|Concrete vol. 7: The Human Dilemma
By Paul Chadwick
Dark Horse – softcover, $12.95
I’M A POLITICAL JUNKIE and majored in political science in college. I fret about the state of the environment constantly. And, of course, I love comics. So I’m mildly embarrassed that it took me until last year to discover Concrete. Hopefully I’ve made up for this oversight by devouring nearly all of the new digest-sized collections (except vol. 3, which I somehow haven’t seen anywhere yet) over the last few months. In that time, Concrete has quickly become one of my favorite comics and its creator, Paul Chadwick, has become one of my favorite cartoonists.
Concrete is the story of Ron Lithgow, a speechwriter for a US Senator, who is kidnapped by aliens and changed into a creature of stone (he looks vaguely like The Thing). Once the government is satisfied that he won’t tell the world the truth behind his strange new body, he’s allowed to do what he wants with his new life. After some thought, he decides that his powerful body gives him the opportunity to do things that no else can, like swim the Atlantic and climb Everest solo, and write about the experiences. Still interested in politics, Concrete has also been associated with several causes, particularly environmental ones.
The Human Dilemma depicts several turning points in the lives of Concrete’s cast. The one that gets the story moving is Concrete’s decision to be the face of a campaign for voluntary sterilization by young couples to combat overpopulation, which represents a shift from his previous habit of supporting causes covertly (one of the series’ many reminders that, despite his appearance and abilities, Concrete is no superhero). The campaign is financed by Walter Sageman, CEO of Punchinello Pizza––imagine a chain with Pizza Hut’s market share and Domino’s social activism, only fighting overpopulation rather than abortion. At the same time, Concrete’s assistant, Larry, is turning over a new leaf, abandoning his womanizing days to get married––or maybe not. Lastly, the attraction that has been growing between Concrete and the scientist observing him, Dr. Maureen Vonnegut, blooms, with unexpected consequences.
Concrete is, in several ways, a very thoughtful comic. On one level, it tackles big political and social themes like humanity’s place in the world (and universe) and treatment of the earth, what it means to live life to the fullest, the difference between conviction and action, the opportunities and burdens of celebrity, and love and sex. Chadwick clearly does his research and Concrete is a series that takes pleasure in ideas and imagination.
On another level, Concrete is also a series with a lot of thought balloons, something that’s become increasingly uncommon in contemporary comics. In writing my review of Soon I Will Be Invincible I noted that, though comics is the only medium with a standard method of depicting thought simultaneously with action and speech, few cartoonists take the opportunity to imbue their characters with rich inner lives. Concrete is the main exception that springs to mind, not only using thought balloons for the occasional exposition or reaction to the immediate situation, but also indulging its title character and supporting cast in the occasional moment of reverie.
Early in The Human Dilemma, Concrete walks the LA streets and thinks about traffic and the constant building humans undertake. These thoughts transition into reflections on his potential to reshape the world. Earlier he had been thinking about his propensity for collecting (something this comics addict understands all too well). All of this flows very naturally, reading like an authentic, organic train of thought. Similar ideas could probably be gotten across using captions instead of thought balloons, but the way captions are usually employed has an implicit tone of mediation about it. These aren’t a character’s direct thoughts so much as they are the more ordered essence of their thoughts, and maybe even represent the way they would tell the story if they were looking back on it rather than experiencing it at that moment. Concrete’s long string of thought balloons, by contrast, is direct. These are his exact thoughts, at the moment he is having them and that simple fact deepens the reader’s identification with him.
As if to underline the difference, the same scene includes the experiences of Concrete’s dog, Tripod, presented through captions, implying some kind of authorial mediation in statements like “Tripod finds a trash can. It’s thrilling!” Since dogs don’t have identifiable thoughts a degree of distance is inevitable, so this is appropriate, but it has the effect of highlighting just how knowable Concrete is by contrast and how intimate––through Chadwick’s writing––is our relationship with him. It’s no coincidence that Concrete seems so much more fully realized than characters in many series which have a greater bulk of available material.
Chadwick’s art is just as exciting. Concrete is grounded in the real world and plenty of attention is paid to details that heighten its realism. At the same time, Chadwick shows great imagination in things like Concrete’s physiology, shown in X-ray fashion several times throughout The Human Dilemma. Concrete’s exterior design is pleasingly simple while remaining interesting to look at thanks to his texture and pattern of cracks. The human characters are realistic and their facial expressions and body language are excellently rendered. Since love and sex are frequent themes throughout the series, it’s also important that the women, while beautiful, are beautiful in realistic ways, with proper proportions, and weight and gravity falling in the right places.
|Page 43 of The Human Dilemma.
Click for full size image.
Chadwick’s page layouts are a thing of beauty, very clear while leading the eye across the page dynamically. The layouts often further enhance the ideas conveyed by the words and pictures, as in a scene in which Concrete and Maureen try to help a victim of road rage as he lies in the street bleeding from an artery. The text contrasts the blocked lanes and the flowing blood, but the three inset neck X-rays overlapping the stopped cars drive home the point eloquently.
The Human Dilemma takes a “variation on a theme” approach to its story, coupling the politics of population with subplots ruminating on sex, pregnancy, abortion, and the individual temptation toward material accumulation. If it sometimes seems contrived that the events of the book would all happen at roughly the same time, that’s just the cost of approaching a topic so holistically. Only toward the end does the sequence of events begin to feel like a bit too much. The ending of one subplot in particular, though appropriately serious, struck me as too tidy. However, most of the plot and the use of multiple subplots to triangulate the themes work very well.
The Human Dilemma‘s political discourse is generally quite astute, making logical assumptions like the inevitable entrance of abortion into the discussion of overpopulation and the fallout from that entrance. It’s also grounded by references to real-life politico touchstones like the Drudge Report and commentators like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. There is one character with an extreme position on population control that it’s hard to imagine receiving so much attention, but the avenues opened up by his presence probably make up for that. Chadwick even includes in-story articles like magazine profiles of Concrete and others, and an essay by Concrete about his favorite painting throughout. He does a better job than most of writing the articles in different voices and capturing the flavor of magazine writing. Like the rest of the book, these feel carefully considered and executed.
I recommend any and all Concrete. Volumes one or six (a retelling of some of the first few Concrete stories, rewritten as a single, coherent graphic novel) are probably the best places to start, since they’re all readily available, but there’s no reason one couldn’t pick up and enjoy The Human Dilemma cold. Just be ready to think.