Tartarus Is Other People In Submerged #2

by Noah Sharma
Cover A by Jen Bartel and Tríona Tree Farrel

Deep in the abandoned tunnels beneath New York, Ellie Puente discovers that she’s not as alone as she thought. The second issue of this distinctive horror book makes the wise choice to give El some company quickly and it works wonders.

Let’s not mince words: our introduction to La Llorona, for lack of a more official name, is a reason to pick up this book in itself. Rarely do we get such a visceral, thoughtful, and meaningful entrance for an antagonist. Vita Ayala makes La Llorona’s modus operandi absolutely clear and horrifying, while also using it to tell us more about Ellie and her history.

Interior art by Lisa Sterle and Stelladia

Even if you don’t know the cultural history of the character, there’s an immediacy and, I should think, universal horror to her that makes her broadly applicable but extremely specific in execution. Obviously La Llorona represents Ellie’s mother, but don’t get too comfortable with simple one-to-ones, Ayala’s dreamy storytelling is too clever to be so easily reduced. There’s no one child that belongs to her because she belongs to her guilt and her grief. Seeing her second victim struggle and rage against her the way that only children can, and often do, actually elicits a little celebration from the reader, even as it highlights both the dishonor and the necessity of cruel compromise.

And though the scene is striking, there’s more to her than just that. As she wanders in and out of the story, potentially running up against the other mysterious figures that populate this underground world, La Llorona holds the potential to fill many roles. I, for one, hope that she’s allowed to stay monstrous, not forced to be understood as the victim that El’s mother no doubt was, but her crowned, ghostly design opens the door to potent possibilities. Is this ghastly Lady Liberty the strangling love of America, the serpent toothed promise of freedom for women and Latinas, or something else entirely. It’s a significant and enjoyable part of the story to wonder what it means and what might come next.

Interior art by Lisa Sterle and Stelladia

Indeed, Ayala is playing with some of my favorite narrative devices as a strange supernatural ecosystem begins to take shape beneath New York. How does La Llorona relate to the briefly glimpsed Raven? What significance grants the Centipede the repeated appearance on the series’ covers and who is the ‘he’ it refers to? If La Llorona represents part of Ellie’s relationship with her mother, what do the other figures in the dark represent and what can we expect to see of her pointedly unseen father?

The whole story has a poetic, dreamlike quality that makes you question what you’re seeing. Ellie’s nameless charge could easily be exactly what he claims, but his frequent parallels with Ellie raise questions if he’s not merely another phantom of the tunnels. Perhaps my favorite subtlety is how El refers to the Centipede as “it” but the boy immediately starts talking about “him”. Does it represent a knowledge that Ellie doesn’t have? Is he looking past the Centipede to the same “him” that it refers to? Or is it just the difference in perspective of a young boy and queer woman?

Ayala is obviously clever and uses that floaty, unreal quality to great effect, but it does come with consequences. Just as the last issue had trouble placing itself in time, the unreality of the setting can add confusion to this issue and dull some of the impact. It’s impressive how much you can feel Ellie’s dizziness, her disorientation, but that means that things aren’t quite as immediate as you’d like.

Luckily, even if Ayala includes some intentional ambiguity, you’ll have little trouble following the narrative thanks to Lisa Sterle’s thoughtful yet traditional layouts. Sterle builds her pages on a foundation of familiar yet interesting boxes, giving the book a classic feel that suddenly retreats when she decides to try something a little wilder.

Sterle’s distinctive style will be familiar to readers of Long Lost, with her bright, soulful eyes and eerie visitors from beyond present as ever. One major difference between this series and Long Lost is that Submerged has a colorist, Stelladia.

The interplay between pale cyan and all all manner of fiery reds, from raging inferno to dying ember and every bloody hue in between, makes for a striking motif and gives an extra level of depth to Sterle’s flattened aesthetic. When that means giving distinction between fore and background elements it’s fantastic, though some of the lighting effects are clearly more three dimensional than suits Sterle. Still, particularly when Stelladia leans into Sterle’s simplicity, the results of their collaboration can be striking, an appropriate match for Ayala’s script.

Interior art by Lisa Sterle and Stelladia

The watercolor effect of Stelladia’s colors is a stunning addition to the book, bringing not only aesthetic beauty but a smokey unreality to the panels. Especially as contrasted to some of the more solid panels, there’s a powerful quality in it.

As for Sterle, her only weakness seems to be a handful of panels that look a little stiff. Submerged is already much more active than Long Lost Book One was and, while there’s little doubt that Sterle has an impressive grasp of speed and ‘camera movement’, some of her action poses lack the life she imbues the rest of the book with.

With its second issue Submerged makes its mark as a clever, forceful piece of comic art. Its hazy experience of descent into New York’s underworld summons up classical myth and Dante’s Inferno, forcing the reader to wonder how much of each Ellie has wandered into. It’s an undeniably intelligent book, best suited for a reader who enjoys piecing together the clues of the narrative and exploring the symbolic and fantastical ambiguities of the story, but both art and writing put emotion first, opening with a tremendously visceral slice of life made monstrous. The whole issue follows this pattern, constructing a carefully plotted narrative as scaffolding for the emotional experience of reading, whether that be empathizing actively with Ellie’s writing or being forced into her confusion and impossibility by the immersive telling.

Submerged #2 is a return to a more classical model of storytelling, with all its benefits and weaknesses, and, just like a haunting bedtime story, it ends for the night leaving you wanting more. Some readers may want something more horrific than eerie or something with more action or a more concrete reality, but if Submerged appeals, then I strongly encourage you to pick it up in singles. Its spiraling descent is best experienced in pieces with plenty of time to process the journey it takes you on.

Cover B by Lisa Sterle

Submerged #2 is currently available from Vault Comics.

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