Taylor: I recently finished watching the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, and can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Why exactly I like the show could be an essay unto itself, but suffice it to say that Dev, Ansari’s character, is so damn likable it makes it hard to dislike the show by extension. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate how important likable and relatable characters are to any story. Master of None is by no means perfect, but the characters are so lovable that they more than make up for any of the show’s shortcomings. East of West, by comparison, has a dearth of likable and relatable characters despite its large cast, and this often is too the detriment of the series. Issue 33, however, bucks this trend, and in so doing makes the apocalypse more engaging than it’s been in a long while.
The Union is on the verge of collapse. Thanks to President Chamberlin’s meddling, rebels now have the arms they need to overthrow President LeVay and her army. At the same time Wolf, now chief of the Endless Nation, has positioned his army outside of the White City to await the result of battle and see if those who emerge victorious are friend or foe. All of this seems fairly typical fare for one of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West issues. Huge political machinations are a cornerstones of this series. However, what distinguishes this issue isn’t these sweeping political changes, but rather the small character moments Hickman supplies as the result of this upheaval.
Hickman chooses to focus on the relationship between Doma and the Widowmaker. As it becomes apparent that the rebels will take the White Tower, the Widowmaker rushes to save the life of Doma, with whom she is having a secret affair. As Doma is about to lay down her life protecting LeVay, the Windowmaker bursts in (literally) and wipes out all of the rebels threatening the woman she loves and rescuing her from plunging to her death.
This is a stunning moment, as much for the martial prowess of the Widowmaker as it is for her declaration of love for Doma. In choosing to rescue her, the Widowmaker has effectively betrayed the PRA and the family she has sworn to protect. That she would do this for love makes her a character who is immediately sympathetic and likable. This is rare for a character in the East of West universe, and aside from the relationship between Death and Mao, is the only instance of someone actually caring for another person in this world. This is important because, among all the carnage of the apocalypse, it’s easy to forget that there are people living and dying because of huge, world-shaping events. Hickman’s choice to show us characters motivated by something other than sin makes his world deeper and more relatable. If I actually care about the people living and dying here, then the emotional stakes in the story are higher, which makes for a better read.
Most of the emotion in this issue comes from the Widowmaker and her decision to save Doma. To give us a sense of the gravity of her decision, Hickman writes a voiceover for her in the form of a message to Mao. Part of what makes this voiceover impactful is how Dragotta accompanies it. When the voiceover starts, Dragotta shows the Widowmaker recording her message. However, he soon begins to overlay the Windowmaker’s message on the scenes of chaos in the White Tower as it is overrun by rebels.
The four panels above show the transition from seeing the Widowmaker record her message juxtaposing it against the action in the issue. This transition is seamless, and has a uniquely cinematic feeling about it. It lends the Widowmaker’s actions a certain heroic nature and it doesn’t take much to imagine sweeping, emotional music accompanying these panels. All of this helps to create a connection to the Widowmaker and makes me care about her actions, her love for Doma, and most importantly, whether she lives or dies. This has been missing in previous East of West issues and its presence here makes for a particularly strong issue.
Even the death of LeVay is accompanied by some sort of emotion created through a sympathetic character. As she is about to be burned alive by the rebels, we cut to a flashback of when LeVay first became one of the chosen.
In quoting the message LeVay says, “let chaos reign and the weak be the first to fall.” By acquiescing to such a message, it’s easy to infer that LeVay probably isn’t thinking of herself as being weak, and certainly not being among the first to die in the Apocalypse. However, that is exactly how things play out in this issue, and I can’t help but feel a certain twinge of pity for LeVay because she so clearly overestimated her abilities. That I can connect to LeVay in such a way, despite how awful of a person she is, is remarkable. Hickman’s newfound ability to make the life and death stakes of East of West matter to me because I care about its characters — both the good and evil ones — suggests that I’ll enjoy the oncoming apocalypse much more than I have in previous issues.
What do you think Drew? Do you feel any sympathy for LeVay upon her fiery end? How does Dragotta’s art strike you this time around? And when you die, do you want a viking funeral like so many of the chosen have had?
Drew: Actually, let’s talk about the funeral pyre/burning at the stake scenes that bookend this issue. In the opening scene, Wolf mentions that there are two reasons to burn fallen leaders — the first, as a signal to the gods (and the Nation’s enemies) of their leader’s greatness; the second, we later learn, is that they “had it coming.” Which is to say, the burning is done to either honor a great leader or punish a bad one, but that it’s the same either way speaks to the bleak philosophy that shapes the apocalyptic world of East of West. You can be good or bad in life, but it’ll all be the same in the end.
But, as Taylor pointed out, that’s not exactly true if we can zoom in enough to care about the interpersonal relationships of characters in this world. While much of this series is certainly defined by huge political machinations and characters motivated by both a thirst for power and an unyielding belief that they are living in the end-times, it’s the smaller, human moments that give us a foothold in this world. I tend to see it in a few more places than Taylor mentions, but I can’t deny that those moments are fleeting in a series that is otherwise cold and bleak.
But I think that’s why those moments are so effective. When we first learned about the relationship between Doma and the Widowmaker, it was a shocking twist, revealing that Doma’s allegiance may not be to the Union, after all. But it soon became a little ray of sunshine in a grim world, and their secret affections sent my heart aflutter. I latched onto this relationship we barely got to see precisely because it was a rarity. Love is an uncommon thing in the world of East of West, which makes it all the more remarkable. Heck, even Xiaolian Mao is impressed, in spite of the betrayal of the Widowmaker.
This issue may end with a deposed leader being burnt at the stake, fulfilling some kind of twisted prophecy about the end of the world, but even the characters fully invested in the geopolitical implications of that action can marvel at true love. As the Widowmaker says, she only did what she thought Xiaolian would do.
Actually, that notion — that the Widowmaker remained loyal to the spirit of Xiaolian, even as she abandoned her post — speaks to the varying ways these leaders relate to their people. While Xiaolian and Narsimha (and now Wolf) command deep respect and loyalty from their citizens — one that seems to be payed back in its own reverence — LeVay shows only contempt for her own underclass. Hickman elegantly illustrates that point with LeVay’s choice to empty the wine cellar:
That attitude gets paid back in kind once LeVay is captured. She’s not the kind of leader who’s burned because she’s revered — she’s the kind that is burned because she has it coming.
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