Joel Orff is a unique cartoonist whose work has a certain haunting quality to it. There’s a quiet, emotional aspect to Orff’s work that seems to somehow live close to the surface and yet haunt to the bone. His latest graphic novel, Thunderhead Underground Falls, is the story of Jack and Lara and their intense emotional relationship while at college. The story takes place shortly before Jack’s tour of duty in the Army is to begin. This book is a kind of biography of the couple’s relationship as they really grow close to each other, shortly before Jack is fated to leave Lara.
Jack’s future military life gives the whole book an emotional immediacy and intensity that it might otherwise lack. These moments are important to the young people in this book not simply because they’re young people having emotional experiences. It also feels important because both of them know that military life will change Jack’s life. He will have very different experiences than Lara will, experiences that will change him in profound ways that can’t even be anticipated. As Jack says, “You know what I’m afraid of most? I’m afraid that I won’t see things the same when I get back. Won’t feel the same way about them. The sound of a train. The smells of spring. The feeling of the early morning. It’s all gonna be different. I’ll be different.”
Thus when the two of them decide to take a quixotic road trip to Thunderhead Underground Falls, a tourist attraction that has an emotional connection for Jack, it feels like a more important event than it might be in a different book. The Falls represent Jack’s last moments of emotional and thoughtful freedom. More than that, they represent a kind of innocence that will be gone when Jack begins his Army career. Perhaps the fact that the Underground Falls is closed is symbolic of lost time . Perhaps it represents represents the fact that Jack’s childhood is really at an end. Frivolity seems like a thing of the past; only icy fear is in his near future.
Through it all, Joel Orff gives readers a tight emotional connection to the characters. It’s striking how many scenes involve just Jack and Lara, and how that feels so open somehow. Usually a book with only two characters can feel claustrophobic; in this book, it gives the story a kind of stunning emotional intimacy. Perhaps this also is reflected in his wonderful use of blacks in his art. Orff’s comic is full of deep, emotional black tones that somehow serve to bring the readers closer to the characters. There’s a scene where Jack and Dana wander into a strange person’s house just for kicks that is practically suffused with black. Some artists would use the black to convey a sense of foreboding or imminent threat; in this book, Orff uses the blacks to give a reader a tighter emotional connection to the characters. We feel like we’re in the room with the couple, not because the scene has a documentary feel, but more because we’re emotionally invested in the scene. Readers feel the passion that Jack and Dana feel for life when we read that scene.
Thunderhead Underground Falls is an extraordinary graphic novel that brilliantly shows the spirit of young love that a couple feels in the face of impending life events. It’s a deeply emotional book, often naked in its passion for the characters depicted in the story. That naked passion makes this a book that goes right to a reader’s soul.