Review by Ian Keogh
Ronnie knows there’s more to life than the Brooklyn area where she’s grown up and an alcoholic mother, to whom she’s Rhonda, which is also the case for the local social worker Chuck. She’s smart, but soon after we’re introduced to her she has to process a tragedy, which she does in the way of many teenagers, burying it while presenting a sassy front.
As promised on the cover, though, most of Undertow takes place on Coney Island, its beach, boardwalk and amusement parks an even bigger attraction in the 1950s for teenagers than today. Ronnie is taken there by Chuck, who’s well-meaning, if a little naive about life in Brooklyn, having grown up in a wealthy family.
Ellen Lindner certainly evokes the times well, applying an attractive shadowless black and white style to lovingly recreated locations, from the beach to dance clubs. The cast are also resonant and distinctive, if a little stiffly posed in places, attention paid to what the main characters and others wear.
However, for all the appeal of the art, the cleverly titled Undertow never fires into life as it should. Ronnie appears in almost every scene, and is the only one of the cast that really transmits. Too many of the remainder are unconvincing because they’re not given enough depth, and their one-dimensional aspect undermines Lindner’s story. When the decisive action arrives late on, there’s little of the necessary sympathy for a tormented character, and the person who angers the aggressor is forced into events. The necessary dramatic elements are present, though, just requiring teased out a little more, and despite misgivings about Undertow as a graphic novel, a more nuanced version would hold the attention as a TV or film drama.