“East of West” (courtesy of Image Comics)

When creating a comic-book universe, nothing is more important to Jonathan Hickman than the collaborative process.

So when Hickman (writer of The Avengers, Fantastic Four, FF, The Manhattan Projects) began plotting his next creator-owned project for Image Comics, he knew he wanted to team with someone who would make the process fun. Otherwise, he says, what’s the point?

Hickman reached out to artist Nick Dragotta, whom he had worked with on Marvel’s FF. The two had said they wanted to work together again, so after a few conversations about the old West, the future and the end of the world, they decided to saddle up for Image’s latest hit, East of West.

“I’m very fortunate that I’m in a place where I don’t have to force anything — I can be very selective in the projects that I do,” Hickman told The Post’s Comic Riffs. “A couple years ago, I decided that I just wasn’t interested in working with difficult people any longer. So I don’t.

“The process for me can be distilled down to: When I get up in the morning, do I want to write something for this person or do I not?” Hickman continues. “Are we going to have fun, and as a result, produce quality entertainment, or are we just working? Nick and I have fun.”

“East of West” spans over different eras of time, with the heart of the story taking place in the year 2064.

“East of West.” (courtesy of Image Comics)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have arrived minus one — Death — who has abandoned them for the love of all things. In between are politicians, royalty and con-men tasked with a mission: Bring about the end of the world. Everyone involved plays a vital part in the coming doomsday, but as the sands of time come closer to running out for the planet, there are those wondering whether they are ready to give up all of existence — despite, well, any previous deals.

It’s exactly the type of complex tale that fans have come to expect from Hickman, who says that despite critical acclaim, he’s most proud of the exposure East of West has given Dragotta.

“Nick Dragotta is a guy with jaw-dropping talent that, until East of West, really hasn’t gotten the recognition or rewards he deserves,” Hickman said. “Now he is, and in turn that fuels him, which fuels me, which results in good art.”

Dragotta returns the praise, saying that Hickman’s big ideas push him as an artist, and that he’s excited about where the two are taking East of West with each issue. He also says the comic is still finding itself visually.

“It’s one of the things I love about doing comics,” Dragotta told Comic Riffs. “One of my favorite reading experiences was Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City.’ I always loved how Marv could barely fill his trench coat in the beginning, and by the end, the trench coat was bursting at the seams.

“I have no idea how these characters will evolve visually, and I like that. As time goes by these characters grow, and hopefully so will my skill set in how I approach them.”

As for the fusion of the old West and the future that sets the artistic tone for East of West, Dragotta leans heavily on Hickman’s ideas, but leaves plenty of room for improvisation.

“A lot of [the art process] springs out of what I want to draw and the deadlines,” Dragotta said. “Originally, Jonathan wrote that Death would ride a dragon. That seemed like a lot of work to draw in each issue, so instead I gave him a horse with a cannon head. I like to try and think more, and draw less.”

Hickman and Dragotta are thrilled to be doing East of West for Image Comics, and are well-aware of what working for Image means in the creator-owned field.

“I was a teenager when Image was founded, and those original guys were rock stars to me,” Dragotta said. “Aside from trying to draw like them, what really stuck with me was that the highest achievement for any comic-book creator is owning your own work. For me, it’s an honor to be at Image Comics.”

Hickman shares that sentiment, and takes it a step further with a reminder that he got his start in the business at Image. “The first thing I ever had published was at Image. Eric Stephenson picked my submission out of the mail and gave me a publishing deal on the spot,” Hickman recalled. “It’s an honor doing books at Image. I love those guys, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I owe them my career.”

Hickman envisions his and Dragotta’s run on East of West, to reach at least 50 issues, if all goes to plan.

“At some point, this is all about having a good time making up stories with your friends,” Hickman said. “We’re having a good time on East of West.”

Follow David Betancourt on Twitter @adcfanboy