"East of West" returns to kick off year two of the apocalypse, and it's just as brutal and affecting as ever. As the country and the world begin to fall to pieces, and the Endless Nation asserts their control over the Republic of Texas, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta set the groundwork for the next phase of their story. It's an oversized issue, and the extra pages definitely feel necessary for the amount of story these guys have to offer.
What's exciting about this -- and so much of Hickman's independent work -- is that it has those high concepts that are his specialty, but it's interspersed with enriching character moments that pull the reader in, creating a more engaging reading experience. The small flourishes of character, like the Horsemen's ruminations on the human condition in the opening pages and Thomas and his dog's interactions before their daring rescue of Bel Solomon, flow with the narrative and create a balance to the plot's larger action and danger. It takes a talented writer to show character rather than explain it, something Hickman also easily handles in scenes like the one in The White Tower, which reminds readers of Doma's personality through a few short exchanges with Madame President.
Dragotta's artwork is as handsome as ever. He makes great use of lithe character designs, his style a melding of East and West, merging manga style action with the clean layouts of European greats; for instance, Thomas' rescue is thrilling, like something out of "Cowboy Bebop." Dragotta uses Marvel-style character posing to maximize the movement and manga speed lines to enhance the chaos. Quieter moments like those in the White Tower are also skillfully laid out. The page where Doma reveals the "gift" returned by the Endless Nation is split down the middle, showcasing the rift between Doma and the president, dividing the characters even as it unifies them with shared information pertinent to the scene: the reveal of a severed head in the last panel. Also of note, the page depicting Premiere Mao's contemplation of the Endless Nation's offer of alliance is circularly laid out around a central image of Mao, her responsibilities subtly surrounding her in the panels above and below, rounded by her surroundings in the moment. It's beautiful work that reveals a master craftsman.
Hickman is setting up even larger power plays, increasing the scope of the war while consolidating the participants. Where they go next is anybody's guess; the possibilities of what can happen are wide open. For anyone reading Hickman's Marvel work who feels like the characters are lacking, I highly recommend this issue of "East of West." It's a great concept, executed with precision and style.