COMIC REVIEW: Underwinter Vol 1: Symphony

Music is an incredibly powerful and important art form. Trying to convey that power is something that writers have attempted time and again. While Underwinter Vol 1: Symphony is undoubtedly a horror comic, its creator, Ray Fawkes, manages to transport the reader into another world where the passion for music is almost tangible.

When a fallen denizen of Heaven claws its way to Earth, four talented musicians are drawn into a web of perversion and violence in an attempt to stop it from bringing its curse to the entire living world.

The story, as written by Fawkes (Gotham By Midnight, Batman: Eternal) is a simple, almost Lovecraftian one. A group of friends – if you can call them that – are struggling to get noticed as a string quartet. Eleanor, Kendall, Corben and Stephanie have a fractious relationship. Before the plot kicks in. They are summoned to perform at a mysterious gig, for way too much money. Meister Marnatha informs them that there are very precise rules to their performance, including being blindfolded. The group comply, but something goes wrong. Then the perversions and violence take over as the musicians’ lives fall apart, culminating a horrific denouement. The story of Underwinter is told in the abstract. Occasionally, Fawkes drifts off into the edge of pretention with his vision.

The art, created by Fawkes, is almost beyond description and nothing like anything I’ve seen in a comic book before. And I used the word ‘created’ as opposed to drawn or painted deliberately. He has combined the traditional panelling and narration techniques that you’d expect with full page abstract art. It looks like a very mixed medium work. There seem to be water colours, and ink, and crayons and pastels and who knows what else.

It is dark and brutal and sometimes the people don’t look particular like people and sometimes perversions reminded me of the Brian Yuzna film Society (1989) as drawn by someone actually participating in it. At times, it isn’t even clear what is going on, while at others, especially the long scenery views, are almost childlike in their rendering. The monster reveal is quite startling, subverting expectations about what looks horrific.

This is an unusual adult comic book that goes on an extreme journey. And yet throughout, there are close ups of musical instruments or more often, parts thereof. The passion of playing a stringed instrument is something that I think Fawkes is trying to intermingle with the horror? Maybe the story is that life without music is unthinkably dreadful? Or maybe I’m on the wrong path. Maybe the madness has infect me?

Occasionally, it is hard to follow the plot because it is so outré. Sometimes the characterisation isn’t as clear as it could be. One things that clashes is the traditional lettering, often in white blocks, against the abstract artwork. Not working for me. On the pages where this is abandoned for more integrated lettering, the effect is more powerful. And this is indeed a powerful comic book. Some of the imagery is startling. Underwinter feels like a timeless horror story told with vigour and an appetite for something out of the ordinary. Taking comic book art in an unexpected direction. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this Underwinter collection, but I was dazzled by it and I admire it.

Title: Underwinter Vol 1: Symphony

Publisher: Image

Rating: 3/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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