UNDERTOWN, Volume One - Mania.com

Manga Review

Mania Grade: C-

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  • Story by: Jim Pascoe
  • Art by: Jake Myler
  • Publisher: TOKYOPOP
  • Rating: Teen (13+)
  • Price: $9.99


By Nadia Oxford     October 15, 2007

Teenage boys are proud and confused creatures. They're at an age where toys and games of make-believe are slowly giving way to other interests like music and, Heaven forefend, girls. That said, a young boy at the crossroads might not be ready to give up his favourite teddy bear, but he feels like a certain obligation comes with his age. Sama, the lead boy in Tokyopop's Undertown, has a certain humanity because of a similar inner struggle, but the "fantastic" world he falls into requires nothing of his imagination--or the reader's, for that matter.
Sama is a shy young boy who, despite being on puberty's doorstep, still loves his teddy bear, Eddie. When Sama's childish ways literally give his gruff father a heart attack, he finds kinship with a fidgeting old man in the hospital. The man tells Sama about the "sugar stone," a magical healing item that's hidden in a peaceful secret world known as "Undertown." When Sama hears that his father has a month to live, he crawls under his bed and enters Undertown (where Eddie comes to life) and finds himself in the middle of a sugar-driven war between "Furmen" and insect "Insurgents."
Pascoe and Myler try very hard to present Undertown as a fantasy story that readers will want to recite to their children at bedtime, but the OEL manga doesn't really present a good reason why Sama's tale should live on after the book is closed. The world of Undertown is structured carefully and populated with scores of animal-men, but the characters interact so fleetingly with the cities, the deserts and the forests that Undertown feels like little more than a cardboard backdrop.
When the characters get into a sticky situation, some sort of new character or item unfailingly presents itself to get them out. This might be intended as a demonstration of Undertown's magic, but it just feels cheap. In one instance, Sama meets an amiable tribe of "Lizard Boys" that help him cross a vast desert with the aid of a sand skiff. When it's destroyed, the lizards immediately summon giant lizards. The manga is loaded with empty interaction that doesn't develop the world or characters of Undertown beyond a chance for the reader to say, "Well, that's sort of cool."
There's also the too-obvious attempt at making the story a dark fantasy alternative for kids who've outgrown Cinderella. Undertown is torn by a war over dwindling sugar resources and its residents talk about a teddy bear holocaust that nearly decimated the race. It sounds silly from the outset and it doesn't come across any better in context: there's just no way to make a serious story out of such subject matter, especially when the Insurgents force-feed sugar to a freedom fighter as a means of torture.
There is still some well laid-out character interaction, such as short-lived visits between Sama and his ailing father; these rare interludes define Sama as a character far better than the rambling pages in between. If Undertown developed its characters around its world instead of vice versa, it would easily find the strikingly memorable traits it attempts to weave. Volume one retails for $9.99.


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