Last Exit Before Toll

Written by Neal Shaffer
Penciled by Christopher Mitten
Inked by Dawn Pietrusko
96 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press

When Neal Shaffer and Daniel Krall’s One Plus One debuted last year, readers might remember how excited I was about their first project, with its sense of unease and mystery about it. Now Shaffer’s back with a new graphic novel, Last Exit Before Toll, drawn by Christopher Mitten and Dawn Pietrusko. The immediate question I found myself having was, “Will this just be One Plus Two or something different?” I had no idea just how different that would be.

Charles Pierce is living the average American life; a job that keeps him busy at the office, a wife and teenage daughter waiting for him at home, and no real worries. When his car breaks down in rural Virginia while on the way to a business meeting, though, his life is about to change… but perhaps not in the way that he or you, the reader, would expect.

I think what surprised me the most about Last Exit Before Toll was its defiance in avoiding what the reader thinks will happen next. Those who are expecting a big, violent shoot-em-up or creepy children living in the fields that eat strangers’s eyes (and then steal their toll money) are going to be awfully disappointed. For the longest time I’d convinced myself that it would be something akin to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, where the first two thirds of the book are merely setting up the events of the final third, letting you get a real feel for the locale before something bad happens. It was only when I was able to let those expectations go that I could see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Last Exit Before Toll is a character piece, but one that’s just as much about the location as it is the protagonist. You really get to know this small pocket of peace, and by confounding readers’s expectations even until the conclusion, it’s able to just sneak up on you and provide a strangely satisfying journey. Shaffer showed in One Plus One that he’s able to write characters that can just fade into the background, but he takes it one step further here with entire lives that vanish in the twinkle of an eye.

With a story like Last Exit Before Toll, the script is going to depend a lot on the art to help get those quieter moments across to the reader. I don’t remember encountering Mitten or Pietrusko’s art before, but I was absolutely relieved to see that they were able to pull off everything that Shaffer required of them and more. So much of the story is told through their drawings; a lot of the numbness of Charles’s life comes across through his body language in the early pages of Last Exit Before Toll. Characters move across the page like real people, Mitten not just depending on facial expressions to get a great sense of mood into the book. I was also really happy with Pietrusko’s digital work on Mitten’s pencils; not only the inking, but the fantastic grayscale work that gives the pages a beautiful ink-washed look. Having only looked at electronic pages of Last Exit Before Toll, I was already impressed with the end result; I absolutely cannot wait to see it after it’s gone through the professional printing process.

Last Exit Before Toll is going to be one of those books where I think people will love or hate it, with no in-between. It’s not like many other books on the market right now, and as I said before it seems to deliberately confound your expectations. Those who are looking for something a bit more punchy and fast-moving are going to be really disappointed, and I’ll be blunt: if this review made you think that Last Exit Before Toll sounds a little slow-moving, you may want to just try something else. (There’s always room for more Queen & Country readers, after all.) But for people who are nodding and saying, “Yeah, this sounds good” then definitely pre-order this upcoming graphic novel. I think you’ll be really pleased with the end result. Shipping in November, Last Exit Before Toll is on page 312 of the current Previews. Or, if your retailer prefers, its order code is SEP03 2436.

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Still not convinced? Check out this special twelve page preview of Last Exit Before Toll! (Click on each thumbnail to enlarge the page.)

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