In East Of West #1, the new series from Future Foundation collaborators Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, three bloodthirsty Horsemen Of The Apocalypse quest for their missing fourth member in a drastically different reality from our own. Following an alternate American Civil War, a strange prophecy foretold by three dying men in different parts of the globe and a comet strike change the very face of the not-quite-United-States. At least, I think that’s what happens in this oversized first issue from Image Comics, based on what I read within its pages and what I pieced together from interviews and solicitation info. In all honesty, though, even after a few readings, it’s still tough to tell exactly what East Of West is–a strategy on the part of the creators that is equal parts tantalizing and irritating. If it weren’t for the book’s striking art and vibrant color scheme, I’m not sure there would be enough in this first installment to bring me back for a second.
A strange prologue shows three mysterious children being born out of the desert sand, amongst stone columns and a symbol composed of four interlocking triangles (in true Hickman fashion, this recurring image represents the entire series in microcosm). They are surprised to find they are only three, and after a weird ritual, they decide to find and kill their rogue fourth brother or sister. From there, Hickman and Dragotta walk us through an alternate Civil War scenario, one that’s interrupted by fire from the sky and resolved by a separation of the land into the Seven Nations Of America. Then the story jumps ahead into a futuristic “Now”, where three black-and-white avatars of destruction slaughter a bar full of soldiers to get information about a past betrayal. Then, we jump ahead to 2064, or “The Apocalypse–Year One”, as three young, destructive children–the same ones from before, only reconstituted somehow?–are born on top of a heap of the dead and the dying. Once again, they’re dismayed to find out that they’re only three. Then finally, we’re back to the previous “Now”, as the killer-cowboy leader of the three invades the “White Tower” to confront the President and get some satisfaction.
Hickman, currently re-imagining the Avengers franchise for Marvel, loves this kind of piecemeal storytelling, dangling bits of information that don’t add up to much on their own but will eventually, hopefully, make sense to the patient reader. The individual scenes, taken as such, are well-handled enough–they’re suspenseful in their pacing and full of dread (the mostly off-panel barroom massacre is a highlight), but they’re also frustratingly vague. I understand the desire for a novelistic approach that Hickman is going for, but the individual chapters of a novel need to be fulfilling on their own if you want readers to stick around for the long haul (plus, chapters in a book have the added benefit of not having to wait a month between them, either). The time-jumps are jarring, and we’re barely introduced to one futuristic scenario before we’re whisked off to another. All that aside, Nick Dragotta turns in some of the best work of his career here–his art combines the clean style of a Tim Sale with the more ragged linework of a Tim Truman, and the result is fantastic. The vivid color work by Frank Martin adds a brilliant polish to the already-impressive visuals. East Of West is a pretty lengthy read, one that hints at an intriguing, original series, but it’s only when you get to the end of it that you realize you know about as much going out as you did going in.