Road of Bones #1
Brutal and compelling, Road of Bones #1 is a hard opening issue to read. Rich Douek and Alex Cormack are confident in the handling of their material, but it isn’t for the weak of stomach or those of a nervous disposition.
Imprisoned in a Siberian gulag for telling a joke, inmate Roman Morozov must find a way to survive the brutal conditions. When offered the chance of freedom, what price will he pay for it? Find out in our Major Spoilers review of Road of Bones #1!
Writer: Rich Douek
Artist/Colors: Alex Cormack
Letterer: Justin Birch
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: May 22nd, 2019
Previously in Road of Bones: 1950s USSR – Stalin rules with a dread hand, and the gulag system spreads across the Soviet Union like a cancer. One of its newest inmates, Roman Morozov, is sentenced to twenty-five years for telling a joke about Stalin. Sent to the frozen Siberian wilderness, can Roman survive the brutal guards, brutal weather and the depredations of the gangs within the camp?
Road of Bones #1 is set in 1950, near the end of the brutal reign of Josef Stalin. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union became synonymous in the West with brutality. Stalin famously would sign off on the execution of dozens of political prisoners, then go off to the opera that same night. But it was worse than that – be it the forced starvation in the Ukraine in the thirties, or the Terror that saw men, women and children dragged from their beds and summarily executed on little more than gossip, or the forced movement of entire populations as a form of collective punishment, Soviet Communism became a byword of brutality. And the entire gulag system of prison camps spread far and wide across the USSR exemplified that brutality like no other aspect of the appalling regime.
In Road of Bones #1, writer Rich Douek focuses on the struggles of one inmate, Roman Morozov, to survive in a harsh prison camp based in Arctic Siberia. Morozov, a chef, has begun a twenty-five-year sentence for telling a joke about Stalin (or slandering Stalin, as the camp commander describes it). He doles out slop to the workers slaving out in the frigid open, themselves are frequently brutalized by the guards, who leap upon any slacking off with ferocious glee. But Morozov harbors a secret, a secret that may save or damn him…
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE
Road of Bones #1 is a strong, promising start to an intriguing storyline that mingles the darkness of humanity with the darker superstitions of the Russian people. Morozov leaves food out for a domovik, a creature from Russian fairy tales that is said to guard the house and protect those within. Given the harshness of the place Morozov finds himself in, it’s understandable he would resort to childhood stories to enable him to mentally survive the hell he finds himself in. Of course, no one believes him, but should they?
The concentration in Road of Bones #1 is on the human horrors, and
artist/colorist Alex Cormack isn’t shy about depicting them in intimate details. Inmates are frequently beaten, by fist or rifle stock, the blood flying in copious amounts and bruised and brutalized flesh depicted in gory detail. This opening issue doesn’t gently lead you through the horrors, but instead slams you up against them face first, and makes sure you can’t look away. There’s a Mignola-esque use of shadow throughout Road of Bones #1, especially during the interrogation scene, rendering the guards and their commander something less than human, and spotlighting Roman’s helplessness in a system gone mad.
WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS PLACE
Rich Douek sets up a rich environment for the reader in Road of Bones #1. As with any prison drama, there are competing factions that have to be navigated. For most of the length of this opening issue, Morozov is buffeted by events, be it the capriciousness of the guards, the dangerous environment itself, or the two criminal gangs that viciously compete for the scraps the guards allow them. It’s when Roman falls in with one of the gangs that the supernatural element of the story comes to the fore.
Does this meshing of human and supernatural horrors work? For the most part, yes. Rich Douek softens the reader up with the brutality man metes out on man, and then goes for the killer punch that perhaps Roman’s domovik is something, far, far worse. But when you’ve made a break for freedom in an icy wilderness with two other men who regard you as perhaps a future food source, you take what friendship, supernatural or not, you can get…
BOTTOM LINE: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
Like the Second World War, memories of the brutal Soviet regime have begun to fade as the participants and victims of both begin to leave the stage. Soon, like World War One, the events will no longer be part of our collective memory, but reside in dusty books in corners of academia. Works like Road of Bones #1, even with the supernatural angle, remind us that the brutal horrors men inflict on each other aren’t simply the work of our modern era, but have been with each and every generation going back centuries. One can’t say yet whether Roman survives the Road of Bones, but his journey, along with being a compelling tale, should be a reminder to the reader that our comfortable existence is only skin deep.