Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist/Cover artist: Steve Lieber
Colors: Ron Chan
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US
While writer Jeff Parker’s name is a fairly prominent one at Marvel Comics these days, it was the strength of the artist’s reputation on this creator-owned book that caught my attention and drew me in. I’ve been a fan of Steve Lieber’s work since reading Whiteout about a decade ago, and any new work from this talent is cause to celebrate. Underground is no exception. Given the title, the plot and characters are fittingly down to earth. While the plot incorporates action and a level of tension one doesn’t usually encounter in everyday life, there are other elements in the core conflict that are quite familiar and credible. I’m most interested in the conflict between conservationism and community economics, as it’s easy to see and appreciate both sides’ arguments. Ultimately, what sells the story are the characters, and they’re quite well realized, both in concept and visually.
Stillwater Cave is a natural wonder, featuring untouched, millennia-old rock formations and serving as a habitat for a delicate array of life. Park ranger Wesley Fischer is determined to preserve its natural beauty and symbiotic balance, not just because it’s her job but because she believes in her cause. Unfortunately, residents of the local town, which has served as an economic punching bag for generations, support the opportunistic Winston Barefoot’s plan to transform Stillwater Cave into a tourist attraction, a move that promises to bring money and jobs to the community. Fischer faces the enviable position of being the outsider with an unpopular position and must contend with local politics and new developments in her personal life as an explosive (literally) issue looms.
One expecting the kind of rough, gritty style that Lieber brought to Whiteout and other projects will be somewhat surprised to find a slightly more polished look. His style still shines through; Lieber’s eye for anatomy is second to none. Wesley, the heroine of the story, isn’t an imposing figure, so all of her presence and power has to come from somewhere else. Lieber inscribes her determination (and her frustrations and fears) on her face clearly. He portrays her as fit, but at no time does he sexualize her, even as he rises from her lover’s bed. Ron Chan’s colors walk a fine line. They’re not bright or garish, but neither are they artificially dark or muted. The result is that there’s a more genuine, realistic look, reinforcing the realistic tone that the line art establishes. The scenes in the cave are done in a monochromatic style, and it works quite well in conveying the dark, dank qualities of the underground setting.
I found Winston Barefoot to be an interesting character. I like that he’s designed to look like a typical Caucasian fat cat while his name and attire are used to project an image of cultural leadership and community-mindedness. It’s clear to the reader and the protagonist that he’s an opportunistic creep, and that’s fine. I can accept that the members of the community see something else but really, they need to see something else. Barefoot represents hope in a hopeless situation.
My one qualm with the book is an incredibly minor one, but it did make for some confusion as I made my way through the first few pages of the book. Wesley isn’t exactly a common name for a woman (to all those women out there named Wesley… s’lovely name, don’t get me wrong), so the fact that the first reference to her name isn’t pair clearly with the blonde ranger threw me for a bit of a loop. Fortunately, IDs all become clear within a few pages, but it did make for a perplexing dream sequence on the first three pages.
One has to give parker a lot of credit for this script, as he’s been building his reputation in the comics industry for years on fantastic fiction, and especially with some playful, light super-hero storytelling at Marvel Comics. Underground represents a significant shift in tone and subject matter for the writer, demonstrating a greater depth and range on his part. I have to admit, I can understand why he teamed with Lieber for this project, as in some ways, Underground has quite a few traits in common with Whiteout. Both feature an unusual locale, a small community and a female protagonist in a position of authority. 8/10
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