Comic Book Review: Road of Bones #1 is Fantastically Brutal Historical Horror
Without a deep understanding of Soviet history, the title Road of Bones seems pretty ambiguous. It could be about a lot of things. In reality, it is a comic about many things. It touches on Russian folklore, life behind the Iron Curtain, organized crime, a prison break, and possibly the supernatural, all with a distinct flavoring of horror.
Do a little digging around, and you’ll discover the “Road of Bones” is a real place, and one with a grizzly history. R504, Kolyma Highway, was built to service the Soviet “gold rush” in frigid Siberia. Built by Soviet prisoners between 1932-1953, it was a place of death. Between the harsh environment, and the brutality of the Russian gulags, thousands died. To this day there are stories of hauntings in the region.
Writer Rich Douek (TMNT: Universe, Gutter Magic) draws on this disturbing history, setting his story in a Stalin-era labor camp, working to build this infamous road. His characters are prisoners, struggling to survive both the freezing conditions and vicious prison guards. Douek smartly intersperses the darkness and violence with human moments: a prisoner assigned to the kitchens slips extra bread to a starving fellow prisoner. It’s a reminder of the humanity of these men, which serves to makes the violence that much more horrifying.
Alex Cormack (Oxymoron, SINK) delivers art that perfectly encapsulates the terror of a Soviet gulag. It’s dark, filthy, brutal, and horrifying. I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the most underrated skills in comic book art is control over how much detail to draw. Some of the scenes in Road of Bones are particularly grisly, but Cormack has perfect understanding of when to dial back the detail on the more grotesque elements.
It’s a dark book, both visually and in subject matter. Serving as his own colorist, Cormack has a great knack for drawing people huddled in the darkness, with just enough detail to maintain their humanity. He doesn’t lean on a ton of artistic tricks, relying instead on clean panel layouts. White panel boarders serve nicely to emphasize the darkness within the panels.
The protagonist in Road of Bones, Roman Morozov, was imprisoned for making a joke about Stalin at a party. It’s a harsh reminder of the very real history in which the story is set. In the prison camp, Roman is caught stealing food, and reveals that he has been leaving some for a domovik, a household spirit of sorts. It’s an interesting exploration of belief, as Roman knows it’s a silly superstition, but also one he’s willing to indulge even in the harshest conditions. It’s also something that causes Roman to doubt his sanity, as hands reach up out of the darkness to take the food he’s been leaving behind.
It will be interesting to see how deep into the supernatural the comic delves. The solicitations describe it as a horror comic, but the first issue sets up more questions than answers. The final page reveal suggests the possibility of something darker and inhuman.
The debut issue of Road of Bones is fantastic. It’s brutal, and a bit gruesome at times, but that’s very much appropriate to the story Douek and Cormack have to tell.
The comic has flavors that should appeal to fans of some of the best creator-owned comics on the market: The brutal violence of Jason Aaron’s Southern Bastards, the creeping darkness of Jeff Lemire’s Gideon Falls, and the historical grounding of Brian Wood’s Northlanders. If Douek and Cormack build on the quality of the first issue, publisher IDW will have a great horror comic on it’s hands.
Road of Bones is available in comic shops on May 22nd, 2019.