It’s hard to place the moment when comics changed, leaving the cigarette butts and undrawn feet of the Bronze Age and entered the new era. I generally put it either in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film and Marvel’s attempts to turn its characters into brands, or with the beginning of Avengers Dissasembled, when Brian Michael Bendis blew up Marvel’s structured universe and focused on the characters who defined the world.
Both point to character driven narrative, a focus on motivation over shock tactics, violence with consequences over violence for posturing and analysis over deconstruction. There are a few writers and artists who have masterfully embraced the spirit of the new status quo: Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns on his best days, and most importantly, Jonathan Hickman.
Coming up through Image when the company was beginning its creative renaissance and making a name for himself at Marvel during the Secret Invasion/Dark Reign eras, Hickman was uniquely poised for success. He’s always had an eye for blistering, brilliant violence, morally compromised characters and a genius for redefining the place his characters exist in. We’ve seen it as Reed Richards looked inwards to redefine the Fantastic Four’s place in the world, the return of one of Marvel’s most forgotten characters into a cataclysmic event and now, redefining Death himself in his masterpiece in progress, East of West.
Between Manhattan Projects and two great Avengers titles, Hickman has had plenty of room to play with different characters and situations. In this week’s East of West #4, was obviously going to be a fight issue. Death, bringing his wrath on Mao and New Shanghai was going to be brutal and it suitably is but the interesting thing is about who’s playing the cards. A final page reveals that Xiaolian holds all the power over her white rider and a great conversation between Chamberlain and the child horsemen shows the power Death has over all those who have wronged him.
What takes East of West #4 from being a great comic to one of this year’s best is the way Hickman and Nick Dragotta humanize a destructive force and keep him an enigma. Xiaolian has been defined as a woman with control and agency, one who even with her back against the wall demonstrates total control and her hold over Death is clearly about more than love. Her brutality shows the human face of violence and a sense of dominance mirrored in Death’s massive slaughter. These are characters with a history, a connection that goes beyond love and chaos.
The defining thing about East of West has been the way Hickman and Dragotta have shaded their twisted world. There’s a wonderful sense of building, with a slowly unraveling back story of betrayals and shattered alliances and each new character and event adds additional colors and twists to the characters. Whether it’s Death’s devotion, Chamberlain’s fearless stance against the Horsemen or Xiaolian exorcising her familial demons in a flurry of horrendous violence, East of West is a world constantly in flux and a masterfully presented one that defines where comics are and what they can be.
- Nightwing has rarely been one of DC’s most exceptional titles but taking Dick out of Gotham and bringing him into Chicago’s twisted urban hellscape has given the book energy it hasn’t had since Night of the Owls. This week’s #22 might be the best issue of the series yet, with the Prankster tightening his grip on the city and Nightwing getting closer to Zucco’s hiding place. I’m going to thank Brett Booth for taking the month off.
- Astro City #2 went back to the classic style the series is used to, with citizens being called to heroism in the mundane. It’s a solid way to show that despite the series new trappings, it’s still the book I know and love.
- I’ve sang the praises of Otto-Spidey and Superior Spider-Man #13 is taking the character in a new direction, with Spidey blackmailing J. Jonah Jameson, killing Alistair Smythe and maybe going back to his old ways in a new villainous lair.
- I don’t really know what to think of Batgirl #22. This is the second issue in a row where the title character has been the target of rape threats and the third in which a woman has. I have to ask, is Gail Simone trying to portray the struggles women face or is she using the same cheap literary devices she has rallied so passionately against?