Sunday, 29 September 2013

East of West, Volume 1: The Promise by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta Review

I know the refrain from reviewers for Jonathan Hickman is that his Image, creator-owned stuff is better than his work-for-hire Marvel material but I have to say he’s very much up and down on both sides of the comic fence. For every great FF and Architects of Forever series you get a baffling title like his Avengers and New Avengers, and for every brilliant title like God Is Dead and Manhattan Projects you get an utterly dismal Nightly News and East of West.

I disliked East of West for so many reasons - it’s not much of a story and full of cliches, there aren’t many ideas and the ones Hickman uses have been done before and better in other media, the characters are moronic, and the entire concept of yet another end of world scenario from Hickman is just laboured and boring.

In East of West, an alternate world where an extra long American Civil War led to the creation of seven separate states that make up America. For some reason the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, in kid form, have shown up  minus Death who is for some reason a pure white adult gunslinger looking for his wife(!). The three horsemen set out to find Death to complete their group and bring about Armageddon. Or something like that. It’s Old West meets Star Wars meets Far East meets boring.

This is comic where I was constantly made aware of other media like movies, TV shows, and comics, I’d seen before being mined for material to make up this book. First off the four horsemen of the Apocalypse thing has been done to death since forever - making them kids is hardly a game changer, nor is making Death a pure white gunslinger (and I don’t mean racially, I mean every facet of this dude from his boots to his hat to his long white hair is alabaster white).

Then we have the whole divided states of America thing which is something hack writers like Harry Turtledove have made a career out of writing about plus there’s been this board game called Risk which has been around for decades which takes a similar premise. Death has these flashbacks from a time when he - Death - was somehow “killed”, or something, by a group of people whom he is now hunting down. That entire sequence and setup looks and feels just like The Bride’s story from Kill Bill. Then we have the look and feel of the world which by turns looks like that 80s kids TV show Bravestarr, Star Wars’ Coruscant, and 2000AD’s Missionary Man. Nothing about artist Nick Dragotta’s treatment of this comic looks at all original.

I just didn’t get the story at all - who Death is, whether he really is Death, ie. the natural state of living beings’ conclusion to life, or not. If he is, why are the other horsemen kids, and why is he at odds with them? Also why is he hunting down these men who wronged him physically when, seeing he is an anthropomorphic personification, he can simply emerge anywhere? He doesn’t need guns does he? And why does he need a wife? Death got married and had a kid? WTF!!! Oh and another thing that Death’s wife, Xiaolian, reminded me of was Talia Al-Ghul from Batman. And of course, being Asian, she spends her time tending to her lotuses in a zen garden called Tranquility (golf clap, Hickman).

Somehow the people of this world accept that the President and his entire cabinet have been systematically murdered (decapitated in nearly every instance) and have no objections to someone called Antonia LeVay who also looks like Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, becoming the new President. Antonia LeVay - another golf clap, Hickman. “I need a villainess’ name… how about I take the famous Satanist Anton LeVay’s name and feminise it? Brilliant!”.

And if you can take all of this nonsense seriously, then the finale will really lose you. See, stories are interesting when there are stakes and our heroes have vulnerabilities - the first gives us narrative tension, the second also does this but also adds the creative element to creative writing. The writer has to figure out how the hero or heroes will overcome obstacles in the story. Well, when you have Death as the hero and his two ghost Indian shape-changing buddies, none of whom can be killed, and are ridiculously powerful that nothing can get in their way, then you’ve failed on both counts. Death and his two companions face an ENTIRE ARMY and take it out in a few pages without blinking. Using six shooters and magic animals, they decimate an entire army who’re shooting lasers, bullets, and all kinds of explosives at them and they’re barely scratched. Oh, now I’m really on the edge of my seat. If literally nothing can harm them and they’re invincible, then why should I care about this climactic battle when said battle will be so one-sided?

One final thing - this whole story is about the end of the world brought about by the Beast of the Apocalypse. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many Hickman books where this has been the case, but I’m getting pretty tired of reading a Hickman comic where the story is about the end of the world. Hickman’s used this plot element so much, it’s become a joke. His Avengers books are about the Avengers stopping the end of the world - the same goes for his FF books, his Infinity mini-series, the Manhattan Projects, Architects of Forever, God Is Dead and now East of West, all of which are about the end of the world. Hearing about the end of the world is not interesting when every single book has the end of the world as the stake - it feels lazy and uninspired, like shorthand for saying “this story is important”. What must it be like to live in Jonathan Hickman’s mind where every single story has to be about the end of the world?

So that’s East of West, at least as I experienced it: dull story, cliched characters, and not a single original element in the entire five issues. Nick Dragotta’s art is the only good thing about it but I think I’ve about done with Jonathan Hickman for a while - there are only so many comics where doomsday is de rigeur that I can read and East of West pushed me past that limit. This is one seriously overrated and dreary comic.

East of West Volume 1: The Promise

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