Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Underground #1 Advance Review


Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Steve Lieber

Underground is an upcoming five issue mini-series from Image Comics and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of the first issue to review. I say lucky because this is written by Jeff Parker, who has been receiving plenty of critical acclaim with his Agents of Atlas, and illustrated by Steve Lieber, who won an Eisner award along with Greg Rucka in the pages of Whiteout (which was recently made into a feature film).

While I don't think I have had the pleasure of seeing Lieber's work before, I've heard nothing but good things about him and his reputation precedes him. However, I am huge fan of Jeff Parker (I was one of the few people that bought the severely underrated Exiles title), so I am coming into this title with huge expectations based on that fact alone. Hit the jump for the whole review (with some spoilers for those worried about that kind of thing) and to find out how you can read the first issue of this series as well.

The issue opens with the first three pages being a healthy mix of dreams, omens, and a television report that works as an effective (if somewhat confusing) storytelling device to define the setting and initial conflict of the story. From this, we learn that this comic takes place in the city of Marion, Kentucky, which has an extensive cave system called Stillwater and that these caves are closed to the public. However, parts of the town want to open it up once more so tourists and cash will start flowing into the city again while others want to protect its delicate ecosystem that would be damaged otherwise. One such person is state park ranger, Wesley Fischer, the protagonist of this book.

Wesley wakes up from the dream that opened the book and we learn that she has just spent the night with one of her co-workers, Seth. The situation is very awkward for the both of them, and Parker plays it off in funny ways, such as her inner monologue after she wakes up, and as the new couple tries to have breakfast without starting a rumor mill around the town. We are also introduced to some of the other colourful characters that inhabit the city. One of the characters is local businessman Winston Barefoot, who is spearheading the movement to open the caves and gets into a confrontation with Wesley.

With their awkward "morning after" status finally settled, Seth and Wesley are in for what seems like any other day of looking over the state parks. Seth, however, runs into two people that have broken into the sealed-off caves and (unbeknownst to him) planting explosives around it. When he confronts them, they get very nervous and accidentally set off the explosives, injuring Seth in the process. The intruders leave him there and report back to the person that had sent them there in the first place, Winston Barefoot, while Wesley goes down to investigate the explosion.

One of my few complaints with this issue is that while it delivers an interesting setup, it still suffers from "1st Issue Syndrome". A lot of time is spent establishing the characters, the setting, and the mood, but until the very last few pages, there's not a whole lot of action to move the plot forward. I'm not completely sure what the direction of the series is going to be: is it just going to be an adventure comic as the two rangers explore the caves? Or is it going to be more of a political drama/thriller?

Where the book shines, however, is in the character development. Parker does an incredible job of establishing the personalities of the people that inhabit this comic and you become instantly attached to them. It speaks to the strength of the writer that you have two groups arguing about what they should do about the cave and you sympathize with both sides of the argument. This is helped by Lieber's clean and stylized art. Lieber has a perfect handle on facial expressions and the script gives him plenty of room to shine. Another interesting thing is that the art shifts colours the moment a scene takes place underground, which works incredibly well at conveying a feeling of claustrophobia that the other scenes don't have.

Verdict - Check It. The characters in this comic are great. They act and feel completely real, carrying the weight of the book so far. The problem comes from the plot, which at this stage is only a setup and I can see how it might turn off some people.

Luckily, you can judge this for yourself by going to the book's official page, which has the complete first issue for FREE (on the right, there should be an option to read the black and white .pdf version of it). Do yourself a favor and check out this book, you might just like it.

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GhostRiderRules said...

Long time reader, first time poster:

I pre-ordered this myself and I can't wait. Thanks for the review and great site.

Matt Ampersand said...

@GhostRiderRules, No, thank you, for commenting.

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