This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 30, 2014.
East of West, like all of Jonathan Hickman’s original comics, is a series that does not hold its reader’s hand. Filled with high concepts and big ideas, it started with a bang and has not decelerated since issue one. That’s a welcome relief in a medium that often reiterates the same point in a single panel using both prose and images, but it can sometimes handicap the dramatization of the story. This issue features the best and worst of what East of West has to offer with some of the series’s best action and most fantastical imagery to date, though some of it lands without resonating.
The first three pages of East of West #13 are almost an exact duplication of the final three of East of West #10, which ended on a cliffhanger when two of the series most deadly characters met for the first time. It doesn’t feel like the pages are being re-used in order to fill space, though. The opening page of the issue feels shocking after three months and it is an incredible spread worth another look. The balance of light and spiralling focal point forced me to lean back and actually say “woah” out loud upon rediscovering it. It also provides an opportunity for monthly readers to become reacquainted with the story at hand before the action starts.
The story splits into two action sequences, one following Death and a Texas Ranger engaging in a gun- and fist-fight, the second tracking Wolf and Crow as they handle the mysterious changes caused by the death of Wolf’s father. Dragotta’s art is incredibly effective in conveying the quick tempo of the action and the visceral effects of gunshots and punches.
When Death and the Ranger are chasing one another across the desert landscape, his page layouts balance the speed of both men and give a clear sense of where they are in relation to one another. Their gunshots and punches land with real force as Dragotta’s line work shakes with each blow. I can’t remember the last time a Western-influenced fight sequence has been this impactful since Preacher.
The action surrounding Wolf and Crow is different, but just as effective. Ghostly figures, fiery pits, and otherworldly demons all combine to create a bizarre sequence pulled out of a bad acid trip. This seems to be the effect that both Hickman and Dragotta are striving for as the characters reference the “dead lands” and “waking world”. It provides an opportunity to delve into the mystical elements of East of West, revealing their existence while maintaining their baffling nature.
The problem with this half of the story is that it establishes the stakes only as the action is being resolved. The nature of Wolf and Crow has remained a mystery in the comic, as has the importance of Wolf’s father. The scene conveys that important events are occurring, but fails to explain their relevance in a broader sense. So many of the concepts are new that it is impossible to understand what the potential consequences might be upon an initial reading or even upon a second reading.
I was unsure as to what the worst case scenario was if Wolf failed, besides Wolf and Crow perishing. Those should be high enough stakes considering both characters have been around since the first issue, but neither has received much in the way of characterization until now. Hickman is just beginning to pull back the curtain on who they are and what they want, important elements in creating sympathy for anyone.
That said, the exposition provided throughout the sequence is well done. Dragotta’s fast-paced action and strange landscapes provide plenty of scenery for the eye to chew while characters discuss their new status quo. The discussion itself feels natural, like something pulled from any fantasy story where two powers are forced into a stalemate. There may have been little in the way of dramatic stakes for this chapter of the story, but when the “dead lands” and mysterious skull-headed man reappear, this should not be a reoccuring problem.
East of West #13 shows off its chops as a Western in its desert chases and fight sequences. Even the more psychedelic elements read like a peyote inspired trip in the Mojave Desert. As the science of the Endless Nation emerges on the final page, the great potential of the series is brought into focus as so many genre elements are blended together to create an ominous spectacle of great potential. For whatever stakes were lacking in this issue, the war that is now beginning has been clearly grounded, setting a course for the series to pursue to even greater highs.