Sunday, April 21, 2024

East of West and the Enticement of Worldbuilding

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Image is currently doing a phenomenal job within the world of comics. Putting aside the empowering business model of creator’s owning their own intellectual properties, every one of their currently ongoing series has a creative vision that is distinctly its own.

None of the distilling voices of universe unification decreed by editors that you see in the bigger companies, for better or for worse. The critical acclaim of titles like Saga goes a long way in showing that the business model is successful, but there are so many other titles that have managed to stand out in their own unique ways. With that painfully sculpted segue out of the way, I’d love to shed some light on the worldbuilding going on in a small title known as East of West.

East of West was created by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta. I remember first seeing an issue on the shelf of my local comic shop and thinking it must be some sort of comic about China or Japan, perhaps a look at the opium trade based on the image of an Asian woman on the front. I was ridiculously off the mark with my cover prediction (don’t judge a book, etc etc), and the fantasy world that the creators have concocted is far more interesting.

East of West is set in America, an AU America where the Civil War had a markedly different outcome by the unifying of Native American tribes into a new coalition known as the Endless Nation that attacked the Union on a separate front, dragging the war out for many more years until an armistice was reached more than 40 years after the original war’s end, resulting in the fragmenting of the United States into the Seven Nations of America. This setup is detailed over the course of a two page spread in the first issue, so I’m hoping I’m not spoiling anything to the uninitiated, but the setup is needed. Despite the series spoonfeeding this background to you early on, that’s only a small inkling of the world that this comic takes place in, and as events unfold you continue to learn more and more.

I have a bit of an adoration for well-realized fictional worlds. The more details and history that go into a creation, the happier I am consuming it.

I’ve spent more time reading codex entries in the Dragon Age games than I’ve probably spent actually playing as a result of the depth they add to my experience. So, when I say that East of West lures me in with its history, I mean it. I recently reread the first issue, just to experience that moment again, one I think every fan has of their preferred piece of media. It’s the moment that a series hooks you in, sinking its claws so deep that you won’t be able to escape until either the narrative has complete derailed or the series has concluded. Those two pages of faux history are what drew me into the series, and they’re just the tip of an iceberg with the ongoing serial. The actual plot, which I know I haven’t even begun to touch on, is following one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, and his quest for revenge. The AU of East of West is so interesting to me, that I’m only now bothering to mention the honest-to-goodness Four HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE! And that’s because despite me liking the characters of this series, the world is what keeps me hooked. Every issue that visits a different one of the Seven Nations makes me giddy.

The world of East of West is engrossing for so much more than just its historical departures, however. It’s set in the future, the year 2064 to be exact, so there’s a sci-fi aesthetic reminiscent of Blade Runner in the urban settings, with buildings made up of hard lines and utilitarian design choices. But this is tempered into a unique individuality by also evoking the Old West in the fashion of the characters and beauty of the frontiers. On top of surprisingly seamlessly integrated technological advancements (provided by the stereotype-bashing Endless Nation’s technological superiority), there’s a heavy reliance on mysticism and prophecy for a lot of the series. Elements such as the Oracle of Taconia, Native American witches, the Forsaken Deadlands, and the once again personally understated FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE all weave together for a world that feels steeped in the surreal. Sci-fi and magic are honestly two elements of fantasy I usually assume to be disharmonious, and yet they gel surprisingly well, perhaps because of a healthy flavoring of the tones of the Old West.

It feels real within its own narrative, something I love to refer to as narrative consistency. There’s no such thing as jumping the shark if the universe allows for it, and that’s ridiculously important to seed into every part of a series.

Oh hey, alt text is a thing on this site
I love these petty assholes.

A collection of interesting concepts does not necessarily make a world seem well-realized, however. The true test comes in the form of how a world interacts. The Seven Nations would lack any appeal to me if they didn’t have international relationships, ranging from wars to alliances. So, with glee, I can say they do.

Ranging from the bitter rivalry of the Union and the Confederacy to the isolationist aims of the Endless Nation, every choice one sovereign makes snowballs into affecting them all.  These conflicts of interest are complicated further by the mutual goal all the world leaders are united in called The Message. These interlocking consequences make up a large part of the inertia in the series, allowing the world to thrive and decay as provoked by character’s actions. The status quo is shattered with almost every arc of the comic, sometimes overtly and sometimes simply as background noise for a more important event. A world cannot exist in stasis, and Hickman thrives on his world’s growth.

I guess you could say that all this is a recommendation for a universe rather than a series, and in a lot of ways, that’s true. The series also has tons of merits in and of itself, but I don’t know many Image comics that aren’t deserving of a recommendation simply due to their concept. The very mystery surrounding the series and Death’s need for revenge is a strong (if not clichéd) opener, but I believe what really sets East of West apart from its contemporaries is this setting, this world that Hickman and Dragotta have sculpted.

Characters that populate this world, from the single-minded Death to the charismatic Andrew Archibald Chamberlain, add a realness to the setting through their interactions. The whole time I’m reading of the escapades of the characters within the story, I can imagine other adventures happening elsewhere in the world, and that’s great. I want to see more of East of West with every taste I get, and that’s why I keep coming back. If you share that love of fleshed-out universes rather than bare-bones narratives, I’d highly recommend the series to you.

Images courtesy of Image Comics

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