After reading Deep Breaths, an excellent collection of shorts by Australian comic artist Chris Gooch, I was curious as to how his future extended pieces would fare. The pacing of his shorter works would be hard to replicate on a larger scale, particularly when multiple storylines would need to be spun simultaneously. But Gooch’s Under-Earth put my mind at ease, with a succinct, compact story, that did its job at unnerving and immersing.
The story revolves around an… innovative new prison system, in which assailants are thrown down a 600 metre hole below the Earth. There, another decrepit, but functioning society lives. The underground prison has its own economy, in which individuals can make money to buy the limited luxuries that find their way into this new world. More importantly, as escape is seemingly impossible, monitoring inmates is limited, leading to many shady figures creating their own monopolies.
We are introduced to this prison system through Reece Dixon, a new inhabitant of this land. Together, we learn the ins and outs of the prison system; navigating an inherently predatory labour system while assimilating into the social systems at play. While doing all this, the inmates must also remain mentally strong, not succumbing to the despair of their new life under Earth. Alongside Reece, we also follow Ele and Zoe, petty thieves who dream of escaping the hole. Every night, they stare up at the sky, and where the sun should be, a small stream of light glimmers. The opening to the old world.
A reluctant page-turner is the best way to describe my experience reading this piece. You don’t want things to occur, but you can’t help continue reading. As the plot progresses, and we go from a story of “just trying to survive” to a greater narrative, the disparity of our characters’ situation made my stomach churn. There are so many saddening instances where the characters know their actions are in vain, but they carry on nonetheless. Because if they don’t, there’s no point in going on, and so meaning is ascribed to many unfavourable and immoral actions. We, as the reader, are, even if unconsciously, aware of what the outcome of their situation is. But when the characters resign, understanding their place, there is no good or bad, no tension. Just monotony.
Gooch’s art-style lends itself kindly to the world he’s building. It’s incredibly gritty, and the asymmetry in some of the character designs makes everyone look increasingly unhinged. The veiny pupils, the ugly expressions. It truly feels like these characters are going through the motions. We aren’t falling into a new fantasy world where characters make do with their situation, and potentially find contentedness. All the ugliness of our world seeps into the rotting hole of prison life. As a little personal plus, many of the little artefacts found in the caves were Australian brands/used by Australians, once again reiterating that the Australian lifestyle is always attached to Gooch’s art.
As someone who has never felt the experience firsthand, I began exhibiting feelings of claustrophobia. Even when things got overwhelming, there was no way to calm yourself, or the characters, because the very complication of the story was being trapped. My inability to realise that I, the reader, could put the book down whenever I wanted, was a testament to Gooch’s immersive storytelling, which prevented me from understanding my detachment from the story. The length of the piece also had a part to play in this. With only three volumes, a world could be established, a story set and stakes made all within quick succession of each-other. There was no time to reflect, no time to realise you weren’t a part of this world. An immersion technique hard to pull off, particularly when character depth is an integral part of the story.
Under-Earth is a horrifying look at what happens when our freedom is stripped from us on an extreme level. How we, as humans, act in times of great desperation, and utter hopelessness. It is a strong addition to Gooch’s increasingly captivating bibliography, and a piece I recommend for those looking to explore the themes this narrative offers.
This product was provided to the reviewer in the form of a review copy. Irrespective of this fact, the article remains completely unbiased, and contains the reviewer’s thoughts only.