“Road of Bones” #3 makes good on the promise of violence in the last issue – only it doesn’t go down quite the way you’d think. Minor spoilers ahead.
Story: Rich Douek
Art & Colors: Alex Cormack
Letters: Justin Birch
Publisher: IDW Publishing
We last left Sergei and Grigori – well, mostly Sergei – hatching a plan to murder and eat Roman. Unfortunately, Roman overheard them, and with a little advance warning from his domovik, he’s screwed the pooch and the two comrades are wasting valuable energy hunting for him over the endless snow. Douek and Cormack open this issue with the pivotal moment, as a gore-splattered man hands Grigori a cup of blood and demands that he drink.
Violence has been done, and a line has been crossed.
What makes “Road of Bones” successful is its simple premise. Couched in the complex politics and storytelling traditions of Russian literature, it’s easy to come out of the first issue overwhelmed by the bleakness of the landscape and the peculiar intricacy and doldrums of gulag torture. Russian literature often places much stock in edifice and tradition, be it upholding the status quo, mining it for deeper meaning or undermining it completely. Douek flirts with the latter two as Grigori, Sergei and Roman slowly leave their banter and civilized selves behind at the camp and venture out into the unending expanse.
Each issue is paced extremely well in a stressful, confined slice of time, and issue #3 is no different. We flash back to see exactly what led up to the moment of the kill, and then end with a reminder that there’s tribute to be paid to those who watch over us. Real or not. Douek writes to this with the economy needed to enforce the grim tone necessary to carry off “Road of Bones,”, and Cormack supports and expands on it with the book’s art style. Faces and bodies are almost interchangeable, save a few crystal moments (usually during extreme conflict or stress.) The particular way Cormack uses craggy facial details, clothing and beard styles to overwhelm our senses works because there’s no clarity available in this world. Colors are grim, with a hint of warm orange and purple during the nighttime scenes that quickly gives way to cold blue and black. And, of course, there’s all that lovely red to disrupt the omnipresent white and blue-grey ice of the previous two issues. Layout-wise, Cormack uses a 9-panel grid to expand the issue’s initial moment effectively and keeps the rest of the book clear and concise, which allows the art to do the heavy lifting.
Birch’s lettering remains consistent and clear, with a font that incorporates just a hint of the ornate and makes good use of narrow letters and irregular vowels to support the slow unraveling of the story – and everyone’s sanity. The initial sound effects on the first page are visceral and help protract an almost unbearable moment, even as we lean forward and savor the break in larger story tension.
“Road of Bones” is a success as a horror comic so far, and it’s refreshing both in execution and concept. The folklore of Eastern European cultures is more immediate and brutal than most, and it can often seem opaque to those who don’t understand what the imagination does when faced with an unending march of snow, hunger and quick death. The domovik’s been fed. We’ve got one issue left – ramifications, ramifications! – and it’s not clear how this one is going to end. I hesitate to say it doesn’t matter, but we’re flirting with all different kinds of inevitability. A better way to end would be to say that you should have confidence in this creative team by now to deliver a satisfactory end to a most unpleasant and gripping tale.
The Verdict: 8.5/10 – “Road of Bones” #3 is an effective third issue that helps break the book’s story tension, maintains drama and deepens the lore.