Concrete Vol. 6: Strange Armor, Paul Chadwick and Bill Spicer. Dark Horse, 2006. $12.95, 208 pages.
The thrilling conclusion of “Year One” Week! Who will live? Who will die? Who will behave completely out of character to serve the demands of plot?
The film critic Joe Queenan once coined the phrase cinéma des voisins to describe a genre of film he had newly discovered. The phrase literally means “cinema of the neighbours”, and describes films that Queenan’s neighbours would probably like; in his own words, “anything sensitive, quirky or ethnic always hits them [his neighbours] where they live”. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the acme of this genre–or maybe its nadir, depending on how you look at it.
Since I am a smart-arse snob like Queenan, I too have noticed a genre in my favoured medium that demands a pretentious French label. I call this genre bandes dessinées d’épinard which literally means “can you direct me to the restroom?” but, idiomatically, translates as “spinach comic books”.
You all know what spinach books are. Like spinach the vegetable, they’re good for you, wholesome, sustaining–and most normal human beings find them as exciting as half a strip of cardboard.
(Personally, I like spinach the vegetable. But I am a vegetarian and therefore not a normal human being. In any case, even if you like the vegetable, you get the idea)
For many years I assumed that Concrete, writer/artist Paul Chadwick’s long-running series about a bloke made out of rock, was pure spinach. What I heard of the series certainly encouraged that perception. Critics gushed about its quiet, meditative tone, or plots that revolved around environmentalism, population control, and the importance of eating your leafy greens.
No thanks, I used to think. I’ll skip to dessert.
Dark Horse’s recent re-release of the series in a cheap, convenient format of seven volumes has made me re-assess my earlier opinion. It did this through the revolutionary step of getting me to actually read the damn thing.
So let me first say this to anyone who’s stayed away from Concrete for the same reasons I did: Concrete isn’t just good for you, it’s good.
Chadwick’s stories are indeed contemplative and thoughtful, albeit often punctuated by bursts of action. But while too many books that try for such a tone end up wallowing in myopic introspection, Chadwick escapes this artistic dead-end through his passion for the world outside his studio, and by keeping his protagonists engaged in that world.
Concrete himself is a former speech-writer who, abducted by aliens, has his brain transplanted into a massive body made out of rock. Now possessed of inhuman strength and senses, Concrete does what anyone else would do in his situation. He becomes a celebrity. He also uses his fame, and the money it brings, to fund various National Geographic–style adventures.
Chadwick’s art is consistently excellent, looking especially luminous in black and white. He also knows when to break the tyranny of panels, often (but never gratuitously) using unframed panels or using the figures themselves as the frame. Likewise, Chadwick’s writing is always good, with a deft sense of pacing and strong understanding of human psychology.
With all that said, this sixth volume isn’t the very best of the series. Just over half the book is given over to a five-issue re-telling of Concrete’s “origin” (that’s why this is a “Year One” book, folks). Frankly, the world could have done without this. Chadwick himself, humble as ever, cops to this story’s weaknesses in his introduction. The plot evidently derives from an aborted screenplay, and so there are several elements foreign to Concrete‘s usual sensibilities, like an unequivocal bad guy.
But even among these concessions to conventionality are some quintessentially Concrete moments, such as the scene where he returns to confront his ex-wife in his new body. I won’t spoil it for you, but the resolution to that scene is much truer to the gently melancholic spirit of Concrete than the violent denouement of the main plot. The art, meanwhile, is as good as ever, particularly the scenes in the alien environment. This is drawn as a Steve Ditko-esque abstract landscape, and the aliens themselves even look a little like Ditko’s Nameless Ones.
Stronger than the main story is the miscellaneous material that fills out this volume. One untitled story shows off Chadwick’s visual flair, with panels filled with Kirby-tech. In another story, “I strive for realism”, creator meets his creation a la Dave Sim or Grant Morrison. This story, along with the volume-closing “The building that didn’t explode”, presents Chadwick’s worldview.
For writers like Sim, Morrison, or for their fellow-traveller Alan Moore, the real world of science and nature isn’t interesting enough. They must resort to super-nature, to gods or God or mad ideas, one-part hooey to one-part hogwash, with a little delusional thinking for good measure.
For Chadwick, by contrast, the world is just as it seems in nature documentaries. Once you get past the macguffin of the aliens who transplant Concrete’s brain into his new body, there are no pixies, no fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is just the world, unadorned and as it is. Mystery and beauty, in Concrete, are immanent in the world itself, which needs no human invention to dress it up.
Hence “The building that didn’t explode”, which tells of how Chadwick and some fellow artists narrowly averted disaster in their youth and then ponders why they were spared:
“Was it destiny? The divine plan, that these stellar artistic creations were meant to shiningly soar forth, bringing light to dreary lives?
“No, that’s bullshit.”
Chadwick goes on to lay out his view of the world, which couldn’t be further from the hazy mysticism of Sim/Moore/Morrison. It is a “crazy casino” offering “capricious gifts” with no sense beyond what we put into it.
“I strive for realism” similarly aims to undercut superstition. When Sim and Morrison wrote themselves into their stories, meeting their characters, they used their soapbox to voice grandiloquent theories about the narrative structure of the real world.
By contrast, Chadwick’s biggest flourish in this story is an illustration of relativity theory, showing Concrete as a four-dimensional worm in time-space (a little bit like in Donnie Darko), extending in as many directions as Concrete has been in the past. A nice visual effect–but then Concrete himself points out that the artist has visually assumed motion relative to the earth. Since the earth itself is in motion, Concrete’s four-dimensional worm would actually carve out a “compound helix” path through space.
Such stories show Chadwick’s scientific rationalism, but Concrete is at its very best when Chadwick lets loose his naturalist passion, contrasting the rock-steady Concrete against nature, vast and unknowable. Chadwick’s keen eye for negative space effectively highlights nature’s majesty and scope in these scenes, whether on the ocean floor, deep in a woodland, or on the heights of Everest. His characters also often rhapsodize nature, as in the story in this volume where Concrete quotes at length from Frederick Harrison on mountaineering. Characters aren’t always mouthpieces for their author, but they’re surely voicing the author’s passions here.
The most striking story in this volume, however, is what at first glance appears to be a piece of fanfic, of all things about fourth-string X-Men character Dazzler. No, really.
The pseudo-Dazzler story doubles as an artistic manifesto from the young Chadwick for all his work (it was originally published in 1986). His Dazzler stand-in is a young mutant woman, “hated and feared because [she] can project light”, who only wants to be a performer. She complains about having to fight fantastic characters and wonders, “Have we nothing better to do?”
She certainly does, as she uses her powers to conjure up fantastic montages of surrealist scenes and realizes that her creative potential is unlimited. She can project whole films from her own imagination, without worrying about budget or temperamental actors:
“No limits! No budgets! No politics, no edicts and orders…a lifetime of pure, creative decisions…exploring what’s promising, what moves people, thrills them, amuses them…astounds them!”
Obviously, this character is really talking about the potential for comics. For more than twenty years, Chadwick has been tapping that potential to project a vision like nothing else, in any art form.
And that, my friends, ain’t spinach.
Recommended? Definitely. Readers new to Concrete, however, are advised to start with even stronger volumes in the series, such as any of 2-5.
IYL: Love and Rockets; “smart” sci-fi by Morrison or Moore; nature documentaries