We start by seeing the sky becoming eclipsed by a closing metal door that becomes increasingly distant until it can’t be seen. From thereon in, Under-Earth is a story of continuing descents, first into Delforge, a subterranean city into which convicts of various types are sent to live and slave, and then into the various depths of Delforge’s society. The city is half quarry & half landfill site, full of the detritus of consumer culture, and is policed by masked marshals who aren’t hesitant to use violence to keep the inmates afraid and working.
This is Australian author Chris Gooch’s second long form work. Probably due to the hefty pagecount, the printed version is paperback and on relatively thin paper, and it’s a good mimicking of the risograph process which Under-Earth, as three separate installments, was originally released as, even if the coloring is likely somewhat more subdued in this collected edition.
The story is split across two parallel stories whose protagonists’ only commonality to begin with is that they happen to be in the same place. Reece and Malcolm are something of an odd couple who meet while working, digging for objects in a particularly unsanitary hole. Reece is a somewhat nervous, skinny guy. Malcolm’s a friendly giant type, whose strength seems to afford him the possibility to be a little kinder than the rest.
Meanwhile, Zoe and Ele are two friends whose youthful energy has led to them performing dangerous tasks for underworld boss Mr. Optone. They’re propositioned to break into The Spire, the seemingly impenetrable monolithic skyscraper from which Delforge is managed. The book winds up with Zoe and Ele and Reece and Malcolm’s arcs becoming increasingly interrelated. Relationships are made fraught, and the pressure of Delforge’s violent atmosphere pushes otherwise empathetic characters into performing increasingly extreme actions.
Gooch employs a two-color approach to differentiate between the two stories. Reece and Malcolm’s moments are shaded with a melancholic, purple-tinged grey, while Zoe and Ele’s scenes are colored in a muted yellow. Gooch utilizes the contrast sparingly but effectively late in the work to highlight contrasts between the two pairs. Red is the only other color to make an appearance, either when there’s blood or fire.
Throughout, the colors fade from top to bottom, which creates a sense of there being some faceless oppressive force bearing down upon everyone. There’s something akin to J. G. Ballard’s High Rise here, in that the poetic metaphors of above and below are rendered concrete through Delforge’s infrastructure. The conclusion’s crescendo revolves around the way in which those at the bottom have the capacity to make themselves felt. It portrays a revolutionary spirit lacking revolutionary ideology.
Through the imperfections of his characters and the use of screentone I suspect that Gooch is influenced by alternative manga. However, there’s no stylistic distinction between the characters and their surroundings. They’re both cut from the same rugged cloth. His dystopian, underground world reminds me of Mega-City One’s Undercity in Judge Dredd, or some of the more violent depictions of Gotham City. The decaying infrastructure that epitomizes Delforge also calls to mind sequences from Martin Vaughn-James’s post-apocalyptic The Cage.
Under-Earth has a curious and uncertain relationship with the real world. There’s a couple of moments when the Australian flag makes an appearance, and I’m wondering whether this should be taken as an effort to simply locate the story, or whether it’s also pointing towards Australia’s inhumane migrant detention facilities that are active today. There’s nothing in Under-Earth that suggests this is a story set in any particular time, so perhaps we can presume it’s an allegory of sorts, though it’s certainly not a vocally political text.
Gooch has the guts to not end things easily nor to make any of his characters dully heroic (although a couple of them do get some visceral satisfactions). There are a couple of missteps, one major one being Reece and Malcolm’s introductory conversation. Malcolm claims that “I’ve never done manual work before,” to which Reece agrees. But we know that Reece was a postman, and that Malcom’s done some bouncing, and I’m pretty certain both of those count as manual labour. Plus, Malcolm is meant to be a big guy who isn’t afraid of bare knuckle boxing, so I’m guessing he’s used to some physical strain, unless the reader’s meant to presume that he’s developed these traits only since arriving at Delforge.
Gooch employs grids and patterns within his panels that almost result in abstraction, which in turn heightens the sense of disorientation that the characters are presumably feeling. He can do the big and the small without losing grip on the world he’s created and situated his characters in, and often employs surprising angles that keep the reading experience exciting. In the comic’s final moments, the visual track presents us with a reinforcement of the opening’s suggestion that there’s no way out. That’s a depressing message, so it’s impressive that Gooch ensures there’s a sense of humanity through to the bitter end.