I'm a guy who likes his art with a lot of contrast. Give me some high contrast/rich blacks Joe Sinnott inks over feathery/light lines Vince Colletta ones any day. So I took one look at the cover to the cover to Underground and thought, "Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about." And then when I started skimming through, I saw that A) there's a fair amount of that throughout the story as well and B) the story largely takes place in the depths of a largely unexplored cave. "Sweet!"
Here's the beauty of that last bit. What you might call Lieber's "signature" work to date has been Whiteout. (Written by Greg Rucka.) The story is about a U.S. Marshal investigating a murder in Antarctica. You know: Antarctica? Miles and miles of nothing but ice and snow. A small base station in the middle of abso-frickin-lutely nowhere. White snow blowing across white ice in front of white peaked mountains. Light bouncing off everything.
Now contrast that against Underground. (Written by Jeff Parker.) The story is about a pair of park rangers who stumble across some thugs who are vandalizing a cave on state property. The thugs get unexpectedly violent and start hunting the two rangers who are forced deeper and deeper into the caverns. The story becomes something of an underground race with the protagonists fighting against both the armed thugs and Mother Nature. Underground. As in, no natural light at all. Ever more confining and restricted spaces. In the middle of town, yet almost completely inaccessible. Just about as opposite as you can get from Antarctica.
And here's the clever bit. The really insanely clever bit. In Whiteout, Lieber tended to use a lot of smaller panels with distinct panel borders. Quite the opposite one might expect. (You know the old joke about a blank sheet of paper being a drawing of a polar bear with his eyes closed in a snowstorm?) In Underground, Lieber uses fewer and larger panels, even going so far as to provide several full page splashes and one double-page spread! Again, going 180 degrees different than one might expect. But the brilliance here is that Whiteout still possess a sense of a vast open wasteland while Underground feels more tight and confining.
It's like Lieber read Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art and said "No, I'm going do the exact opposite of what this legendary master of the medium has said and practiced over the course of most of the 20th century." Which sounds exceedingly arrogant, of course. Until Lieber actually pulls it off successfully! The more I think about this and reflect on what he's actually done between these books, the more impressed I am.
OK, so what about the story?
I gave the basic plot outline above. Not unlike the Parker stories I've already read (which isn't as many as it should be, really) Underground has some excellent characterizations and solid story structure. It takes a number of turns I didn't fully expect, but not so far out of left field that they feel unnatural. Also, serious points for the main protagonist for being a feminine, but still very strong female and the secondary protagonist being a strong male lead, but not in an overbearing or he's-just-there-to-save-the-heroine-when-she's-really-in-trouble sort of way. (Though, he does do that once, it's almost accidental.) These feel like, in short, very real people.
Parker notes in the afterward that, "No one is a true villain. The conflict snowballs because of the hazardous environment. Embrace the chaos of the way things really happen -- too fast for anyone to get a solid grasp or make an informed decision." That both Parker and Lieber held to those tenets throughout the book gives it a sense of being grounded with reality. Not that faux what-if-real-people-had-superpowers groundedness, mind you, but actual reality, making the protagonists bigger heroes that anyone wearing spandex and a cape.
One more piece I'll note is the color. Ron Chan largely sticks to what would be called "local color." That is, the colors he uses are pretty much what you'd expect to see in real life. No fancy mood lighting or impressionistic goings on here. But since most of the story occurs in the dark, where color is barely perceptible to the human eye, Chan uses a very limited color palette for much of the book. In fact, it becomes more and more just shades of grey as the characters get further away from any natural light source. It's interesting to think that the book could largely have been done in just black and white, and comparatively few pages would look much different. But, going back to that notion of contrast, when we do go back to above-ground scenes, the shift in color alone is quite striking.
By now, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that I really enjoyed the book. I'm quite surprised I didn't hear more accolades for it when the individual pamphlet issues were coming out, but now that it's in trade paperback form, you don't have much of an excuse for not getting it. In fact, I bought my copy through Periscope's Etsy shop which meant that both Parker and Lieber signed and Lieber provided a sketch on the inside back cover.