Comics Go Underground…No, Really.
After meeting the gracious and awesome Steve Lieber on Free Comic Book Day last year – I was psyched to pick up the trade paperback of the miniseries Underground, on which he collaborated with Jeff Parker.
The book languished in our box for a while, and has languished at my house for twice as long – while book club reading, job hunting and vacations have taken precedent. So, I was finally able to breeze through the entire thing tonight, and am feeling pretty ambivalent about my first pass.
The story takes place in Marion, Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains, and most of the action is centered on Stillwater Cave, which is probably fictional. But has a pretty cool name. Some of the locals want to turn it into a tourist spot, and Wesley Fischer, our heroine, a spelunker and Park Ranger, is spiritedly resisting such attempts as they will spoil the natural environment or some such nonsense. She’s obviously a hippie with no understanding of how small town economics works.
Well, anyways – madness and gunfights and bat guano ensue!
WHAT’S GOOD HERE
I like Lieber’s artwork. It’s not exceptionally flashy, but I’m really captivated by the emotion and facial variations he uses for his characters. Some of the layout is dynamic as well, and the especially gorgeous and gripping scenes take place in the cave, near the middle of the book. The beginning and end caps provide all the plot set-up and resolution, but all the page turning action falls within the middle. And the beautiful shading by Ron Chan on this portion of the book is glorious. I wish I could say the same for the rest…but if you decide to give this book a read through (which I suggest, with some reservations), you should note how the shading fades as they move closer into the cave and further away from light. It’s quite moody and claustrophobic. When the art and story are working well together, they are extremely effective.
It seems appropriate to pay some compliments to Wesley Fischer, who is an outspoken, strong and knowledgeable main character. The story and book are hers, even if lots of the heroic action sequences take place between the “bad guys” and Seth, the sexy male Park Ranger who ends up being Wesley’s accidental spelunking partner. Of course, there is romantic entanglement between the two, but aside from some implied sex, it didn’t seem to add much to the story. There are some instances when romance isn’t needed and doesn’t work. This is one of those times – there is enough happening that the love story could have easily taken a back seat.
Especially since Seth was never fully realized in the same way as Wesley. Actually, he reminded me quite a bit of your typical female supporting character – easy on the eyes, there to provide an element of danger and risk for the more knowledgeable and experienced Wesley, but without much dimensionality. He’s actually quite a bit like the female love interest in an action movie. Hah.
Which isn’t to say that Underground doesn’t revert to some classic action movie tropes. Seth does usually step up to bust heads and save Wesley from physical danger (even in an underwater cave scene). But Wesley also saves his ass more than once throughout the story as well…so I would say they are just about square. Overall, a nicely rounded tale with some feminist leanings. Wesley is never overly sexualized in her depiction – she’s wearing a Ranger uniform and a headlamp for most of the story, with no outrageous cleavage or upskirt shots. And yet somehow, my husband enjoyed it just as much (perhaps even more) than I did. Imagine that! /snark
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
I’m not gonna say BAD, because I don’t think there’s anything extraordinarily awful in this book, aside from what I consider to be some stereotypical depictions of African-American characters, which certainly gave me a few cringe moments.
Overall, the writing seemed a bit juvenile, and until I looked up other work by Jeff Parker, I wasn’t quite sure why I was feeling so put-off. Turns out he’s the scribe of X-Men: First Class, which is a series I could not for the life of me get on board with, mostly because of the writing. It’s not BAD. It’s just…not that good. The dialogue could be snappier. It explains far too much of the imagery already present in the artwork (pet peeve) and there’s nothing exceptionally compelling or deep about it.
Most of the characters outside of Wesley (who was already conceived by Steve Lieber and crafted into a short story prior to this miniseries) are quite cardboard cutout.
So yes – I wanted to love the story more than I did because the premise is spectacular. But the ending felt like it wrapped everything up far too tidily, more like the conclusion to a children’s flick than a comic book thriller featuring deaths, caves, guns and explosions.
As much as I was praising Chan’s shading in the caves, I will have to denounce his coloring in the rest of the book. Or perhaps, Steve Lieber’s work is just not meant to be colored. Is it possible that some artists work looks better in black and white or with heavy colored shading and nothing else?
I genuinely like Lieber’s inking, so I’m going to HAVE to pass the buck onto Chan for the cartoony coloring. It clashed with the stilted writing and dialogue in some sequences and made me think of a hokey serialized Sunday paper comic strip. But just when I was about to give up all hope – those sequences in the cave arrived and held me captive.
It’s probably possible to simply enjoy the middle part and end (without the prologue) of Underground without all the beginning and end-capping. In fact, that’s probably how I would suggest you read the book. And pick up the Trade Paperback if you can, because it includes the original black and white short story Underground: Fell which appeared in an Image Comics anthology Four Letter Worlds.
ONE LAST NOTE: This book gets big love from me because it’s top three artists are all from Portland, Oregon. So, if you love local books, you should probably pick it up just for that reason. Chances are you could lug it around to Portland comic events and get all three of the collaborators to sign it. Hhmm, that’s not such a bad idea…
Bechdel Test: This trade paperback, while featuring a female main character does NOT pass the women test, does PASS the men test and features three African-American characters with names, but DOES NOT PASS the race test.