Sometimes in the course of human events, you find out about a really cool idea just as it’s coming to an end. This week, I got that sinking and rising feeling when I had the privilege to read a new comic book I’d never heard of. Enter — and exit — Kingsway West.
Kingsway West is the brainchild of writer Greg Pak (World War Hulk, The Princess Who Saved Herself), artist Mirko Colak (Green Lantern Corps, Red Skull: Incarnate), colorist Wil Quintana (Exiles, Green Lantern: New Guardians), and letterer Simon Bowland (2000AD, Red Sonja). Issue #4 is the very last issue of the series, so I am quite literally coming in at the tail end of this story, but Pak’s storytelling and the credits page blurb do an excellent job of grounding the reader in this Western-fantasy world (point one for Kingsway West). North America has a lot of the same places and place names we are used to in our history, but is divided up into multiple nations: The white-governed land of the United States of New York, the Chinese-controlled Golden Mountain Empire, and a series of “free cities” run by Native Americans. The larger political conflict revolves around red gold, a mystical and by all illustrations non-Euclidean/non-Newtonian substance that is either a focus for or the source of magic; thanks to said magic, we also have all manner of flying machines, and oh, also dragons. The personal story at the heart of Kingsway West focuses on Kingsway Law, Chinese gunslinger and war veteran, who had retired from his bloody career only to be forced back into the hero’s journey when his wife, Sonia, disappears.
It’s an old story — Unforgiven leaps to mind, as do any number of Hong Kong action movies — but that actually works in West‘s favor, giving its narrative a mythological vibe that syncs up well with its fantastic elements. I also really appreciate seeing an Western that stars not just a non-white character, but an Asian character, and one whose Asian heritage is actually important to the narrative (albeit in the form of his relationship to a fictional empire, but that is still so much better than centering his story on his relationship to white people). The two female leads of the book, Ah Toy and Strode, are more great grabs at representation. Ah Toy is a Chinese swordswoman with a magic red-gold sword, wearing a stylized, traditional-looking uniform that again helps to center her in a non-white culture, but with so much representation in the background characters (the bulk of the issue takes place in a Chinese mining camp) that it is never about exotifying her. Strode is an African-descended woman, a Buffalo Soldier with a set of magic wings that allow her to fly, making her, along with Ah Toy, the closest things this series has to standard comic-book superheroes; from looking at previous issues, she’s also the one antagonist character who gets redeemed, which is a really nice bit of true character depth in our characters of color. I’m going to stop hammering the representation button quite so much (it just makes me so happy), but first I want to add: I am so happy to have them be very explicit about Sonia being of Mexican descent (she is drawn with very brown skin, and her full name is shown to be “Sonia Campos”), making Kingsway and Sonia a mixed-race couple, neither of whom is white. It’s just nice to see, is all.
I’m going to jump from representation outright to the way this excellent depth of representation plays into the plot and world-building, because this is the bit that crept up on me. The main white characters in Kingsway West are the antagonists, the Engineer and his handlers in the United States of New York, who are seeking red gold so they can power their Union and take over the continent. Whites-as-villains is an easy thing to do poorly or with a ham fist, but West actually handles it with aplomb, and makes a powerful statement in the process. It would have been easy, perhaps even forgivable, for the villains to just be simple racists, following the off-key siren song of manifest destiny in their oppression of people who do not look like them, but instead, Pak and company focus the villain’s motivations on greed and lust for power and influence in an uncertain world; in other words, the root desires that tend to trigger racist actions and political policies. It’s never overt — indeed, those motivations are such standard villain motivations that I didn’t even remark on it when I first read Issue #4 — but the more I thought about it, the more I like how cleverly this story folds in the poisonous roots of racism rather than just making the villains hate-mongering cartoons. A conversation between the Engineer and Strode even touches on the United States being afraid to wage war on the Native American free cities because they have powerful war machines that do not depend on red gold, neatly deconstructing the standard thread of white society having the most advanced technology available to them. I’m calling it out here, but none of it feels forced or unsubtle in the book itself; the writing here is really excellent.
Now, it may seem like this review is really heavily focused on the representation and the world-building, and it is, but that’s because of my main criticism: on a personal level, Kingsway West‘s story falls a bit flat. The story jumps around a little bit, with transitional sequences sometimes resigned to single panels that do not convey all the information the book seems to act like they are, and there is very little expository dialogue, which is normally something I enjoy in comics, but in this case it can make the story hard to follow. A lot of this, unfortunately, is on the art; with the exceptions of Ah Toy, Strode, and Zozo, who are very distinctive, many of the characters blend together, especially in the wider shots, and in panels where the scene demands less detail in the art, there can be issues with following the direction of the action (one panel of a dragon in flight makes it hard to tell if the dragon is flying away from or towards the viewer, and also if we are supposed to be able to recognize a terrain feature in the background as a specific location). Also, the resolution of Kingsway’s personal plot feels very forced and abrupt, and without getting too spoilerrific, it feels like it reduces Sonia’s role in the plot to that of a MacGuffin. Now, some of this may be — let’s not lie, some of this is — because I am coming into the story at the very end, and do not have a full understanding of West‘s visual lexicon yet; I expect to mine greater riches from the story when I go back and read the first three issues. But ongoing comics have taught me that you need to be able to get a handle on what is happening in any given issue, if only so you might go back and check out the issues leading up to this one, and also, I doubt even context will make me feel much less like Sonia’s role in the story is of a shape remarkably similar to a refrigerator.
Honestly, though, the fact is that this issue makes me want to go back and read the first three, and that is a sign of a good story. If you like Westerns or fantasy-Westerns (I’m looking at you, Dark Tower fans), and if you enjoy some representation with serious thought behind it, Kingsway West is a great place to look. Pak et al. deliver a fun, thought-provoking yarn with faces that need to be shown more often in our media, and in the end, that is what matters.
A review copy of this comic was provided by the creators.