Saturday: INTO THE PAST!
The World Below: Deeper and Stranger #1-4 (of 4)
It was but a few days ago when I reviewed issue #3 of the first “The World Below” four-issue miniseries (titled simply “The World Below” and released in 1999). It was a fizzing cocktail of vintage ‘bold explorers’ action, bizarre designs, rampant sexual imagery (yet never quite so explicit as to make the book patently unsuitable for younger audiences), and confused allegory. All from writer/penciler Paul Chadwick, creator of “Concrete”, aided by the inks of Ron Randall. Arriving a few years after his last “Concrete” book, 1997-98’s “Strange Armor”, “The World Below” is Chadwick’s only creator-owned non-“Concrete” series that he applied his own visual art to, and it was not a popular success (Chadwick did have a third series around the same time, the 1999 four-issue “Gifts of the Night” from Vertigo, but I’m unsure if it was creator-owned, and all of the art was by John Bolton).
Intended as an ongoing series to be farmed out after a few years to new creative teams, Chadwick soon discovered that this second miniseries, released in 2000, was to be the last; he admits as much in the letters column of issue #1. The series was also shorn of its color, and the price was bumped up forty-five cents to $2.95, to try and ensure a return to publisher Dark Horse. Judging from these letters, it seems that a loyal following had developed by this time, though many positive letters tellingly begin by nothing their initial disappointment that the book wasn’t at all like “Concrete”, perhaps a factor in the book’s comparatively low sales. Chadwick certainly did his best to cultivate a fanbase: he even invited readers to design their own creatures and send them in, and he selected the best to insert into the story itself, with credit given to the creators. But success was not to be had. And maybe it’s not just the “Concrete” factor. “The World Below” is a strange, not entirely successful series, but one that I’ve found truly growing on me the more I read of it, and I was genuinely saddened to see it conclude here.
In a short essay included in the rear of issue #2, Chadwick cites underground comic artist George Metzger (perhaps best known for “Moondog”) as a prime influence behind the series, especially Metzger’s wordless thirteen-page sci-fi opus “Mal-Ig”, which appeared in “Gothic Blimp Works” and “Graphic Story Magazine”. Check out Steven Grant’s appreciation for some nice art samples (including a shot from the story in question); you can sense Metzger's influence on the clinging organic creep of Chadwick’s underground. But Chadwick offered an even more intriguing influence in an interview with “The Comics Journal” (#221, March 2000):
“And part of my inspiration was this Austrian Symbolist names Alfred Kubin, who wasn’t much of a draftsman, but boy was he in touch with his subconscious. He did ink-and-wash drawings, one after the other, hundreds of them - the most wonderful nightmare imagery - and some of them, the most disgusting, surreal sexual imagery, too. But it was clear all the stops wee out, and it wasn’t done with intent; it was done by letting all the lose stuff we can’t really observe in our own psyches out.”
Chadwick may have acted in something of a similar fashion, though plainly tempered by a need to craft coherent stories, and single-issue stories at that. But certainly there’s a lot of interesting visions in here, and quite a recurring sexual focus.
***OK, I’M GONNA START UP THE SPOILERS NOW***
Take the first issue: our heroes, a six-person team of explorers, have just returned to the mysterious underground caverns beneath the Earth which were seemingly discovered by eccentric technology magnate Charles Hoy, who formed the team to bring back some valuable items that might be studied to make everyone a lot richer. We’ve got tough leader Barclay Hassler, scientist Layla Bazo, medic Susan Teter, athletic go-getter Regina Church, the 100% unnecessary George Petoskey (who does absolutely nothing for the entire series except offer an amusing line in the last issue), and Hoy’s angry son Gilbert, with a chip on his shoulder and everything to prove. Gilbert and Barclay fight a lot, which makes Gilbert brood. He’s also been hiding something, which is revealed in this issue. It seems while he was climbing the infamous Spire (from the infamous issue #3 of the prior miniseries), he was attacked by a weird spider-thing. Upon shooting the monster, it ejected a thick white fluid into Gilbert’s mouth. Nothing happens at first, but now it seems that Gilbert has grown a giant lump on his chest, which suddenly expands to its full size: a literal third arm. But as the issue progresses, Gilbert grown to genuinely love his third arm. He feels nice, like his anger has drifted away. Layla enjoys the touch of the third arm (it gives good neck rubs). And it also prompts flashbacks to Gilbert’s youth, when he realized that his short stature could be made up for by other special attributes, like speed. Finally, Gilbert’s third arm saves the day by proving itself to be an amazing crack-shot at gunplay, as the team is saved from awful monsters in an attempt to steal some dandy laser-beam machine. Having demonstrated to Gilbert that he’s really a useful person and not just his father’s son, the arm goes limp and eventually falls off (!). “The scar tingles with residual life,” beams the omniscient narrator, “He thinks that the arm may grow back. Or perhaps it will not be an arm next time.” Do tell, Paul, do tell.
But that’s the strange appeal of this book (and the prior series); all of this charged imagery is kept at just below the boil of explicitness, and it acts in the service of good-hearted little stories personal worth and other human concerns. It gets awfully tricky sometimes; it gets convoluted. But sometimes it works surprisingly well. In issue #2, a pair of team members are rushed by a frankly ridiculous gaggle of googly-eyed octopus things which attach to their heads and form a psychic link. The team members are instantly overwhelmed with serenity and knowledge, as the creatures share their information with them, including secrets of healing. Sure, they look silly, but it’s such a great unity that they simply have to convince the rest of the team to head off to a whole colony of the strange creatures, at gunpoint if necessary. This doesn’t sit well with the more independent-minded faction of the team (Gilbert, Regina), but Chadwick cleverly portrays the ‘parasites’ as always a positive thing, except for one teeny white lie (the type that a prudent human might also make) which allows for rationalizations of escape among some of the team, and eventually the doom of the creatures. But was independence at all costs a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? It remains unanswered. There’s also an wholly unnecessary flashback to one of the team members having sex in church, which kind of fits into the story. Kind of. Yet it fits in amost by default, because Chadwick utterly embraces the inner absurdity of the situation. He throws in shots of parasite-joined team members calmly driving in a jeep, their bulging alien heads popping out of the vehicle's sunroof, eyes all agog. Basil Wolverton is cited in the back as yet another influence; Chadwick controls the mood to make such chaos welcoming, to make such disparate signals at least cohere, if not quite convince. The book (like Gilbert in the issue before) is secure in what it is.
And there's some genuine story fallout too; even in later issues, team members who touched the creatures remain defensive about them (“They weren’t really parasites,” is a typical refrain). Entering into the last two issues, the single-story structure breaks down as a necessary conclusion presents itself. The team aids a giant brain (marked with ‘spade’ symbols) in fighting off beasties, learns a lesson about lashing out (it’s sometimes like kids’ daytime television at times, only with gunfire and tentacles and a constant whiff of eros), and finally meets up with the masters of The World Below, apparently wealthy aristocrat aliens who took an extended vacation to Earth and burrowed underground to hide from the Sun’s brutal rays (here is where George gets his one good line - Gilbert tries to inturrupt the flashback narrative and George chides "Quiet. We're learning."). They even brought their favorite pets, humanoid creatures, and they’re always ready for more. They’re breeders, you see, interested in new biological mixes, and very attached to humans. “So cute!” squeals one of them, just delighted at the tiny intelligence of silly humans. The team is forced to do jumping-jacks and flips and other acrobatics to please their new masters, as they plan some sort of escape. Meanwhile, aboveground, Mr. Hoy has become (hilariously) convinced that all of this is an elaborate plot by Microsoft to steal his innovations. Hoy rushes out the door, declaring that “I’m on my way to meet with this man -- who I hope will lead a rescue team…”. At the same time, Gilbert the son makes a run for the surface. Ha, but puny humans just haven’t thought ahead, and the aliens set off some explosives that not only obliterate the entrance to The World Below, but the entire Hoy estate above. The father Hoy was pulling out of the driveway at the time, and is the only aboveground survivor, trapped in a coma in a hospital bed, sadly without a sign reading 'WAKE IN CASE OF SERIES RENEWAL' above his head. And our heroes below are hauled off to the breeding chambers. Except they’ve all undergone sterilization procedures as part of their preparation (oooooh, shades of the latest “Concrete”). So as the series ends, they’re left to fuck each other all day to no avail, and with an uncertain lease on life. “Think well of the team of six as you walk across roads, over leaves, one foot ahead of the other. They’re down there, living a nightmare - as some people do in this world.” So intones our narrator.
And say! Who was that guy Hoy was off to contact? The back cover of the final issue cruelly teases a "Concrete"-"The World Below" crossover, which is plainly not in the cards right now. Chadwick, in the final letters column, happily proclaims that he’ll see everyone again for “Concrete: The Human Dilemma”, which wouldn’t be released for over four years. And that’s his most popular character. It’s tough times for unestablished characters, even by established creators, and it’s not gotten that much easier in the ensuing half-decade. “The World Below” was too odd a bird to fly, its symbol-laden adventure, its word-balloon festooned covers, its broad characters and EC-type moral dilemmas, all of them anathema to the current market. It’s not a fantastic series, no, but its an individual one (perhaps inevitable when working largely on your own so close to the subconscious), and it has a certain loopily addictive charm. I’d say it’s a mandatory track-down for Chadwick fans, who now, with the perspective of time, more appreciate a creator of a long-term project beginning a new and doomed mission, so very different from what has gone before. Chadwick’s mission wasn’t much more successful than that of the team of six, but both retain hope for liberation from their unfortunate burial.