Friday, May 29, 2015

Concrete Comics

Concrete Volume 2: Heights: written by Paul Chadwick; illustrated by Paul Chadwick, Jon Nyberg, and Jed Hotchkiss (1986-1995; collected 2006): My only caveat about this reprint format from Dark Horse is that it's too small (smaller than the original comic-book pages, that is) to do justice to some of writer-artist Paul Chadwick's work with the occasional tiny panel or series of tiny panels. But I also realize that this format is a commercial necessity. Volume 2 of the collected Concrete gives us issues 6-10 of Concrete's original title from the late 1980's, along with assorted short stories. 

Concrete was infamously called by Harlan Ellison the best comic book on the racks in an Ellison article on comic books in a late 1980's issue of Playboy. It really, really wasn't. It was an enjoyable and, for a marketplace dominated by superheroes, somewhat offbeat take on what was really a super-hero trope. 

Concrete the character was originally a U.S. political speechwriter. While on a camping trip with a friend, he was captured by aliens and had his brain placed in a 7-foot-tall, super-strong body that looked an awful lot like it was made of concrete (though it wasn't).

Concrete escaped, while his friend either died or was again taken prisoner by the aliens, who proceeded to leave Earth as rapidly as possible. After being studied by the U.S. government, Concrete was finally allowed to live his own life under government supervision, and with frequent evaluation and testing by scientist Maureen Vonnegut. His cover story was that he was the sole survivor of a mostly disastrous U.S. government cyborg program.

So Concrete, forever a creature of the mind, decides after his release to become at least partially a creature of action. He does have super-strength, super eyesight, a super-tough skin, and super healing abilities. He doesn't have a sense of touch or taste (he can eat rocks and stay healthy, for instance, and so he does), and while he can hear, he doesn't seem to have ears.

Also, no genitals.

In this second volume, the full-length stories show Concrete, Maureen, and his assistant Larry trying to help a rural family save their farm (Concrete accepts letters from people asking for various types of help); Concrete climbing Mount Everest; and Concrete dealing with the death of his mother (who believes him to be dead thanks to the government's desire to keep his original identity a secret) and a mysterious illness that no one can diagnose, given that his biology is completely alien to Dr. Vonnegut and the other scientists studying him.

Chadwick maintains a nice balance between the mundane and the dramatic throughout this volume. Concrete may be strong and tough, but that doesn't mean he never gets into tight spots. In its own way, Concrete is as much of an exploration of the real-world possibilities of a super-hero as were other late 1980's works that most notably include Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Concrete remains hopeful about human society in the face of the extraordinary, with a lot of qualifiers. 

The art of Concrete is pleasing and low-key, free of the standard superhero sturm-und-drang even in the loudest moments. It's about as naturalistic and unmelodramatic a take on a superhero as one could want. Chadwick does occasionally slip into network-TV-style moralizing at the end of a story, a tendency that would fade over the years as Chadwick became a writer more sure of himself, though it never entirely disappeared. Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Concrete and friends nearly 30 years after I first read these comics. It's a very warm and mostly gentle series, and there should be room in comic books for a series like that. Recommended.

Concrete Volume 3: Fragile Creature: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-1995/collected 2006): Volume 3 of the collected Concrete offers a selection of short stories about everyone's favourite alien cyborg with a human brain and, as the eponymous main feature, a reprint of a 1991 miniseries about Concrete's adventures in the film business. 

Fragile Creature draws upon Paul Chadwick's own adventures in the film business (among other things, he worked on Bob and Doug Mackenzie's Strange Brew!) as it shows Concrete accepting a job doing a wide variety of on-set special effects so as to get a movie based on a line of toys made without breaking the budget. Super-strength has its advantages. Problems arise, of course, thanks to some resentment of Concrete taking jobs away from the people who would otherwise have done such effects. There are various squabble on the film as well, primarily between the main actor and the director.

The whole thing works well as both a dramatic but low-key adventure for Concrete and as a primer on movie financing, production, and marketing. Concrete's personal life also undergoes some changes as his personal scientist Dr. Maureen Vonnegut starts a relationship with another scientist, to the perpetually lovestruck (and in his cyborg body, completely without genitals) Concrete. Recommended.

Concrete Volume 6: Strange Armor: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-2006/collected 2006): Writer-artist Paul Chadwick reworks a screenplay he wrote for a never-produced Concrete movie into a 150-page comic-book narrative, to mixed results. It's interesting to see his 10-years-later take on Concrete's origins and first adventures. Unfortunately, Hollywoodizing the story of Concrete also meant adding a prominent 'action' plot involving a corrupt CIA agent to the mix.

The Hollywoodized portions of the narrative don't add anything positive. Indeed, they make for a jarring contrast with the normal tone and content of Concrete, which was always fairly normative (or non-sensational, perhaps), even when our hero was dealing with aliens or Eastern Bloc secret agents trying to kidnap him. The Hollywoodization also turns Maureen Vonnegut, Concrete's government-assigned scientist, into a sort of action-movie/romantic-comedy version of herself, abandoning the organic growth of Concrete and Maureen's platonic relationship. Lightly recommended.

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