloon, he sees the beast as a giant hamster-like creature. And while we might be tempted to think that the images Balloon is showing Babylon is a fallacy, in this instance, it would seem they portray more truth than fiction. Sure, the arm-beast is hideous, but it actually treats Babylon with a certain gentleness that’s touching. Seeing it jump-rope and cradle Babylon as he drifts off to sleep shows us that the way things appear to be aren’t always the way things actually are.

Patrick, how do you feel about this issue that was heavy on talk but light on action? I enjoyed it greatly, but I could see why others might tire of it. And what do you make of Orion giving Balloon a new chip? What’s the significance of that swap?

Patrick: I’m worried about it, for sure. Babylon has such a cool perspective at the moment — one that’s anchored in seeing giant monsters as cuddle-friendly hamsters and in challenging prescribed meanings to poetry. Those are virtues we would aspire to. Essentially, it’s a child’s perspective. Leave it to Hickman to develop a world where the only way a character can maintain their innocence is to have their perspective literally filtered by machine. We get a little bit of a reminder of how fucked up that is via Orion’s flashback to installing Babylon in the first place.

Babylon gets plugged in

That’s a monstrous image, even for a series known for being particularly gruesome. Dragotta’s drawings of the “better place” that Babylon sees are just incredible, and love the digital noise that’s layered over it.

The Oracle and his arm beast

I don’t know if that’s a detail that Dragotta includes or if that’s colorist Frank Martin’s doing, but it’s simply an amazing effect. The text never makes it explicit that we’re viewing the world through Babylon’s eyes in these panels, but that pixely sort-hand is so effective at immersing the reader in that perspective that we don’t really need to be told what’s going on. The artificiality is immediately apparent.

In a showing of typically Hickmanian ambiguity, there’s no value judgement associated with Babylon’s false perspective. On the one hand, it does seem to make him happy, but on the other hand, he’s coming up with alternate readings to Frost. Specifically, Babylon’s reading takes a biographical approach to literary criticism, using the spirit of the poet to supersede the spirit of the poem. I happen to agree with the Balloon — that’s a bullshit read because it can’t be supported by the text itself. But I’m also with the Balloon in that I love the kid all the more for engaging with the material on a critical level and not just accepting the meaning he is given. You don’t often see the values of literary analysis stated so obviously in a comics.

That makes the shift toward the end of the issue all the more jarring. There’s very little room for ambiguity as Death takes his leave of Xiaolian. Dragotta stages the entire scene with proscenium framing, the characters either in profile or directly facing the camera. There is no room to interpret their reality: they each have their own impossible tasks to undertake and this is goodbye for who-knows-how-long. The more straightforward staging of this scene is actually an asset, as Dragotta pulls the focus of each page closer to the center, culminating in that kiss. Even as our characters are parting ways, our focus remains stubbornly fixed on a vertical line in the middle of the page — check out that final page:

Death says goodbye

And if we’re taking that idea of centralism to it’s logical end point, that makes Xiaolian’s despondent face the focal point of this last page, and there’s really not a more representative image for this moment than that.

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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