Monday, July 17, 2017

A Classic Comic Resurrection Beneath the Earth

Jon Rivera and Gerard Way, writers; Michael Avon Oeming, artist, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Vol. 1: Going Underground

Former spelunker and part-time action hero Calvin “Cave” Carson hung up his spurs and became a family man several years ago. But the excavation company that now employs him has ulterior motives for keeping Carson on a short leash. When a ghost from his past appears on his doorstep, Carson realizes his adventuring days aren’t through. But his employers won’t let Carson go so easily… nor his daughter, either.

DC Comics introduced Cave Carson in 1957, alongside other adventure-oriented titles, featuring heroes without superpowers, like Challengers of the Unknown and the Sea Devils. But Carson never got sufficient traction to become his own franchise; he fought alongside Superman, but always as a sidekick. Lead writer Gerard Way admits he needed to consult a concordance of obscure classic characters to find someone worthy of reboot for his Young Animal imprint.

Newly widowed at the start of this story, Cave Carson struggles to maintain connections with his college-age daughter. He goes through the motions of workplace diligence, but they mostly keep him around for nostalgia: he taught his followers everything they know about underground adventuring, before they eventually outgrew him. Now Carson has the kind of slow, melancholy conversations we recognize from action movies, right before everything hits the fan.

And fan-hitting does occur. One night, tired, frustrated, and alone in his formerly full house, Carson hears a knock. A loincloth-wearing emissary appears at his door. Seems the Muldroog, a lost civilization of mole people, are under attack, and only Carson’s late wife, with her panoply of ancient secrets, can save the underground. But with her gone, apparently a blood quantum is sufficient, because they’ll accept Carson’s daughter instead.

Original promo art,
click to enlarge
It’s difficult to read this graphic novel without recognizing the debts it owes older stories. Besides reviving an almost forgotten character from the Eisenhower era, and connecting him to characters borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs, the art suggests a combination of Peter Max and Astro-Boy. The story has hints of old EC horror comics, a tendency emphasized by sudden jarring images of amorphous fungus people savaging the peaceful natives.

Yet this obsessive borrowing doesn’t undercut the story. Like many serial science fiction franchises that don’t bother concealing their roots, like Star Wars and Doctor Who, this story’s connection to older pulp traditions gives it a sense of continuity. We aren’t just reading something generated last weekend like the transient comics of the 1990s that are largely unreadable today. This story connects science fiction’s past to his evolving present.

The emissary at Carson’s doorstep warns him that his employers, EBX, committed the attack on his subterranean nation. So Carson doesn’t even bother bringing his bosses into the discussion. He calls his oldest ally, Wild Dog, an Uzi-wielding maniac who plainly copied his image from the first Quiet Riot album, and goes rogue. Getting off the grid proves easy for a scientist accustomed to caves. Bringing his daughter along proves harder.

Deep underground, the Muldroog have buried a secret for generations. Why else would a nation, apparently blessed by technology but attuned to natural rhythms, continue living in caves? Seems the Muldroog civilization is based upon a lie its people tell outsiders, a curse that keeps giving, provided nobody ever finds out. But what the Muldroog have spent centuries keeping locked up, EBX wants to make into a profit engine.

For all the sci-fi-adventure trappings, this story essentially isn’t about that. Cave Carson’s cybernetic eye, which sometimes goes unmentioned for several chapters, isn’t a driving force behind the story, it’s a metaphor for a man who’s seen things he cannot forget. Carson and his wife told their daughter lies to protect her from hostile reality. Now Eileen’s gone, Cave must bear punishment for those lies alone when truth rushes forth.

This book carries a “Suggested For Mature Readers” label. Please take this seriously. Besides violence, language, and very brief nudity, the themes of long-simmering family tensions shouldn’t be taken lightly. This story introduces themes that most grown-ups will recognize from their own families. Though we perhaps won’t discover our connection to forgotten mole-people civilizations, we all struggle to accept and understand our roots.

Cave Carson is only one among several classic DC characters getting reboot treatments from Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint. Formerly lead singer of My Chemical Romance, Way’s recent reinvention as a genre writer has made visible several themes always implicit in his music. He admits his comics deal preponderantly with strained parent-child relationships. Well, this story ends in motion; it’ll be interesting to see where he takes these themes next.

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