Let’s take a look at one of the great little-read comics of the 21st century!
Westward by Ken Krekeler (writer/artist).
Published by Kinetic Press (self-published), 10 issues (#1-10), cover dated 2012-2015.
One big SPOILER ahead, but I can’t really discuss the book without it! And you can click on the images to enlarge them, so try it!
Ken Krekeler has made very few comics, and he hasn’t made much money doing them, which is why he doesn’t do more and works a lot in animation and advertising. It’s a shame, because he’s an excellent comics creator, and Westward is one of the best comics of the young millennium. It’s hard to find, but it’s worth a deep dive, and it would be nice if it somehow found a larger audience.
Krekeler demands your attention in Westward, not because it’s that complicated a story, but because he makes sure the details matter and he constantly upends our expectations. Early on, we think it’s some kind of redemption story, and it is, but not in the way we originally think. Victor West, the protagonist of the book, wakes up after ten years spent in a coma, and we think this is going to be about his hero’s journey to enlightenment. Krekeler does something very clever with Victor – he’s the scion of Harold West, a great capitalist who has spent his life creating all-encompassing businesses. Krekeler could go two ways with Victor – he could be inept at business, earning his father’s opprobrium, or he could be so good at business that he’s a major threat to his father. He chooses the former, but with a nice twist: Victor is very charming, very good-looking, and dumb as a post. He was a highly-paid fashion model before the accident that put him in a coma, and when he comes out of it, he doesn’t remember much and he acts like a doofus. It’s clever because it immediately makes the protagonist a subject of ridicule, not only in the story, where people rarely miss a chance to insult him or make him look foolish in subtle ways, but also outside the story, where the reader mocks him unconsciously. This makes it hard to take him seriously, which is when Krekeler drops another bombshell in the stellar first issue of the series: Victor West is actually dead, and the character we’re starting to know as Victor is a “manifold” – basically a cyborg, with Victor’s personality but none of his memories. His father has been working on the manifold for years, hoping to get his son back, even in such a bastardized form. Victor doesn’t know this, but he discovers it at the same time we do, at the very end of issue #1, and it sets a new tone for the series.
In issue #1, we think this is going to be a story about a vapid, narcissistic, dumb person growing into something different. Victor West is vapid and narcissistic and not very bright, but Krekeler’s revelation at the end puts even a new twist on it. If Victor – the person – was vapid, he could grow into something better. But the manifold – let’s call him Victor, too, because why not – has had the personality grafted onto him. Harold and his daughter, Annabelle, made the cyborg as exactly like Victor as they could, so that means he has an artificial personality, but one that isn’t very pleasant (he’s still charming, though). Like almost all superhero stories, this becomes a story about identity, but the added layer of Victor not being human makes it more interesting. His personality is fake, so does he need to keep it? Can he change even if he wanted to, or is it part of his core programming? When we discuss humans, we don’t talk of “core programming,” but it’s the same thing – how much of our personality is so ingrained that we couldn’t change if we wanted to? Is that going to vex Victor as he comes to realize what kind of person he is modeled on, and will he even want to change? The problem is compounded by the fact that Victor isn’t human – the idea of artificial intelligence is always a scary proposition to some, and it is in this comic, too, so there are people who don’t want Victor to exist, much less evolve. Plus, of course, Harold West (who dies very soon after the manifold wakes up) built the cyborg with exotic and extensive weaponry, so what happens if someone can control Victor or he decides that he doesn’t want to be a nice guy? These are questions that many superhero stories (and other stories, of course) ask, but Krekeler adds some nice twists to make it more interesting.
Krekeler keeps the focus on Victor and his family, even after his father dies. Annabelle becomes the head of the company, and her daughter, Penelope, also becomes more of a major character. She’s a teenager at the beginning of the book, and she’s the only one who appears to connect with Victor in a meaningful way, even back before his coma, when he was her cool uncle. Penelope is a genius, and she suggests to Victor that he read the owner’s manual for, well, himself, as he’s stuffed with all sorts of bells and whistles (not just the weaponry, which is abundant). As Victor starts to learn more about the real Victor and who he was and why he acts the way he does, Penelope acts as a lodestar, almost, encouraging him without being condescending and telling him what he needs to hear. Krekeler makes Victor’s yearning to be a “real boy” sad but hopeful, because it seems as if he won’t be able to change but wants to so desperately. Once again, the fact that he’s a mechanical creation helps with the idea of change in people, because Victor was programmed. But through flashbacks, Krekeler shifts things a bit, as well – Victor isn’t as hopeless as his father thinks, he just doesn’t have a head for business, and even his father begins to understand that, so the roles we expect to see from the principals aren’t as rigid as we’ve been conditioned to think of them. Krekeler undermines our own “programming” so that we’re forced to understand these characters in different ways. Victor, the real Victor, is still kind of a douchebag, but he’s not irredeemable, and the new Victor struggles against his programming to be the man the real Victor only hinted at. With Penelope helping him, he is able to see what he needs to do. The tension comes from whether he will be able to or not.
Even as this is a family drama plus a story about a “man” trying to grow up, it’s also a superb action thriller. This is also tied into the idea of Victor West being mechanical. In Krekeler’s steampunk world, there’s a powerful faction attempting to stop the spread of technology, and they target Westward Enterprises specifically, as it’s the most powerful corporation on the planet. Krekeler taps into the tension between moving forward into the future and forgetting our past, he brings in patriotism – the first few pages of the book are a speech by a man about how Americans always work to become better, and that’s tied into the idea of mechanization – and he links this all through the work that Harold West and then Annabelle have done with the company. Westward Enterprises pushes forward, creating “abominations” like the manifold, and C.L.A.W. – the anti-technology terrorist organization – wants to stop it. The terrorists are fearful that humans are losing their humanity, and Victor is the apotheosis of that idea. They attack Westward factories and kill Westward employees, and Victor gets drawn into it when a man in the company approaches him and asks for his help discovering a mole who is feeding information to the terrorists. This kind of thing is a staple of thrillers, of course, but Krekeler, as usual, turns it around in clever ways (which I won’t divulge). Krekeler also gives us the obvious mole, but once again, with a twist. He does this throughout, either setting up a big mystery and then immediately undercutting it by revealing what’s really going on or by taking us to places we don’t usually go in stories like this. Victor is arrested for a heinous crime, but the cops are competent in this story, so they almost immediately realize he’s been framed. Stuff like this keeps us on our toes, because we’re never sure what’s really going on and what is really going to turn out to be plot-shattering. There’s also the idea – tied into the idea of out-of-control technology – that Victor could be hacked and turned into a weapon. Early on, Penelope shows that this is possible, and who’s to say that someone more malevolent couldn’t do it? Victor is certainly not intelligent enough to stop it, at least early on in the book.
Krekeler leads us to a big showdown, of course, and, of course, he doesn’t do what we expect. I won’t give away anything about the big finish, but it’s very well done, and through it all, Krekeler continues to examine Victor’s nature. He eventually learns some things, despite his personality remaining the same, and it’s clear that Harold West had plans for the manifold. It always stays a family drama, and in the final few issues, we see how hard it was for Harold to give up on Victor and allow him to do his own thing when his son was still alive, because in many ways, the new Victor surpasses the old. It gets back to the questions posed above – what is Victor’s identity, and is he bound to a dead man on whom he’s modeled? Would his father be proud of the way the manifold “grows” throughout the series? He probably would be, and that brings up another subtle part of the book – Annabelle. Victor was never going to inherit the company from Harold, and Annabelle is as good at business as Harold is, so she’s the natural successor. Even before Victor’s accident and death, Harold knows this, so at least he’s not completely short-sighted, but it’s also clear how much he wants Victor to be the true heir. So Annabelle becomes more like her father, presumably to please him, and it strains her relationship with Victor. It’s an interesting look at the way fathers view sons and daughters, and while Krekeler doesn’t push it, it’s still there. Again, without giving too much away, this becomes more important toward the end of the book, when it appears Victor might be something – or perhaps someone? – that Harold would have been proud of. Krekeler does all this without skimping on the action and violence that we expect at the climax of a superhero fight. And there’s plenty of that!
The book is set in a steampunk world, and I can think of a few reasons why Krekeler did this. First of all, steampunk just looks cool. Yes, it’s been overdone in the past few decades, but there’s a reason why it’s been overdone, and that’s that it looks cool. A more pertinent reason for the steampunk, I think, is that Krekeler uses models in his art, and steampunk gear is based on stuff that you can actually find, so when you design things, you can mock up guns and whatnot with gears and chains and it will look fine in a steampunk setting. If Krekeler decided to make the book more “futuristic” and make the machinery sleeker, he wouldn’t have anything to model, and it would look out of place in this world. His art, which is always good, is on a next level in Westward, as we can see the time and care he put into it. The most noticeable aspect of the art is the way he differentiates the present and the past. In the present, his lines are crisp and his coloring is stark black and white. In the past, his lines are just a bit rougher (not much, but a bit) and he uses gray washes a lot more. Even before we know that the human Victor is dead and the present Victor is a cyborg, this foreshadows it by making the human Victor a bit messier, and his life more “human,” so to speak, with its various shades of gray, as opposed to the clinical clockwork world of the manifold, who doesn’t have those nuances we expect from a human … even a vapid one like Victor. Of course, at the end, when Victor has grown into something different, Krekeler uses a bit more nuance on his coloring, as well – it’s still crisper than the scenes set in the past, but not as stark as earlier in the “present.” It’s a clever device.
A third reason why Krekeler may have used steampunk is because, despite the fact that it looks cool, there’s also something menacing about it. The lack of sleek designs and the presence of gears and chains and segmented extensions gives it a deliberate clunky aesthetic and often an insectoid mien, which can easily turn horrifying. When Victor first realizes he’s not human, the “skin” on his arm unravels and reveals a terrifying mess of wires, gears, and bolts, so he doesn’t look like a cool robot, but a Frankenstein’s monster. Whenever he learns a new function of his body, something unfolds from his frame as if a living thing is crawling out of him, and Krekeler leans into this body horror aspect of the book quite well. In a terrifying scene, a character is tortured to death by machines that slowly wind up to chop off their limbs, and Krekeler’s “chk! chk! chk!” sound effects are bad enough, but then we see the horrible contraptions strapped to each limb, looking like bear traps with extra gears attached to them. It’s meant to be gut-wrenching, and it is, and while there could be the same kind of machinery in a non-steampunk world, the fact that this kind of machinery is everywhere in Krekeler’s world makes it feel more distressing, because it makes us sympathize, even just a little, with the anti-technology terrorists. The steampunk aspects of the book make the machinery more noticeable, so the reader can comprehend why the terrorists act the way they do.
Krekeler’s use of models means that his characters look like sketches of people, but he still has to have the skill to make them “real,” and he does. His Victor, for instance, could easily be a pretty boy, but Krekeler makes him not only very funny (his vanity can be cruel, but it’s also often hilarious), but also makes sure to show his mask slipping quite a bit and allowing the humanity to come through. The irony in this statement is fierce, sure, but that’s part of what makes the art work so well with the story. Even before we know that Victor isn’t human, Krekeler allows humanity to show in his face, so when his true nature is revealed, we understand that the anti-cyborg comments made about him and the targeted focus of C.L.A.W. fails to take into account that he’s adjusting to a world he doesn’t understand, and his face reflects that. Krekeler does marvelous work with faces, showing Annabelle’s disappointment in Victor or her horror when he reveals what he is to the world, or Penelope’s sadness that this Victor isn’t the one she loved, and her belief that he can be worthy of his increased capabilities. Mostly, Victor’s terror comes through, whenever he’s confronted by things he can’t understand, and toward the end, the terror becomes mixed with resolve, as he begins to realize what he can do. As I noted, Krekeler uses blacks very well, to hide identities and mask emotions, and at the end, when the Victor faces off against the big bad, he uses blacks extremely well, to show the ugliness of both the bad guy and how Victor himself has to embrace a dark side to defeat his enemy, and it’s done very well without being too obvious. There is a great tragedy in the end, as the thing who represents the triumph of technology faces off against someone who has rejected that technology but still needs it, as Victor wants to be more human while his enemy has lost some humanity. The story takes us there, while Krekeler’s art shows it, too.
I want to say something about the cleverness of the names, too. I don’t know how cognizant of the names Krekeler was (in one case, I know what he was doing, but I’m not going to say which one it is), but they’re very clever. “West” is a fine last name, of course, but “west” and “westward” in so-called “western civilization” have very specific connotations. The impulse to “go west” is loaded with ideas of discovery and beginning something new, as Europeans and then Americans have “gone west” to escape what they see as the confines of their lives. Those who “go west” are pioneers, and they form the new society wherever they stop. This isn’t quite as true today, when the United States is settled, but it’s still an idea, and the Western states remain less densely populated than the Eastern ones, while the people living there think of themselves as more independent. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an ethos, and by naming his characters “West,” Krekeler is implying that they are pioneers in business, and of course, Harold West creates something new and amazing. “Victor” is obvious, and his name begins as irony and changes through the course of the book. “Harold” is derived from “army” and “power,” and of course Harold West has a great deal of power, but it also reminds one of “herald,” which comes from the same roots as “Harold,” but makes us think of a messenger, or one who praises, or one who announces something new, which Harold West certainly does, “heralding” a new age with his new creation. Annabelle means “grace” and “beauty,” and is given to Victor’s sister with some irony, as she is as hard as her father. Finally, the name “Penelope” doesn’t mean anything important (it might be derived from the Greek word for “duck”), but the most famous Penelope in fiction is Odysseus’s wife, and while Penelope is not Victor’s wife, the idea of him trying to get back to her is part of the book, as he knows that the human Victor had a good relationship with her and he feels he needs to rebuild that, for her sake. Even someone like Victor’s friend Bentley has a name that reeks of privilege. Krekeler might not have done the naming consciously, but it’s clever how they work out.
The biggest problem with Westward is its availability. Due to its seriously independent nature, it will probably be hard to find, and Krekeler was never able to release a complete collection of it (he managed to release a collection of the first three issues, but that’s it). A few years ago, Action Lab released his graphic novel, Dry Spell, in four issues, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the works for this. It’s too bad, because it’s truly a great comic, and I would like to believe that it would show up on a lot of “best of” lists if only people, you know, could read it. I would suggest you go to Krekeler’s web site and contact him to see if he has issues to sell, because I don’t know how else to get them. I linked to issue #1 below, but the price is a bit crazy. I would love it if somebody at Image or Dark Horse discovered this comic and wanted to do a nice hardcover collection of all ten issues, because I have no doubt people would love it, but I doubt if that’s ever going to happen. Still, if you can hunt it down, you will not be disappointed. [As pointed out in the comments, the series is at comiXology. Here’s the link!]
Hey, the archives are very nice to look at, if you so choose! And maybe it won’t take me another 14 months to post a new Comics You Should Own. Dang, I’ve been slow!