Until last year, I wasn’t a fan of horror. But it’s hard to deny that it can be a thrilling and compelling genre when done well. Good horror is about creating tone, taking something familiar or mundane, and showing the terror beneath the surface. The best way to do that is through strong visual storytelling, building tension slowly and subtly before you spring the trap. Sometimes the plot can be incidental if you create a strong enough atmosphere. While the premier issue is light on plot, “Phantom Road” #1 is a spectacular example of how a few minor visual storytelling tweaks can significantly impact.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Gabriel Hernández Walta
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Steve Wands
Dom is a long-haul truck driver attempting to stay ahead of his tragic past when he pulls over to assist Birdie, who has been in a massive car crash. When they pull an artifact from the wreckage… their midnight run is thrown into fifth gear as they are pursued by impossible monsters through a frantic and surreal journey.
It’s grindhouse horror meeting high-concept supernatural fantasy in the first volume of a bold new ongoing series from Jeff Lemire (THE BONE ORCHARD MYTHOS, LITTLE MONSTERS) and Gabriel Hernández Walta (The Vision, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D: Old Man Whittier), the Eisner-nominated creative team behind the best-selling Sentient series.
“Phantom Road” #1 is a book that relies heavily on establishing a solid atmosphere of long-haul truckers’ dark and somewhat haunted world. From dingy truck stops to dark, quiet nights alone with your thoughts, you wouldn’t be surprised to fall into the trap of the titular phantom road is a place where you’re alone with your thoughts. The phantoms are the thoughts you reckon with as your headlights cut through the infinite darkness of night. Gabriel Walta’s art perfectly captures this. For the first few pages of the premier issue, you wouldn’t expect it to take a supernatural turn. Still, Walta captures the surreal nature of Dom’s long and lonely night, from his haunted reflection in the windshield, a phantom of a man looking for the next stop of lonely hearts, to the specters of those who haunt the quiet truck stops of the phantom road.
Dom’s wayward specter extends beyond the mundane aesthetic of his life. He’s mostly quiet, but the little dialogue we get in the first half of the issue feels rehearsed. Lemire’s script relies on Walta’s illustrations, but when Dom talks in “Phantom Road” #1, it hides some demons. In the issues most dialogue-heavy page, we see Dom’s less-than-stellar home life from the POV of his practically abandoned son. It’s a tragic page, but it helps to sell why we see the haunted man in the windshield. Dom is a complicated and haunted man, a revenant on the road to hide from his difficulties and responsibilities. Again, outside of the first page, there is nothing inherently supernatural about the premier issue. It’s unsettling, lit with harsh lights, or disappearing into an inky, starless night, but it’s generally straightforward. But when the turn comes, Lemire, Walta, and the creative team make a brilliant decision that helps turn this aimless highway straight into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
At the halfway point, haunted by the life he’s leaving behind, Dom has a near-death experience as a car attempts to swerve out of the way of a mysterious object. This is when “Phantom Road” #1 starts to cook, as Dom and the nameless woman are shocked with a ghostly light, transporting them to the same place, just one that is incredibly beige. This is an extremely impactful decision from the colorist Jordie Bellaire, instantly making the new world feel offputting and eldritch before Dom fights one of the seemingly revenant figures ambling in the distance. If you go back and investigate the rest of the pages, you certainly can’t say it is a vibrant book. Again, most of the lighting feels harsh and artificial, the kind of colors you get when saturated in the glow of fluorescent tubes. But when that color is gone, you yearn for the cheerful glow of a red blouse or the insane patterns of a Hawaiian shirt. It’s not colorless, per se; you still see the faint orange of Dom’s vest and the red splatters of blood from the zombie-like creatures, but it’s muted to the point of becoming practically monochrome. Not only does this help make the world feel distinct from the real world, but it also makes the horrific turn more impactful.Continued below
Out of context, the first page of “Phantom Road” #1 works because of its minimalism. In fact, given the muted color palette, it could almost read like a flashback to Dom’s past. You wouldn’t expect this panel to be from the climax as Dom races for his life away from the mysterious figures ambling in the desert. The buildup is masterful, sharing DNA with the first attack in a zombie movie. This is especially true of the visual storytelling as Walta zooms in on the almost featureless figure. It’s unsettling but takes a hard right into horror as the monster’s jaw unhinges, similar to the clickers in The Last of Us. The tension quickly boils over into terror as Dom fights for his life.
Again, as far as the plot goes in “Phantom Road” #1, we are left with more questions than answers. The issue relies more on creating an unsettling atmosphere on the titular road and Dom’s life before he and the stranger land into a literal nightmare. Despite this, it’s a riveting first issue, with simple tricks like lighting and color saturation impacting the story and drawing you into the world’s mystery. Like most good horror, it leaves you on the edge of your seat and drops you right into the action. Answers can come later as they drive down the long and lonesome road.
Final Verdict: 8.5 – “Phantom Road” #1 is an incredibly effective visual comic that masterfully creates tone and tension with color saturation and harsh lighting. It’s a road you want to travel down.