Underground #1 Review

I received the opportunity to read an advance copy of Underground #1. The creative team for this title is comprised of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber. Both are members of Periscope Studio. I figured I would do a modified review for this issue. Normally, The Revolution delivers detailed synopses in our reviews. However, we only do that with issues that have already been released to the general public. On any preview issues, The Revolution avoids giving too many details about the story so that the issue will not be spoiled. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at Underground #1.

Creative Team
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Steve Lieber
Colorist: Ron Chan

Story Rating: 8 Night Girls out of 10
Art Rating: 7 Night Girls out of 10
Overall Rating: 7.5 Night Girls out of 10

Underground is a five issue mini-series published by Image. Underground #1 is solicited as the “Diamond Gem of the Month” in the July Previews on page 132. Underground #1 will be shipped on September 23, 2009. Now, as long-time followers of The Revolution know, I do not read that many indie titles. And it is also no secret that I greatly prefer super hero themed comic books to any other genre. I have to be upfront and honest about the type of comic book that I prefer. Therefore, when I first checked out Underground #1 I figured that this probably would not be a title for me.

Jeff Parker handles the writing duties. I like Parker’s work. I am a huge fan of what Parker has been doing on Agents of Atlas, so I figured that no matter the genre, I would probably enjoy the writing. I am not familiar at all with Steve Lieber. And, I will admit that I generally do not find “indie” styled artwork to be particularly appealing. So, I figured that it was probably unlikely that I would dig the look of Underground #1.

The story takes place in Marion, Kentucky. Marion is a small rural town whose economy has been devastated by the recent recession. Marion’s pride and joy is Stillwater Cave. A local businessman, Winston Barefoot, is set to make Stillwater Cave a show cave and open it up to the public. The belief is that such an exotic and incredible cave will attract spelunkers and tourists and provide a wonderful boost to Marion’s flagging economy.

However, Stillwater Cave is currently under jurisdiction of the Kentucky State Parks Division. Stillwater Cave is currently closed to the public. Only cavers with special permits are allowed inside Stillwater Cave. Plenty of expensive excavation is required to make most of Stillwater Cave’s large rooms accessible to the average tourist. Barefoot is willing to foot the bill to carry out this endeavor. Of course, Barefoot’s hotels and store will benefit from the increased tourism to Stillwater Cave.

Wesley Fischer is on the opposite end of this debate as she believes that Stillwater Cave is a very special and fragile environment. That tourists would cause the cave to wear down and degrade. And that the cave is home to rare plants and animals that are in a delicate balance. Wes feels that these great caves are the last frontier for discovery and that humans cannot just plow through them in the name of money like humans have with the forests.

That is your main story in a nutshell without spoiling some of the twists and turns in Underground #1. There is a smaller plotline involving Wes and her co-worker, Seth. To be sure, Parker employs a slow burn approach with Underground #1. And that is a gutsy call to deliver a debut issue that has such a controlled level of pacing. Most writers go for a quickly paced debut issue that is designed to smack the reader in the face with the hope of hooking the reader and getting them to come back for the second issue.

Parker eschews that path with Underground #1. Instead, the reader gets a story that moves at a steady pace. But, that is not a bad thing. That is because the plotting on Underground #1 is well done. Parker crafts a well focused and tight story. At no point does Parker lose focus or give the reader the impression that he is wasting time. The story moves forward in a methodical fashion and nicely builds piece by piece toward the climactic ending.

What I appreciated the most is that Parker does not hide the ball from the reader. Parker is upfront and clearly sets forth the mission statement for this title. Underground #1 is an effective set-up issue that introduces the main characters in a concise, but pleasant fashion and then quickly gets the story moving forward. Parker does not attempt to draw out the story and waste an entire issue performing set-up. It is not easy for a writer to set into place the characters and the basic story directive and then actually deliver some solid plot progression all in the first issue. But, Parker manages to do so in fine fashion.

What was particularly impressive was how Parker handled the debate surrounding the opening Stillwater Cave to the public. Instead of simply standing on a soapbox and preaching to the reader how mankind needs to preserve nature; Parker takes the time and effort to show both sides of the debate in a fair fashion. That is such a rarity in comic books these days.

Obviously, Wes is the good guy and, therefore, the reader is supposed to agree with her view that Stillwater Cave should be kept preserved under the protection of the State Park Division. Still, that does not mean that the opposite side of the debate has no standing or weight. It makes perfect sense that the locals of this small town would side with Barefoot on this debate. The reader can completely understand that given the current sorry state of the economy that the locals would be more concerned with boosting the economy of their small town versus saving some exotic species of animals and plants.

Parker also does a fine job with the sub-plot dealing with Wes and Seth sleeping together. This plotline is handled in a realistic fashion. Anyone who has slept with a co-worker knows full well the kinds of problems and tension that such an act can cause.

The character work and dialogue on Underground #1 were both well done. Parker’s dialogue had an enjoyable flow that easily pulled me into this issue. It was a nice casual style of dialogue without ever descending into the “cutesy” indie style dialogue that never seems to go anywhere. Each character has a well defined external voice.

Parker also manages to give the reader a good sense of the basic personalities of the main characters in this issue. The chemistry between the characters was fairly strong and that is a rarity for debut issues.

Parker displays a nice sense of humor in this issue. The scene with Wes in her bathroom standing in front of her mirror and practicing different lines to use on Seth was hilarious. Parker’s humor was well timed and placed and never seemed forced. Nor does the humor ever take the reader out of the flow of the story.

While there is little in the way of action, Parker compensates by creating plenty of tension in the reader with the scenes in the cave in the second half of this issue. Parker then throws a surprise moment at the reader that leads to a solid hook ending.

Now, to be honest, Parker’s strong writing on Underground #1 came as no surprise to me. What was such a surprise was Steve Lieber’s artwork. It was much better than what I was expecting from an “indie” comic book. As I have said before, more often than not I just do not enjoy “indie” styled artwork. I find that most “indie” artwork looks too rushed, sketchy, dull and boring. That is not the case with what Steve Lieber delivers in Underground #1.

Lieber employs a nice clean style of art that effectively and clearly conveys the story to the reader. Lieber is equally adept at crafting shadowy and foreboding scenes in the cave as he is at drawing lighter comedic scenes. What was particularly enjoyable about Lieber’s artwork is his ability to convey the emotions in a character’s face and through their body language. This helps to boost the story since Parker can rely on Lieber’s artwork to deliver the emotion and reactions of the various characters instead of relying on excessive dialogue or inner narration.

Now, the downside to Underground #1 is that there is not much action at all in this issue. If you are the type of reader who craves action scenes and a fast paced read then Underground #1 is not for you. Another obstacle for Underground #1 is the subject matter. Some reader simply may not be interested in a story that centers on caves and spelunking. It is certainly a niche theme that may not necessarily possess broad appeal.

Underground #1 was a quality read. I was surprised that I enjoyed this issue as much as I did. I thought that the fact that I vastly prefer super hero themed comic books would have prevented me from appreciating this issue. But, it did not. It is a credit to the honest and strong effort that Parker and Lieber put forth on this issue that they were able to grab my attention and get me interested in a non-super hero related story.

I would think that readers who enjoy indie comics would certainly like Underground #1. However, I would also recommend Underground #1 to readers who normally would not bother with a comic book dealing with this genre. If you are a reader who enjoys a story that revolves around good character work and strong dialogue then you should certainly give Underground #1 a try.