“Unearth” #1 relies on a tried-and-true horror premise to carry a first issue, but doesn’t do enough unique or deep work to draw in an audience. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Written by Cullen Bunn & Kyle Strahm
Illustrated by Baldemar Rivas
Lettered by Crank!
SERIES PREMIERE! When a flesh-warping disease ravages a remote village in Mexico, a scientific task force travels to the inhospitable area to investigate the contamination. Tracing the source of the disease to a nearby cave system, the team discovers a bizarre, hostile ecosystem and a supernatural revelation from which they may never escape.
“Unearth” #1 is immediately familiar as a story based on the legacy of Aliens: a science and military team is called into a remote area to deal with a strange and disturbing phenomenon. A few of the details are different – there’s local militia instead of missing colonists, it’s underground on our planet instead of in space – but the same smart and capable female lead is here, even down to the nightmares. What’s designed to pique interest instead feels too familiar, and when a concept and a story are familiar there’s less room for error.
Bunn has great concepts but sometimes falters in execution, and “Unearth” #1 i a cluttered and confusing foray into well-trod territory. With Strahm also at the helm, two writers on a book means more capacity for creativity and innovation, but they also have to meet or exceed the high standards comic readers have for horror these days. We’re very into body horror, very into alien isolation stories and very into the naked truth of the ugliness in the human soul, and there are too many books on the market right now to rely on what’s come before or deliver a story that’s not memorable or truly weird. Packing a book with a cast that’s indistinguishable from each other in tone and from common archetypes in sci-fi and horror means there’s too much flat dialogue and too much assumed shorthand. For example, the uber-soldier (he’s even blond!) is hostile enough to everything around him that instead of marveling at the violence and tension of it all, we’re left wondering why he’s in his position to begin with as he bumbles and murders his way through the plot. Menace is predicated on competence or a more defined loose-canon approach, and this character sits in the unfortunate, mushy middle. The hard-nosed, wise-cracking commander may be vaping instead of chewing on a cigar, but that one detail can’t save him from feeling two-dimensional and stale and instead feels tacked onto the hackneyed dialogue. The same problem applies to our lead, and re-treading these characters without adding texture or subverting them does not make for a gripping story these days. There could be more to come, but the first issue needs to set the tone and introduce us to compelling people, and on this point “Unearth” #1 does not deliver.
Rivas’s art is the draw in “Unearth” #1, and the creature design is interesting, visceral and gross enough to sustain some interest. The disease, or alien, or alien disease that’s taken over this small town is weird and unsettling in its physical manifestation, and the hint of beauty in the small creature the team encounters in the cave before everything pops off is a nice contrast to the kaiju that comes after. The scenes in the base beforehand are a little flat. There’s neither enough dull regimentation to carry off the grimness of the situation nor enough layout variation or phantasmagoric detail to unsettle our senses. We get at some weirdness in scenes like the one where the team descends into the cave. Rivas uses a scribbled green and black background to frame a narrow, vertical silhouette of each member descending to good effect, but those kinds of details are, unfortunately, less prevalent than they could be. Rivas has a fine, controlled line and doesn’t use a lot of shading or inking to build tension where one would expect it to pop up in a book like this, and the occasional cartooning detail that borders on anime styling does not suit the tone of the book. A lot of this middle ground is also due to the colors. The sickly greens and muted bubblegum pinks work well to drive home how gross this disease is, but they add an unintentional cheerfulness when contrasted with the otherwise limited palette. The red doesn’t work well with the browns or the rest of the palette, and there’s a lack of unity on the page that doesn’t result in the unsettling dislocation we’d expect from intentionally dissonant choices.Continued below
Crank’s lettering is serviceable, but the thick stroke on the balloons fights a bit with Rivas’s finer linework on the page. The font has some styled letters that don’t entirely fit and feel like they’d be more suited to a fantasy book than a horror story about a modern alien epidemic. The plethora of speakers to deal with in some smaller panels means balloons are butted well, but there’s one panel in particular with a dialogue between two characters that lacks a connector between two balloons. Each part of the response is in its own balloon with a discrete tail, which is disorienting considering the two lines are delivered consecutively. What is, no doubt, a tactic designed to incorporate a pause for that character doesn’t entirely play.
Overall, “Unearth” is a bit of a disappointment. It relies too heavily on its predecessors in the genre without adding much that’s new or deep enough into said well-trod territory to grow past its references. There’s nothing wrong with telling an engaging story we’ve seen a lot before, but it has to be engaging. Rivas’s art is interesting and provides some of that engagement, but can’t quite nail the tension or intrigue that’s absolutely vital for a first issue, especially a first issue released in 2019 in this genre.
Final Verdict: 5.5 – “Unearth” #1 is a clumsy foray into familiar storytelling territory that lacks visual cohesion and some finer craft points that make a compelling first issue.