Low Road West opens with a fantasy I’m sure that many of us has had at one point or another: an unnamed character walking out of their job. In this graphic novel, it’s a bus driver responsible for transporting five teenagers from a war-torn Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The driver quits around Oklahoma (I for one can’t fault him. I’ve driven from New Haven, CT to Tulsa, and it’s a long 24 hours.) and makes his way out of the story.
The main cast is the teenagers — Emma, Ben, Angela, Shawn, and Amir. The war has forced them, and many others off of the East Coast. Much of the inner continent has been turned into a desert because as Amir says, “Pretty much every oil well in the U.S. is on fire.” None of them can drive a bus, especially one without gas, so they’re forced to walk. They’re saved from military deserters by a mysterious archer before they arrive in Custer’s Wake.
Things are strange in the town, specifically in the house where the teens decide to stay. It was owned by the town’s colonist namesake, and then by Dr. Abraham Morrow, who’s quoted before the start of the first issue: “There is no death — only change. And nowhere in the universe is that more true than here.” Custer’s Wake is a place where reality is thin, a la Twin Peaks or Stranger Things.
All of that world building — the post-apocalyptic world meets the magical place — is awesome. Where writer Philip Kennedy Johnson runs into problem is getting it all across. By the time Low Road West gets into its fifth and final issue, it still hasn’t finished establishing the rules of its worlds. There’s a climactic battle but how it works, which is integral to understanding and enjoying it, is still fuzzy.
That lack of clarity isn’t helped by Flaviano’s art. He creates some amazing creatures and gorgeous landscapes, but the action is hard to follow in individual panels. I had to go back to a pack where the floor collapsed to figure out who was falling and who wasn’t three times to get it.
Flaviano also has a penchant for working in homages in his art. He sneaks in the classic dungeon laboratory staircase, a dog on the hood of a car a la Cujo. Kennedy does some verbal homages as well: a character who prefers to be called “the Colonel” a la Apocalypse Now.
Conceptually, Low Road West is amazing. The characters are archetypal — “The Guardian, The Prophet, The Warrior, The Scholar, The Trickster” — but still have their own distinct personalities in flavor. They’re also a diverse cast, something so many stories are woefully lacking. The worlds Kennedy and Flaviano build are unique, a fusion of familiar elements to create something entirely new. It just doesn’t all come together to create a compelling story.
That being said, I would rather read big swing stories like this than a story that plays it safe. Kennedy and Flaviano are pushing the boundaries of two genres, creating an entirely new world. Whether it’s successful or not, are creative landscape is a better place because they pushed it to grow.
Low Road West was released by Boom Studios June 19, 2019.
Wicked Rating – 7/10