The Underfoot vol. 1: The Mighty Deep – Ben Fisher, Emily S. Whitten

3 out of 5

Raise your hand if you’re a sucker for anthropomorphic comics.  My hand up, I could blame it on an early TMNT obsession, but I think my love for humanized animals – cute or not – would’ve been present regardless, and I’m happy for it, as it leads me to a lot of comics I’d probably pass over as “childish” otherwise.

And though Ben Fisher’s and Emily Whitten’s The Underfoot – our main anthromorphs here being hamster – is listed as all-ages, it’s pretty hefty stuff, in leagues with classics like The Rats of N.I.M.H. in terms of treating its readers with respect for their intelligence.  Animals war against each other and don’t spare on the stabbing or impaling to escape, and there’s death, and there’s a legitimate sense of stakes throughout.  Artist Michelle Nguyen can’t always get the choreography of more hectic scenes across, but her personalization of our crawling and talking hamsters is spot on, with a large, growing cast each displaying a sense of emotive depth beyond the usual ‘funny one,’ ‘serious one’ and etc. tropes, supported by Fisher’s and Whitten’s script, which makes good use of this first volume’s 150 or so pages to circle around to each character and give them something to think or say to flesh them out.

Also in great supply is some excellent world-building.  Built into The Underfoot is the mythology of our hamsters, talking of a gone – dead or watching from afar? – race of “giants”, presumably humans, who gifted them with abilities and intelligence and the roots of the science to build and maintain their burrow.  This stuff isn’t dumped on us but well worked into the story, with one page extras between chapters (reports or emails originating from a lab) to flesh some detail out, allowing us to get the gist while leaving plenty of intriguing stuff unexplored, which gets even more intriguing later in the book when the hamsters’ understood world greatly expands.  And yes, the source of naming of the hamsters is a genius Easter egg.

The Mighty Deep is mainly focused on a cross-forest trek to blow up a dam, and while the moment-by-moment antics on this trek pass the pages well, the big picture of that journey is where the book loses some sharpness.  The animals refer to other species (some also anthropomorphs) by their own made-up, though logical, names and the book doesn’t really offer us a focus for a Big Bad.  Yes, apparently scalier brethren (lizards, snakes) are evil, but we get little one-off interactions with birds and fish, and some other referenced animals besides, and I didn’t realize until late in the story that we don’t even know who built the dam.  Because this first volume can be excused as a platform more for introductions – to the world, to the characters – it’s understood why Fisher and Whitten might not’ve wanted to direct us down a Here’s The Bad Guy alley too quickly, but it makes the trek to the dam feel somewhat hollow at the same time.  We’re told that it’s a threat to other nearby animals, but that’s a bit too abstract.

But obvioulsy there’s a gigantic amount of promise here, and The Mighty Deep reads like the kind of intro that will benefit from its later books, when you can go back and better understand what was being established.  (Meaning our creatives better make good on those later books!)