Pullbox Reviews: Underground, collected edition- An early look at a claustrophobic thriller

Park Ranger and avid caver Wesley Fischer is on a one-woman mission to stop Stillwater Cave from being turned into a tourist trap, but public opinion is not on her side. When violent locals begin blasting in the cave, Wes and a fellow ranger investigate. A confrontation between both parties spirals into a deadly chase, forcing the two rangers to flee deep under the Kentucky mountains. First to escape pursuers, and then the deadliest threat- the cave itself!

Not all comics have to be about alien invasions and extradimensional threats. Mountain leveling combat between herculean heroes & villains is cool and all, but every now and then what we really need is a smaller, more confined story about ordinary folk doing maybe-not-so ordinary things. Things like leading a group of armed thugs on a chase through a largely unmapped cave system, dodging bullets, fighting off hypothermia, and pondering all of the ordinary things they could’ve been doing that day.

Welcome to a day in the lives of Park Rangers Wesley & Seth.

I’m not gonna lie, when I started reading Underground, I had it in my head that there was bound to be some lurking subterranean horror lying in wait. Could be that I’ve been reading too much Lovecraft lately, or maybe that I just need to broaden my horizons a little. However you decide to read into the twists and turns in my headspace (mind your step), it worked out pretty well for me because this was a great read.

The brainchild of co-creators Steve Lieber & Jeff Parker, Underground goes deep into the world of spelunking and cave exploration. While I was reading, there were a few things that occurred to me. First of all, there’s no way that I was ever cut out for cave diving. Second, Jeff Parker has a gift for writing very natural sounding dialogue. The people in this book are talking about things that people idly chat about every day, and they sound like real people while they’re doing it. That sounds like it’d be a pretty obvious thing, right? Well I can tell you that writing made up conversations between fictional characters and making it all sound natural is anything but easy. As Wes and Seth are making their way through Stillwater’s underground cave network, they spend a lot of time chatting. Most of that is Wes, the more experienced spelunker by far, doing her best to keep Seth’s mind occupied on less life-threatening things in an effort to keep him calm. The result is some occasionally hilarious chitchat that was easy to read and more entertaining than I was expecting.

Backing up Parker’s grasp of Underground’s unique perspective, Steve Lieber has to be given his due. In comics, there’s often a lot of effort that goes into opening up the space on the page, to prevent the reader from feeling confined in the limited panel space. Lieber takes all of those considerations and kicks them out the window in an example of artistic defenestration. As the story shifts back and forth between the drama above and below ground, Lieber’s work reflects whatever environment he’s working with. Under the bright and shining sun, his panels have a much more open feel to them. Down below, Lieber uses panel arrangements to give readers a feel for the setting. As Wes and Seth are roping down a sheer drop, the panels run vertically. When they’re making their way through a water-filled tunnel with just enough space at the top to breath, the panels are crunched down horizontally. Great layouts aside, Lieber does a great job with character designs. All of the players in this story are given distinct looks and features, and there’s a lot of character shown in facial expressions.

Finishing the look of Underground falls on the head of color artist Ron Chan. On a book like this, given the challenges provided by the environments, the right colorist would be a make or break proposition. It could’ve been easy for Chan to just make the cave scenes dark. It also wouldn’t have done a great job of setting up the story. While much of the underground settings are dark, Chan goes a little farther and uses shades of gray and blue to show that without totally cutting the reader off from the action. It might have been more realistic if we, as readers, weren’t able to see what was happening on the page, but it wouldn’t have been very much fun trying to follow. On the flip side, Chan has a great time with bursts of light in the panels, showing the contrast of the caves’ and their depths.

Underground is a standout kind of story because it takes a pretty mundane thing (conservation vs capitalism), sets it in a confined space, populates it with normal people, and keeps it all entertaining. Like with most people, there really aren’t any hard and fast villains for us to jeer at as even the “bad guys” are occasionally decent folk. It can’t be said to be a “slice of life”, exactly, it is the kind of story that people could actually see themselves in. Or at the very least, you could see yourself reading it.

Which you should.

Read it.

Final Score: 11/13

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