Review: East of West Volume 3

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Publisher: Image Comics

Writer: Jonathan Hickman

Artist: Nick Dragotta

Colours: Frank Martin

Letters: Rus Wooston

East of West vol 3 is a collected edition of issues 11-15 of the East of West monthly comic series by Image Comics. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the story focuses on Death, of Four Horsemen fame, as he enacts his revenge against those who killed his wife and child. As a precautionary warning, those who haven’t read East of West and want to start here – DON’T. This volume acts as the mid point for the massive war and conflict established back in Volumes 1 and 2. References are constantly made to events in those two volumes and can make new readers feel lost in terms of where the multiple storylines take place.

Despite that, this is where the storyline current opens up within East of West vol 3:

Things have heartened up since vol 2; the seven nations are at the brink of a new Civil War, characters have been put in place to upset the status quo and Death continues his quest to find his son, having discovered he is in fact alive. The Four Horsemen are trying to break the prophecy mentioned in previous issues and the individual characters are still trying to achieve their own various agendas.

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East of West can at times be difficult to describe in terms of belonging to a single genre, it’s neither a Western, Sci-Fi, Romance nor a fantasy tale. It is a genre-bender; a western with anime styled Sci-Fi settings with supernatural and emotionally conflicting tones sprinkled throughout. Hickman crafts these qualities with great finesse, never lingering in one state or character too long, nor does he put emphasis one any of the styles previously mentioned. On the visual side, Nick Dragotta’s art captures the best of Spaghetti Westerns – barren wastelands, great panning shots of gunfights and technology that mirrors classics like Akira or Ghost in the Shell.

The overarching story contained within this trade is a slow burn tale of betrayal and acts of War. The first chapter sets up the dissension within the ranks of the Horsemens’ chosen tribunal. Each character is a cunning shade of deceit and purpose, some noble, others not so. Hickman captures each character well, each given their moment to shine both within and outside the chapters they dominate. However it is Xiaolian – the lover of Death and now ruler of the province of New Shanghai – that steals the glory from any other character. Her dialogue is weighted, unabashed and full of rage, the force needed to put the book’s further plot devices in motion. However Dragotta’s rendition of her is the opposite; delicate composed, except for the eyes – dark, glaring and full of rage, the best of Dragotta’s detail work so far. However it is not the rage that makes her an impressively terrifying and charismatic character, its the maternal fashion in which she addresses her people and champions, referring to them as her “Children”. Having to put them to open war drives the anger forward from her personality, which upon realization makes her perhaps the strongest character of the series so far because she can balance compassion with her skills as a warrior- something not shown yet in the series.

Death, on the other hand, is still pursuing the Ranger from the previous volume. What ensues is a series of short, brutal fights which, without giving too much away, are a treat to look at. Hickman and Dragotta gives the pair a true sense of camaraderie and exchange of skill, keeping the panels and action with enough space to feel immersive but never giving advantages to either character. It’s not one sided nor is it boring but the outcome is interesting to glimpse at.

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In terms of additional character developments within the issue, an another layer is added to the Four Horsemen. Hickman really pushes the envelope in terms of the dark humor that usually keeps their presence from being too grim to stand. Yet also, their task of ending the world takes a minor setback with dramatic consequences. For one, Conquest receives a shred of humanity in a moment that usually keeps the Horsemen stoic or prompts them to reply with ironic quips. It marks a chink in the armor of  these brooding villains and hopefully is picked up in later issues. The biggest consequence, however, comes in the form of a new character who undoubtedly will create the greatest of the antagonistic exchanges within the series.

Going into this trade, I was pleasantly surprised; with the aforementioned features, East of West reads better as a long form publication than the traditional monthly serial. The issues end as traditional chapters, leaving out the the “to be continued” cliffhangers or finale watermarks associated with the monthly singles. Instead replaced by a very small proverb or metaphor that immediately transitions to the next issue/character story associated with the quotation which creates a lovely rhyming pattern throughout the trade. Image Comics have graced us with another amazing trade paperback collection — perhaps “collection”is a poor term, this book reads like a graphic novel. Unlike the trades created by Marvel or DC, Image goes that step further and more adventurous by creating a fully designed format that skips the conventions of splitting the contents into the individual single publications that they first arrived as. Instead of using the full covers of each issue to divide the pages we have chapter divisions that are typographically impressive and unobtrusive. Cover art and typographic layouts never intertwine on the page but are never forced onto a single page, instead drawn out over double page spreads. Graphics, with prose book elements and a clear beginning, middle and end – this is a true Graphic Novel.

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