Are you hungry? When did you last eat? Do you know what you're having next? Have you already bought groceries or are you scraping together change for a burger because you can get one for a buck...if you could just make a buck. Human beings are at their very best when their basic needs are handled: food, drink, and health. If you have to worry about one of them, you lose sight of "greater good"s and moral stands, because your eyes travel downward into the dirt, looking for anything that can help you make it to the next day. A hungry person does not look at the stars and dream. There are a lot of people in this world who live in this anxiety, this uncertain food or health situation right now, even in your town. They may not be able to answer the questions I've asked above past the first. They may become something considered "lesser" by those who have food certainty, who debate over different flavors of corn chips because it might save a dollar with a coupon. They may be seen as weaker because they aren't able to get a procedure to ease their movement or unbend their body because that's money that needs to make food appear. This is how we allow people to become less than human in other eyes, and without fulfilling the basic needs of all, we are less than human in our ways, as well. Rich Douek and company might not be asking us exactly these questions in their new horror series, Road of Bones, but the alignment of starvation and losing your humanity is certainly present throughout, and it makes the true horror of the situation much more meaningful because of it.
Russia in the winter has beaten great armies simply by denying them food. It is in this place, in Stalin's Russia, that Douek has set his tale, a barren wasteland with a prison camp in the middle, with nowhere to go to find the basic needs of life outside of the system that oppresses you. Within the prison, on all sides of the bars, are practical men: those who follow the best chance to better themselves at the cost of their fellows, feeding on each other to find something better.
Most of these men have no time for fairy tales or enchanted beings, but not Ronan. He sets food out for a creature of Russian myth to gain some protections from things that would do him harm, and when he finds himself in a place with little resources and shady hope, he begins to understand what precisely he's dealing with. I've always thought that some of the best comic stories stick with you because you can distill their essence into a single word - Batman: Justice, Captain America: Loyalty, The Punisher: Pain, Superman: Straightedge. This team has put itself into that company for me with the hunger that lies beneath every motivation in this introduction issue. It pursues this theme with relentless energy, boiling the narrative down to the search for sustenance, a primal need that will override all decency and thought to satisfy itself. This base drives us as the reader into a state of uncertainty and hooks us with horror that feels incredibly uncomfortable to us, because it makes those of us that don't often question the reliability of our food to do so.
Alex Cormack truly brings the desolation and viciousness of the story to life in his artwork. No one's pretty, and just when you think that you're used to the aesthetic, something comes in that seems to have had a worse time and you get shaken all over again. This choice conveys the hardness of the life that our protagonists begin with, a stasis that's already intolerable and harsh, with the only prospect of getting out being more so. What I love is that while the line work and images are tight and crisp, the characters themselves have a soggy softness to them, a sag to the flesh that pulls the classical lines off just enough to bend the character designs into caricatures of humans, once again reinforcing that "other than human" aspect of the book. The final page is the big splash reveal, and I love that it takes the mind a moment or two to register just what's going on, the effect is breathtaking even though the page before is already taking us down a much darker path. Cormack is deft in his use of dynamics to move us along and drag us though the perils that build this tale.
I'm not a big horror fan typically, but when I do find myself engaging in tends to deal with mythical critters or the denial of our basic rights, something that this book manages to hit from both sides in spades. This is close to the feeling that I have when reading Gaiman; I'm stuck between wanting to know more and being terrified of the answer. It's what I think real horror fans get from the genre en masse, and this title is what they should certainly be leaning for.
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Creative Team: Rich Douek (Writer), Alex Cormack (Artist), Justin Birch (Letterer)
Publisher: IDW Pubilshing
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