By Drew Baumgartner and Taylor Anderson
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
James A. Baldwin
Drew: The sci-fi trappings of East of West can at times make its alternate history feel particularly exotic, but for better or for worse, much of its history resembles our own. I mean, sure, our own Civil War ended in just over four years, and there was no comet that brought with it an apocalyptic prophecy, but most of the makings of that world lie in the very real history of the antebellum United States. Indeed, the ugliest parts of East of West‘s history are based entirely on the truths of American slavery and Manifest Destiny — the legacies of which we’ve never truly reconciled as a nation. Case in point: the Union’s capitol is built on the literal bones of the Endless Nation, turning a symbol of our own shameful past into a potent image that had heretofore given the Union power over the Nation. It’s only by — again, literally — digging up that history that any progress can be made.
Of course, “progress” is in the eye of the beholder. Wolf recognizes that he is acting as a conquerer here, but when a Union rebel refuses loyalty, citing the injustices her people suffered under the ruling class, Bodaway simply points to that older (and entirely non-fictional) history of atrocities the US inflicted on the indigenous peoples that populated the land it sought to claim.
That is: hey, if we’re keeping score on the scales of justice, I guess the trail of tears is a good way to to deal with the people we find on our conquered lands? It highlights one of the biggest hypocrisies in American history: that of a people so obsessed with fairness that they refused to pay a tax on tea but had no compunctions about genociding an entire continent (and enslaving everyone it could grab from another). If the oppressor’s cruelty (be they British or the ruling class of the Union) makes them unfit to rule — not the “same,” as the rebel puts it — then this bigger, longer, and older cruelty must tar everyone in the union tenfold.
But Wolf isn’t interested in retribution, as he makes clear to Bodaway. Or, as he puts it to the rebel as she’s carried off to the gallows:
Tearing something down is easy. Holding on to it…building something better…That demands more than rage.
Which sure as fuck sounds like a message for our times. It speaks to the perpetuity of human struggle (or maybe just writer Jonathan Hickman’s commitment to ambiguity) that we might reasonably read as either the rebel as the alt-righters who believed they were underserved by the previous administration OR the newly minted opposition that feels underserved by current one, but Wolf’s point (modulated by Bodaway’s) holds: these grievances are fresh, so their responses aren’t nearly as well thought out as these much older ones. Rage at injustice isn’t the same as a commitment to justice, and what we perceive as injustice owes it to history to take a much longer view. Like, are we really going to whine about “reverse racism” when our country is still built on the bones of generations of native people?
Of course, for all of Wolf’s words about the hard work of building something better, he’s not actually in the building business. Which means he abdicates his responsibilities as Chief of Chiefs just as soon as the Union is conquered. Peace was but a means to the end of returning his attention to the message, which might just be the case for East of West as a whole. Or, rather, that war was but a distraction from the message. Then again, with things boiling over between the PRA and the Confederacy — and with Death and Babylon only a couple days’ ride from the front — I don’t think we’ve seen the end of war just yet.
But I suppose that’s a conversation for a different day. Taylor! This issue mostly stuck with Wolf’s machinations, but it was no less dense for its tight focus — I only hinted at the potency of its symbolism (or is it the potency of its literalizing symbols?), but this issue was dripping with them. And I completely failed to mention the glimpses we get of the horsemen picking up Babylon’s trail or of the downright human moment we get between Babylon and Death. I know what a fan you are of that relationship, so I’m hoping you can pick up my slack!
Taylor: I’d be happy to help you out Drew, and you’re right when you say I’m a fan of Death’s relationship with his son. There’s only one short scene with the two of them in this issue, but as has become the norm with their story, it’s still quite charming. Babylon asks his Dad what his mom is like, in anticipation of meeting her soon. Death’s response is poetic, and a reminder that he’s one of the easiest characters to empathize with in the series.
One of the things about being in love is that it makes you want to be a better person. In Death’s case, that means turning him from a literal monster into someone who is surprisingly loving and tender. This is a feat that shouldn’t be overlooked. Death is, after all, the very embodiment of his namesake, and few would associate life’s end with love or tenderness. That he has become such a character is a testament to the transformative power of his love for Mao. What’s more, it’s clear that this love has changed Death in more ways than one. He not only cares for Mao, but for Babylon, which is something that’s set him on a path separate from the other horseman of the Apocalypse. All of these things culminate in making Death an inarguably human character, who more and more is separating from his name and legend, in a good way.
Speaking of supernatural characters who are more human than their origins would suggest, Wolf shows that humanity can’t seem to exist without a certain amount of conflict and struggle. When discussing the Endless Nations’s history, he talks about how his people turned their conflict inward once they had found peace. As he says, the old fear the new, and the new can’t stand the old.
One doesn’t have to read too far into these to see that they’re an allegory for the current state of affairs in the United States. The country doesn’t have any true struggle to come up against and now finds itself a country with split and fragmented society. Just as Wolf says, there are the old who hold to an outdated version of American history in a hope to make the country great again. Those who are more forward-thinking and don’t subscribe to this philosophy, and look upon its practitioners as backwards. As with the other allegorical content in this issue, it’s clear Hickman, in this instance, is once again turning his critical lens upon the country he loosely based his comic on.
As always, Nick Dragotta does a wonderful job of bringing the world of East of West to life. In this issue, Dragotta shows his understanding of how to portray a scene cinematically to keep it interesting. When Wolf parades into the Union city after his forces have taken it over, Dragotta, panel by panel, reveals more about the scene taking place.
Each panel cuts to a camera angle that is further out than the last. This slow reveal makes Wolf’s parade all the more dramatic, as each panel reveals more and more information. The third panel is particularly attention-grabbing as the burnt corpse of LaFey reminds us of the bloody cost of the the Union’s civil war. The fourth panel, however, with its wide angle showing the might and force of Wolf’s troops, shows that this conflict will be all but a footnote in the history of the Union, for now the Endless Nation is in charge. Anything that took place in the conflict before doesn’t matter now, as Dragotta so expertly depicts.
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?