Written by JONATHAN HICKMAN/Art by NICK DRAGOTTA/Colors by FRANK MARTIN/Letters by RUS WOOTEN/Published by IMAGE COMICS
Fans of Jonathan Hickman by now expect epic stories that build slowly and leave the reader with plenty of questions.
Hickman, however, has a proven ability to develop just enough of the mystery within a single issue to make the reader feel rewarded.
East of West #4 proves Hickman’s skill resides in his ability to plot a single issue that leaves the reader feeling unbalanced yet satisfied. Nick Dragotta’s art compliments this organization by mixing complexity and detail with minimalism.
The fourth installment of East of West begins with a grave condemnation: “WHEN I WAS A CHILD, YOU TAUGHT ME REGRET WAS FOR THE WEAK. HOW CAN YOU EXPECT ME TO FEEL SUCH A THING NOW?”
This isolated admonishment sets the tone as Death and his compatriots, Crow and Wolf, stand at the gates of New Shanghai preparing to battle a horde of warriors.
As the battle ensues and tides turn, the mysterious woman at the center of the conflict brings the lack of regret for violence and revenge into focus.
Hickman knows how to develop a story. This issue picks right up where #3 left off by developing one of Death’s many motivations for revenge against the ruling class. While the destruction of New Shanghai at the hands of Death and his collaborators draws the reader in, it is the captive daughter of New Shanghai’s ruler that steals the show. Hickman avoids developing the young girl in any substantial way—we have no clue what her name is, how she came to be captured, or what events lead to her involvement with Death—however, she stands front and center in the last few pages.
In using a plot design that gives the reader several pages of satisfying destruction followed by an ending reveal that changes character dynamics, Hickman hooks the reader, not just into the overall story, but each character. Within this issue, Death seems less complex than in prior issues because he mostly just kills things. However, as the young girl’s involvement picks up, the reader gets a sense Death is governed by human emotion, whether that might be revenge or love, as any less being might be. There is also the question of Crow and Wolf’s dedication to Death. They are seen blindly following Death into an impossible battle and never wavering from the end goal.
There is a brief moment where the focus on Death and the destruction of New Shanghai is broken as the story converges on the other, newly revived, Horsemen – War, Famine, and Conflict. This interlude transitions well from the horrific events in New Shanghai, however, serves only to reiterate that Death is the most feared of the Horsemen. With that said, it is understandable that Hickman cannot sacrifice one story line for the sake of another when dealing with a world as large as what he has created. In this instance, though, it breaks the suspense of the main thread.
Nick Dragotta’s art remains consistent with the previous issues in such a way that it is a perfect compliment to the rise and fall of action within Hickman’s writing. Throughout Death’s siege on New Shanghai, Dragotta mixes simplicity and complexity to either emphasize Hickman’s dialogue or the actions of the characters. In one instance, Death enters battle on his robotic horse-like vehicle and unleashes a devastating blast that levels the opposing force. Dragotta does an amazing job of creating a simplistic blast, yet takes the time to show Death nearly falling out of his saddle due to the blast’s concussive force. This attention to detail helps the image transcend two-dimensional page, leaving readers to feel the effects for themselves.
Another of the many high points in Dragotta’s art is character detail. When presenting Death, Crow, and Wolf the character detail is minimal, which emphasizes action over emotion. On the other hand, when representing human characters like Premier Mao and Mr. Chamberlain, the effects of mortality are clearly presented through detailed facial expressions and line work. This juxtaposition, in turn, creates a sense of the raw power each supernatural being carries, while the human characters have to rely more on cunning and manipulation.
Hickman and Dragotta have produced a story that leaves the reader craving more while also feeling rewarded. East of West #4 is a comic that deserves to be read, thought about, and read again.