THIS REVIEW OF ‘ROAD OF BONES’ TPB CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Brandy Dykhuizen. The last decade or so has seen a lot of survival horror in books and film, usually by way of zombie apocalypses or mysterious, conspiracy-laden illnesses. They mostly exist under the guise of presenting a murky morality that forces us to question how far we’d go to survive, though in reality they are just pandemic porn to satisfy a niche’s screwed-up need to watch eyeballs fly out of sockets in Blu-ray.
It’s easy for some folks to forget, from the comforts of our couches and climate-controlled dens, that humanity has actually been down that road many, many times before.
Road of Bones doesn’t just ask us to imagine what humans are capable of when faced with imminent, grisly death, but probes us to think about where those instincts come from. That’s not to say the book doesn’t have its share of superbly gnarly death scenes—we are thrown into one right out the gate—but sometimes an honest exposition must include a rifle butt to the skull. Rich Douek is simply setting the stage, reminding us that the Kolyma labor camps were no fucking joke, and there’s a quite literal reason they called that stretch the Road of Bones.
From there, we have a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Are humans guided towards the atrocities of war by unseen evil forces, or are our folklores and religions merely manifestations of our desperate need to explain away how horrible we are? Are morality’s origins internal or external?
And through what better lens to examine these questions than a Russian labor camp? The icy, physical world is just as brutal as the guards. And most of Douek’s readers can feel a comfortable distance from the realities of Gulags, Russian culture having long been taught as being at odds with our own—it’s far easier to digest atrocities halfway around the globe than linger on things that have happened in our own backyard.
That, and there’s loads of fun folklore to mine. Douek and Alex Cormack beautifully twist a Domavik, usually a portly household spirit that keeps families safe as long as they remember to feed him, into a sinewy, tar-black demon who seems to delight in suffering and death. Cormack alternately sets the Domavik in tight, close perspectives or barely visible within far away shadows, stoking the horror and mystery of what this thing is fully capable of.
Cormack also plays wonderfully with the lines and angles of the mountain, mirroring the characters’ own hunched and crooked shapes as they navigate the endless, jagged peaks of the Kolyma range, leaping over crevasses and scrambling to find shelter. The slightest slip off track would send the men plunging into the deepest, blackest recesses. Even a moment’s respite in a comparatively warm cave could lead to too much time spent in darkness. Yeah, you get the symbolism.
The chaos of snow and the play of light and dark are stunning. Instead of the in-betweens of a twilight palette, Cormack breaks up the blacks and whites with the oranges and reds of fire and blood—of hell. It’s a terrible journey, and Douek and Cormack do a fantastic job of splitting reality apart so the reader never quite knows what to trust. Is the Domavik providing guidance and a way to find food born of hideous but unavoidable circumstances? Or is he just a projected internal demon, to serve as something to which the protagonist can turn his attention rather than having to look at himself?
As Douek notes early on, “there is no god but hunger.” Whether he speaks only of satiating a need for food or of humans’ needs for controlling deeper impulses, is left for us to sort out.
IDW Publishing / $17.99
Written by Rich Douek.
Art and colors by Alex Cormack.
Letters by Justin Birch.
8 out of 10
Check out this 6-page preview of ‘Road of Bones’ TPB, courtesy of IDW Publishing!