A Very American Apocalypse: The Politics of the End Times in ‘East of West’
The United States has split into separate sovereign territories who uneasily co-exist side-by-side as population grows, food supplies decrease and the world slowly creaks towards death. Oh, and three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse have returned to usher in the end a whole lot sooner, and the one person that stands against them is their brother, Death.
That’s the premise of Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin’s East of West, published by Image, which has been running since 2013. It presents a very American apocalypse, as politicians plot and scheme their way through another day while the literal end of the world is right around the corner.
Leading the book, but by no means its only protagonist, is The Horseman of Death, who is portrayed as the coolest, baddest cowboy you could possibly imagine. Hickman’s Death is a lonely, almost tender figure at times, but he has a fury inside him that could destroy the world, if it doesn’t destroy him first. His quest is one of love and redemption, but his reincarnated siblings have something to say about that.
Although slightly older now than when the book first started, Famine, War, and Conquest first appear from the ground as children, which makes their path of violence through the Americas all the more horrifying to witness. The characters themselves are deep, complex and unique, especially Conquest, who presented as female in a previous life and took a child to raise as a son, but has now been reborn in the body of an adolescent male.
As exciting as the apocalypse is, East of West is almost a political thriller at heart as the various heads of state look to protect their own interests, but not necessarily the interests of the citizens they serve. It’s a political thriller in the same sense that Game of Thrones is, and it shows that no matter the time or place, there will always be deceit and betrayal at the highest levels of power.
The territories of East of West suggest a very different history for the continent of America. The Union, located in the north-east, is dark, overpopulated and somewhat reminiscent of Mega City One, while The Republic of Texas is ruled by the vigilante justice of The Rangers. The Kingdom sits where we'd expect to find Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and sets itself apart as a traditional monarchy, but its citizens are often the only black people present in the book, suggesting a very different end to emancipation and the end of slavery.
Elsewhere, the West belongs to the Mao dynasty and their People’s Republic of America, while the North is the Machine State of The Endless Nation, home to indigenous Native Americans who, after forty years of isolation, emerged as a technological superpower beyond compare.
In the middle of the country sits Armistice, surrounded by the mysterious Burning Plain, which stand as neutral territories where heads of state can meet, plot, and betray one another. The event that created Armistice is crucial to the beginning of the Apocalypse, and the conspiracy that goes on between the leaders that meet there only brings the world closer to Armageddon.
Similar to Game of Thrones, where leaders are too busy protecting their own futures to see the very real threat that comes from the North, Hickman has stated that East of West is ultimately about how “we all hate each other too much to come together and solve our problems.” In this case, the leaders of the many nations do come together as The Chosen, ostensibly working for the Horsemen to bring about the end, but many only want to further their own causes, rather than being true believers.
At the center of the story is The Message, a cryptic prophecy that details exactly how the world will end, which features Death, The Horsemen, The Chosen, and The Beast of the end times. In between story pages, there are sometimes quotes from The Message, thoughts from characters themselves, or observations from some unknown, critical narrator, such as, “The things that divide us are stronger than than the things that unite us,” or, “She lasted longer than you will.”
Dragotta’s art on the book is simply stunning, and he excels as much at the violent, bizarre and often upsetting material found in Hickman’s scripts as he does a tender moment between lovers, or a young boy’s shock and wonder at entering the world for the first time. Hickman plays to his strengths, and will often leave Dragotta’s facial expressions to carry a scene or reaction, rather than relying on dialogue to make sure the reader understands.
Visually, there are few books on the stands that look as exciting or as distinctive as East of West, with Hickman’s design background melding seamlessly with Dragotta’s art and Martin’s color to create something that looks truly unique. Fans of Hickman’s propensity for flowcharts will love the World one-shot, which is mostly information pertaining to each of the territories, including their flag, motto, population, and a summary of the current political climate. Naturally, there is also a flowchart charting the history of The World.
Frank Martin deserves special recognition for his use of color throughout the book, especially when it comes to the Horsemen, who pop from the page in striking red, blue, and green, accentuating their otherworldliness in a world that is often sterile blue or dusty desert orange. Martin’s Death strikes a figure somewhat similar to that of Jordie Bellaire’s Moon Knight, especially while flanked by his respectively all-white and all-black companions from The Endless Nation, Wolf and Crow.
If East of West were a lesser comic, it might be too blunt with the allegory and allusions to our own world, but instead it's just there if you look for it. Many of the problems faced by those in The World are very recognizable in our everyday lives, be it scheming politicians, rogue members of law enforcement, or having a giant lascivious beast grafted to your arm after years of faithful service to an apocalyptic prophecy.
Perhaps East of West's greatest strength lies in how familiar many of its elements are, and yet how unique the result of those parts is. Hickman, Dragotta and Martin have built a rich, expansive world, and although the nature of apocalypse fiction is to end, this series will leave readers with one of the most engaging dystopian comics of recent years.