Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Solid as Concrete

With nods of support from people as diverse as Harlan Ellison and Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick's comic book series Concrete is a longtime hit of indie comics. If your like me, that means your chances of having seen much of the series during it's almost 20 year run are pretty small. I've picked it up a couple of times when I've found it, but my knowledge of Chadwick's books comes mostly through the near-rabid appreciation of critics at places like Comics Journal. Depths is the first in a series of reprints by Dark Horse Comics, collecting in chronological order the early tales of the stone giant and bringing them to a much wider audience.

The basic concept of Concrete is very classic in a comic book sense. Political speech writer Ronald Lithgow is kidnapped by space aliens, who then transplant his brain into a seven foot tall, thousand pound body capable of fantastic feats of strength and durability. After escaping the aliens Lithgow uses his political contacts to find support from the US government. Dr. Maureen Vonnegut, no relation to the author as she constantly reminds everyone, heads up the research team to discover the limits of Lithgow's new abilities and perhaps even determine how his mind was transplanted into the new body. Lithgow's given the name Concrete, his new body has the look and durability of the substance of the same name, and the government promotes him as the one success of a now defunct government experiment into cybernetics.

But there Chadwick's story takes a different twist from normal superpowered stories. Aside from the aliens and Lithgow's fantastic metamorphosis into Concrete things are set very much in the real world. Chadwick's landscape isn't populated by superpowered villians for Concrete to fight, and even the space aliens are but a device to get the story started. If I suddenly found myself capable of lifting a car over my head or jumping several stories into the air I would make full use of it, and Lithgow does the same. In his former life Lithgow was a pretty normal guy with an office job, and inside this new body he's able to fulfill all the adventure fantasies he's ever dreamed of. Episodes range from swimming the atlantic ocean, digging a group of miners out of a collapsed tunnel using his bare hands, and playing bodyguard to the eccentric and manipulative rock star known as the Duke (in Chadwick's introduction to the book, he freely admits to living out some of his own fantasies through his writing). Concrete becomes something of a celebrity, making appearances on talk shows and selling a line of merchandise to help pay for the experiments on his own body.

Where many fantasy and sf stories would stop, Concrete's tale continues. His life is not all feats of daring. Despite his fabulous abilities and new-found celebrity status Lithgow still longs for a normal life; things become even more complex for him when he falls in love with the beautiful Dr. Vonnegut. This desire for love, the one desire Lithgow can't possibly fulfill while encased within Concrete's body, runs like a refrain throughout the series. Through wonderful imagination and strong characters Chadwick delivers this story with surprising heart and honesty. The collection also includes one non-Concrete story, the Eisner-nominated short entitled "Orange Glow and Vagabond"; this one piece is an autobiographical telling of Chadwick's crosscountry hitchhiking trip. While it has a bit of a tagged on feel in this volume, it's well worth reading.

This is not to say the book is perfect. Chadwick's dialogue can feel a little stilted and forced at times, and the rhythms moving your eye from panel to panel sometimes become a little muddled. But as the series develops so does Chadwick's polish, to the point that he really starts experimenting with perspective within his otherwise fairly realistic artwork. Judged as a collected whole, the early work shows the starting point of one of the more respected writers and artists of indie comics. Hopefully Dark Horse will continue with the reprints because I'm curious where Concrete's story, and Chadwick's skills, can take us.


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