Caving isn’t necessarily the first activity that comes to mind when one thinks of the comic book medium, but writer Jeff Parker and artist Steve Lieber nonetheless took the plunge into the cavernous abyss of “Underground,” their five issue miniseries released by Image Comics.
“Underground,” which finished its fifth and final installment on March 3rd, tells the tale of Wesley Fischer, a park ranger and environmental enthusiast with a particular love for caving. She puts herself squarely at odds against Winston Barefoot, a self-interested businessman with an eye to turn Stillwell Cave into a tourist attraction to boost the local economy, not to mention his own wallet. But their philosophical differences quickly fall by the wayside when Wesley and Seth Ridge, her colleague and potential new boyfriend, find themselves inside of Stillwell Cave alongside a handful of Barefoot’s low-level thugs. What follows is a series of misunderstandings that quickly spirals out of control in the deadliest of ways, thanks not just to the presence of gunmen, but also to the natural dangers of the cave itself.
In celebration of the miniseries’ recent conclusion and in anticipation of the release of the trade paperback in April, CBR News spoke with Lieber and Parker about their work on “Underground.” The creative duo discussed their personal level of satisfaction with how the series turned out, their favorite characters and scenes, the intriguing nature of the book’s environment and possible plans for a sequel.
CBR News: Now that “Underground” is over, I suppose the most important question is this – how happy are you with the way it all turned out?
Steve Lieber: To tell the truth, I kept hoping Parker would work in a dinosaur or a tribe of yetis. [Laughs]
Jeff Parker: I’m so proud, I can’t describe it really. I feel like we’ve put a book out there that pushes out and shows more things that a comics story can do.
Lieber: No, no. I’m thrilled with the book.
What have you been hearing from the readers?
Lieber: The e-mails have been universally enthusiastic and the reviews have been absolutely stellar. I’ve never had a comic this well received before. There have been dozens and dozens of rave reviews.
Parker: Everybody just seems intrigued that I can write characters that don’t fly or shoot beams out of their eyes.
Lieber: I was floored!
Do you have a favorite scene from the series, or one that just stands out to you above the rest?
Lieber: For me, it’s the cave diving scene. I felt horribly claustrophobic just drawing it. For me, that’s the iconic scenario in the book.
Parker: I’d go with that too – I think both of us had to imagine that strongly to pull it off. You’ve got to live that in your head so that the reader will [too]. And I hope it makes lots of people hold their breath as they read it.
How about character-wise – were there any particular characters like Wesley or Seth that you enjoyed working on the most?
Parker: I enjoyed making the leads into something close to real people and not unstoppable forces of power. Wesley may come off as a bit super when she’s in her element, but the rest of the time, she’s prone to making iffy decisions and not good at seeing others’ sides of a situation. Poor Seth is a very capable guy until he gets in the cave, and then he’s kind of helpless. That’s why he really seizes his chance to be of use once he’s out of there.
I also liked writing our “villain,” Winston Barefoot. He’s like a lot of opportunists I’ve seen, always projecting a larger than life persona. But [he’s] not really that bad. In fact, he spews so much bullshit that he probably isn’t sure what he really believes or thinks in an ethical sense. He certainly thinks he’s a good person.
Lieber: Same here. I love the leads, and I hope that came across, but Barefoot was just a hoot to draw. He has the powerbelly!
Speaking of the “villains,” the human antagonists of “Underground” are fueled by a series of escalating misunderstandings. What appealed to you about these types of characters? This isn’t a group of guys looking to settle a score – at least not at first.
Lieber: I’ve got to quote David Simon, co-creator of “The Wire,” who said: “We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme.”
Parker: It feels more real to me. When you read history, or even recent history like an altercation in your local news, the facts as stated often don’t work for you. “They shot that guy because he hit a car, what?” Real conflicts are rarely simple and direct – they tend to snowball, building as one frantic thing triggers another, until order is replaced entirely by chaos. Boy, did I mix some metaphors there!
Anyway, when it’s simplified into bad guys and good guys, then you’re just pushing puppets around and it’s not that interesting to us. I like showing how some people can be manipulated into being worse than they normally would be, and how someone could have the drop on the enemy and then back off. Because that’s more like how real people behave. I’m not saying this is realistic – it’s a very Hollywood story in many respects – but I think readers can extrapolate from hairy situations they’ve been in as they progress through “Underground.”
Lieber: I play out scenarios like this in my head all the time. When you’ve made a big mistake, you’d like to think you’d just stop there and accept the consequences, but it’s a very human thing to double down and make things worse.
The fourth issue of the series is the only one where Harden and his men are entirely absent and the threat of the environment becomes Wesley and Seth’s most prominent enemy. What did you guys enjoy about working on this issue as opposed to the others? What was challenging about it?
Lieber: All of my choices in that issue were made with the goal of constantly ratcheting up the tension and claustrophobia. The cave was the antagonist, and it had to get more and more awful and oppressive. The tough part for me was managing the pacing.
Parker: It’s a real battle of inches at that point – you have to show how every move counts or works against you. And that nature is much, much more powerful a threat than some rednecks with a gun.
What kind of research did you have to do to do to come up with ideas like the methane from bat guano setting ablaze or the chimney climb in issue #5?
Lieber: I just consumed everything about caves I could get my hands on: blogs, books, videos, magazines.
Parker: I think Lieber first brought up the bit about the methane problem in caves, leading to the exploding bat shit scene, which we’ll be forever proud of. Steve passed on everything he was reading, and then I got some more things from Powell’s City of Books here in downtown Portland. Doing that kind of research is what gets you to one of the best goals – showing people something they haven’t seen before, or at least not a lot of.
After telling a story about how bad it can get inside of a cave, do either of you have any interest in going caving yourselves or have you thoroughly spooked yourselves away from that prospect?
Parker: We’d both toured show caves, and then about halfway through the series, we drove up to Mt. Saint Helen’s and walked through the lava tube known as Ape Cave. It’s not the same kind of cave, but experiencing the dynamics of it was very insightful. What you can hear, what you can see, how much you trip and bump your head.
Lieber: Show caves, sure, but nothing that requires single rope technique. I’m a tubby comics guy – I don’t belong at the end of anyone’s rope!
On a creative level, what did you enjoy about exploring caves as the central environment of “Underground?”
Parker: To really explore an environment in several aspects rather than it being a background. Making the environment a character is something I don’t get to do much, and it was very rewarding.
Lieber: For me, it was a chance to really depict a thrilling aspect of the natural world. I love the forms in a limestone cave, and I had a lot of fun pushing light and shadow further than I ever have before. It was also exciting to work with Ron Chan, whose colors did so much to reinforce the feel of the cave sequences.
At the end of “Underground,” Wesley decides to jump in “all the way” by spearheading the opening of Stillwater Cave to the public. What does that ending represent to you? Is it a happy ending for Wesley? Is she compromising herself? What’s your take?
Lieber: I think compromise was inevitable – and frankly, that environment wasn’t so pristine anymore.
Parker: She’s being pragmatic at that point. The damage has been done, and the one edge she has is all the “cred” for living through what she did. There was probably enormous pressure to let her call the shots on how the show cave would come about, and by taking the reins, she can at least do it right, or in a way that is the least damaging.
And she manages to accomplish something she now sees a need for – educating the public about places like this in hopes they won’t run roughshod over them. It’s the same ethical dilemma of zoos. Should animals be kept like this? Is the trade-off of spreading knowledge worth it? Does it at least allow us to protect some endangered ones? And so on. I’m sure some readers see her as selling out, but to me, that’s what makes it more real. Just like the way Winston Barefoot is out and doing his thing again in no time – that’s the way things really work.
The very ending indicates that Wesley and Seth aren’t planning to stay in Marion, Kentucky. Are you leaving the door open for further adventures with these two, or do you think their story is sufficiently wrapped by the end of “Underground?”
Lieber: I can easily see telling another story with Wes and Seth, or any of the supporting characters. When that could happen is at the mercy of Parker’s and my overstuffed schedules, but I know I’d have a great time doing more.
Parker: I too have some ideas, but at the moment, we’ve been captivated by something that is a more gun-thriller story coming from a different place.
Lieber: Unfortunately, I think it’s too soon to say anymore about that one.
Fair enough. The “Underground” trade paperback comes out next month – how do you think the story reads in one cohesive chunk as opposed to single issues?
Lieber: The book is paced like an accelerating freight train, and I think that’ll be particularly clear in the collected edition.
Parker: I think that’s going to be the way to read it. Each scene builds or counters the one before it, and the timing works well that way.
Do you have any plans for extras to include in the “Underground” trade?
Parker: We’re working on that right now! I want a little commentary to explain our approach.
Lieber: I’m looking forward to including the eight page “pilot,” a short story I wrote and drew for the “Four Letter Worlds” anthology years ago just to see if I could sustain visual interest in cave story.
Do you guys have anything else to add about the completion of “Underground?”
Lieber: I just want to thank everyone who supported us in getting this book out there. We know the market wasn’t exactly clamoring for park rangers and claustrophobia, so it feels great that the book has connected with so many readers.
“Underground,” written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Steve Lieber, will be collected as a 128-page full color trade paperback on April 21st, 2010.
Check back on Tuesday for a chance to read the entire first issue of “Underground” right here on CBR.