The World Below (Dark Horse)

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wbheaderIs Paul Chadwick's new graphic novel a shoot-'em-up adventure, an extended metaphor, or something far more sinister?

 

 

192 pgs B&W; $12.95

(W / A: Paul Chadwick)

 

I first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in elementary school, like a good fifth-grader should. I read it again last year, at age 35. The difference between the two readings was so remarkable as to constitute a kind of magic trick. When I was a child, I absorbed all the wonder that C.S. Lewis had so skillfully measured into his deadly serious romp. When I was an adult, I reeled at the con job he'd put over on the generations of children that had digested the book, proselytizing his Christianity so cunningly it went down like a Hershey bar. The gulf between the readings felt even greater than its length - it was like a robbery so slick that one does not even discover anything is missing for 24 years (by which time, even, the thief has died).

 

So when someone told me that James and the Giant Peach was not, indeed, about a giant peach, but about a giant, walk-through vagina, I had to consider if it truly was another of those cases where naïve kiddie wonder is the mist above a deeper pool of adult machinations (especially given author Roald Dahl's evident cunning).

 

A peach, a vagina. A lion, Jesus Christ. The author is the omnipotent god of his world, and he is certainly entitled to work in strange and mysterious ways. Paul Chadwick's The World Below is an awfully strange place, filled with slimy, tentacled monsters and giant floating brains and angry robot sentinels and six brave adventurers shooting at them like hard-luck cowboys in an eight-issue standoff. That's pretty much the extent of the plot. Our coed gang of mercenaries finds said weirdness when, at the behest of a billionaire industrialist, they descend through a big hole in the ground into this bizarre, hidden world in search of valuable technologies to exploit for cash gain.

 

The cover to The World Below by Paul Chadwick. Click thumbnail for a larger image.But is it what it seems? "The World Below" is a painfully obvious reference to the murk of the human subconscious, right? These monsters are the monsters of the id, flung forth from incomprehensible darkness to do battle with the sensible moderators of the explorers from "the world above," i.e., polite society, right? And on page 64, when the men in the party stumble into a soft, wet living pit that projects a psionic pleasure-sensation so stultifying it leaves them paralyzed to digest in the doom of its acid juices, that's, um, basically a giant, walk-through vagina, right? Oh, that's rich. I get it. What a fun conceit. This isn't a shoot-‘em-up adventure - not really. It's an extended metaphor. It's Fantastic Voyage via Sigmund Freud.

 

So what's next? A spell of red-sky rage, courtesy of the brain's reptilian cortex? More monsters to reflect our primitive fears of castration, abandonment, whatever? Bring ‘em on.

 

Except, it turns out, I just made all that up. Kinda sorta. You see, author Paul Chadwick, in an introduction to this collection, writes of his inspiration: "George Metzger's avant-garde SF [comic] ‘Mal-Ig'" in which "a team descended to a bizarre underground world of creatures and robots that seemed controlled by a huge brain tormented by insects tearing at its surface." That's the exact plot of The World Below. Exactly. If there is a symbolic vagina to be symbolically walked through, it's not Chadwick's doing. It's Metzger's, filtered through Chadwick's storytelling apparatus.

 

What a pretentious fuck I am. I thought there was a code to be cracked. And there almost is. Somewhere in here, there is a dark, dark place where human fears are scary as hell; grotesque monsters that look thoroughly alien but, in the end, are revealed as thoroughly intrinsic to who we are. We are the monsters, and the giant floating brain is our brain. I get the feeling this Metzger fellow was able to communicate that. (He seems to have communicated it to Chadwick, anyway.)

 

The World Below is clumsier in its telling. Characters are developed by random bursts of flashback, and it's hard to feel any sympathy for them. The first half of the collection suffers from a stumbling pace and disjointed action. The secrets of this world are not revealed bit by bit so as to tease us, but in a flood of explanation at the very end, after meandering has worn out mystery. After 182 pages, the conclusion is dispiriting.

 

There is a creepiness that gives this thing some life, though - and a campiness, too. One of the men begins to grow a third hand from the middle of his chest. The hand anticipates the needs of the group, at one point catching a thrown beer, at another point drawing and firing a gun before its owner can react. When the group is overtaken by creatures that sit on their heads to control their minds, the parasites look like the most evil Easter bonnets the world has ever known.

 

And it's hard to disparage Paul "Concrete" Chadwick's art. His stuff is tight as ever. The first four issues of The World Below were printed in glorious color, so the funky aliens and robots popped off the page. According to the Introduction, Dark Horse decided to save some money on the last four issues, printing them in black and white. This collection is printed entirely in black and white, and the color is missed.

 

The World Below starts off with the promise of a new, wholly imagined freakfest of creatures and places unlike any we've seen. That feeling of utter foreignness, akin to cracking open Doom Patrol or Jim Woodring's Frank for the first time, is the gas in the tank here. But the story, cribbed largely from another creator, feels secondhand. And any story that dares to mine the human subconscious in all its darkness should have the balls to use the adjective "fucking." "Effing" is a euphemism reserved for the lame. | Byron Kerman

 

Click here for a 4-page preview of The World Below courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!

 

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