Going 'Underground' With Parker & Lieber

Going Underground With Parker & Lieber

Underground #1

Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber are long-time studio mates at Periscope Studios in Portland, but while they’ve had their share of acclaimed books, they’ve never done a full-on project together. All that changes in August, when Image releases the first issue of Underground, a five-issue limited series (incorrectly solicited as four issues) that takes readers on a dangerous adventure beneath the mountains of Kentucky. We got Parker and Lieber together for an exclusive first look at the limited series, and to ask them a variety of stupid questions about caves. Insanity followed.

Newsarama: Steve, Jeff: Underground! What's it about and who's in it?

Jeff Parker: Wesley Fischer is our main character, she works for the State Parks system as a Ranger, though her first love is caving. She's a fairly recent immigrant to the town of Marion, where she pulled a lot of strings to get stationed so she could explore the Stillwater Cave there.

The cave has been closed to the public for years for safety reasons, and there's a growing movement in the town to develop it as a show cave, like a sister to Mammoth Cave, to bring some tourist dollars into the area.

Wes is against this because she doesn't want the cave system compromised- there's already been a fair amount of damage to it over the years. But the local entrepreneur Winston Barefoot is putting his considerable weight behind the venture, and an inspector from the state is coming to look into the matter.

The problem is that some of Winston's men have taken the initiative to get the cave ready for development to hurry things along.

Underground #1, page 1

NRAMA: Tell us how this tale came about.

Steve Lieber: As a boy, I'd visited a show cave, Laurel Caverns in Pennsylvania and it haunted me for years. I never thought to do anything about it until I read an astonishing essay by Tim Cahill on caving. Cahill made it clear what an insane, fascinating activity caving is. It engages just about every phobia hard-wired into the human brain.

Are you afraid of the dark? Of enclosed spaces? Of being buried alive? Of falling? Of insects? Of bats? Of drowning? Of freezing to death? That's what cavers face. I knew immediately I wanted to set a story in a Kentucky cave. So I worked at it a while myself, and drew a short story that ran in the Four Letter Worlds anthology, but it wasn't until I started talking about Wesley and the cave with Jeff Parker that it really came to life. Jeff came aboard as writer, and the project took off.

NRAMA: Tell us about Wesley and the other main characters.

SL: Wesley is a park ranger and environmentalist, not necessarily in that order. She's smart, athletic and concerned, but not looking to be any sort of hero. But the cave is a fragile ecosystem, and she's committed to keeping it pristine.

Seth Ridge is a park ranger too. He's part Cherokee and unlike Wes, he has deep roots in the town. For him, the cave was a place to hang out with his buddies as a kid. He and Wes hooked up for the first time the night before the story starts, and they aren't really sure where they stand with each other.

Underground #1, page 2

NRAMA: Having visited Mammoth Cave as a kid, I know for a fact that caves in Kentucky are huge. What's your own experience with caves like, and what kind of research did you have to do for this story?

JP: I've visited show caves before, but the majority of our research has been through books, videos and online sources. We're trying to keep this grounded in reality- you'll notice that Wes and Seth do not find an underground civilization planning to invade the surface world. But you will learn some things about cave systems and caving!

SL: Lots and lots of books. I've spent weeks staring in awe at magnificent photos of places like Mammoth Cave and Lechugilla Cave in Mexico.

NRAMA: Will our main characters fare better than Floyd Collins? Or even Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole? Prove your street cred by reflecting on the greatness of Ace in the Hole if you've seen it

JP: I'll let Lieber take this, because he watched Ace almost immediately after he first thought of doing a cave story.

SL: Is it even possible to fare worse than Floyd Collins? Trapped in the dark, legs crushed, body bent into a letter "U" shape, limestone water dripping constantly on the side of your face until it starts to eat away at the flesh of your cheek?

That's got to be about as horrible a way to go as there is, and it's the sort of danger a serious caver faces.

Underground #1, page 3

As for Ace in the Hole, If I can ever draw a picture as awesome as the that last shot of Kirk Douglas on the floor at the end of the movie, I'll consider myself a success.

NRAMA: In today's marketplace, every book must battle for an audience Convince cash-strapped readers addicted to superhero books to purchase this strange and frightening book that contains no discernible superhuman/supernatural elements.

JP: Tell me about it. I think realistic adventure is very important for the comics industry, because it offers an escape that we can relate to even if we just go hike in the woods occasionally. Fans of shows like Out of the Wild, or really anything on National Geographic will connect with this.

For that matter, readers of Steve and Greg Rucka's Whiteout and my The Interman are probably going to click with Underground as well.

SL: It's going to matter to readers because it's a great story. None of our antagonists sees himself as a villain or anything like that. They're just all trapped in a situation that's spiraling out of control, as one bad choice leads to another in an insane, terrifying, and entirely unforgiving environment.

NRAMA: Now, your book comes out the same month as Image's book by Fall Out Boy. Describe your plan to take down Fall Out Boy.

Underground #1, page 4

JP: We are going to climb the ropes and elbow drop on Fall Out Boy. Or perhaps a Rey Mysterio move. Or maybe we will turn heel and team up with FOB to take on everyone else.

SL: Fall Out Boy has that long reach, and a great ground game, but weak footwork. I'm thinking we can hang back and time our punches for when they're off balance, then strike quickly and do some real damage.

Third round at the latest, Fall Out Boy down and bleeding, announcers wondering if they'll ever fight again.

NRAMA: Steve, what made you want to get back to a Whiteout-type of reality-based story with action elements?

SL: I'm at home in the real world. When I'm telling a story like this, my drawing isn't about showing off a conspicuous style or flights of imaginative fancy. I want to get the hell out of the story's way and it as clearly and powerfully as possible. It's about communicating hard facts and the drama of the moment. And for me, nothing's more dramatic than the cold truth of a life or death struggle in the real world.

NRAMA: You crazy kids work together in the same studio. What is your collaborative process like, or can our hearts stand these shocking facts?

SL: It means we've got a real, organic collaboration with none of the usual impediments of distance. Parker can peek behind me when I'm working and make a suggestion. I can suggest a dialog change or shift in pacing. The covers are by both of us, and you'd be hard pressed to say who did what.

Underground #1, page 5

NRAMA: Steve, you have the Whiteout film coming out. How has going Hollywood affected you? Do you have fancy clothes, your own Batmobile, or a drug problem? Did you get a chance to go on set, and what was it like?

SL: My friends say it's made me into a real asshole. They're just petty and small, incapable of appreciating that I've moved beyond them, and that as little people, it's time for them to just admire my achievements at a distance.

The set I visited was a sound stage in Montreal. No one warned me that Spring in Montreal would be that fucking cold, and I was horribly underdressed. I actually wound up stealing a parka from the costume truck.

NRAMA: Jeff, you are best known as a writer about happy books about happy happiness. With this and Mysterius, you are revealing a dark side. Has your cheerful disposition been but a cover, or are you but a complicated man who no one understands but his woman?

JP: Yes, I am not unlike John Shaft, you nailed it. Well The Hood also goes into that territory. I'm getting mean.

In truth, I just write whatever a story calls for and feels right. If it's happy good times, then that's the way I roll. If it's real-life thriller, then I jump both feet that way. I do enjoy being able to have characters cuss. Cuss up a storm, in places.

SL: Parker's like John Shaft in that he was at his best in 1971 and it's been a steady slide downward since.

NRAMA: Steve, why did you want to do this story in full color, as opposed to black-and-white? After all, when you're underground, there's not a lot of color to see...

JP: Yeah Steve, what the hell?

SL: With color, we could really play up the difference between a warm, sunlit Kentucky spring and the eternal darkness in the Stillwater Cave.

Our color artist is Ron Chan, ( http://ronchan.net ) another member of Periscope, which makes this the first all Periscope comic book. Ron's a terrific artist and storyteller. He worked with Parker on Gamekeeper, and just illustrated an issue of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic at Dark Horse.

NRAMA: Name your favorite song dealing with the concept of caves and/or being beneath the Earth. Possible choices include The Jam's 1980 hit "Going Underground," David Bowie's opening number for the 1986 cult classic Labyrinth, or the Buoys' 1971 Rupert Holmes-penned novelty hit about cannibalism, "Timothy."

JP: Damn, you broke out “Timothy” on us.

SL: I'd have to go with Tom Waits' "Underground" from his 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. Waits also gives us "Way Down in the Hole," but let's go with the Neville Brothers cover version from Season Three of The Wire.

NRAMA: Also, name your favorite cave-related story, which can include The Descent, the Floyd Collins musical, Ace in the Hole, Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave, Uncle Scrooge in "Land Beneath the Ground," or something with Cave Carson, who gets no love.

JP: Yeah what's up with the no love for Cave Carson, DC? He served you well in the Cave Craze! I gotta go with Unca Scrooge.

SL: Shibumi by Trevanian, the novelist best known for The Eiger Sanction.

NRAMA: Pop Quiz: You're trapped underground together. Who eats who first?

SL: I could easily feed of my fat for a month.

NRAMA: Upcoming projects! Plug 'em!

JP: I write this book called Agents of Atlas that sometimes go into caves, but with different results. And coming up soon we have a big throwdown with a beautiful woman called The Jade Claw that you will not soon forget.

SL: I'm drawing this book called Underground.

Go Underground with Parker and Lieber when the five (not four)-issue limited series premieres from Image this August. For more Underground, visit www.undergroundthecomic.com

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