The Mutability of Truth in East of West 39

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

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apocrypha: apoc·ry·pha | \ə-ˈpä-krə-fə

  1. writings or statements of dubious authenticity
  2. capitalized
    1. books included in the Septuagnint and Vulgate but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament
    2. early Christian writings not included in the New Testament.

Why, in any discipline, can one work be canon while another is disregarded? This is one of those petulant questions I used to spit back at my confirmation teachers in high school. How can anyone be expected to believe a text over their experience of the world if there’s any room to believe the text could be false? Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin’s East of West 39 finds all of its characters in various states of deciding what to believe, sometimes even in spite of what they see.

The issue kicks off with a flashback to a meeting of the Chosen – Hu Mao’s first. As the leaders of the various fractured nations that make up this post-apocalyptic North America, they really only preside over the grimmest of scenarios. Cheveyo, of the Endless Nation, drives this point home – they’re aren’t here to solve any problems, just to oversee the prophesied “real” end of the world, however that comes about.

Cheveyo refers to “that ethereal time between primordial day and eternal night” and colorist Frank Martin obliges with the most aggressively muted twilight coloring I think I’ve ever seen in a comic book. It’s eight straight pages of of characters only suggested by the play of orange and blue lights teasing them out of the shadows.

And while that sounds all very definitively doom-and-gloom-y, there’s a hitch: Mao insists that there’s room for interpretation in the prophecy. It’s hard to disagree. The text that scrolls by at this time is “BEHOLD THE SON… THE SON BEHOLD… SON BEHOLD THE…” It’s the same three words, reordered to imply different meanings. But there’s also no one way that makes any meaningful, concrete sense to me. The Chosen have come to understand that it means Death’s son will usher in the true apocalypse, but the recursive nature of the repeated text should make any notion of an “end” of the world dubious at best.

Dragotta is playing around with a similar set of symbols, both in this issue specifically, and all the way throughout this multi-year run. The symbol that been plastered all over this series’ covers, title pages, and transitional pages since issue one is this four-triangle image:

There it is on the cover of this issue, with copy that doubles down on the inevitability of it all. But Dragotta also shows us that symbol diegetically, once on the prophetic machine driving the Chosen and again adorning Death’s allies. That means once with the good guys and once with the bad. Therefore, the symbol itself is open to interpretation. What other previously defined things can be re-examined?

We even see this sort of thing play out in real time as Babylon thinks he spots a bird in the sky, and asks the Balloon to identify it. Tellingly, the floating database can’t get a definition out before Death draws his gun and blasts the robo-angelic “Psalm.”

I love the way Dragotta has this staged. The Psalm is obscured by the sun behind him, which effectively conveys Death’s perspective. And by the end of the sequence, we have flipped and can see Death through the red reflective eye of his attacker.

We’re playing fast and loose with perspectives and meaning. So when Death is swarmed by Robots and Babylon is cornered by the remaining Horsemen, it sure seems like our heroes are fucked. But are they? I honestly don’t know if we can trust what we think we know about this world and the narrative that Hickman is spinning. Because, like, BEHOLD THE SON, but also, THE SON BEHOLD.

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