Today, Patrick and Taylor are discussing East of West 24, originally released January 29th, 2015.
Taylor: Anyone who has ever regularly practiced cardio exercise can tell you about the importance of pacing. I myself ride my bike to work whenever possible, and while I’m in the saddle, I definitely fall into my usual rhythm. There’s something about finding the proper pace to your workout, race, or commute that is incredibly important to helping it run smoothly. Pace is similarly important with story telling, the only difference being that instead of a steady pace, you want one that varies and excites you. Comic books are interesting when you consider the pacing of a story. Does each issue need a varying pace or should the series as a whole vary its pace as needed regardless of individual issues. East of West is a series that seems to fall into the latter and while this is cause of equal parts frustration and excitement.
Orion is busy carving flesh and sending out invites to the Chosen. In doing so he sends ripples throughout the East of Westiverse and the beginnings of greater events begin to unfold. Or at least that’s would writer Jonathan Hickman would have me thinking. But honestly, I feel like Hickman has been such a coy tease up to this point that I’m just not so sure. Every time I’m sure all out war is about to erupt, Hickman pulls back the reigns and eases the series into a more sedate mode. This issue, with its promise of the Chosen meeting once and for all would seem to portend conflict and some sort of climax happening soon. After all, this is apparently the last time the chosen will all be together in one place.
As excited as I am of the prospect of some sort of all out battle erupting in the coming issues, I find I can’t but temper my expectations. This is a move Hickman has pulled before and at this point I’m not sure exactly what will happen next in the series. I just can’t help but remember issues where characters have died, been betrayed, or otherwise made power plays that teased some sort of immediate payoff in the next issue only to be let down when the next month rolls around. Orion’s messages sent out at the beginning of the issue once again would seems to suggest a climatic turning point in the series is near, but I have serious reservations about that having given the way this series has played out in the past.
In a similar vein I’m both excited but tempered by the portents surrounding our old friend Death. It seems like ages since we last checked in on the erstwhile horseman but that doesn’t seem to matter much as nothing much has changed with him. After receiving his invite from Orion, Death learns that Wolf and Crow will be taking off for awhile to pursue their own errands. Death isn’t pleased by this naturally, but he does here a prophecy from Crow before she leaves.
Crow says will not only meet his son but that he’ll kill those who took him. That’s some serious soothsaying right there and the implications of it are huge. Just thinking of what these actions mean for the series and which characters would end up dying is a bit staggering. But once again I’m hesitant to let myself get too excited here. There have been a lot of prophecies surrounding death, his son, and his lover, Mao and we have yet to see any one them verified. It’s not that I doubt any of them will be fulfilled. Rather I just have no idea when they will be fulfilled.
This puts me in an odd place as a fan of this series. On the one hand, I love the universe Hickman has crafted here and I would love to spend issue upon issue learning about it. On the other hand, I find I’m also becoming more frustrated with the lack of momentum the overall arch of this series possesses. This issue, in and of itself, has a lot of pacing issues. There’s nothing about it that builds to a crest of has any sort of release. Effectively, this issue is a set up for future events, whenever they may take place. If Hickman’s focus is creating an overarching story, then this should be okay in the long run. Viewed as a whole, this issue could be part setting the pace for later events in the series. Readers of this series — myself included — ultimately have to decide how much trust they have in Hickman as a writer. If the trust is there, then this issue is exciting, if it’s not, then it’s frustrating.
Patrick, I for one, still trust Hickman but I obviously have some reservations. How do you feel? Also, this issue had some great humor in it what with Death having a hard time admitting he needs help from his friends and Buer giving writing tips to Orion. Does that help balance out the issue? What else stood out to you?
Patrick: Yeah, this one kind of pulls back the curtain and lets us take a peek at what kind of series this really is. Taylor, I think we all like to think of Hickman’s sprawling uber-epics as frantic storytelling engines that can just chug away indefinitely. Hell, we named the guy one of our favorite writers from 2016 for that very reason. That sort of expectation can make an issue like this feel… out of place. Instead of being another cog in a greater narrative machine, this issue ends up sitting on some thematic ideas, and in that way ends up being a fairly satisfying read for me.
Take, for instance, the conversation Orion has with his living canvas. This poor guy – he suffers in every single panel Nick Dragotta draws him in. And Hickman fills his mouth some standard pleas for mercy, punctuated regularly by asking Orion to make it all stop. Orion, on the other hand, sees his canvas as fulfilling his destiny through suffering, but in the same breath tosses out the gem “life is pain.” In a series that so frequently shows the ugliest possible side of the protracted apocalypse, there may actually be some light in the underlying message there. Yes, these characters suffer and do horrible things to each other, but their suffering makes their lives meaningful.
That position is validated over the course of the rest of the issue. When we see the various chosen receive their copies of the message, the first two scenes share a page. President LeVay and John Freeman get their skin-scrolls and dutifully acknowledge their monster-bird messengers. It’s rote, it’s proper, and it’s boring (read: meaningless).
Hickman and Dragotta know these non-stories are boring, that’s why they burn through two of them in one page. I love Dragotta’s acting in these panels – look how disinterested LeVay is as she robotically hands the carrier demon some food. Everything is dutiful and by-the-numbers and kind of dull. Until Mao snaps us out of it with a little bit of violence. No a lot mind you, but just enough to assert that she’s more interesting, and therefore that her existence has a little more meaning than the first couple of recipients. Also, maybe I’m just a sucker for Mao confidently notching another arrow immediately after shooting a creature out of the sky (in fact, I definitely am).
All of that establishes that pace that Taylor was talking about. It’s almost like the creative team is flipping through the stories until they find the good ones. And those last ten pages have us checking in on some of the more interesting stories of suffering in the world of East of West. I was particularly intrigued by the horsemen, as they openly discuss their relationship to their own suffering. Forgive me for not knowing which of these guys is which (one of the things I always find frustrating about this series is that I forget names between issues — especially when we’ll go months without seeing a given set of characters), but they’re all distinct colors, so at least we’ve got the shorthand of “the red one,” “the blue one” and “the green one.” As they begin a ritual of transubstantiation (more on that in a second), the red one bemoans how much he hates this experience. Dragotta dutifully demonstrates just how fucking miserable it is too – clay tentacles jam themselves down the red one’s throat and pull his eyelids back.
They go through this process because, in the red one’s words “I hate them so much more.” The Horsemen are suffering for their purpose.
Oh and I guess I just wanted to touch on transubstantiation a second, because it’s such a loaded term. In Catholicism, transubstantiation is the belief that during communion, the bread and wine consumed literally turns into the flesh and blood of Christ. And I’m using the word “literally” correctly here. All other Christian faiths are happy to acknowledge that “this is my body” is figurative, and trust the efficacy of ritual itself, but the Catholics need the rite to be much more concrete than that. This is obviously an insane belief — so much so, that growing up Catholic, I don’t think I ever met someone that insisted on its truth. But it remains a part of the dogma. For me — and I suppose I can’t speak to Hickman and Dragotta’s experience — the term transubstantiation has always carried the extra baggage of being an known un-truth. I don’t totally know what to make of Hickman’s use of the term here, but suffice to say that it gets my attention, and makes me tie their actions to faith and questions and uncertainty. Just as Orion won’t be edited to use less complicated language, neither will Hickman.
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