“Horror, history, and Russian folklore collide in this brutal survival tale, where the worst prison in the world is merely the gateway to even darker terrors.
In 1953, the Siberian Gulag of Kolyma is hell on Earth–which is why Roman Morozov leaps at the chance to escape it. But even if they make it out, Roman and his fellow escapees still have hundreds of miles of frozen tundra between them and freedom. With the help of a mysterious being straight out of his childhood fairy tale stories, Roman just might make it–or is the being simply a manifestation of the brutal circumstances driving him insane?”
So sums up the premise behind Road of Bones, a four-issue miniseries from writer Rich Douek, and artist Alex Cormack, published by IDW. It’s a dark and harrowing tale, weaving the fantastic with visceral brutality, meeting and subverting genre expectations throughout. I spoke with Douek, an award-winning copywriter, about his most recent comics endeavor, on the heels of his other creator-owned properties, Gutter Magic and Wailing Blade.
Rich, thanks for sitting down with me to talk about Road of Bones. Having read this several times, it defies a singular label. It’s part psychological thriller, supernatural haunt, and outright gore fest. So how would you describe the book?
Thanks for having me! I’d describe Road of Bones as a survival story that takes a majorly horrific turn.
It takes place during the 1950s, in the Soviet Gulag, which, for those unfamiliar, was a system of brutal work camps for political prisoners in Siberia. To be sentenced to the Gulag in most cases meant you would be worked to death in some of the most dangerous and horrific conditions on Earth.
The Road of Bones itself is a real thing – the Kolyma highway – and it got its name because the prisoners that died working on it were literally buried in the bedrock of the road. That’s the backdrop, and it’s all 100% real.
You could write a legit horror story there without adding any fictional embellishments – but our intention with Road of Bones was to start there, and push things into even more horrific territory.
(TANGENT: No one is quite sure how many people died on the actual Road of Bones, but estimates range from 250,000 on the low end all the way up to over a million.)
Whenever authors include such specific points in time as the historical backdrop for their stories, I always wonder what they read or saw that turned them onto the moment. Was something like that the impetus for this miniseries?
I was actually working on a different idea, a science fiction story about a prison break – so I was just doing research into prison breaks in general, when I started reading about people escaping the Gulag. The more I read about the conditions there, and the actual, real life Road of Bones, the more I became convinced there was something there that could make a really compelling and interesting story. And then I just couldn’t get it out of my head… I put the other story on the shelf for a while, and concentrated on this.
So once you zeroed in on the actual Road of Bones as your canvas, was finding Russian folklore to tie into the idea a snap, or was there still some digging and a separate “a-ha” moment?
That was a little bit of a journey. My grandfather was born in Russia, and my grandmother’s family also has its roots in Eastern Europe, so I did have a little familiarity with some of the folktales. But when I started out, I was more looking at some of the personalities, like Baba Yaga, or Koschei the Deathless (who does have a little cameo in issue 2). But ultimately, the more I read, the more I thought the idea of the Domovik really fit, especially with what I wanted Roman’s mindset to be.
(TANGENT: In comics, Baba Yaga has made appearances in Captain Britain, Uncanny X-Men, Herc, Hellboy, and Fables, to name a few.)
Is there any extra sense of satisfaction to putting out a story that has roots to your own ancestry? On the flip side, a sense of relief that your feet won’t be held to the fire if the backdrop was, say, feudal Japan? Do those thoughts of identity ever enter your writing process?
They do in the sense that I feel a responsibility to do my research, in an effort to do my best not to misrepresent any culture, be it my own, or someone else’s. I believe everyone has the right to tell any story they want, but if it’s about a certain culture, you need to respect that culture by researching first-hand accounts. With Road of Bones, for example, one of the books I read was One Day In the Life of Ivan Desinovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s an account of a prisoner’s life in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner himself, and had to publish under the repressive Soviet regime, so what might have been an autobiographical account under a free press had to be published as fiction. It’s a great book, and gave me more insight into life in the Gulag than any textbook or internet article could. The thing to understand is that, when writing about real world cultures, you’re never going to get everything right. All you can do is your due diligence with research, and humbly accept, and listen to people when you make a mistake. If you truly love the culture you’re taking inspiration from, you’ll be thankful to learn more about it.
(TANGENT: Regarding Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, journalist Vitaly Korotich stated, “We had a lot of writers but we never had such a brave writer.” On the novel’s impact, he said, “The Soviet Union was destroyed by information, only information. And this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day.”)
As I was reading Road of Bones, I recalled One Day in the Life… myself. You captured the same sense of frigidity and bleakness in the miniseries, and set the stage for the brutality of your world right off the bat, both visually and verbally. How important was it to land a haymaker page one?
I thought it was really important to establish just how brutal and horrible the camps were right up front – not only to ground it in the very real history of the place, but also because the characters needed a solid reason to escape – even though the escape meant almost certain death. What I mean is, even if you think you’re going to be lucky, you don’t set out on a hundred mile trip across the Siberian tundra lightly. Knowing what waits for you out on that ice, you’d have to feel as though staying where you were was even worse – and I felt like our readers needed to feel the brutality and desperation of the camps right away, to understand why getting away was worth risking so much.
You’ve got a background in art direction and design. How much of the visual language – the gore, the starkly white minimalism – did you steer with this series, and how much did you leave to the instincts of artist Alex Cormack?
I set the stage in the script, for sure, by letting Alex know what the intent of the panel or scene was, but as for actually rendering it, that was all him. He’s a really gifted artist in terms of how he gets emotion across – both through facial expressions and with the atmosphere he creates with his backgrounds. We definitely had discussions along the way, but it was more like me providing a road map, with Alex firmly at the wheel.
It’s stunning to look at! So much of the action in the Siberian tundra just feels miserable and cold. How did you initially come across Cormack as your collaborator?
I’d known Alex for a few years as a friend, as we’d both been working with the same publisher (Comixtribe), albeit on different books. I’d always been a fan of his work, but it was seeing his horror work on a book called Sink that convinced me he was the perfect collaborator for Road of Bones. And I loved working with him so much, we’ve kept the relationship going with our follow up, Sea of Sorrows, as well as a few other projects further down the road.
(TANGENT: Sink is ten issues of heart-thumping horror, black humor, and the fantastic Mr. Dig, a shovel-wielding maniac in a fox mask.)
Do you have a favorite cover, or sequence within the miniseries, that is a personal favorite of yours?
I love them all, to be honest, but I think my favorite is the cover to #3, where we have the very small figure of Roman chowing down, on a large field of stark white. For me, that’s the whole series in one image. A close second, though, would be the cover for #2, with the leap between the mountains. It’s just so well composed.
Cormack also used negative space so effectively in this way on Sink. He really was a great fit for this book based on his work there.
You mentioned your next team-up with him is Sea of Sorrows, which debuts November 18th. The title suggests it’s a bit of a sequel. Can you elaborate on that?
Alex and I really liked the way Road of Bones ended, which is to say, a little ambiguously. The last thing we wanted to do was do the “horror sequel that ruins it by explaining everything”. So what we did instead was look at what we loved about Road of Bones – that it was a confluence of historic, supernatural, and psychological horror – and with that in mind, we started building a story along those themes. So while not a sequel, they’re thematically related. We like to think of it like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, or even something like American Horror Story. The players, and the board are different, but the game is familiar.
This was my hope, for exactly the reasons you stated. Looking forward to it, and the possible third round, Clouds of Blood, (which I just made up for anyone who is confused). But before we go, I have a few writing questions for you.
First, how’d you determine what to not translate in the script? Why were these specific words – zek, vor, suka, etc – important to keep in their original format?
Basically, I say to myself “What would Chris Claremont have Colossus say?”, and go from there. Just kidding. I think with translating words, the ones I left in Russian were the ones that have additional meaning in the original language that doesn’t always translate over into English very well. To use a couple of examples, “Vor” is short for “Vory y Zakone”, which roughly translates to “thief-in-law”. What that term is getting at is the idea of a criminal association that’s like a family. The closest thing we have in English (which would still be borrowed) is something like the word mafia, only it’s not a great fit either, because the Vor have a long history and tradition that’s completely separate from other organized crime syndicates around the world, so it seemed like that was a case where there really was no way to translate it effectively. In the case of “suka”, it literally means “bitch”, but if I had the prisoners simply saying “bitch” all the time, they’d sound like Jesse Pinkman, and you might miss the fact that they’re talking about a gang faction, not just some random people they are trying to insult.
I find this breakdown of language so interesting. Similarly, with profanity, how do you decide where that sweet spot is? Road of Bones is a mature title, so its natural to include this kind of dialogue, but as a New Yorker, its also got to be very easy for you to overdo it and magine every third word being a variation of “fuck”. How conscious of the language were you as you typed your scripts?
For profanity, it’s kind of similar in that sometimes, you just can’t substitute without losing the feeling of what you’re trying to convey. Like, when you’ve been wandering in the tundra for weeks, starving, and climb a mountain, only to see more wasteland as far as the eye can see, “Aw jeez” doesn’t really cut it. Character also plays into it, as I don’t see either the prisoners or the guards caring one bit about coarse language, so I try to get into their heads and have them speak in a way that feels authentic.
Well, fuck, this has been a terrific chat, Rich, and Road of Bones is an equally terrific horror comic. That said, with the final push to Halloween upon us, any recommendations to get into the spirit?
There’s a lot of really cool horror comics coming out right now. One of my favorites is HOTELL by John Lees and Dalibor Talajic. It’s a series of interlocking short stories that all take place in a creepy roadside motel, and it’s great. Another exciting one is RAZORBLADES, which is a sort of horror anthology zine, with comics, interviews, and lots of cool art. It’s quarterly, and I think issue #2 just came out for Halloween. There’s plenty more great, creepy stuff out there – if you’re burnt out from staring at screens all day, I highly recommend a trip to the comic shop!
Thanks to Rich Douek for taking the time to discuss his gruesome series. If you’re looking for horror, Road of Bones is about as dark and grim as you can get. A sense of hopelessness permeates the four issues, but it’s a gripping and quick read. And as previously mentioned, Douek’s Sea of Sorrows drops November 18th. For comic shops, the preorder code is SEP200463.
You can also support Douek and artist Joe Mulvey on their current Kickstarter for the hardcover edition of Wailing Blade, their series billed as “a brutal, bloody sci-fi adventure for fans of Mad Max & Masters of the Universe.” The Headtaker is one of my favorite designs in recent years, and for everyone currently high on sword content, this is another avenue to get that fix.
Scott Modrzynski took no chances this Halloween. With trick-or-treating up in the air, he cleaned out two Dollar Trees and with a little lumber, converted the backyard into a Spooky Walk™ for the kids. Requests for a ghost pirate ship have not been answered.