Going "Underground" with Jeff Parker & Steve Lieber

Mon, August 10th, 2009 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Josh Wigler, Staff Writer

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Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber are going "Underground," and while they aren't supplying their readers with flashlights, they've got the next best thing available: a free look at their very first issue. The writer-artist pair responsible for the upcoming five-issue miniseries have posted a black-and-white copy of "Underground" #1 on their official website, providing readers with what Lieber describes as the most "informed order" possible.

CBR News caught up with the creators to discuss the story of "Underground," how it came to be, why they decided to release the issue online and their plans for the series going forward.

Story continues below

Underground
"Underground" #1 on sale in September

CBR: Tell us about the story of "Underground."

STEVE LIEBER: Wesley Fisher and Seth Ridge are park rangers in Marion, Kentucky, a small town without much in the way of jobs or opportunity – but they do have Stillwater Cave, a huge, magnificently decorated cave that Wes wants to keep pristine. Some folks in town want it opened to the public as a show cave – get some tourists, bring in some money. A conflict in the cave with some local guys that should've stopped at words spirals out of control, and before long, Wes and Seth are running for their lives through the dark. That cave is a dangerous, unforgiving environment, and even a small mistake can easily lead to horrible injury or death.

Can you describe Wesley, Seth and some of the other important characters in the book?

JEFF PARKER: Wesley practically grew up in caves. Her parents were adventurous types who kept her camping, rock climbing and caving. After she became a park ranger, she pushed and pulled every string to get assigned to the park in Kentucky where the closed-off Stillwater Cave is. While she's been embraced by her fellow rangers, she's an outsider in Marion – concerned about protecting a natural environment while most of them are concerned about survival, period.

Seth Ridge is also a ranger, and at the beginning of our story, he wakes up with Wesley. This creates some awkward tension for the two, and leads to them being in the cave when things start going wrong.

Our catalyst for these events is Winston Barefoot, a local entrepreneur who is also rooting for Stillwater to become a show cave, because tourism will benefit him greatly. He's not above sending a couple of men to do a little blasting inside to facilitate things, either. Unfortunately, most of the men are ex-cons who don't have the best judgment in the world.

What's the tone you're striking for with the series?

JP: "Down-to-Earth" also works literally in this case, but that's the kind of thriller it is. This is much more realistic than most of the adventures I write.

"Underground" #1 on sale in September

SL: One of the things that made me want to do the story was how many awful ways there are to get hurt, and how incredibly scary a real cave can be. Who needs another Guardian of the Lost City of Blahblah when your hero can be caught in a rock fall, stuck on his back, one arm trapped under a half ton boulder, headlamp failing, and the steady drip of acidic limestone water falling on his head, beginning to burn away at the skin on his temple?

One of those ethical debates in “Underground” is the right of man versus the rights of the planet, presented by Barefoot's plan to turn the caves into an attraction for the local economy. Is there an easy answer to this debate? Will the question of man versus nature intensify throughout "Underground?"

JP: There isn't an easy answer here; both sides are right. That's the way the world really is, dichotomies exist. I won't spoil it, but we do reach a resolution.

SL: One of the things I really like about Jeff's story is that he didn't write a mustache-twirling villain. Reasonable people can disagree about the issues raised in the story. Ideally, they shouldn't try to murder each other in a cavern hundreds of feet below the earth – but I guess that's part of our national conversation as well.

What compels you both about the cast and setting of "Underground?" What are some of the toys you get to play with as a storyteller when dealing with these massive caverns?

JP: I love being able to draw upon real people I've known and use the kind of motivations that drive most of us. I like presenting danger the way it really is – no one is jumping through the air holding a pistol sideways "gangsta" style, shooting up places like it's a John Woo movie. But when a shaky hand does pull out a gun, it has that feeling of threat and impending chaos like it might if we found ourselves in that situation. Few of us are used to stuff like this – no one ever really knows what to do, and things can go really wrong really fast.

SL: I enjoy the characters and the environment. My favorite thing to draw is nature and all the insanely cool shapes it creates. And "Underground" lets me play with shadow in a way I never have before.

How did "Underground" go from the idea phase to becoming a full-fledged comic book?

"Underground" #1 on sale in September

SL: It started on a train ride where I'd read an essay about caving by Tim Cahill. I immediately knew the scenarios he described could make a great comic. I let the idea stew for a while, read up on cavers, bought a few instructional videos. The more I learned, the more I wanted to do the story. I even wrote and drew a sort of "pilot episode" that ran in Image's "Four Letter Worlds" anthology, but I couldn't figure out what made the characters tick. That's where Jeff Parker came in with his boast of "I can write anything! Caves?"

Steve, you've worked on stories in remote settings before with "Whiteout." What interests you about these remote settings – essentially the ends of the Earth in many ways – as an artist, as a storyteller and as a reader?

SL: As an artist, well, I like to draw them. [laughs] Ice and karst both do amazing things. It's a challenge to get them across in pen and ink, so it's really satisfying when a page comes together. As a storyteller and a reader, I like how extreme environments push characters to extremes. When an environment doesn't leave anyone any easy options, you get to find out what someone's really made of.

You guys released online a black-and-white version of “Underground” #1. Can you explain the thought process behind that decision – what makes putting the first issue online a good idea?

JP: I don't think anyone knew what to expect from this project, so it seemed a good idea to give a fair amount to read, enough to get a real feel.

SL: I've been hugely impressed by the web comics I read, particularly those of our studio mates Erika Moen and Dylan Meconis. It's been clear that trusting their readers enough to put the story online has helped them build a close relationship with those readers. We also wanted to give the retailers enough info to make an informed order, and you don't get much more informed than, "Here's the whole issue."

Are you happy with the response thus far?

JP: It's been terrific. I've been blown away with the reception.

SL: Twenty-one positive reviews that I've seen, months before the book hits the stands. No negative. Does buzz get any better than that?

"Underground" #1 on sale in September

If you had to guess, what types of readers do you expect will be drawn to "Underground?"

JP: I think this can appeal to a broad audience, and pull in people who don't often read comics. We've presented it in a very direct storytelling manner – you should be able to put "Underground" in front of a non-comics savvy friend or relative and trust that they'll be able to get into it.

SL: Oh yeah. It's a total gateway book.

Should reader reaction warrant it, would you consider working on sequel projects, or even continuing "Underground" as an ongoing?

JP: I have an idea how a sequel could work, but for now I'm happy with it self-contained.

SL: Agreed. One project at a time is enough.

Along with colorist Ron Chan, "Underground" is produced entirely within Periscope Studios. How does working together in the same studio effect the finished product of the comic book?

SL: It's all upside on the results. Plus, sometimes you need to dope-slap a collaborator, and it's handy to be able to do that in person when the urge strikes. Just walk up behind 'em and whop!

JP: Generally, I'm an enormous pain in the ass and Steve and Ron probably wish this were not in close quarters.

"Underground" #1 hits stores on September 23. You can find out more about the series and read the entire first issue for free over at www.undergroundthecomic.com.

TAGS:  underground, image comics, jeff parker, steve lieber

 
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