Stillwater Cave is a battleground. The townspeople of nearby Marion, Kentucky, want the cave open to the public for the business it will bring. Conservationists want its limited access status as a state park maintained, because they worry that tourists will destroy the natural formations.
Two park rangers find the discussion becoming personal in Underground. They work together, they’ve just slept together, and now they find themselves with different opinions. One, Seth, is from the area and understands the economic pressure on the citizens; the other, Wesley, is concerned with protecting the cave environment because it can’t speak for itself.
A local businessman decides not to wait for a decision and hires some losers to open up the cave on his own. When Seth goes to investigate, he gets injured in an explosion. Wesley comes after him, and the two wind up playing cat-and-mouse with the losers, come back to cover their tracks. The situation keeps escalating until soon it’s a battle for life and death as the rangers are chased through the only partially explored cave system.
I think Steve Lieber’s work is at its best when he’s exploring extreme environments, as he did with Whiteout. He’s skilled at capturing artistically what it would feel like to be trapped in a cave system, a situation most of us thankfully will never experience for ourselves. His work showing the characters underground is brilliantly supported with a limited palette (colors by Ron Chan), all browns and blacks, later greys and whites.
Lieber is also great with a variety of people, faces and movement and body types, which suits when populating a small country town. Writer Jeff Parker’s dialogue tells the story while sounding natural, without shoving exposition at the reader. Together, they create some amazing, adrenaline-pounding sequences underground, including a visually astounding one with a flock of bats. They’ve clearly done their research in terms of cave structures, climbing techniques, and the natural environment.
The collection is an action-packed page-turner with an engrossing setting and lots of fascinating background information. (The creators provided an online preview copy.)
Update (a decade later): The book is coming back into print via Oni Press with a new cover, shown here, at the end of September 2021.