Friday, July 20, 2012

Comic Book Finds: The World Below (1999)

For your viewing pleasure, page 11 from The World Below #1 by Paul Chadwick and Ron Randall.
With the recent publication of Concrete: Three Uneasy Pieces (itself a collection of recent short stories from the most recent edition of Dark Horse Presents), it seemed like a great idea to dig back into the old lonboxes and revisit a long forgotten duo of mini-series from multiple Eisner and Harvey award-winning writer and artist Paul Chadwick. While Chadwick is most well-known for his Concrete series of stories, and more recently for his work with the online game based on the Wachowski Brothers Matrix trilogy, The World Below is one of the very few creations I came across (apart from some Deadpool issues he illustrated for Marvel) that Chadwick has seen reach publication other than Concrete.

It doesn't get anymore old school sci-fi
than giant alien head attachments.
(From the cover of Vol. 2, Issue 2)
On the surface, World Below is less overtly political than his Concrete work, initially reads as an homage to the Silver Age sensibilities of DC's Challengers of the Unknown. A team of six explorers (dubbed... wait for it... "The Team of Six") travel below the earth's crust via a sinkhole through which  millionaire businessman Charles Hoy had previously discovered a mechanical creature, the inner workings on which he based a lucrative technology business. The patent well (and therefore his money) having gone dry (and most of the "discoveries" having been replicated by Microsoft) from the initial machine creature, he sends the team down to bring back more organic-technology so that he may exploit it for profit (maybe this is not as apolitical as I originally thought!).  And so began what would ultimately be an eight issue run, consisting of two separate four issue mini-series, that comprised all that would see publication from the World Below.

Like many old school sci-fi/adventure stories, the Team of Six follows Star Trek's United Nations rule of team building by including a diverse group of men and woman from a variety of different ethnic and career backgrounds. Each also has something to prove to themselves and to the team. If the set-up sounds like a television pilot, you're not too far from the narrative structure which includes flashbacks (each issue begins mid-action then works forward from an earlier starting point).

The Team of Six are a veritable United Nations of scientific research teams.
Not surprisingly, given the subterranean setting, Chadwick creatively brings a balanced approach of creepy and strange to his character designs, often beginning with a reader-familiar basic design (for instance, a boomerang) and tweaking it slightly to give it a unique appearance ("the flock" of techno-creatures that terrorize our protagonists in the premier issue and as seen on page 11 above).

Some interesting choices are also made by Chadwick in transitioning from the first to the second series. One artistic flourish that began with Issue #3 was the inclusion of word balloons on the cover. During the late Nineties, many mainstream publishers were moving away from the more classic approach to cover design where an important scene of character interaction was teased on the cover. Chadwick's design for the World Below would seem to have flown in the face of this movement, and I for one was glad to see this--and wish that more publishers even 14 years later would revisit the practice.
Volume 1, Issue 4.
A fairly significant artistic decision was made between the first four issues and the second four issue miniseries which carried the subtitle Deeper and Stranger: gone were the vibrant color interiors replaced with black & white with gray tonal work, a style also employed in some of the Concrete series. Perhaps given the darker tone of the narrative, that dealt with the explorers quest for the origins of the World Below, and to better reflect the psychological elements which came to the forefront in the second four issues. Chadwick's decision to go with the more effective (when judiciously used) stripped down approach, predates it's more modern use that collector's will recognize in the wildly successful of Walking Dead series.

Of course, the conclusion to the series (a downer I won't spoil here), brings what appeared on the surface to begin as a comic booky exploration into wonder full circle to what Chadwick does best--(mostly) subtle political commentary. With a conclusion that would make Rod Serling proud, and squirm, as with all good serials though there remains the (extremely slim and as yet unrealized in publication) potential for a rescue team...

I recommend the entire eight issue arc as both an interesting source for analysis, and, more importantly, as an entertaining take on some familiar sci-fi/adventure comic book tropes. Both World Below and  its follow-up World Below: Deeper and Stranger are likely available at your local comic shop for cover price ($3.99 an issue), or if absolutely unable to shop a lcs, online at any number of back issue outlets.

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