Finding Comfort in the Dystopia of 'East of West'
Jonathan Hickman's brilliantly dark comic series provides eerie parallels to our own current reality.
Image courtesy of Image Comics
On November 14, 2016, Jonathan Hickman tweeted, "I may not be the best writer in comics but I am the most prophetic." The author of East of West, a graphic novel about the apocalypse, likely intended only to promote the sale of merchandise, "Embrace Nihilism" shirts, included in the tweet. However, less than a week after the 2016 election resulting in Donald J. Trump elected as president—an event interpreted by a significant percentage of the US as a sign of the end of days—Hickman's words felt ominous.
East of West debuted March 2013 and has been released monthly with only a few breaks; the comic's set in the not-so-distant year of 2064, when what was formally the United States has been divided into independently governed nations. Its leaders, motivated by both ambition and cult-like allegiances, conspire to orchestrate the end of the world. East of West is speculative fiction, featuring robotic dogs that double as laser cannons, holograms of maps and messages, and other technology not yet achieved by humanity. It's a backdrop in which shapeshifters, talking eyeballs, and demons coexist.
The artwork by Nick Dragotta is both gorgeous and gruesome, each panel drawn with impeccable detail to forge East of West's fictitious world. The precision required for this minimalist storytelling, in which only essential frames and dialogue are used to convey complicated circumstances and emotions, is what converted me to comics as an adult reader.
While I've spent the majority of this election cycle pretending I wasn't disturbed or hopeless, East of West illustrated the world around me with the feelings I couldn't express—not unlike unwrapping a festering wound. This is because of our shared history with its characters: In its timeline, the civil war never ended, so the Union, the Confederacy, African slaves, Native Americans, Chinese exiles, and Texan separatists lived in constant dissidence. This situation is summarized in the tagline Hickman shared with Preview catalog: "The things that divide us," he explained, "are stronger than the things that unite us." It's a rework of the famous quote from President John F. Kennedy's address to Canadian Parliament in 1961, and Hickman isn't alone in his sentiments, as the discussion of a divided nation has resurfaced in major news outlets.
Familiarity is one of the reasons dystopian stories like East of West are popular: Because we recognize the corrupt politicians and the public's outrage in each narrative, they continue to be successful. In Issue 8, Madame President Antonia Levay, leader of the Union, faces widespread civil unrest after her questionable rise to office. Images of protests, policeman in riot gear, and the use of excessive force line the pages—near-exact replicas of the protest photos I became accustomed to seeing in the news. I took solace in the acknowledgement of not just their existence, but also their purpose within the story.
In East of West, there are eerie moments where it seems the characters are speaking of our reality rather than that of the story's. In Issue 12, Xiaolian, leader of the People's Republic of America, confronts the leaders of the other nations who are involved in planning the end of the world. As expected, each leader claims both innocence and ignorance. "So... the wisdom of this great council is what exactly?" Xiaolian asks her peers. "Detente? Hold steady in the storm? Maintain the illusion of peace at all costs? Forget the cancer eating us from the inside... as appearances must be maintained."
This speech could ostensibly be delivered to the leaders and public figures who rushed to normalize the election of President-elect Trump—reactions often afforded to fascist leaders after their rise to power. I felt my impatience mirrored on the page when my own heroes—Dave Chappelle and Oprah—instructed me to "give Trump a chance" or "have hope." A false sense of security causes affluent black people and POC to fail to realize that the consequences of these ideas are suffered at the expense of all citizens of the nation. The rich are not exempt; we are divided, but we are connected.
"The end times are imminent and we all hate each other too much to come together and solve our problems," explained Hickman to Preview. "Our final destination is imminent, and it is the Apocalypse. And then, in the face of all that despair and gloom, somehow there is still hope. We like to watch them overcome their unfavorable obstacles." The small hope these stories promise is what keeps us coming back. The impending doom is thwarted, and despite all odds, our protagonist (and, by extension, we ourselves) survives: The previous attempt to end the world ends up foiled because Death, one of the Four Horsemen, falls in love with Xiaolian—and Babylon, the son of Death and Xiaolian, will either serve as a threat to the apocalypse or its engine.
Similarly, our youngest citizens will decide the future of the US, as an overwhelming majority of voters 18–25 years old voted for Hillary Clinton. That's promising, and in times like these when my faith in the future waivers, these stories keep me afloat and remind me to never submit to despair.
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