July 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff

If a picture is worth a thousand words, and Joel Orff gives us 128 pages of pictures, then simple multiplication tells us that 128,000 words worth of solid narrative has been compressed into a far more manageable medium. Orff’s graphic novel, Thunderhead Underground Falls, is a willowy, seemingly uncomplicated book. Don’t be fooled. The story runs deep.

Orff’s book demands a kind of curiosity from the reader, one that cannot be satiated with anything less than a comprehensive “Where’s Waldo” approach to analyzing every background object within the frames. A trained eye reads every wayward book title, every road sign -- all in the hopes of receiving the most clarity from the book. Rather than offer the reader a cookie cutter depiction of characters, Orff requires the reader to navigate uncharted terrain, gather bread crumbs, and shed his own light on even the darkest frames. In this way, the reader is as invested in the book as he chooses.  

As evidence of this reader-motivated exploration, for the first 17 pages not a single word is uttered from either of the main characters. Instead, Orff simply shows us a college-aged male and female driving through a snowy night. In a flash forward scene, we see Jack Martin, the male character, with a freshly shaven head and an army-issued pen gripped in his right hand. We do not receive any further indication that Jack will soon be shipped off to fight in the Middle East until 10 pages later, when the unnamed female reports, “if only you’d met me sooner. I would have talked you out of joining the army.” Orff scatters an array of plot and character hints throughout the story, though the reader is the impetus that drives the investigation and propels the forward motion.

Throughout their night together, the pair attempts to view their world with a renewed interest in their surroundings. From sneaking into the closed student center, examining an art project within the confines of the men’s bathroom, entering an unlocked, unknown house, and enjoying the silence of a putt-putt course under a blanket of snow, the pair’s wonderment for their world resonates within the reader.

Their night tour climaxes when they decide to take a spontaneous 700-mile road trip to view Thunderhead Underground Falls, a symbol of Jack’s personal regrets; a place he always meant to visit, though he never took the chance. On arriving to their underground waterfall destination they find further disappointments, and it is there, over coffee in a small roadside café, where they also learn that their attempts to delay their goodbyes are hopeless.

Pages prior, in a quiet, comfortable bedroom, as the couple verges on sleep, the reader views a page-wide frame of the pair nestled together, a momentary glimpse of the safety they provide for one another. Just a page earlier, she asks if he is afraid of his swiftly-approaching army service, to which he replies that his fear is that he “won’t see things the same when [he] get[s] back... I’ll be different.” The fear of a loss of innocence is disturbing, and as we stare at the youthful characters we easily imagine heavier weights bearing down on them -- the tragedy of a loss of self.

The sequencing of Orff’s frames is genius, and, oftentimes, he relies on the binaries of light and shadow, the contrast of zooming in and out, as well as switching from horizontal views to bird’s eye, in order to rouse an emotional effect from the reader. To depict Jack Martin’s uncertainty of life purpose, as well as his doubt for enlisting, Orff employs a blank, snowy, starry landscape juxtaposed beside an inch-tall figure of Jack -- making evident the obviousness of his marginality in the greater world.

The book is muted, both in terms of language and in color. Yet his visual depictions of scenes pick up the slack where words fail. The trite, gut-wrenching goodbye we expect never takes place, and, instead, the silent frames he provides speak much louder. Rather than tell us a story, he shows us, and rather than force it upon us, he merely distributes the facts, allows us to draw our own conclusions, and asks us only to delve as deep as we feel comfortable. Trust me, you’ll feel comfortable. Trust me, you’ll delve deep.  

Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff
Alternative Comics
ISBN: 1891867881
128 Pages