Undertow, by Ellen Lindner
I love the tagline on the cover of Undertow even though I have an aversion to the exclamation mark - “Dancing!! Drugs!! Deceit!! All at Coney Island”. You can’t get a better start to a graphic novel.
Written and drawn by Ellen Lindner, Undertow, set in the late fifties/early sixties, is a heady mix of teenage rebellion, poverty, class, heroin, tattoos and gangs. The novel’s protagonist is Rhonda, a teenager trapped in relative poverty who endures the death her best friend and the attentions of a righteous social worker over one weekend at Coney island.
Rhonda seems to be on the cusp of adulthood. Her future a delicate thread that could twist in any direction. Rhonda’s brother and the aforementioned social worker Chuck both trying to encourage her to escape her surroundings for a better life.
How Ellen Lindner portrays the slow burning grief Rhonda has for her tragic best friend was one of the highlights of the book – Rhonda seems to react to her friend’s death with dispassion until much later on in the novel when events conspire to make sure the reader realises just how much the death of her friend has affected her, resulting in a violent climatic scene on the Coney Island boardwalk.
The culture clash of rich and poor, another theme running through the book, was well illustrated: The grief and back-talk social worker Chuck gets for his perceived poverty tourism and the clumsy advances of a wannabe upper crust photographer are all used to illustrate the poverty and culture gap. The photographer wants to take photographs of Rhonda and her ‘gang’ – “You know, like in Life magazine”. She is quickly shocked by the reality of these peoples lives as she witnesses the brutal assault of a low life heroin addict.
There is a whiff of West Side Story in the teenage gangs, New York setting and fifties styling, but that probably says more about my personal associations than anything else. I blame a production of West Side story in Bradford my mother dragged me to when I was little.
Undertow is a great graphic novel. I got sucked into the story and there is a real sense of rising tension, and a nicely executed climactic scene. The art is immediate and expressive.
There are sketchbook samples at the back of the book, a feature in most comic collections nowadays, the photographs and text in this section also a welcome addition giving a bit of personal background in regards to the author and the genesis of Undertow.
Undertow is available from Page 45 in Nottingham, and both Orbital and Gosh in London. Orders can be made to Diamond from any comic shop, using Diamond Product Code NOV111094. Alternatively, copies can be ordered from the Soaring Penguin Press website: www.soaringpenguinpress.com.
Review by Owen Priestley - www.20three.com