December 28, 2010

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Underground

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
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In a small Kentucky town of Stillwater, a magnificent cave is waiting to be explored--for science or for profit. As the town is torn asunder by the controversy, Wes and her co-worker/lover Seth are about to end up learning more about the dangers of caves than they anticipated. It seems not everyone is willing to wait for the government to decide the fate of the cave, and before you know it, the stakes keep getting higher. As the danger rises, Seth and Wes must travel further...underground.

The fight between preserving natural resources and allowing for economic development in a poor economy is an explosive issue, and works perfectly as the setup for the drama in Underground. Without being preachy or ham-fisted, Parker and Lieber expose this issue, coming down on the side of preservation, of course, but never doing in a way that's insulting or demeaning to the real-life folks who could benefit from a tourist attraction that, were it real, I'd probably go visit. Sure the villains of the comic are associated with development, but it's what they do not what they want to do that taints them with evil. Part of why this comic is so good is that everyone in it is human, even the ones firing the guns and explosives.

The main reason this comic echoes like the bats on the cover, however, is Lieber's artwork. While I love Jeff Parker, the serious nature of the action in this comic, combined with the need for secrecy, takes away one of his best features, namely snappy dialog. When Parker gets to be freewheeling, it's every bit as good as we'd expect from him. The page-long joke about what to say after a one-night stand is one of Parker's best pages, aided and abetted by Lieber's changing facial expressions. He also gets a few good side jokes in here and there, but for the most part, Parker is the straight man, allowing Lieber's visuals to drive the story and giving us just enough dialog to know what the characters are thinking or doing. His scripting here is solid, but it doesn't quite have the usual magic.

That's perfectly okay because adding too much patter would only distract the reader away from the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere that dominates the story. I actually think it's a credit to Parker's skill as a writer that he recognizes this and doesn't try to overreach or force his usual stamp on the proceedings. Once we step underground as the heroes try to escape within the deadly, dark labyrinth of the cave, it's Lieber's show.

And oh, my, what a show it is! Lieber did amazing things with white space in the two Whiteout books, and he's at it again here in Underground. Though there is color in this comic, it's monochromatic within the cave itself, which was a very good choice. I think the ideal choice would have been no color at all, and I mean that with no disrespect to colorist Ron Chan, who does a fine job, especially by not overdoing things, either. (Like Parker, he's stepping aside to let Lieber do the job.) I just think that there's a lot to be said for letting the art itself do all the work here, because the art is perfect for the story.

There are so many excellent art decisions by Lieber that I almost don't know where to begin. He keeps people in the shadows, he only allows for the lighting provided by the characters, so if they can't see, neither can we. There might be a bit of cheating now and again in the name of clarity, but overall, this is a comic that captures exactly how I think it might feel to be trapped in a life and death struggle within a cave. The panels are kept close together, as are all of the character, for much of the action. Only when we are outside or when the cave itself allows for it, are we allowed to have visual breathing room. When unexpected things happen (sorry to be vague but I want to avoid spoiling this excellent book), we are shown that sense of surprise by having the action jumping out at the reader. This is especially true in the case of that most frequent of cave dwellers, bats, who of course have an important cameo within the proceedings.

In fact, Lieber does such a good job that at one point, where the Wes and Sean are in a desperate situation, I actually started gasping for air myself. For just the briefest moment, I was right in the story. I mean I literally felt like I was there. I was in the cave, in a life and death situation, wondering if I'd breathed my last. It only lasted for a moment and was gone, but in that moment, I could not have been more in the comic if Lieber had sketched me there.

Not a big deal, you say? Understand something. This never happens to me. Lieber managed something that I'm not even sure I've experienced before. That's how good the art in this book is. If you don't leave your reading of Underground feeling as though you've explored the cave right along with the characters, then I don't know what's wrong with you. (Personally, I'm still wiping off the bat guano.)

Underground reminds me a bit of the end of Tom Sawyer, where Tom and Becky are trying to evade Injun Joe. There's a sense of terror that both share, because not only are the characters (who happen to be male and female and reluctant romantic partners) trying to evade a killer, they also must face the prospects of an unforgiving aspect of nature that doesn't really care if it kills anyone who enters. Like the Antarctic in Whiteout, the cave is very much a character here.

The difference between Whiteout and Underground, however, is that unlike the first, which features deceptions and calculation, Underground's escalating danger is driven by unintended consequences. The devil is in the details that can't be predicted. Change one thing here or there, and none of the story of Underground's cave section happens. Yet--and this is the brilliant part of Parker's plotting--at no time does the action feel forced or contrived. Each little step that leads to a dangerous chase to the death feels like the most logical thing the characters could do. This continues right through the ending, in which some compromises are made and each party on the warring sides gets a bit of what they wanted. Parker gives us a satisfying conclusion that shows nothing is as simple as it seems--and with a story grounded so strongly in real world issues, that's exactly what Underground needed.

When I got my copy of Underground, I knew I would like it. I didn't know just how much I would like it. This comic shows just how the medium can be adapted to any story the creators wish to tell, and would be a prime exhibit in my defense of comics as more than just superheroes. I liked this one from beginning to end, and I can't think of anyone who wouldn't. Underground captures the feel of being in a cave, and anyone who's ever gone underground themselves, even in a tour group, will recognize that feel instantly. Undergound gets my highest possible recommendation. Find this one and read it. It's even available for free from the authors, if you want to sample it first. I guarantee you'll like it enough to donate. I liked it so much, I'm even thinking of giving them more money!