What is it like in Jonathan Hickman's head? From what appears on his pages, we can only assume it to be a creative tempest. Here is a writer who thinks big thoughts with a capital BIG, who brings together ideas that can charitably be described as disparate. When everything clicks, the result is nothing short of brilliant. Consider, for example, his tragically stalled "S.H.I.E.L.D." series. In it he brought together Archimedes, Newton, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Nostradamus, and Zhang Heng and Tesla (to name just a few) from our "real" world and mixed them with Nathaniel Richard and Howard Stark (the fathers, respectively, of Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man) to synthesize one of Marvel's most interesting comics in years. Even when Hickman falls short, as in the "Manhattan Project" (in which the atomic bomb is the least interesting creation of world's great minds, here reimagined as drunks, space aliens, lunatics etc), one cannot but be impressed. Now with "East of West," Hickman has introduced yet another world, one totally new and staggering in its scope.
A fantastical fantasy masquerading as an alternative history, "East of West" takes place in a future (2064) dystopian North America divided in seven separate states (nominally Union, Confederate, Native American, Texan, Chinese, etc). Twenty-Sixty-Four could be 3064 or 20,064 for all it would matter. This is a world awash in high technology, mysticism and mutants. The cultural flavor varies but we spend most of our time in a futuristic old West (think Butch and Sundance riding robot horses) and eventually the Chinese empire (ruled by Emperor Mao V).
As the book opens, a nameless lone white figure rises from the earth. Then we see him in cowboy regalia on a killing spree. Shortly after, three children (horsemen of the Apocalypse) rise from the same place and we come to understand that the white cowboy is Death and here is for vengeance (though it takes us a while to understand for what). As usual Hickman serves up plenty of metaphor and visual humor. Here artist Nick Dragotta work stands out as just amazing. While I've seen his stuff before, I don't recall ever being so impressed. Possibly Hickman's work more than others requires just this sort of fine artistic match to bring his stories to life (as Waver did so well in SHIELD).
Lots of reviewers have reasonably complained that this series can be confusing. I suspect this is triply so if you read it in issue format. Indeed, I can't recall the last comic that seems to ill-suited to being served in such short chapters (Vaugn's "Saga" comes to mind as a close second, though for all its oddness, that is still a straight forward Romeo/Juliet story). No, this is a series meant for a longer form. Reading the five issues included in this volume, most of the initial questions are answered in ways that intrigue and made me want more. While the world at first appeared vast enough to provoke agoraphobia, Hickman's virtuosity left me wholly confident that he knows where we're going and it's a trip I don't want to miss.