Underground: graphic novel thriller set in a cave

 Images I 61Aur-Lzozl Caves are great locations for thrillers. I enjoyed The Descent, a B movie about a group of women spelunkers who get lost in a cave and have to fight a horde of blind humanoid monsters. And I really enjoyed Scott Sigler's EarthCore, about a platinum mining expedition in Utah that goes horribly awry when the mining party bumps into an ancient race of violent creatures that live in an immense underground network of caves three miles below the surface of the earth.

Underground, a 136-page graphic novel by written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Steve Lieber, doesn't have any malevolent mutants, but I can look past that. It still has bad guys, in the form of ruthless and relentless human scumbags who want to kill a pair of Kentucky park rangers who have witnessed their dynamiting of the caves as part of a sleazy business plan.

The artwork is just superb. It doesn't seem easy to draw the interior of a cave in a way that's realistic and interesting, but Lieber handles it with aplomb. The coloring, by Ron Chan, is very effective: in the cave it's monochromatic, and outside full-color, which give the cave scenes creepy and intense mood.

Lieber also illustrated Greg Rucka's Whiteout, which was mominated for four Eisner Awards (Best Limited Series, Best Graphic Album, Best Writer, and Best Penciller/Inker). I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list.



  1. Mark – if you liked The Descent as a movie the book it is based on is quite good – simply called “Descent”

  2. Well, that’s two movies I haven’t seen, spoiled by reading Mark’s introduction – and now, two movies I will never see.

  3. I have a serious problem with The Descent. If you don’t recall it, the movie is the tale of a group of attractive women who discover a vast cave complex inhabited by monstrous pasty carnivorous man-things. The troglodytes, dubbed “Crawlers” in the end credits, are completely blind, hunt by sound, and are remarkably fast and strong.

    (I call no way. But let us proceed from the movie’s assumption that yes, these things are real.)

    The creatures are unmistakably evolved from humans. At this point, you should already be flailing your arms in geekish dismay. But, ah! The filmmakers introduce a key plot point via a cave painting. Let’s leave aside that the painting gratuitously rips off Lascaux and has nothing to do with any recorded Native American art. It is obviously meant to establish that this cave was first explored in the earliest days of Native American occupation of the Appalachians, about 10,000 years ago. Five hundred generations could surely be enough time to produce a new species, right? Under that kind of pressure? Sure. Sure. After all, the Crawlers still have vestigial eyes, whereas all fully adapted cave organisms have lost their eyes in entirety.

    The Crawlers are presented as apex predators, who leave the caves at night to hunt. They are capable of bringing down coyotes, elk, and anything else that crosses their path. To chase down and kill these animals, and then to carry the carcasses back into the caves, requires an amazing amount of speed and strength. Not terribly surprising, since we see the Crawlers skitter across cave walls and ceilings at speeds you’d associate with an Olympic speed skater.

    Now here we get to my two basic problems- metabolism and reproduction. They are intertwined.

    The heroines encounter perhaps twenty or so of the creatures, only one of which is female and none of which are juveniles. This cannot possibly be the entirety of the species- a viable hominid species would require at least two hundred breeding individuals. Let’s assume that the young, as in other hominid species, number approximately 1/3 of the adult population. Let’s further assume that the old are consumed in a cannibalistic orgy of blood and shrieking. That means about 300 Crawlers.

    Each Crawler must burn a prodigious amount of energy. Cave dwelling organisms usually ramp their metabolism way down to compensate for the paucity of available energy in the ecosystem, but the Crawlers do leave the caves to hunt.

    To settle the amount of necessary energy the Crawler population requires, we need to first settle the balance of male to female. In most predator populations, excess males are quickly eliminated- you don’t need more than one male to inseminate a large number of females, and you have to be economical when you’re poised at the top of the food chain. If we suppose a social organization more like a wolf pack or a killer whale pod, then why were all the active hunting Crawlers males? The only female crawled whimpering out of a side cave when a male was killed. Can we suppose that the Crawlers mate and that each male supports a female and babies? This places a staggering burden on the male Crawlers- as we shall see.

    Let’s assume that each Crawler male is supporting himself, a female, and a growing juvenile. Considering the incredible energy requirements of the Crawler’s capabilities, each Crawler must be bringing about 10,000 calories of meat back to the cave EVERY NIGHT. That’s about eight kilograms, or 17.6 pounds. For a hunting population of 150 males, that’s 2,640 pounds of meat per night, the equivalent of thirty white-tailed deers. Assuming they scramble out of their cave at dusk and back in at sunlight, and that they have a top speed of about 20 miles an hour, that gives them a maximum range of 80 miles from the cave, or about 20,000 square miles- about the size of the state of West Virginia.

    Given such rapacious appetite and remarkable ability, why haven’t the Crawlers overtaken the entire continent (or at least every cave on the continent) by this point, converting every available animal calorie into a mushroom-colored bat-eared freak of nature?

    We can therefore see that the picture painted in the movie of the Crawlers is flawed. Indeed, the Crawlers are unable to distinguish living people from cave walls at a range of inches- in one scene, a Crawler literally walks over the main character without noticing.

    I assert that all of the viciousness the Crawlers manifest is due not to carnivorous desire but to territoriality. Even when they consume humans, they do a sloppy job of it, eating the guts without bothering to gnaw bones for the marrow, or even strip the limbs of muscle tissue. And the accumulation of bones in the Crawlers’ den, while substantial, indicates a fairly pitiful record for 10,000 years of sustained predation.

    I would suggest that the Crawlers are probably, like other cave creatures, essentially torpid, stupid, and atrophied. While capable of bursts of energy, they probably spend much of their lives in a doze. Despite the fact that the humans penetrate their inner sanctum, only a mere handful of the hundreds of Crawlers bother to poke their heads out. And let’s remember that these unstoppable killing machines are repeatedly overpowered by the protagonists. And why the hell did the Clovis Indians stay down in those caves to begin with? The cave painting clearly indicated that the Indians knew how to get out. If they lived long enough to evolve into a new species, they surely did get out, if they were depending on meat. They must have been trapped for a long, long time- long enough to develop into the Crawlers before some geologic event opened the cave back up.

    Obviously, the Crawlers do not depend on meat. They also don’t depend on vegetation, because the cavern that leads into the cave system was lushly overgrown, as was the hillside leading into the cave. They must depend primarily on some source of protein within the cave system. This entry on Ozark cavefish is probably apropos:

    “Because the nutrient supply is limited in a cave, Ozark cavefish are not picky about what they eat. Cavefish eat bacteria, fungi, protozoans and aquatic insect larvae, as well as mites that feed on decaying organisms brought into the cave by animals. Their diet also includes plankton (microscopic plants and animals) and small invertebrates, such as crayfish, cave crickets, salamander larvae, amphipods and isopods. If food is really hard to find, they may even eat their own young.”

    That sort of vicious social organization would explain both the relative reluctance of the Crawlers to aid each other until several individuals had been killed, and a smaller population. As a matter of fact, the few individuals killed by the protagonists during the film might well be a tipping point for the population, especially since the groundwater in Appalachia has been growing steadily more acidic and polluted for two centuries.

    So, to sum up: the movie is fairly frightening, but terribly unfair to the Crawlers. It presents the uninformed and panicked response of a few screaming humans as the sum total of Crawler behavior. After all, the Crawlers come up and sniff curiously at the humans before attacking, which they only do once the humans start screaming hysterically. We see the Crawlers scream later when threatened or angry, so it’s entirely possible the Crawlers interpreted the screaming as a threat and attacked in self-defense. Stop hating the Crawlers. While the events documented in The Descent are tragic, the Crawlers are not evil bloodthirsty monsters and deserve full protection under the Endangered Species Act.

  4. I’ve just bought the last copy on Amazon.co.uk. Which made me feel lucky. Well, luckier than Chilean miners and people stuck in a cave with malevolent mutants. Their fucked.

  5. Underground is an incredibly good read! Between Parker’s writing and Lieber’s artwork, I would honestly catch myself holding my breath during the intense scenes. Having never gone caving, I had absolutely no idea before reading this how varied and rich those environments can be. Parker creates very real characters, even the “bad guys” are people who are themselves caught in a really difficult situation. This is a really compelling read, presenting both sides of the unending debate between environmentalists and entrepreneurs in a really compassionate way; it would be easy to make it a black and white issue, but Underground is all about the gray.

    Definitely one of the best comics this year. Money very well spent!!

  6. SPOILER ALERT goddammit! You people! The great thing about a movie can be those revelations you guys so readily just throw in our faces! And I don’t get why Descent is called a B-movie? I consider it an awesome A movie with a great soundtrack.

    But thats way less important than the notion of SPOILER ALERT! I really really hate it the way people (reviewers in particular) can take away so much of a surprise and development of a plot by spelling out the key points of a story. You don’t have to do that in order to convey what you think of a movie! You really don’t!

    And in an attempt to stay on point I’ll say that the cover illustration is very beautiful. I would love that as a poster on my wall.

    1. You are completely right, and I apologize for not flagging my post.

      I’m just really passionate about protecting the Crawlers.

  7. “It still has bad guys, in the form of ruthless and relentless human scumbags who want to kill a pair of Kentucky park rangers who have witnessed their dynamiting of the caves as part of a sleazy business plan”

    And they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

  8. Trevanian’s “Shibumi” has some great caving scenes, though they’re not the main focus of the novel.

  9. To avoid the moral conundrum of the Crawlers, Blind Descent, mentioned on this lovely site, is an up-to-date look at state-of-the-art caving for truth-is-stranger-than-fiction folks.

  10. Being a big fan of superhero comics, I was very pleased to find that “Underground” had a compelling and tense plot, with action and drama, and all without a single cape.

    The characters are three-dimensional, with their own motives. Lieber’s art captures the uncertain shadows of the cave system, which is rendered in mono-color as opposed to the full-color scenes of the surface.

    In general, a great read!

  11. I’m pretty sure that you’d have been just as spoiled on THE DESCENT if you’d read the back of the box at a video store (or the captions/reviews on Netflix.)

    Folks who like UNDERGROUND would probably be rewarded by the magnificently strange MYSTERIUS THE UNFATHOMABLE, preview at the following: http://www.newsarama.com/php/multimedia/album.php?aid=25337 which is also written by Mr. Parker and illustrated by the delightfully unhinged Tom Fowler.

    Disclaimer, Jeff’s a friend and be blurbed my first book. That said, the above are quite worth your time/money/undying support/immortal souls.

  12. While those horror films are plain and out shock fun, you’ve got to revel in Underground’s realism. Two realistic park rangers get into a bad situation, a group of people who don’t know better try and “ready” a cave complex for a tourist attraction their plan is stumbled upon, and both groups have to get out of that fine mess.

    The five comic issues were a joy to read, and it’ll be nice if Jeff Parker finds more time to do more of these outside his Marvel work.

    This is one of those books that really prooves panels and captions can be more than capes, more than horror, and should be on everyone’s shelves.

  13. Mark, wasn’t sure if you meant that you hadn’t read Underground yet or Whiteout. But if you haven’t read Whiteout, which at this point is collected as both of the two miniseries published, it’s excellent.

    Didn’t get to see the movie adaptation, but since it was only in theaters for about a week, I’m guessing it wasn’t a strong imitation.

  14. Read UNDERGROUND! It’s fantastic. Jeff Parker has a real knack for creating realistic dialog and situations. Also, Lieber’s artwork is not to be missed. It’s a no-brainer.

  15. @Prufrock451 – you made the mistake of watching the US remake. Like most US remakes, the original European version (Scottish?) is a heck of a lot better.

  16. “House of Leaves” trumps all going underground books.

    After that, I second the recommendations for “Descent” by Jeff Long, and “Deeper” which is the sequel. The movie “The Descent” paled in comparison.

  17. I’m Steve Lieber, the illustrator and co-creator of Underground, and I’m hugely grateful for the review and the wonderful comments. But as incredibly cool as it was to have my comic reviewed by Mark Frauenfelder, I have to say that NOTHING is ever going to match the awesomeness of Prufrock451’s essay on the Crawlers. I wish more writers brought that kind of thinking to their horror fiction.

  18. My First! I donated and downloaded! The quality is great! I would much rather pay for an electronic version, I will save a lot in shipping, paper, and packaging. I win, you win, we all win!

Comments are closed.