Historical. Survival. Horror. Who wouldn’t want to check that out? Road of Bones is completely in my wheelhouse and a book that reeled me in from page one. You can immediately feel the harsh Russian winter. The book’s also very methodical in its storytelling, making frequent use of the 9-panel grid to keep us moving forward as the brutal conditions of the gulag weigh us down. There’s never a moment of comfort or reprieve, only the harshest of environments, the knowledge that slowing down or stopping means death, and a supernatural force lurking on the fringes of every page.
It’s the harsh conditions that keep you immersed in the story. The character work is largely unremarkable, but that won’t stop you from wincing at the brutal violence, heavy beat-downs, and awful living conditions of Kolyma gulag. Writer Rich Douek knows when to minimize his dialogue, take a back seat, and let artist Alex Cormack’s renderings of frozen blood, heavy snow, and a dark, bleak, prison camp do the talking. The mixture of whites, reds, and dark browns, greens, and grays makes for an effective color palette, even though it’s not always used to its maximum potential. Cormack and Douek do a great job of always leaving a little room for hope among the desolation and violence. It never completely runs out, even though by the end, you’re left questioning whether or not the hope was real in the first place. The lettering adds to this aesthetic as well, with Justin Birch’s dialogue having a scratchy, etched look as though they were carved into a prison wall instead of just written. He also makes great but sparse use of SFX and is sure to only include the when he knows they’ll pack a punch. Some of the placements are a bit peculiar, covering up the art when they could be placed more efficiently, but overall it’s nice work.
The use of magical realism, however, is one of the best aspects of the book. You’re never certain the Domovik, or whatever this horrifying creature feeding Roman’s drive to survive, is real, but the visuals when it appears are so visceral that it’s impossible to think the opposite. The creature introduces a new dimension for the escape and survival that leaves you anxiously awaiting and trying to anticipates its next appearance. Combined with the book’s formal structure, which is meticulous in its ability to keep you turning pages while not giving too much away, you have the perfect tone for a survival horror book. The use of formalism is remarkable, and Douek clearly has a strong command over the 9-panel grid. He knows how to close things to make you feel so cramped and stressed that the magical can seem possible. As the series goes on, Cormack makes great use of red, and how that permanently stains the snow beneath the characters’ feet. Eventually, even the white gutters turn red in a spectacular display of violence.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of other character work to propel you along. The beginning setup is long and largely unfulfilling. Survival horror needs to do more than simply establish harsh conditions. It’s the Russian gulag; we expect conditions to be harsh, but we have no reason to feel for the characters who must endure them. Road of Bones simply establishes prison as a mercilessly brutal environment, but gives us no reason to want these characters to escape. Ultimately, that can cheapen some of the payoff pages and issues down the line. Roman’s biggest point of sympathy is that the character got 20 years in the gulag for a joke about Stalin which, while harsh, isn’t enough. There are some little acts of kindness sprinkled in here and there, but there’s nothing that really makes you identify or feel for this guy. Two pages showing his life before the gulag might have made all the difference.
While there is a lot to love about Cormack’s line work, the colors can be a bit of a letdown. The layouts create an effective and methodical build to violence and the juxtaposition of the bright white snow and the darkness of the night help us see the connections between desolation and madness, but our three main characters are hardly distinguishable under the cover of night. They all look similar and wear thick coats and ushankas. It’s easy to lose track of who’s who for panels at a time. Some of the supernatural elements are also cheapened by the thick, dark colors. It’s probably to make the figure more menacing, but I found myself struggling to see what it was doing or what it resembled. These shortcomings didn’t permeate through the entire book but were noticeable enough to take me out of the story multiple times.
I suppose it’d be appropriate to call Road of Bones historical fiction, but there’s hardly any significance given to the historical part. As I was reading, I asked myself if the story would have the same effects if it was just set in a generic prison camp in a cold, harsh environment, and I’m pretty sure it would. There are some important details about why Roman, our protagonist, ended up in the gulag in the first place, but they don’t really serve the story. The only historical commentary Road of Bones seems to make is that the gulag was a brutal, desolate place, you could be thrown in the gulag for something incredibly insignificant, and living under these conditions can lead to desperate acts of madness. Douek and Cormack make that commentary well, but I question how insightful it really is for the location and period in question.
At its core, Road of Bones is a question of survival versus sanity. It’s a struggle to see whether our three main characters will break their bodies first, or their minds. At the end, if it’s the latter, one must question whether the trek was even worth it. Is the escape even worth it if you have to lose a piece of your soul in the process? I’m not sure if any of us readers will ever know the answer to that question.