Recently, I visited a comics shop where the clerk was an old friend. During our conversation, I mentioned that Jeff Parker had participated in the "Defective Comics" panel that Ben Towle and I organized for HeroesCon 2010, and that I enjoyed the trade collections of Parker's X-Men: First Class that I bought deeply discounted at Heroes. My friend smiled and said, "Y'know, I'm not all that crazy about Parker's comics. I like the idea of Jeff Parker, but the actual comics themselves? Meh." He explained that he considered it important that Marvel (and DC) publish a strong slate of all-ages monthly comics, to cultivate a new generation of young readers, but that Parker's all-ages books weren't the goods. "They're not as good as some people think they are," my friend said.
My first reaction was to disagree, if only because I found (and still find) X-Men: First Class a charming reboot of the original Angel-Marvel Girl-Beast-Cyclops-Iceman team. It's not perfect--the manga-esque art by Roger Cruz is wildly inconsistent--but Parker's writing wisely throws away the straitjacket continuity and annoying subplots that often make the 1960s X-Men comics a chore to read. Even as a kid reading the Lee/Kirby and Roy Thomas/Werner Roth runs in reprint, I couldn't bear the unrequited love between Marvel Girl/Jean Grey and Cyclops/Scott Summers. I skipped soapy thought balloons that began with phrases like "The way she looks at him" (#7) and "If only I dared hold her in my arms" (#24). In First Class, however, Parker replaces all this hand-wringing between Jean and Scott with humor and flirtation. In issue #2 of the first First series (2006), Beast and Angel hunt down the Lizard in the Florida Everglades while Iceman, Marvel Girl and Cyclops decamp at a beach house and have an impromptu vacation. Here's what happens as the latter three indulge in some summer fun, mutant-style (click the images below to enlarge):
Yup, you read it right: Professor X is Cyclops' psychic wingman here, and Parker wipes away all those years of mopey indecision with a single stupid joke. The entire First Class run feels like a playful romp, especially when Colleen Coover draws a back-up story in her best lush-brush Betty and Veronica style:
From "Missing Angel," by Parker and Coover, X-Men: First Class #14 (2007).
Still, though, there were Parker books I liked less than First Class. The Interman, an early graphic novel both written and drawn by Parker, felt like a standard espionage/superhero tale, and I was likewise lukewarm on the five or six issues of Agents of Atlas that I read. Though Atlas had some of Parker's trademark humor (I remember a scene where, one by one, all the members of Atlas besieged the team scientist with different impossible requests), I got tired of the prolonged fight scenes, and I'm less emotionally attached to the supporting cast of The Yellow Claw than to the original X-Men. Emotional attachments like this are rooted in nostalgia, though, and I don't trust nostalgia: would I like Parker's writing as much if he weren't revamping the superheroes of my childhood?
Enter Underground, a book I bought from Parker himself at Heroes Con. Drawn by Steve Lieber, and originally published as a five-issue Image mini-series in 2009, Underground is the story of two Park Rangers in Marion, Kentucky, Seth Ridge and Wesley Fischer (a woman), who are forced to escape from criminals by spelunking through a treacherous subterranean cave. There's more to the story besides this high-concept, though. Underground opens the morning after Wes and Seth slept together for the first time, so running parallel with their journey through Stillwater cave is an escalating seriousness in their relationship: they go from fooling around to trusting each other in order to survive. Parker also sets up a conflict between Marion entrepreneurs who want to turn Stillwater into a tourist attraction (a "show cave") and ecologically-minded locals, including Wes and Seth, who worry that development will damage the cave's fragile ecosystem. There's a lot in Underground, much of it entertaining, but the book isn't perfect. In fact, its pluses and minuses break down in an amazingly schematic way for me, with a bad beginning and ending sandwiching some the best work I've seen from Parker and Lieber. (As ever, proceed with caution: spoilers ahead.)
Let's talk about the bad bookends first. In the first three pages, the captions--free-floating, not boxed-in--are the words of an NPR reporter covering the cave story in Marion, while the images take us inside the cave and Wes's dreaming mind. In one panel, the conflict between ecology and the economically-depressed locals is dramatized by a gas-station owner standing near a stalagmite, saying "My fillin' station hasn't made money in years. We could use..." After dreaming of racing to stop working from detonating dynamite inside the cave, Wes then wakes up in bed with Seth, with the clock radio playing NPR. I wonder if Parker's use of the reporter as a "voice-of-God" narrator is necessary, since a later scene in a diner gives us the exposition we need in a more dramatic fashion. Anyway, Wes wakes up in her bed with Seth, goes into the bathroom, and becomes a character in a bad sitcom:
I dislike this sequence because Wes is a stronger (and more interesting) character throughout the rest of Underwater, and introducing her as a dopey flake seems a serious miscalculation. Also, the dialogue she says to the mirror is terrible: seriously, "woodsmanship," even as a joke? I understand why Parker wants to show her unease after her night with Seth, but the silent panel that begins the sequence (of Wes peeking around the bathroom door) is a more subtle, and less cheesy-Hollywood, way of indicating those nerves. I'm happy to report, though, that the rest of Underwater #1 efficiently sets up the "Die Hard in a cave" conceit of the mini-series, and portrays Wes as a caving pro rather than as an air-head.
I also found the conclusion to Underground problematic, although Parker and Lieber wrap up the adventure plot in a satisfying way; they're careful to keep the action on a human, naturalistic scale, and the characters behave like real people would. The denouement on the last three pages, however, reveals that Parker is more interested in the cave journey than in the big ideas his narrative brings up. The voice of the NPR reporter returns, indicating that two years have passed since Wes and Seth's adventure, and a lot has happened in the interim: Stillwater Cave is now a public attraction, under Wes's careful supervision, and Seth has resigned from the Rangers to open "a whitewater rafting tour company" (123). We don't see these changes at all; we don't see, for instance, Wes and the city fathers of Marion hash out their compromise, and that's too bad. Sure, this political negotiation might limit itself to talking heads and dialogue-heavy panels, but I think Parker and Lieber should devote some of their considerable talents to subjects inherently less spectacular than the hangings and shootings in the cave. Depicting more quotidian events would force Parker and Lieber out of genre, and into Harvey Pekar territory, and I'd like to see them take this artistic risk. Couldn't we have at least a few pages that show (rather than tell) us what Wes accomplishes in those two years?
The worst thing about Underground, though, is the last panel of the story. In the book's last scene, Wes and Seth hike up a mountain together, and chat about their secret plans to elope and move away from Marion. Then, on the final page, Parker and Lieber end on a half-splash bromide that comes perilously close to ruining Underground for me:
Ooh, look at the pretty scenery! Is it "all about the journey" if the journey is paved with cliches?
Though I didn't care for Wes's romantic hand-wringing in Underground's introduction, and the "journey" stuff at the conclusion, I very much liked the middle of the book. The cave scenes are tense and stylish; Parker and Lieber punch up the impact of their story by taking a few aesthetic chances. One neat trick is limiting the colors in the cave to a single hue, most often sepia, which gives Lieber's art the shimmer of a tinted silent film:
My favorite issue/chapter is the fourth, where Wes and Seth swim and almost drown in Stillwater Cave's underground lake. Colorist Ron Chan switches his deliberately narrow palette to variations on a metallic gray/blue--a better representation of Wes and Seth's wet surroundings--and the result is gorgeous, frigid, austere. As the protagonists wander deeper into the lake, their path narrows, the water level rises, and Seth panics, his terror manifesting itself through incessant talking. Then this page:
The word that describes this page is claustrophobic. By laying out several panels as vertical strips spanning the length of the page, Lieber tightens our focus on Wes and Seth's faces as they precariously bob on the surface of the lake. We see their fear in incessant close-ups. They continue to talk to each other, and the proliferation of word balloons clutters up the panels, restricting their movements and pushing them towards the water at the bottom of each picture. (The only exception is panel 5, where the word balloons are to the left of Wes's head, giving us an unimpeded view of the rocks blocking the passage.) In its visual evocation of being "out of clearance" and out of luck, this page is a real thrill, like many in the cave section of Underground. Most exciting here is Parker and Lieber's conscious play with the comics medium. I knew both men could tell an entertaining story within the parameters of mainstream comics, but in Underground, they leave behind superheroes and spies, and think more deeply about panels, layouts, coloring, and other aspects of aesthetic form. I'm glad to see it, although I suspect some fans of X-Men: First Class will miss the genre tropes and full-spectrum coloring.
In a prose epilogue to the book, Parker writes that he and Lieber "may even try something like this again if you want" (136), and what I really want is for Parker and Lieber to stretch themselves as artists. I want a sequel that improves on Underground by burning away the lingering sitcom cliches; I want more down-to-earth adventure comics with likeable characters and sensible, engaging plots. My idea of Jeff Parker is that he's a talented writer with the potential to become a master entertainer; my idea of Jeff Parker is less about his upcoming run on The Hulk, and more about future stories featuring Wes and Seth. I'll abandon my nostalgia if you'll abandon yours, Jeff.