Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing East of West 21, originally released October 14th, 2015.
Taylor: The stories that keep me on the edge of my seat are the stories that reveal just enough, but never the whole thing. While this is true of any story, it is especially true of any story that is syndicated; you need to keep my attention sustained not just over a short amount of time, but possibly years. The TV shows Lost and Battlestar Galatica were able to do this simply by withholding information from me. While that was maddening at times, I openly enjoyed it because it let me engage the world in ways other stories didn’t. Instead of passively watching events unfold, I was always guessing what would happen next. While East of West may not possess the same level of intrigue, it does keep me guessing where it’s going next each issue. It’s wildly unpredictable in the best way possible.
Schemes are afoot in the world of East of West, just as they always are. This month, Doma is plotting with the PRA and Mao to start a war. Doma does this because she’s the lover of one of Mao’s soldiers and is promised protection in return. Mao wants war and thinks blowing up a member of the council of nations will give her just that. While normally this would work, it doesn’t this time. The Endless Nation, after walking the land of the dead, has decided to use Doma for their own plans to destroy the Union. Therefore, for now, a peace has been struck.
God damn, but I read this issue with delight. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and that couldn’t be more true than how I feel now that East of West is back after a period of periodical updates. Once again I’m just so happy to submerge myself in this strange, stark world and the mystery that surrounds it.
Like the shows I mentioned above, East of West always manages to keep me intrigued by showing me a little of what lies behind the curtain, but not too much. In this issue the titillation (because let’s be honest, that’s what it is) comes courtesy of Narsimha, the chief of the Endless Nation. When he goes out to the deadlands to commune with the spirit world, writer Jonathan Hickman gives us just enough backstory and info about this character to really pique my interest.
Nihnootheit (the dude with the antlers) asks Narsimha just what he would be willing to give up in order to see his nation survive. And that’s the end of the scene. Hickman switched scenes before I get to read Narsimha’s answer so what he said is unknown to me. Of course I know Narsimha decides to make piece with Mao, but is that a result of him being a “chief who sacrifices himself for his people” or the more self-centered “boy who gambles” with other people’s lives. The fun in this is that Hickman let’s me guess which it is. That keeps me engaged in this story in a way a lot of others don’t. I’m not just watching events unfold, waiting for the author to tell me what happens. I’m actively taking part in the story, guessing what happens next. Sure, this is a skill we all learn in middle school, but it’s rare that I’m actually moved to use it by a story. East of West has me doing that in spades.
Another way that Hickman keeps me interested in the world of East of West is that consistently defies my expectations in unexpected ways. Take for example the Endless Nation. They are Native Americans who far more technologically advanced than any other nation on the planet. So advanced is their tech, that they’ve even lost contact with nature.
Narsimha’s lament about his people’s retreat from the natural world is wonderful in that it inverts the Native American stereotype commonly seen in pop-culture. Frequently Native Americans are portrayed as being men and women who live in harmony with nature and who have a spiritual connection with mother earth. Here, however, they live in a city where there’s so much light they can’t even see the stars. I enjoy how this tidbit of information upends our preconceived, and frankly inaccurate, notions about Native Americans. It’s progressive in a subtle way that makes me question the subtle stereotypes I carry with me each day. Lastly, I love that Narsimha’s reconnects with the living world by visiting the land of the dead. There’s a lot to be read in that.
Oh man Patrick, I’m so pumped after reading this issue. I had a great time! Did you? I ran out of room before I got to talk about Nick Dragotta’s art, but it’s just stunning as usual. You have anything to say about that?
Patrick: Sure I do! Taylor, I think I’ve got a slightly more adversarial relationship with Hickman’s obtuse storytelling than you do. You know me – I loves me some narrative mysteries, and I cling to the mantra “questions are better than answers” for precisely the reasons you outlined above. That need for speculation does turn the act of reading from a passive experience to a largely active one – something that Drew discussed in his write-up of The Surface 4 last week. But one thing that East of West constantly demands of its readers is a familiarity with every nook and cranny of its own mythology, and I don’t always have the mental bandwidth to keep all of that information flowing through my brain. It’s kinda like how I love playing Street Fighter IV, but I had to give it up because I can’t commit the kind of time or energy to really participate with it to the level the game demands. That doesn’t make the game bad, and it also doesn’t invalidate my experience with it (the game is good, my experience is valid), but it does mean that I end every play session saying “I’m missing something.”
Which is largely my reaction to the story beats in East of West 21. I will admit to having a tough time getting through that scene in the Endless Nation’s war room. It’s four pages of characters I don’t recognize as individuals arguing about what’s to be done about alliances I don’t totally have a solid grasp on in the first place. However, that scene is almost the anomaly that proves Hickman’s ability to tell a compelling, active story without needing his reader to know everything that’s going on. Take the opening scene, with Doma and the Maos tapping out secret messages to each other.
Just about everything about this scene is perfect. I love the way Hickman, Dragota, and letterist Rus Wooton introduce this method of communication. It starts with Doma and the Mao solider laying in bed naked together, speaking to each other normally, but the TAP TAP appears in the bottom right corner of the panel. As the scene cuts to this negotiation table, the tapping continues and Wooton commits individual narration boxes to individual letters, as through gradually suggesting that taps could be letters. There’s no explanation of what they’re doing — no reference to Morse Code or anything dumb like that — just the knowing acknowledgement that readers will be able to figure out how they’re communicating. I also love the way Wooton dims the text on the actual conversation people are having in the room. It’s all very politically wonky anyway, so the content of that conversation is the kind of East of West material that puts me to sleep anyway, but it’s nice to have a visual cue that it’s supposed to fly over my head.
That scene is also built on an awful lot of intimacy. We start off seeing our characters naked and embracing, and we’ll return to that to close out the scene. All throughout, they’re able to talk privately in front of everyone. And some of Doma’s expressions are downright filthy. She says that she “had [her] hand inside him earlier” referring to the old man she’s about to blow the fuck up. She even gently closes her eyes in ecstasy before finally pulling the trigger. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to that single panel of horrific gore — a panel that Dragota enthusiastically delivers on — which feels so much more like a violation because of the how intimate and sexy we’ve been in the meantime. I mean, look at just the last two panels next to each other and tell me that the contrast doesn’t improve both.
Great work by colorist Frank Martin here. He’s obviously using surreal palettes here, but they’re also so different from the drab grays and beiges from the meeting. These are the moments that mean something – violence and rebellion in red, intimacy and tranquility in purple.
But I’ll still maintain that I need to have my emotional anchors around to make this series really sing for me. Babylon, Death, Doma, Freeman – when we stray away from their stories with emotional stakes I understand, I just don’t know what to latch on to. I’m glad Taylor is starting to see those anchor qualities is Narsimha, but I’m just not there yet.
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?