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In Underworld (ed. Dargaud), cartoonist Mathieu Burniat and biologist Marc-André Selosse invite readers on a guided tour of this still little-known underground world.
“Do you dream of immortality? Of possessing immeasurable wealth and wielding supreme power over a realm vaster than the world’s continents? Hades, god of the underworld, is seeking a successor. Applicants may inquire at door A23 in the land of the dead.” It is with these enigmatic opening lines that Underworld begins. Created by Belgian author Mathieu Burniat, with scientific guidance from biologist Marc-André Selosse (WLSF board member), this docu-fiction graphic novel evokes the secret world of soil. An area too often forgotten and neglected, but which nevertheless is host to one of the largest concentrations of plant and animal life. “Soil is a difficult environment to observe as it is opaque and its inhabitants are tiny” explains Mathieu Burniat. “It is also associated with the world of the dead and the “dirty”. Darwin was interested in earthworms, but most scientists have long preferred to observe birds and plants…”.
Moreover, as Marc-André Selosse points out, “Western society has been built, since the 19th century, on the departure from the land and rurality, through migration to the city. So there is both a sensory and cultural problem”. As a result, this ecosystem, which is essential to life on Earth, is now in danger, primarily because of the harmful consequences of conventional agriculture.
Soil: a fragile regulator
In the company of Suzanne, a 16-year-old girl who finds herself shrunk to a tiny size, the reader dives head first into the soil. They soon discover that strange things are happening right beneath our feet. This hidden world is governed by unchanging cycles, which ensure its balance and continuity. Everywhere, bacteria, fungi, mites, worms and countless other insects, invertebrates and small mammals are busy transforming the organic waste produced on the surface.
Without this teeming life, the soil would not be rich enough, aerated enough, or moist enough for plants to grow properly. And to meet the food needs of wildlife, including humans. “Soil helps regulate the climate – or deregulate it, if we use it badly. It produces greenhouse gases and warms the Earth, making it habitable. But if we treat it badly, with excessive irrigation and ploughing, it produces too much, and this contributes to the disruption of our climate,” explains Marc-André Selosse. “The soil also regulates the water cycle, which takes in mineral elements that nourish lakes and seas. It feeds land animals, including human beings, because we eat plants that grow there, or animals that have eaten them.”
Science for all
As in his previous works, Mathieu Burniat demonstrates incredible narrative and graphic creativity. This not only helps the reader identify with the characters, but also to convey the maximum amount of information possible. A work of scientific popularisation that is intended to be both fun and accessible to all. Underworld is a graphic novel that is both fascinating – through its immersive dimension and its wit – and terrifying – through the assessment it makes of human activity on the state of our soil. A gem not to be missed.