A Corrosive Wonderland Keeps You On Your Toes In Low Road West #1

by Hannah Means Shannon

In the lead up the release of Low Road West, written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and illustrated by Flaviano, I spoke with Johnson about a number of different approaches one might take to the story, looking at the locations that are key to the narrative (Washington DC and Oklahoma), the way characters are grouped (with 5 main characters), the role their ages play (of differing ages), and whether the supernatural would play a part in this potentially frightening but meaningful narrative. You can find that interview here.

Interestingly, while all that we previously discussed proved true of the first issue (and the next couple, since I’ve had a sneak peek), the experience of reading the comic is also quite different than what I had been expecting based on that conversation.
What I underestimated was the significant magnetism of the characters, and how distracting they can be as they hurtle around inside limited or open spaces. Every action and line of dialog commands the reader’s attention in a very impressive way, and occasionally you’re reminded of the menace and strangeness of the settings, as well, and that snaps you to attention, remembering to feel fear on behalf of these characters.

Choosing a group of five young characters for the focus of the book was no doubt challenging for both Johnson and Flaviano, constantly tracking their personalities interacting, and their physical locations and movements. While this may be a common feature of superhero books, for instance, Low Road West is giving more time and emotional weight to each character than you usually find in hero books. This directly adds a sense of weight to everything they do and say, elevating them from a bunch of billiard balls rolling around in a narrative scenario, to a fleet of bowling balls barreling into each other and their surroundings.
The characters also aren’t overloaded with backstory, which keeps them in motion and the story focused on the here and now. We get bits and pieces of their situation, from an audio instruction playing on their refugee school bus to their edgy comments about themselves and others. Enough is given to establish personality and state of mind, but a lot is also held in reserve. I get the sense that character development is going to play a big part in the series, but also character revelation. Anyone who might be under the impression that kids aren’t, or can’t be, deep, will find this an enlightening read.

Flaviano’s qualities shine here in surprising ways, too. His linework is so disarming that it contrasts powerfully with some of the dialog and action of the first issue. Beauty and horror are pretty clearly brought into opposition early on, and that uneasy tone remains throughout this first chapter of the tale and beyond.
Colors by Miquel Muerto firmly underline this—you are lured in by pastels and hit by sickly yellows. Purple becomes menacing quickly. You learn to dread red pretty quickly. Letter choices by Jim Campbell are some of my favorite I’ve seen in recent days, with the font shapes somehow harmonically tuned to Flaviano’s lines. There’s a similar kind of veneer of reassuring roundness, avoiding angularity that contrasts with matter of fact delivery and placements. It all adds to that same feeling of tension.

That uneasy tone—one of an uncertain and corroded, perhaps corrosive, wonderland—reminds me a little of the original Wizard of Oz books, the underlying menace of which was toned down a bit in the famous film. When you find yourself in a strange place where ordinary rules don’t seem to apply, and it feels dream-like, the same scenario usually has the potential to become a nightmare. The main difference here is that these young refugees have already endured the stuff of their worst nightmares, so how will they handle such an undefined environment? There are many possibilities, and no doubt we’re going to see those play out.
Finally, this is a brutal story. This first issue established pretty firmly that we should not underestimate that. Any story in which the only responsible adult could run off on a group of young people in the middle of a burning wasteland is a story where any sense of security is likely to be stripped away. But I applaud that. Not because I value brutality for brutality’s sake, but because it defies expectations in a story dealing with younger characters.

There are a number of lines of dialog that could get a similar meaning across in less shocking terms in Low Road West #1, but Johnson doesn’t pull any punches. You aren’t supposed to feel better about the plight of these characters or the world they are moving in. What’s more, the way those lines of dialog fall, and their particular sharpness, sounds remarkably like the way the realities of the world sounded to me as a young person, and probably to a lot of other people too, even if those realities were more mundane for us than the realities we’ll find in Low Road West. Sometimes accuracy comes off as brutality when familiar experiences are presented in a new light.
Low Road West #1 is currently available from Boom! Studios. Issue #2 arrives on October 17th, 2018, and reaches Final Orders on Monday, September 24th.

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