Vita Ayala (writer), Rachel Deering (letterer), Stelladia (colourist), Lisa Sterle (illustrator), Jen Bartell and Lisa Sterle (cover)
29 August 2018
Submerged is one of those comics that makes you feel like you’re discovering what comics can really do, maybe for the first time in your life. Ayala has delivered a fresh, spectacular take on the land of the dead, steeped in religious and mythical references. At the same time, they have woven a touching and all too recognisable story about the emotional labour expected of women when it comes to dysfunctional family relationships.
In Submerged #1 we met Elysia, a Latinx resident of New York and estranged from her family. Just as a big hurricane is about to hit the city, she receives an abrupt voicemail from her troublesome brother, begging her for help. Searching the streets for him, Elysia wanders down an abandoned subway station and somehow ends up in the land of the dead, complete with references to the River Styx.
After stumbling past demi-god kings, and accompanied by a rather cute Cerberus, Elysia is confronted by her past. Issue #2 finds her dealing with a vision of her mother, as well as her own feelings about their relationship. It builds upon the idea of Elysia journeying through the Underworld in search of her brother, battling obstacles asking the way. The references to Greek myths were already clear from Elysia’s name and previous mentions of Styx and the ferryman. Whether her quest to save her brother will end as tragically as Orpheus’s rescue of Eurydice from death remains to be seen.
While Elysia has to overcome horrifying creatures, however, none seem more challenging than her own family.
Ayala has looked at the emotional labour placed upon women of colour, even by other women, in work such as The Wilds. Here, they explore the fragile peace women must maintain, often for the sake of family unity. In issue #1, the story focused upon the responsibility forced upon Elysia for her brother’s safety and his idiotic actions. In this issue, we see Elysia constantly made to accommodate her mother’s expectations and demands, be they higher grades or hiding Elysia’s queerness (and girlfriend) from her father. For anyone who’s ever experienced a loved one using guilt and emotional manipulation on them to excuse awful behaviour, Elysia’s mother will seem uncomfortably familiar.
Sterle brings life to Ayala’s characters, disturbing readers in one moment then wrenching at hearts in another. Sterle draws characters whose eyes stare out, effectively communicating either fear, despair, or resolve. The panel layout contains inspired touches to engage the reader, such as allowing billowing smoke to act as panel edges, or juddering panel lines to highlight the vibrations of a train. Deering’s lettering efficiently delivers the dialogue, and the use of joined speech balloons at certain points allows the reader to clearly hear the pauses in a character’s speech.
Readers are reminded of Elysia’s Latinx culture not just through the Spanish words that Elysia and her mother occasionally use, but also through the stunningly evocative imagery. It’s hard to miss the Catholic iconography in the symbolic representation of Elysia’s mother as the divine woman, tears of blood pouring down her face. Growing up Catholic, I always felt there was a particular exaltation of suffering within the faith. Seeing Elysia’s mother embody and inflict this ideal is an uncomfortable reminder of how others will often believe themselves the martyr whilst heedlessly causing harm to others.
Another impressive thing about Submerged is just how colourful it is, despite being set in a subway system deep underground. Vivid blue, orange and purple hues jostle to bring the scenes and flashbacks to life. Stelladia has (thankfully) decided to bypass the typical sludgy browns and greys often seen in the depictions of dark surroundings. The relative brightness of the abandoned subway system is so uncharacteristic yet welcoming that it adds another layer of surrealism to the other world Elysia has stumbled into.
Stelladia wields colours in another way, namely the way in they portray Elysia’s solitude. In flashback scenes, the reader is given glimpses of Elysia’s difficult relationship with her mother. To emphasise this, Elysia is vibrant and solid, but her mother and the scenes have muted tones, dull and faded in comparison. It’s a great way to highlight just how much Elysia stands out, despite being convinced time and time again to accept her lot, and forgive her mother.
In Submerged, Ayala has created a relatable narrative by focusing on human flaws and amplifying these through a surreal wonderland. It is a story about how Elysia used to bury her real and queer self for the sake of her family, and in #2 there are more hints of what led to her estrangement from them. Submerged is an astoundingly good comic, and while #2 gives more insights into Elysia’s life, it will also leave readers eager to uncover more.