“East of West” is a series that’s easy to take for granted. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s apocalyptic science-fiction-fantasy alternate-timeline story may mix in all sorts of genres, but that blend is remarkably consistent in quality and tone. However, you shouldn’t let this book fall off your radar; not only is it always strong, but Hickman and Dragotta aren’t afraid to up the ante mid-story arc.
“East of West” #26 continues Death’s search for his missing son Babylon; after the last story arc focused more on the machinations of the Conclave, it’s nice to see Hickman pick this aspect of the title back up in earnest. He also avoids the obvious with Death’s return to Hunter’s bar; this issue picks up the pace quickly, with Death not only getting the information available, but also finding up a new untrustworthy ally as he makes sure of Hunter’s status quo. It would be easy to have another moment (echoing an earlier scene in the series) where Hunter helps, then betrays Death, but Hickman mixes things up here in an interesting but precarious-for-Death kind of way.
At the same time, Hickman avoids abandoning the Conclave power struggle plot thread. The latest arrival to their chamber escalates the conflict quickly, and it’s a relief. A lot of the tension between these characters has been at a simmer for some time, and there must almost certainly be a temptation to let that continue. Putting these differences to the forefront and letting it all come out in the open is exactly what needs to happen; we’re at the point where the conflict needs to shift from subterfuge to action. It’s nice to see the book pick up its pace so rapidly.
Dragotta and Frank Martin are equally consistent. They can draw the dramatic in a way that is simultaneously over the top and yet not ridiculous; the moment where Hunter’s left eye is gaping wide (and right eye socket gaping empty) is gross and funny, even as it seizes your attention. Compare that to the subtle moment just two pages later when Death talks to the eye as it climbs in his pocket; you can see his teeth clenched in disgust, but it’s not the center of the panel, much less the page. Dragotta easily brings that mood to light, and Martin accentuates it with the reds and greens that stand out against Death’s paleness. Even background features — like the sea of hands rising up around Madame President’s face — look great here, especially where the hands come in all shapes, sizes and skin colors. There’s a frantic nature to those hands, even as the president looks an unsettling combination of serene and disgusted. This is more top-notch work from the art team.
“East of West” #26 is a reminder of why people need to pay attention to this comic, even three years into its run. It’s clever and engaging, and the only complete non-surprise is that Hickman, Dragotta and Martin continue to turn out a strong comic with every chapter. Ready for a little apocalypse? It’s ready for you.