The Passage” – Multiversity Comics
Whenever Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino work together, you can be sure the resulting comic will be worth picking up. Over time, this becomes more and more true, as the two grow as storytellers and seek out stories that will challenge them. In “The Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway” they have crafted a story that is felt more than understood, that should suggest without being explicit. They’re clearly building on the lessons they learned from “Gideon Falls,” while pushing themselves into new territory.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino
Coloring by Dave Stewart
Lettered and designed by Steve Wands
From the acclaimed creative team behind GIDEON FALLS and PRIMORDIAL comes the first book in a bold and ambitious new shared horror universe! When a geologist is sent to a remote lighthouse to investigate strange phenomena, he discovers a seemingly endless pit in the rocks. What’s hiding inside and how will he escape her lure?
THE PASSAGEWAY is the first book of the new BONE ORCHARD MYTHOS by LEMIRE & SORRENTINO! This universe will include standalone graphic novels and limited series about the horrors lurking in the Bone Orchard, just waiting to be discovered.
When I think of the difference between an original graphic novel and a standard comic book issue, I can’t help but see similar differences between a made-for-theatrical movie and episodes of a TV show. With cinema, there is a level of theatricality to get the audience to settle in as the lights go down. Production logos play, music begins, title card appears. . . and a graphic novel does much the same sort of thing with its book design. The guards open with hatching suggesting texture and light. This is followed by a black and white image of ocean waves, which immediately puts the rhythmic sound of the ocean in the reader’s mind; then there are birds against the title, introducing another sound into the comic soundscape. Then there’s a page turn and a double page spread with a very different image – it’s reminiscent of a Rorschach test, though it lacks the true symmetry of such tests.
Some elements are clear, like the central image of a tree with bodies hanging from its branches, others are suggested, like the cranial image created by the negative space. The complexity of the picture invites the reader to linger here, and yet what we see seems to have little to do with the story as we understand it so far. He poses questions to the reader before the story even begins. Another page turns and we’re back at the ocean, birds in the sky, now with the addition of an ominous looking lighthouse.
Before even reading a page of the actual comic, the reader has already been carefully guided through some free space. The lighthouse, as the last image introduced before the story begins, looms over everything that follows. These elements may not be what we would strictly consider comic book pages, but it’s clear that Steve Wands’ book design is an essential part of the storytelling in “The Passageway.” It also caused the viewer to engage with the story on an almost entirely visual level, causing the reader to search for meaning in the visual presentation. When “The Passageway” begins, there’s a lot of necessary exposition to go through, but thanks to the visually-focused opening, by the time we get to long periods of character conversation, we’re automatically looking for visual cues. Andrea Sorrentino’s layouts, which might have seemed like a distraction from this dialogue-heavy section if the story had started here, instead feel like the mood set by the opening pages is creeping into the conversation. We project our feeling of unease onto John Reed – that’s exactly what the character is feeling, but trying to ignore.
During this opening scene, Sorrentino’s layout draws attention to itself. The lighthouse is an intrusive element.
The book’s carefully mood-setting design prepares us for the comic book beats to follow, which features denser sections of dialogue or visual complexity punctuated by stark graphic spreads. At one point, there’s even a page of solid black, which would be an indulgence in the single-issue format, where each page is valuable storytelling space. Again, this sounds like the difference between cinema and pre-streaming TV (where every minute of every episode counted). The graphic novel, like the cinema, can be more ostentatious in its presentation, where the economy of storytelling is a less pressing concern. But here, a page of black is a necessary beat in history. By giving a page or a double-page spread at these times, we are invited to consciously focus on how the book makes us feel.
The feeling of a given sequence in ‘The Passageway’ is its most crucial element. By the time we discover the chasm that is at the center of the story, the visual motif of a central circle has already been well established, so even though this is a new element in the story, it seems already familiar. Jeff Lemire’s writing gives very little explicit detail, and so those sentiments become our primary means of navigating what follows. It’s a key part of cosmic horror, where the reader is usually denied comprehension. Yet there are connections throughout in the form of recurring visual patterns, color associations, echoes in the layouts of previous sequences – just enough that we can be certain of a connection, even if the how escapes us. Visual repetition is also used to express changes that challenge the reader’s understanding to quantify in objective terms. For example, the chasm is repeatedly shown viewed from above as a gaping circular darkness in the center of the image.
So when that familiar image reappears, but this time with rings misaligned with each other, we know something has changed. There is something wrong, but in concrete terms we have no way of defining what this change is. We just know it’s there.
If you read Lemire and Sorrentino’s “Gideon Falls” you’ve seen these creators play with techniques like this before, but I feel like “Gideon Falls” was more plot driven and those elements were more textured. In “The Passageway” they become the focal point. It’s for readers who embrace the ambiguity and the sense of dread it can inspire.
OK, we’re diving into spoilers now. Go to the verdict if you want to stay intact. I will also be discussing the relationship between “The Passageway” and the Free Comic Book Day issue, “The Bone Orchard Mythos: Prelude”, so if you haven’t read the FCBD issue yet, I recommend you check out the PDF or CBZ here before continuing.
One idea that came out very strongly when reading “The Passageway” was the idea that the chasm was an inverted lighthouse. It’s an idea suggested visually very early on by Sorrentino, then further suggested when Sal says she has to “take care of the light”, which I had originally assumed to mean the light at the top of the lighthouse, but after finding out that she spent the night out by the sinkhole instead, made me wonder if she meant anything else. On the surface, her statement could have been simply a lie, but perhaps she thinks that all that lies at the bottom of the abyss is the light.
Inversion is a deliberately invoked aspect in art, notably through the use of Rorschach test imagery, but also through the silhouettes of birds that appear black-on-white or white-on-black, the sound effect “KAW” even seeming reversed at times. But it comes from more than that; it also comes from “Shadow Eater”. While the element of inversion is certainly present in “The Passageway”, it is nowhere near as prominent as in the prelude story, “Shadow Eater”, so it is likely that reading “Shadow Eater” made me more aware of this element than I otherwise would have been.
‘Shadow Eater’ makes ‘The Passageway’ read differently. After all, it’s hard to ignore the moment when the mask that features so prominently in “Shadow Eater” suddenly appears in “The Passageway.” Whatever motivations I imagined at play in the malevolent force at work in ‘Shadow Eater’ have been transposed to that at work in ‘The Passageway’. The possible connections of the mask with the Babylonian king, Labashi-Marduk, are in turn associated with the mysterious underground temple of “The Passageway”. And it seems that’s how Lemire and Sorrentino plan to build their universe in the future. When John Reed arrives at the entrance to the temple, there is an inscription, “Beyond the veil of twilight lies the Lord of Death asleep beneath ten thousand black feathers.” Since the next story in “Bone Orchard Mythos” is called “Ten Thousand Black Feathers”, I’ll probably end up carrying all my bird-related feelings from “The Passageway” into “Ten Thousand Black Feathers”.
At the end of “The Passageway”, even though I was able to follow John Reed’s journey through history, I didn’t fully understand it, but the presence of this connective tissue is enough for the story to unfold. feels both sufficiently complete to be autonomous and sufficiently incomplete. that I need more.
Spoilers are over.
I’m curious to see how “The Bone Orchard Mythos” evolves, and not just because I love this kind of cosmic horror story. Lemire and Sorrentino talked about how they wanted to use this series to explore various formats. “Shadow Eater” was a one-shot, “The Passageway” is a graphic novel, and both were told in a way that built on the strengths of their format. “Ten Thousand Black Feathers” is a five-issue miniseries, but in interviews they also mentioned the possibility of doing maxiseries and short stories. Given Jeff Lemire’s recent serialized stories in his newsletter, I wouldn’t be surprised if we also see stories about “Bone Orchard Mythos” there at some point.
For me, that’s the main appeal of “The Bone Orchard Mythos”, that it’s loose enough that creators can take it wherever they want to explore, that it’s open to formats other than the monthly format usual. “The Passageway” didn’t have to be a graphic novel, but by committing to this format, the creators told the story in a way that only a graphic novel can.
Final Verdict: 8.5 – ‘The Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway’ sees Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino build on the common interests they discovered while working on ‘Gideon Falls’, but on a canvas where they can explore, augment and reinvent as good seems to them. There is a vitality that shines through on every page.