Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is Nick Dragotta, and the issue is East of West #4, which was published by Image and is cover dated July 2013. Enjoy!
Since it launched in March 2013, East of West has been one of the best comics out there - Dragotta is doing career-best work, Jonathan Hickman is writing some crazy shit, Frank Martin's coloring is superb, and Rus Wooton is lettering it like a motherfucker. I could have thrown a dart at a wall of the issues to pick one to feature (although why would I do that, as then my issues would have holes in them), but issue #4 might be my favorite so far, because it features so much incredible violence that it's almost breathtaking. Let's see what's what!
Before the bloodshed, though, let's take a look at this page. Hickman tends to write big, brash stuff, and on this book, Dragotta matches him really well. We get Mao preparing for battle against Death, and Dragotta puts weight behind Hickman's clichéd-yet-powerful line "Was it worth it?" He moves Mao to the side (Rule of Thirds, bitches!) so that we can see the smoke over the walls and the soldiers rushing to defend the stronghold, but it also implies Xiaolian standing there, looking at him. It's a clever move, because it places us in the position of Xiaolian, bringing the reader into the story a bit more. Dragotta narrows Mao's eyes and sets his mouth grimly, as he realizes he's in the fight of his life. Dragotta uses a three-panel tier to give each panel a larger scope, which is interesting. We move from bitterness to reminiscence, as Xiaolian recalls her love of Death and Dragotta draws her kissing him passionately. Then he switches us around so we're looking at Xiaolian's smug face. Dragotta gives her a family resemblance to her father, and he does a nice job varying his line weight on her face so her eyebrows and eyes look crueler while her mouth and nose look delicate. Her father has underestimated Xiaolian (and will continue to do so throughout this issue), and Dragotta does a nice job showing what a mistake that was just by the way he draws her. Martin's colors are interesting - they're a bit heavily rendered, it seems, which means I should hate them, but he's paired with an artist whose lines are so strong that they can resist the muddying of the art that a lot of current coloring does. Martin uses different palettes in each panel here, which is kind of cool. Panel 1, with its used-up old man, is duller; Panel 2 gets a gauzy sheen of nostalgia; and Panel 3 is linked to Panel 2 not only because Xiaolian shows up in both of them, but because Martin uses brighter colors in both of them. In Panel 3, however, he lowers the sheen, so it's clear that we're back in the present. It's a clever way to color the page, and it shows that you can still do what modern colorists do without overwhelming the art and even adding nice nuances to it!
All right, let's get to the action! Death, along with his spirit companions, Crow and Wolf, decide to bring the pain, and we get this nice sequence. Notice that Death has what I'd call a "Dragotta face" in Panel 4 - we saw an early example of this back when he drew X-Statix, but when he's inked by someone else or drawing in a different style, it doesn't come out as much. We saw it a bit yesterday, and it's very evident here. Unlike some other artists who have a "go-to" face, it's kind of difficult to define what makes a "Dragotta face" - the nose is usually longer than we might expect, but other than that, it's kind of like porn - you know it when you see it. There's nothing wrong with it, of course, but I always find little tics like this interesting.
Meanwhile, Dragotta does a terrific job with his sequence. Hickman's script is funnier than you might expect, so Death's wisecrack in Panel 1 is not surprising, and Dragotta places the characters in the panel well to allow the joke to land but still move us from left to right. He places us down below the characters so we're looking up at both Crow and Death, and then he moves us above the scene in Panel 2 so we see Death and Wolf. The swooping effect works well, because it gets us ready for the "motion" to come, as Dragotta moves to Panel 3 and shows the three characters moving away from us toward the vanishing point. He blurs all three, using short motion lines but not overdoing it, and he balances the panel further by having two tendrils of smoke sectioning the panel into thirds. Then he switches back to show Death from the front, and we get more motion lines and an enraged figure ready to kill. He uses nice black lines for the border of Death, but then uses a lot of grays on his suit and hair (unless that's Martin's work). It again "softens" the art a little, but because Dragotta's main line is so strong, it doesn't get mushy.
This is the very next page, and it's amazing. Back in July 2013, I wrote a bit about this page (without showing it), and it prompted Tim O'Shea to ask Dragotta about it. He said: "The page in question was done completely Marvel-style. Here’s what Jonathan gave me in the outline. 'Page 6 – Back on Mao and his two daughters as they watch the fight. Commenting on the strong magic of the Avatars. Impressive, but the Maos are confident of victory.' That’s it. From that I created the 18-panel page, Jonathan then went back in and wrote dialogue over it." I love that, because it gives us a peek behind the curtain but also because it shows how much a writer can trust an artist and how together they can create something as cool as this. I mean, this thing is 18 panels, but it's wonderfully clear storytelling. Dragotta moves us across the page perfectly well, with the smaller panels full of violence, rotating around the central image of Mao with his two daughters. In the first row, he links the panels by showing Death riding so fast through them that the gutters can't slow him down, while below Mao and his daughters, he basically gives us one wide panel, broken up by panel borders so that we can focus on each part of the larger drawing. He does this again with Panels 14-17, as he begins with Death's crashed "steed" and moves us to the right, showing that Death's shot has connected with the soldier's helmet even before we reach Death firing the shot. The chaos of the fight is muted by Mao and his daughters, standing calmly on the porch watching the action, but the way Dragotta switches from a front view in Panel 6 to an over-the-shoulder view in Panel 13 to a side view in Panel 18 is clever, as it calms the page a bit and allows a bit of ebb and flow between the views of Mao and the views of the chaos occurring right in front of him. The final panel is great, too, as it shows that Mao might just be insane - he doesn't care that so many people are sacrificing their lives for him, and Dragotta highlights his jowls and the folds in his skin even more, making him look older and sadder, which foreshadows his death. Martin contributes to this with the dark shading around his eyes, which also makes him look old. Martin kills on this page too, with the wonderful use of reds and yellows and oranges to make the violence even more extreme. No holds are barred here, and Martin's colors help express that as much as Dragotta's amazing line work does.
This is the next page (I swear, I'm not going to show the entire issue, although I would if I could!), and we see another nice dramatic scene from Dragotta. He gives us a view of Crow from down below, exaggerating her size and making her rush toward the guns more impressive, as well as using the triangle of her hair to focus our attention downward and on the bad guys shooting at her. In Panel 2, he draws a beautiful flipping Crow, and the use of black chunks to form her body makes her transformation into a murder of crows look far more natural. The grays in her hair are wonderful, too, as are the slashes of red that Martin adds to show the gunfire around her. Dragotta leads us from left to right in Panel 3, showing us her head only as the crows explode from her body, and then he loops them back around in Panel 4 until they attack in Panel 5. The use of fewer lines and more blocks of color - well, black and gray - on the one crow in Panel 5 is very nice, as it allows Dragotta and Martin to turn the activity behind them into a mess of blacks but still show us the distinct bird, allowing us to create, in our minds, the clarity of the rest of them. It's a nifty trick, because it takes one concrete thing and allows the reader to fill in the rest. We do some of the heavy lifting, which is neat.
Xiaolian and her sister have a bit of a spat, and Xiaolian goes a bit medieval on Hu's ass (or, you know, her head). Xiaolian has bionic hands because, as we see in the flashback, the three Horsemen chopped her hands off, which wasn't very nice. But it does allow her to grab Hu's sword and hold it there, and I love how Dragotta draws faint lines around the sword in Panels 1 and 2 (and Martin colors them faintly) to show that Hu is trying very hard to move it but can't. Dragotta does nice work in Panels 4-6 with the facial expressions - Hu's eyes widen as she realizes her life is about to end, Xiaolian's eyes narrow as she puts a bit of effort into squeezing Hu's head in Panel 5, and then we get the crazed, angry, evil look on her face as Hu's head explodes. It's terrific work, and the great gobs of black blood and the wonderfully icky sound effect that ends the page are wonderful, too. Dragotta doesn't use too many lines on Hu's and Xiaolian's faces, but Martin adds some shading, which is quite nice. Again, this is what good digital coloring can do - Martin's work "softens" the line work a little, but not so much that it obliterates it, so we get a good balance between Dragotta's harder work and Martin's softer work. It's a good combination.
Xiaolian kills her father, too, and once again - for the third time in five days - we get a silhouette of one Dragotta character decapitating another Dragotta character. Hickman must have said, "If I'm going to write a comic that Nick Dragotta draws, there will be a decapitation, by God!" Dragotta uses a standard five-panel stack, which we've seen a lot this year (and I hope you've been noticing in your general comics-reading), but as we've also seen, there are usually decent reasons for it, and this is a good use of it. By using the stack, Dragotta can maintain the similarities between Panels 1, 2, and 3 but show subtle differences that indicate a little bit of time passing. So Mao is the same in Panels 1 and 2, but he raises his head in Panel 3 to meet his death with honor, and Dragotta changes his expression from tacit acceptance to a bit more defiance, even though he does nothing to change his fate. By placing him so close to the reader, Dragotta can put Xiaolian in the background and give us some of her movements as she prepares to chop his head off. She looks a bit conflicted, which is a nice touch. I also love the bloody hand falling down the wall. That's Hu's, of course. Dragotta also uses the relatively boring Panels 1-3 as a counterpoint to Panel 4, where he goes the old "the sound effect is the entire panel" route to show the decapitation. It's essentially the same view as Panels 1-3, but the violence interrupts it nicely, and the silhouettes are tremendous. As our eyes move down the page, Dragotta moves us down from the floor to the steps in front of the porch, and the blood seeps down in an inverted pyramid, which makes an interesting base for the page. For a page that doesn't have a fancy layout, it's really well designed. Plus, Martin's saturated reds are wonderful, as well.
Xiaolian strolls toward her husband, Death, and Dragotta really makes it a wonderfully dramatic scene. In Panel 1, he gives us a nice broad staircase, and he cuts across it with several triangles, all focused on Xiaolian. We get Crow's crows on the borders, much more chaotic than anything, forming a good frame. Then we get Wolf's wolves, with the one at the point of the triangle coming to meet Xiaolian. Finally, Mao's body and head form a third one, with the shadow of his body and the blood from his head filling in the interior. All of these triangles direct our attention to Xiaolian, and notice that she's walking away from the one represented by her father and is already outside of it, while she's still inside the ones formed by her husband's allies. That doesn't make her subordinate, though, as the point of the Wolf triangle shows - it's deferring to her. Panels 2 and 3 show us the two approaching each other, with the corpses and the kneeling soldiers (Xiaolian is now their ruler, after all) surrounding them, and Dragotta makes a nice point in Panel 3 - Xiaolian and her sword are creating a barrier for Death, showing that even he is subject to her (as we see on the next page, when he kneels to her as well). I don't know how deliberate it is - Xiaolian is holding her sword, and that's how you do it - but he could have shown them approaching each other from the side, so they appear equal, but he didn't, and this foreshadows the next page. Meanwhile, it's very cool how he shows Crow and Wolf turning back into humans - the wolves turn into a cloak, while the final wolf in Panel 3 is eyeing Xiaolian suspiciously, and notice how the legs of the wolves are turning into Wolf's arms. Meanwhile, we see the legs of Crow as the flock descends. It's really neat. Once again, we get the nice whites and grays and blacks on the three characters, and I love how Dragotta makes sure that Death's suit is just a bit threadbare. He's kind of an old dude, and he's been having a rough time.
Dragotta continues to do stellar work on East of West, and you should do yourself a favor and check it out. But it's time for us to move on, so tomorrow I think I'm going to drop in on one more Image founder. You have three left whose work I could cover, so there's still some suspense! Find more Image founders in the archives!