East of West #19: Action Is Story [Close Read]
October 16, 2015
A lot of times, violence in American comics is explicit—when someone gets beaten up, you see the punches and kicks. You see the heroic after-punch poses, or the hunkered down stances that precede the brutality. In this issue of EAST OF WEST, Dragotta and Hickman switch gears and go for something more abstract, more gestural. The point isn't Babylon going to town on these animals with a spiked stick—the point is the loss of Babylon's innocence. He needs to kill these pigs to show that he's capable of defending himself, of savagery, of taking whatever is at hand and using it to cut something down to the bone with no remorse. Babylon needs to be able to kill.
Babylon's growth is a story point. It's a character point. Showing him gutting a pig and leaving its guts where they land is one thing. It would be gruesome, but it wouldn't necessarily get the point across. The world of EAST OF WEST is a savage one, and the son of Death incarnate needs to be able to compete. By decompressing the scene, you get the full effect of what's happening.
By depicting it in a more abstract way, Dragotta & Hickman give the scene a lot of juice. They give you a baseline for what's happening by showing the spurts of blood and tearing skin, but past that, it's all in your imagination. Your mind fills in the blanks according to what's horrible to you, a kind of casual inception.
The panel count is notable. Each panel is a specific moment in time, and twenty-two panels across two pages is a lot to digest. You can't just go "Dead pig, got it," and turn the page. The violence takes up so much real estate that you have to think about it, at least for a little bit. You have to consider what Babylon is doing, and in considering that, you have to contemplate what it means for him.
Babylon spent a lot of time in a clean, anti-septic environment. Now his hands are dirty, and his white suit is stained pink. What does that mean for him? What does that mean for a child?
You should sweat the small stuff in comics. No line is placed by accident, no word balloon filled out with meaningless dialogue. Everything has a point, and when violence is depicted like this—well, it's fair to say that it means more than just a simple knock-out punch or shot to the head. This is storytelling, and this kind of thing is what makes comics magical.