Going Underground in the Thirties

Posted by on February 24th, 2011 at 3:27 PM

The world’s history keeps turning and many era’s embed themselves in the fascination of man, rich with history and events. One of those singular timeframes is the Great Depression in early thirties America. The Wall Street crash of 1929 set off a chain of worldwide events that led to an economic downfall resulting in an almost unseen loss of jobs, deflation and low profits led to a rise of poverty scaling the peaks of Mount Everest. The rise of capitalism snuffed by its own machinery. Against this background, the Belgian duo of writer Pierre De Jaeger and artist Wauter Mannaert play off the tale of their debut Underground. New talent is always a joy to discover so I dove eagerly into the book.

Harold is a builder of musical instruments, one of the many jobless vagabonds roaming the countryside; hopping on trains, living less of a romantic life than the novels and movies postdepression would like us to believe. In a moment of supreme luck, he lands a job at a factory at a deserted stretch of coastal land. After making a mistake, he gets reassigned to the basement, shuffling coal where he – by accident – stumbles across a community hidden away in a vast underground network of tunnels. These stowaways all chose to wait out the Great Depression, living off what they can farm underground and steal from the factory. Will Harold decide to stay underground? And what is the great mystery that surrounds the mysterious symbols that adorn this underground cave system?

Underground starts out rather well, showcasing nicely the desperation of the thirties of twentieth century America in its first few pages. Harold hopping a ride on a train is a well known image of those times but it never misses its effect. The grumble and mumble of the other vagabonds sets the tone for an uneasy journey, all headed for the factory where there are supposed to be job openings. Once in the factory though, the outside world is left  to the side and the scene shifting is limited to the factory, the underground tunnel network and the villa of the factory owners, overlooking the industrial complex. Though many characters have their sob stories, the Great Depression as a setting is almost completely ignored and serves only as a plot element and rationale to 1) get the protagonist into the place of action and 2) provide a reason for the discovered community to turn their backs on the world and retreat underground.

note: though the drawings in the book are inked, I couldn’t find any preview pages online, only pencil shots were available at Mannaert’s blog.

The Credit Crisis started in 2007 and which metamorphized into the Financial Crisis still lingers on today and would provide ample opportunity for parrallels with the Great Depression but Pierre De Jaeger ignores this reflection completely opting to go for a straightforward adventure story with a fantasy twist. And even there he is not completely convincing. The introduction of the search for the primordial soup by a bunch of unscrupulous scientists comes out of left field and feels forced upon the underground community plot almost as if the author couldn’t either contain his enthousiasm for a good old fashioned pulp tale or either felt bored by his own ‘underground community’ plot. The tunnel network also consists of strange hyroglyphics, supposedly forming a map to the primordial soup but as to the origin of the hyroglyphics and the connection to the soup, all is left unsaid and it reeks once more of  a necessary plot element to ease characters onto the next scene. It all feels rather clumsy and stitched together.

What De Jaeger does have is a good ear for dialogue. The characters presented feel like real people and their interaction is fun and breezy. However lackluster the plot is, the dialogue at least carries it further than it deservers to be carried. The interaction of Harold and his love interest is playful and dynamic and characters don’t talk like they are imported from a movie but like real people with their own lifes and motivations.

The artwork of Wauter Mannaert only enhances the personal feel that is the main drawback of Underground. Feeling like a cross between French comics master Frederik Peeters (largely known from Blue Pills in the States I’d imagine) and Philippe Dupuy (another European great, his Get a Life published by Drawn & Quarterly). Mannaert is an illustrator, experimental musician and world traveler. As a comics artist, he is still finding his footing but for a first graphic novel Underground is pretty remarkable. His linework is fluid and precise while finding a middle ground between reality and cartoon. Certain character designs tend to lend itself better for this approach and Mannaert sometimes holds on a bit too much to realism in the facial work (I’m thinking mostly of Dorgan and Mathilde here). His figure work and backgrounds are constantly captivating with an economic line where it needs to be and dark scratchy work when the story demands it. I was especially impressed with his shading and lighting (not an easy feat when 70% of the story takes place underground in tunnels.

Underground by Pierre De Jaeger and Wauter Mannaert is a nice adventure tale but fails to convince at the plot level. It is however a very enthousiastic piece of work and the joy of creation radiating from the book redeems it a bit. Let’s hope that De Jaeger can concentrate more on plot next time (I wonder how much editorial took a hand here) and that Mannaert can keep perfecting his craft for their next comic.

Published by Oog en Blik, Underground by Pierre De Jaeger and Wauter Mannaert is an OGN counting 104 pages in black and white.

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