Amado Rodriguez, who goes by the pen name Arex, is one-half of the editing team that puts out the superb Muscles & Fights comics anthology. (Volume 1 review; Volume 2 review.) While I enjoyed Arex’s spare, angular, deco-ish artwork on his “Goon Squad” series that appeared in the anthologies, his slight approach to storytelling left his stories feeling unfulfilled. However, his original graphic novel Heavee Underground, comes with a more coherent and complex plot that provides a much richer experience than his short stories.
Although, when I say “complex,” the actual plot of Heavee Underground is extremely simple: Boy loses girl to better dancer at a b-boy battle, then goes home to perfect his hip hop skills so he win her back at the next battle. That’s not very deep of a story, of course, but it’s enough to keep the story moving and interesting while Arex visually indulges in his love for old school hip hop. And that passion really comes through in his lively, energetic artwork.
Arex uses the same approach to visual storytelling that he employed in his “Goon Squad” stories. While his linework is extremely sparse, somehow he’s really able to convey a terrific sense of a place, whether it’s a hip hop kid’s suburban bedroom, a gritty inner-city street and train station or the inside of a nightclub. He’s also got a really great sense of designing a page so that the story flows through it nicely, but each page hangs as if it is it’s own standalone piece of art. To accomplish that, Arex puts his characters into unique, fluid positions and chooses interesting, dynamic angles for each panel.
The real highlight of the book, of course, is the b-boy battle dance sequences where Arex really pulls out the stops to create his most exciting pages. The artwork during this section of the book just pulsates and explodes with raw, primal energy. I’m not into hip hop myself, but Arex’s passion for it is so palpable that it becomes infectious. It’s as if his artwork was meant solely to illustrate these dance moves where his ability for dynamic design and fluid figure posturing are put to their most fully realized use.
Arex, however, is not the only artist who worked on the book. While he illustrated the first section that sets up the premise and shows the initial b-boy battle between Paco and Raekwon, the rematch between these two characters is drawn by Alberto Rios, who uses the pen name Ponbiki.
Ponbiki is a Muscles & Fights contributor whose work I really enjoyed in both volumes of the anthology. While those two stories were sci-fi tales of cute little fighting robots, Ponbiki still uses the same style of manga layouts for his pages, but with a grittier, Western-style flair. Also, his art is more dense than Arex’s with about ten times the amount of thick black areas, the two disparate styles hang together extremely well, mostly because I think they both have the same approach to unique panel layouts while giving good consideration to overall page cohesion. The hip hop energy is also just as strong on Ponbiki’s pages as it is on Arex’s.
The story then concludes with some more pages from Arex. And what’s really good here is that the tale, as simple as it’s been, doesn’t end as is expected. It’s a very satisfying denouement that lends a surprising depth to the previous events in the book.
In the back of the book, Arex also includes some extras, including some sketches by himself, Chang Vang and Tim Irwin that provided the initial inspiration to the project. Plus, there’s some pin-ups by Dave Crosland and Ponbiki, as well as a special “re-mix” section. The part of the main story that was drawn by Ponbiki was originally illustrated by Tim Irwin. However, Arex felt Irwin’s style clashed too much with his own, so he had Ponbiki contribute instead. That was a smart decision on Arex’s part, as well as a great idea to use print Irwin’s pages anyway in this back section since they’re beautiful pages in their own right. The book also sports a nice colorful cover by Jim Mahfood.
For more info, please visit the Cream City Comics website.