Variety’s Comics Blog, “Bags and Boards,” reviews The Human Dilemma

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“…one of the most consistently strange, beautiful and human of comic books.”

June 02, 2005

Rocking the Universe

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #6

Creator: Paul Chadwick

Dark Horse, 32 pages, blackand-white, $3.50

So? Concrete has always rocked, but it's never rocked as hard as in this most-recent miniseries. In the nearly 20 years Chadwick's been doing Concrete, it's been one of the most consistently strange, beautiful and human of comic books.

That Chadwick still can surprise with the revelations about both his rocky lead character and the supporting cast demonstrates the depth of both his creation and his talent as a storyteller.

The art excels in the much the same way. It's still the elegant and realistic cartooning, but Chadwick seems more willing to do what few artists do these days and create nine-panel pages that read naturally and never feel cramped or choppy.

The covers to this series also deserve mention because they've been excellent teases of what's going on inside the book rather than a series of poster shots.

If you've missed the series, the eventual trade is a must-read -- as will the next installment of the series. Grade: A+

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Ninth Art reveiws Think Like a Mountain

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Paul Chadwick's CONCRETE has long been a cause célèbre among the advocates of creator-ownership. With the eco-parable THINK LIKE A MOUNTAIN, Chadwick delivers his most morally complex and thought-provoking work to date.

On the face of it, the basic premise for CONCRETE seems neither very original nor even particularly interesting. "Enigmatic aliens transplant man's brain into indestructible body for no apparent reason" is the stuff of pulp SF.

The idea of a tortured individual encased in a rocky body, and thus unable to quite fit in with society, also bears more than a passing resemblance to The Thing from Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR superhero saga.

But therein lies the difference. Concrete is never portrayed as anything remotely resembling a superhero.

Ron Lithgow's world is not one that's full of morally simplistic men-in-tights, and after his transformation there's no superclub orbiting the world in a satellite looking to recruit him.

On the contrary, Concrete has a likeable "everyman" quality about him as he stumbles (both literally and metaphorically) through life looking for his place in the world.

Needing neither rest nor shelter, feeding on rocks and unable to procreate, Concrete is removed from most of the normal human desires.

Faced with this existential dilemma, Concrete must nevertheless still determine for himself the answer to the age-old question of "what am I doing here?" that troubles many of us.

Given the very real prospect of living forever, though, Concrete must take the longer view. He must think like the titular mountain that he resembles (a phrase coined by noted environmentalist Aldo Leopold).

In previous stories, Concrete has been using his peculiar gifts to make a living (working in the movies during Fragile Creature, for instance) and gain otherwise impossible new experiences (such as climbing the Himalayas).

Over these latter stories, there's been real growth in the character as he develops an awareness of the world around him and a strong ecological conscience.

All of which sets the stage nicely for THINK LIKE A MOUNTAIN, where he becomes involved with a cell of the controversial "Earth First!" ecological activists.

Being a law-abiding type who avoids confrontation whenever possible, Concrete is initially reluctant to become actively involved with the group.

But nevertheless he is persuaded to observe and chronicle their efforts to save a particular Old Growth Forest in Washington State from being wiped out by logging.

During a sequence of experiences - his exposure to some of which is deliberately engineered by the EF! Crew - Concrete begins to doubt decision to stand on the fringe of a struggle in which he passionately believes.

Especially when his unique nature could be so effective in the group's "monkeywrenching" sabotage, and would draw attention to the group's efforts.

Played out against the backdrop of the EF's efforts to save the ancient "Hidden Valley" forest is Concrete's own struggle with his conscience, as he tries to determine exactly what he's willing to do in support of his beliefs.

Although creator-owned, Concrete has always been associated with Dark Horse Comics - indeed the first Concrete story ('Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous') appeared in the launch issue of Dark Horse Presents in 1986.

With 1994's Killer Smile, Concrete became one of the founding titles in Dark Horse's Legend imprint, created to showcase the work of such heavy hitters as Frank Miller (Sin City) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy).

This, in turn, begat the current Maverick imprint, which is dedicated solely to creator-owned works from Miller et al.

Concrete had already been running for a number of years at the inception of Legend, first as an ongoing series (since collected as The Complete Concrete), then as a series of mini-series, each featuring a discrete story arc. This more leisurely pace seemed to suit Chadwick better, and by the time Legend launched, the first Concrete mini in the new format (Fragile Creature had already won him an Eisner award for best mini-series of 1991.

Chadwick's art is full of small details and subtle touches. The door to Concrete's house has dents in the frame, gently reenforcing the idea that Ron has still to totally come to terms with the size and power of his alien body.

The fact that Concrete's vision is considerably enhanced is mentioned a few times in the text, but the point is never overstressed through any gratuitous and overly dramatic scenes involving this "Concrete-vision".

Rather, we see Concrete contemplating his situation in the open air, with the night sky above him ablaze with multi-coloured pyrotechnics as opposed to the pinpricks of starlight visible to the others.

A story with the majesty of the natural world as a central theme must also work on a larger scale, and here too Chadwick delivers. Particularly worth noting is the finely judged use of two-page spreads.

These range from a breathtaking aerial vista of several acres of tree stumps - each marked with the lifespan of that particular felled tree (some as long as 500 years) painted on by an EF activist - to the dramatic sight of an EF! crew running into the night as monkeywrenched logging machinery burns behind them.

burns

There're also the imaginative depictions of Ron's frequent inner monologues, a particularly innovative one being when he imagines humanity as a single giant person consuming cattle by the trainload and grain by the tanker-full.

The full-page image of this titan cutting a swathe through the landscape with a chainsaw made of factories and aircraft parts (to represent the effects of new technology) is extremely striking and affecting.

chainsaw

Chadwick's scripting is also effective, imparting a wealth of information on various environmental abuses (from the logging that features in this story, to the abandoned "ghost" driftnets snaring unwary marine life) and attempting to present the full range of viewpoints from across the spectrum of the ecological debate.

For the most part, Chadwick integrates these viewpoints fairly seamlessly into the narrative, using the EF members' education of Concrete to provide the reader both with examples of environmental damage and with an insight into the different degrees of extremism, though few of the activists are presented as well-rounded characters.

With Concrete cast in a kind of devil's advocate role as he tries to avoid conflict with authority, Chadwick is also able to present viewpoints that contrast with those of the EF.

While Chadwick's scripting doesn't have quite the same fluidity of his sumptuous artwork, these debates between the characters seldom feel like anything less than organic parts of the story.

Very occasionally the dialogue does become a little stilted as the narrative reaches one of the 'big points' that Chadwick has chosen to make, but such instances are thankfully rare.

In interviews at the time of release, Chadwick identified himself as being in a similar position to that which his creation takes up, being sympathetic to the EF cause, but concerned about some of their tactics.

Given this, it's creditable that the loggers aren't demonised, but depicted as fallible human beings in the same way as the EF members.

CONCRETE has always been a fresh and original voice in the medium, opting for the articulate telling of intelligent and introspective tales.

Of which THINK LIKE A MOUNTAIN is the most thoughtful and thought-provoking, though it never loses sight of the fact that it's also meant to entertain.

Paul Chadwick avoids the standard pitfalls inherent in using a superhuman protagonist, inverting the normal stereotype by having Concrete's alien body as a hindrance to be coped with rather than a vehicle for a simplistic adolescent power fantasy.

The central conflict faced by the main character is one of conscience, and one that translates to anyone in the same position: how far will a person go in support of their beliefs?

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The Fourth Rail reviews Concrete. Vol. 1: Depths

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While Concrete was at one point a fairly popular indy book, I suspect that for most comic readers, it remains an undiscovered treasure. I know that I have only read a smattering of Chadwick's unusual superheroic protagonist trapped in a slice-of-life book.

Fortunately, Dark Horse is making it easy to remedy that, by producing new, chronological editions of Chadwick's Concrete, and the first volume, Depths, starts things off on a very strong note.

This volume contains Concrete's origin, how he met his most notable supporting cast members Dr. Maureen Vonnegut and Larry Munro and several tales of adventure and survival that set the tone for how Concrete's adventures will play out.

Concrete is a very unusual book, a story of a man with extraordinary abilities and origins who strives to do extraordinary things, but within the limits largely set by humanity, making it more than slice-of-life but less than outright science fiction or superhero. It's a thinking man's approach to the superhero genre, and it is very compelling reading.

In reading the stories in "Depths," it's clear that Chadwick uses Concrete as sort of a fictional alter-ego for exploration of things that interest him personally.

In fact, though Ron Lithgow, the man who would be Concrete, is not Chadwick, there's definitely some similarities in there that makes Concrete read a little bit like wish-fulfilment autobiography in some ways.

Certainly the joy of the unexplored ocean or underground caves comes through in Concrete's exploration, and that seems to be very much in line with Chadwick's philosophy of the wonder of exploring and adventuring.

But then, I might be reading some of that into the story because Ron Lithgow is such a well-realized character. Chadwick uses an omniscient third-person narrator rather than the first-person narration common in modern comics, but he also uses the old fashioned (and perfectly suitable) thought balloon, and the result is that the reader gets to know Concrete's thoughts and emotions pretty well, even though the third person narration might otherwise be distancing.

Certainly it doesn't hurt that Concrete is a thinking man, not an action hero, and so he puts a lot of thought and emotional exploration into all the situations he is in.

Concrete's life is outrageous and he always recognizes this fact, turning over all the implications of his alien body and human mind in all the situations that he is in so that the reader can easily find sympathy and common cause with this unusual creature.

While the core of Concrete is very human, its foundation laid on the relationships between Concrete, Larry and Maureen, the actual events that take place in Concrete's life are far more unusual.

The adventures that Concrete undertakes are close to human experiences, but pushed to a more dramatic extreme. His swim across the Atlantic and the tale of survival that ensues is close enough to reality to be harrowing, but there's a fantastic element to it that makes it even more gripping.

His journey into the world of eccentric rocker The Duke is not unlike Cameron Crowe's exploration of similar experiences in Almost Famous, but the introduction of a murder plot and the vast eccentricities of The Duke make it a little more unreal.

Certainly the story of Concrete's origin is very much out there science-fiction, but the methodical way in which Ron and his friend Michael figure out what's going on and try to escape rings true, and the friendship between Ron and Michael is so true that I find myself hoping Chadwick one day shows us whatever happened to Michael, although I think at this point that's unlikely.

The dramatic structure of Concrete is unlike most comics. As Chadwick himself notes in the introduction, it's hard for many to wrap their head around the notion that the aliens are more or less a plot device, and they're not returning for revenge, or that Concrete's challenges will be personal, about surviving a change and continuing to live life, rather than larger-than-life, pitted against conveniently powered foes.

Chadwick's writing is also unusual, thoughtful and detailed in its analysis of how people act and think, from the incongruous use of civil disobedience tactics when the military needs to restrain Concrete to the outrageous behavior of Anonymoose, the ridiculous comedian who harasses Concrete when he's on the Tonight Show.

That doesn't mean there aren't some conventional moments in Concrete, however, such as a laugh-out-loud visual punchline to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or the humbling moments that Concrete faces in a number of the stories, realizing that for all his unusual strength and toughness, he's still not perfect.

Chadwick's artwork is pretty spectacular throughout this volume, grounded very much in the real, and that is what helps to sell Concrete in large measure as human and approachable.

Maureen, Larry and all the others that Concrete meets have a wide range of emotions visible in their reactions to the events around them, and this helps to convey the emotion that Concrete's rocky body really can't.

Chadwick also likes to experiment with storytelling devices, such as the 150-panel page of Concrete swimming or unusual perspective shots like the overhead view of Concrete struggling with Anonymoose and the decision about unmasking him, and these experiments give the artwork a liveliness and energy that might be lacking in a more straightforward presentation of Chadwick's realistic style.

This was not my first exposure to Concrete, but the presentation, and these early stories, almost made it feel like something brand new. Certainly I've discovered why the book is held in such high esteem by so many, as it really is a completely different type of story that is hard to categorize and near impossible to put down. (Randy Lander)

(The Fourth Rail.Com, October 2005)

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Book Shelf Comics.com reviews Concrete Depths

In 1986 a writer/artist launched a new comic character, called “Concrete.” Concrete was a new concept in what was quickly becoming the changing face of comics at the time.

The 1980s heralded so many significant characters, concepts, and changes in the genre that occasionally some of the most impressive gems get lost in the King Solomon’s mine of comicdom.

It also saw the explosion of the independent publishers and their comic offerings which often eclipsed the big two, Marvel and DC. Ask someone about their favorite and significant comics and or most memorable stories and you’ll likely get answers like Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus, Lone Wolf and Cub, etc. DKR and Watchmen are often cited as ushering in the “grim and gritty” atmosphere that changed the genre and reinfused it with more mature storylines.

A number of non-grim-and-gritty comics were also on the market and enjoying great success. One of those was Concrete, an odd character first seen in the 1986 anthology series with Dark Horse Presents #1.

Concrete made a handful of appearances in DHP and then got his own series in 1987, garnering great critical acclaim, including numerous awards.

Harlon Ellison, in an article called “It Ain’t Toontown” in the December 1988 issue of Playboy, called Concrete “probably the best comic being published today by anyone, anywhere.

Trying to describe the down-to-earth humanity and sheer dearness of Paul Chadwick’s creation requires more than words and pictures.” Can you get a better endorsement than that??

Ronald Lithgow is (or was, to be more accurate) a senatorial speech writer whose brain is transplanted by aliens into a monstrous body made of rock.

Paul Chadwick portrays his vision of what an event like this would mean and how an individual, in this case Mr. Lithgow, would deal with such a change mentally, emotionally, and physically.

And that is what sets this comic apart so radically from other comics. Instead of having Concrete battle super-powered bad guys or seek revenge on the aliens, Chadwick instead explores the question “what would I do if I was suddenly imbued with a nearly indestructible body?”

Especially when that body doesn’t fit in normal society, is unable to feel the softness or warmth of a human touch, has no sexual organs, and is a drastic departure from the former body the brain inhabited: soft, pudgy, and average.

This concept is what makes Concrete so unique – and riveting. In this trade paperback collection, which reprints classic and little-seen stories from the legendary Concrete series, we see Concrete engaging in all sorts of activities, including swimming the ocean, trying to save trapped miners, attending a birthday party, and other things that might seem adventurous for us regular humans yet mundane for a person with super-human strength and nigh-indestructibility.

That’s because Concrete is human... well, his brain is human. And as such, he strives to adapt to and understand his alien body.

Plus, he makes mistakes, is often clumsy (physically and emotionally), and struggles through many of his adventures.

Throw in his infatuation for one of the scientists that is studying him and helping him understand his full abilities and limitations (he may be nearly indestructible, but he can still be damaged, suffocate, drown, etc), and you have touchingly human stories that are poignant, exciting, uplifting, and sullen.

This is a trade paperback best enjoyed by reading a story at a time, to allow digestion of the powerful insights on humanity that Chadwick explores.

Art

Paul Chadwick handles the writing and art duties, resulting in the reader getting it exactly as Chadwick intends. For this series it means a lot because of the personal nature of Chadwick’s narratives.

The art is all black and white, exactly as it appeared in the original DHP series, although some of the later mini-series appeared in color.

The B/W format works perfectly for these stories, allowing us to focus on the mood. Chadwick is an excellent artist who is very adept at communicating through the expressions of his characters.

Bonus Features

Not much. There is a 4-page Concrete gallery, but this book is all about the stories... eet don’t need no steenking extras.

Final Words

Concrete is one of the landmark comic book series that should be read by anyone who appreciates the medium. Amazing stories, great art, and an unabashedly human look at the ramifications of having a human mind and a super-human body.

Highest Possible Recommendation

Steve Welch is an avid collector of pre-hero and Silver Age Marvel comics as well as original art by Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and other notable creators.

He works in the medical publishing and communications field, but his heart belongs to comic books, his wonderful wife of 12 years, and their three great danes.

He sells comics and original art through his company Albino Rhino Comics, is an avid scuba diver, and believes that life is too short to drink bad wine.

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The World Below #1-4 (of 4)

[Dark Horse Comics $2.50 US $3.50 CAN]

Written by Paul Chadwick / Pencilled by Paul Chadwick / Inked by Ron Randall

The World Below #3The premise of Paul Chadwick’s new series is simple: a team of six people descends into a sinkhole to search for technological marvels for their employer, Charles Hoy.

Decades earlier a strange mechanical flyer had flown out of sinkhole on his grandfather’s farm. The technology found within that flyer brought the Hoy family a great deal of wealth and now, a need for more new tech to compete with other computer and electronics firms sends them searching for more.

The team consists of Barclay Hassler, former military man and leader of the expedition team; Gilbert Hoy, hot-headed son of Charles Hoy; Dr. Susan Teter, the group’s medical expert; George Petrosky, technical whiz; Layla Bazo, beautiful yet trouble-making employee of Charles Hoy; and Regina Church, adventuress and tomboy.

All have their strengths and their weaknesses. But, like it or not, they’ve got to work together in the mysterious World Below. That’s not as easy as it seems, however. The character of Layla has her own agenda.

The team leader, Barclay is dealing with baggage from his last command. And Gilbert Hoy seems to be reacting strangely to something in the World Below. Something that’s affecting his physiology and that he’s desperate to keep from the team.

Each issue’s story is complete within that issue and contains tantalizing glimpses into the character’s backgrounds. But the real star of the story is the world these characters are exploring. Chadwick has populated the World Below with all sorts of bizarre creatures that don’t look anything like the depictions of aliens you usually see in science fiction.

A major part of making this world real is due to Ron Randall’s inking. His solid, clean linework brings the characters and environment to life and is a perfect complement to Chadwick’s pencils.

Sales on The World Below weren’t up to expectations so the next installment will be in black and white. I’ve nothing against black and white comics so I’ll definitely be picking up this wonderful new SF series.

If you can’t find this mini-series on the racks order direct from Dark Horse Comics, Inc., 10956 SE Main Street, Milwaukie, OR 97222 or from their web site at www.darkhorse.com.

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The Onions AV Club reviews The World Below trade paperback

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Virtually any criticism that could be made about the newly collected eight-issue series The World Below (Dark Horse) is covered in the introduction, where writer-artist Paul Chadwick fully owns up to its failings: The dialogue in the opening issues is almost comically terse, the stories are bumpy, the end is deeply depressing.

But by getting those admissions out of the way up front, Chadwick frees readers to enjoy all the plusses of his psychedelic science-fiction stories, in which six privately funded explorers seek exploitable resources in a secret underground world.

Heavily inspired by classic comics in the Weird Science mold, Chadwick brings the densely detailed, impeccably clean art and boundless imagination of his signature series Concrete to stories about titanic monsters, mutant societies, and living machines…

(A.V. Club, March 2007)

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Let's you and him fight reviews Concrete Vol. 6:

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Dark Horse’s recent re-release of the Concrete 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 effect­but 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.

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Comics Waiting Room review Dark Horse Comics

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More Dark Horse Reviews

THE WORLD BELOW

Written and Drawn by Paul Chadwick

In the Pacific Northwest, a strange sinkhole has opened to reveal something strange and unknown. Pieces of strange flying technology, bizarre creatures of unknown origins… it’s as if a completely different planet exists beneath ours.

Hoping to keep up with his competitors, industrialist Charles Hoy hires six adventurers to enter the world below and retrieve technologies he can hopefully use to keep his company at the top.

But no one can be prepared for just how strange and how deadly this new discovery will turn out to be.

WORLD BELOW was Paul Chadwick’s first major step away from the CONCRETE universe, and was meant to allow him to stretch his creative muscles. Certainly, in that respect, the book was a huge success.

Whether it was “The Stove”, “The Spire”, or the “Zombies”, Chadwick put together enough strangeness and cerebral horror for five years’ worth of comics.

Unfortunately, the series ran into sales problems after four issues, ceased printing in color, and was put to bed four issues later. So what was a creative triumph one hand was a sad statement about the nature of the direct sales market on the other.

And the disappointment Chadwick felt about the book’s sales certainly came through loud and clear in the way the eighth and final issue ended.

I purchased the original issues as they came out, and I remember how unsettling they were to read; they were intelligent, challenging… but there was also a sense of creepiness and unease that stuck with you.

Anything was possible in WORLD BELOW; the characters were three-dimensional people, and not perfectly heroic, and the sense was that they could die or be maimed at any moment.

It was such a rare feeling to have when reading a comic, that unpredictability, and reading them again in this wonderful collection, that sense came flooding back to me.

This is a book that, given second life in this format, should find the audience that missed it so completely eight years ago.

Chadwick writes a very honest and blunt introduction to the book, and in it he mentions that he may once again bring THE WORLD BELOW back to life, albeit in wildly different format.

I hope he makes good on that idea; the concept remains fresh and has plenty of room to play in. If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, this rediscovered gem is worth your time and money.

Marc Mason

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Book Page reviews Dark Horse and The World Below

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Another Dark Horse offering, The World Below by Paul Chadwick—the writer/artist behind Concrete—explores a mysterious sinkhole in rural Washington that leads to a secret underground realm.

In a series of short adventures, six treasure-hunters risk life and limb to scour the perilous landscape for potentially profitable new forms of technology.

Along the way, they're attacked by all kinds of bizarre creatures—from a giant robotic stove to a race of squidlike symbiotes to an alien society that wants to breed humans as pets.

Naturally they're also constantly endangered by their own conflicting personalities and inter-group tensions. Chadwick has likened the book to the TV series "Lost," and it's a fitting comparison.

Tto order books

www.darkhorse.com

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TIME.comix on Paul Chadwick’s ‘Concrete’

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The ability of the superhero to carry serious graphic literature has been a polarizing subject in the comics world since at least the 1960s. Hardcore fans of indie creators see superheroes as mere kid's stuff, while fans of traditional superhero books insist that the genre can be used to explore all kinds of sophisticated, adult concerns.

As with any question of art, no definitive answer will ever be reached, but some fresh thoughts came to mind on the subject thanks to a new series by Paul Chadwick, Concrete: The Human Dilemma, and a recent panel I attended on the future of the graphic novel.

Among the questions I found myself thinking about was this: Where does Superman stand on abortion? It seemed central to the debate.

The wildly eclectic mix of participants on the panel, convened at the annual publishing industry tradeshow Book Expo America, included indie creators Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve) and Charles Burns (Black Hole) with superhero/pulp auteur Frank Miller (Sin City) and novelist-turned-superhero-comics writer Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis), who sat next to comic autobiographer and movie celebrity Harvey Pekar (American Splendor.)

Thanks to Pekar's irrepressible personality, things got a little warm when he denounced superhero books as "escapist" and worthless when there were more important things to spend your energy on like "getting Bush out of office."

Meltzer later gave an impassioned and reasonable argument for regarding all comic genres on a continuum rather than a hierarchy. As both he and Miller explained the influence of the tragedy of September 11 on their work using superheroes, Pekar rolled his eyes and made faces.

That same week the final issue of Concrete: The Human Dilemma, a limited six-issue series, appeared (Dark Horse Comics; 32 pages each; $3.50).

Published off and on for nearly twenty years, with two newly packaged collections appearing in July and September, Concrete endures as one of the smartest-written "superheroes" ever created.

Twice the size of an average man, with a rock-like epidermis, extraordinary strength, endurance and heightened senses, Concrete has all the attributes of a classic do-gooder.

But here is where it starts to get interesting. Neither a troubled billionaire nor a brilliant scientist caught in an experiment gone wrong, Concrete has a secret past as Ronald Lithgow, a senatorial speechwriter.

Captured by aliens while taking a remote mountain hike, he escaped, but only after having his brain transferred to a fantastical new body. Under the cover of being an experimental, government cyborg named Concrete, he lives as just another celebrity in L.A.'s freak show.

Accompanied by Maureen Vonnegut, a biologist, and Larry Munro, his personal assistant, Concrete never fights evil geniuses or giant robots. Instead he lives the life you might expect an egghead lefty policy wonk with a supernatural body to live.

He explores the world and does good deeds where he can. Past stories follow him climbing Mount Everest, working to save a family farm and being hired out as the bodyguard of a paranoid rock star.

Using the tropes of the superhero genre, where Concrete often finds himself thrust into life-or-death adventures, Chadwick weaves in broader themes of the environment and social issues, along with the humorous quotidian details of Concrete's life as a walking boulder, such as his difficulties with unsupportive furniture.

The Human Dilemma tells of Concrete's new job as the spokesman for a foundation dedicated to population control. (Try lighting the Bat Signal for that!)

Well paid for his efforts, he somewhat reluctantly stumps for their controversial program that would provide financial benefits for couples that undergo sterilization.

As the story builds Concrete has an increasingly difficult time staying "on message" in the vicious world of pundit media, while Larry finds himself in the unfortunate position of impregnating a one-night stand.

Meanwhile a mysterious character, disturbed by Concrete and the foundation he represents, plots an assassination.

These and other parallel narratives, including a surprising love story, all involve birth and death and the human population's impact on the world. Yet Chadwick never lets any message overtake the needs of telling an exiting yarn. Instead, he uses ingenious dramatic irony to explore an issue's nuance.

For example, L.A.'s traffic jams, just one result of over-population, become a frequent motif in The Human Dilemma. One scene has Concrete, stuck in a steamy gridlock, leaping to the rescue of someone caught in a dangerous road rage incident. But, in the first of several missed chances at heroism during the series, he can't save the victim.

series

The scene looks exactly like something from a mainstream superhero book, but with important differences. Thanks to starting his career drawing a different kind of loser hero, Marvel's ill-conceived Dazzler series, about a crime-fighting roller disco queen, Chadwick knows the basics of the mainstream look.

Using the best of that style, such as its dramatic angles, to create dynamic pages, Chadwick also infuses the artwork with quirks, like the frequent use of X-ray shots into a character's body, so that no one could mistake it for mere hackwork.

Another major difference between The Human Dilemma and more mainstream books is Chadwick's uses of black and white rather than color. This perfectly suits the material, which explores the gray nuances of decisions about bringing another life into world.

But there's another reason you wouldn't mistake Concrete for any other superhero. Chadwick, and not some corporation, owns Concrete, allowing the character to take positions on real issues.

When, during a scene in The Human Dilemma, an interviewer asks Concrete if he is pro-choice, "You bet," is the unequivocal reply.

The scene startled me into thinking about where other characters stand on major issues. We'll never know, because mainstream superheroes cannot be invested with that level of political awareness.

They always have a secret, over-riding agenda, spelled out in the earnings reports of their corporate masters: sell product. This is the "ick-factor" that makes some people roll their eyes when they hear about mainstream superheroes taking on meaningful subjects.

A whiff of exploitation follows Spider-Man and his ilk wherever they go. Using him to comment on September 11, for example, would be as gross as using Snap, Crackle and Pop.

Paul Chadwick's The Human Dilemma, and his other Concrete tales prove the superhero genre has no inherent literary limitations except the ones brought by a character's real-life role in the culture.

Either they are there to move you or to move the products they are associated with. Owned by an artist and not a company, Concrete can be invested with meaningful characteristics that give his stories literary weight.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma goes beyond mere genre, combining surprising visuals, smart characters, an entertaining story and above all, engaging issues into a work of valuable literature.

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Web Blogs Variety, Rocking the Universe reviews Concrete: The Human Dilemma #6

link

Creator: Paul Chadwick

Dark Horse, 32 pages, black-and-white, $3.50

So? Concrete has always rocked, but it's never rocked as hard as in this most-recent miniseries. In the nearly 20 years Chadwick's been doing Concrete, it's been one of the most consistently strange, beautiful and human of comic books.

That Chadwick still can surprise with the revelations about both his rocky lead character and the supporting cast demonstrates the depth of both hiscreation and his talent as a storyteller. The art excels in the much the same way.

It's still the elegant and realistic cartooning, but Chadwick seems more willing to do what few artists do these days and create nine-panel pages that read naturally and never feel cramped or choppy.

The covers to this series also deserve mention because they've been excellent teases of what's going on inside the book rather than a series of poster shots. If you've missed the series, the eventual trade is a must-read — as will the next installment of the series. Grade: A+

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Stephen Frug reviews 100 Great Pages: Paul Chadwick's "Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor" (Concrete), p. 2

link to an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Second of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.

Paul Chadwick's Concrete is an odd but wonderful series. Beginning with a superhero-style premise -- "man's brain is transplanted by aliens into super-strong, rock-like body!" -- Chadwick then abandons the feel and flavor of the superhero genre almost completely, trying to tell realistic stories of a man trapped in an ordinary but also in some ways crippling body. (The fact that the man has been basically castrated is a recurring issue in the series.)

"Concrete", as the man styles himself, tries various methods of living within his newfound limits -- he tries being an extreme travel writer for a while (attempting to swim the ocean, climb Everest, that sort of thing); he works as a stuntman on a film; he gets involved with a radical environmental organization; and so forth.

But Concrete is moody, reflective, self-questioning, filled with doubt, constantly revisiting decisions and wondering about aspects of the world.

In some ways, Concrete is the diametrical opposite to "realistic" comics such as those inspired by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns running up through Warren Ellis's The Authority.

In those "dark age" comics, the "realism" is largely about the degree of violence (to take the negative) and the complex politics of power (to cite the positive) that arise from the existence of superheroes.

Some of these comics also show the extreme effects of the existence of superheroes on the world, as they transform its technology, its politics and its society. The superheroes are shown to be corrupt, lascivious, exalting in power in various unhealthy ways.

Concrete, on the other hand, strives to have an effect on the world -- a former Senator's aide, he is particularly concerned with environmental issues -- but finds himself largely impotent and paralyzed.

Rather than corrupt, he is clearly a literary descendent of Hamlet's paralysis in the face of corruption, and self-questioning in the face of a complex and mysterious forces (political more than metaphysical in Concrete's case).

While at times he enjoys his body's prowess, he is more often hampered by it in depressing, embarrassing or painful ways.

As I mentioned, it's a terrific comic. Originally appearing in a panoply of anthologies, mini-series and collections, it has now been released (just about) complete in seven matching trade paperbacks from Dark Horse.*

In addition to the (by my count) thirty-six full-length comics that Concrete has appeared in, he has also starred in many shorter works, ranging from one or two pages to twelve or so. (These too are collected in the new matching trades.)

Some of these shorter stories are among the finest Concrete stories: often even less "eventful" then the longer tales, they are beautifully done, evocative, poetic in their effect.

One of my favorites of these short stories is "Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor", an eight-page story originally published in 1989 and (in the most recent series) collected in the trade paperback Concrete Volume 5: Think Like a Mountain.

The longer story that forms the bulk of that collection, Think Like a Mountain, is the story of Concrete's brief entanglement with the radical environmental group Earth First!, and the extra short stories included are largely ones with an environmental focus. (As mentioned, environmental issues are a recurring theme in the series.)

In "Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor" Concrete is traveling with two of his companions, Larry, a struggling freelance writer whom Concrete hired to be a secretary and general aide, and Maureen, a biologist who has been assigned as the primary researcher into Concrete's physiology (since his body was constructed by aliens, it isn't well understood).

Since Concrete is so heavy, he can't travel in a normal car, so he rides in the back of a pick-up truck as Larry and Maureen travel in the cabin.

In this story, Concrete and Larry get involved in a political discussion about the barriers to environmental reform while Maureen, riding shotgun, looks out the window and goes into a reverie (usually Concrete's role, although not in this tale) about the way we perceive the environment based on the terrain they are passing through.

The two aspects -- the dialogue and the reverie -- work really well together, forming a very effective fugue structure and playing off each other in various ways.

(The title, incidentally, relates to the possibility of a disaster promoting environmental reform; as Concrete says on page five, "We'll wake up eventually. We'll have to. We just need an environmental Pearl Harbor." These days, after Katrina's destruction of New Orleans has failed to produce any significant environmental policy changes, one wonders if even that will be enough. Or perhaps that's just the environmental equivalent of Hitler remilitarizing the Rhineland, and Pearl Harbor still awaits.)

On the second page, the conversation recedes into the background -- you can still see it going on as Concrete, pictured in the bottom right-hand corner of the page, talks to Larry through the back window of the pickup truck -- as Maureen's reverie, previously the minor element, comes to the fore and dominates the page. Here's what it looks like:

Maureen here is imagining (or beginning to -- it continues over the next several pages) how we'd react to the environment if our senses were able to really plug into the natural world.

This of course plays off Concrete's complaints about our deliberate ignorance ("If some people could make a few million bucks, I'm sure they'd do things that would give their grandchildren cancer, if only they didn't have to face it too squarely.")

Maureen is thinking about what "face it squarely" actually means -- how intellectual knowledge pales next to the visceral knowledge that comes from the senses.

But it's the layout of the page that makes it really sing. Maureen imagines her fingers becoming roots, and mingling with the roots of trees portrayed at a different scale.

There, by her foot, another Maureen crouches, her face dark, her hands turning into roots themselves. The page as a whole is structured by the layers of an ecosystem, with the second tier being trees above ground, and the third one being underground, where the tree's roots (and Maureen's imagined roots) mingle.

The top layer of course is the ecosystem in greater detail, so that we can see the bugs and the details of the leaves, and Maureen sitting -- still just imagining from knowledge, rather than (imagining being able to) directly experience -- in the upper-left-hand corner.

But note the way the light lines of the leaves in the upper-right so closely resemble the lines used to draw the face on the giant Maureen figure (stretching up into the detailed world just as her roots stretch down): the same type of lines are used, and her hair seems to be just another part of the leafy plants they are next to.

Then, at the bottom, we see the night sky (they are traveling at night) -- a wonderful reversal, partly done just to make the balance of blacks on the page work no doubt, but also working in lots of thematic ways as well -- working, for example, as just another layer, since of course the rocks shown above ultimately "rest" on nothing but empty space.

And in the lower-right hand corner, the small image from the present grounds the page's fantasy: Maureen is daydreaming, Concrete speaking. Note also how the shape of the stars just above Concrete's head curve gently in such a way as to match the curve of Concrete's own shoulder -- there is almost a ghost-concrete visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the page, with his head formed by the speech balloon of the (visible) Concrete.

And none of this would mean a damn if the whole page wasn't so extraordinarily well balanced, so gracefully composed -- but it is, and so the larger ecosystem of the page serves to balance out the individual visual and textual elements to make a strong, graceful whole.

I picked this page, of course, because it's extraordinary -- and it is. But even after writing this entire post, I almost junked it several times -- simply because I kept running into so many other wonderful pages from Chadwick's Concrete that I thought maybe I should use instead.

Inertia trumped: and I am by no means certain that this isn't the best example. I'm just equally uncertain that it is.

The point is that Chadwick routinely does wonderful pages, and there were many others (several from this story, several more from his remarkable swim across the sea, and on and on) that I seriously considered using. Chadwick is an artist who clearly gives a lot of thought not simply to creating great art but also to composing great pages.

And Chadwick's gorgeously laid-out pages with their graceful, careful drawing serves to perfectly complement his thoughtful, contemplative writing.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend checking the series out. And if you have read it before, take it down, flip through a book, and marvel at Chadwick's sheer ability at page design.


Although for those of us who had gotten some but no all of the earlier Concrete volumes there is the familiar problem with comics -- is it me or do other fields just not do this as much? -- of the material's rearrangement leaving one forced to decide between buying books one half or three-quarters owns or missing various stories. Frustrating. But for those of you starting out, the new volumes are well-organized and well done.

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Slate.com reviews Men Without Tights

http://www.slate.com/id/2156841/slideshow/2158050/fs/0//entry/2158059/

Like the heroes of Heroes, Ron Lithgow—the protagonist of Paul Chadwick's long-running series Concrete—has his superpowers thrust upon him unexpectedly well into life.

An intelligent speechwriter with an overly cautious nature, Ron is kidnapped by aliens, who plant his brain inside a 1,000-pound stone body. From this outlandish premise springs a comics series of startling realism, as the thoughtful, introverted "Concrete" struggles to use his strength, power, and celebrity to effect some good in the world.

There's no skulking in alleys waiting to arrest pickpockets for Concrete; instead, Chadwick's hero wrestles with, and takes sides on, some of the hot-button issues of American life, including the death of the family farm, ecoterrorism, and—in the latest collection, 2006's The Human Dilemma—population control.

When a CEO asks Concrete to endorse a voluntary sterilization program for young people, Concrete signs on, intrigued by the idea but convinced by the healthy paycheck.

The man of stone makes the rounds of TV shows and talk radio, and is thrown for a loop when he finds that—biologically improbable though it may be—he may be a father himself.

Just like Heroes' Hiro Nakamura and his friends, Ron Lithgow hopes to save the world, but in Concrete, that's not as simple as saving a cheerleader; it requires long years of work, 20 so far since Concrete's debut in 1986.

Though it sounds simple-minded to praise the moral authority of a comic-book character, Chadwick has imbued Concrete with such depth that he seems more like a real person—a complex, conflicted man, with real-world opinions—than any caped crusader out there.

Heroes may be the more purely entertaining piece of Pop art, but Concrete—like its massive boulder of a hero—will endure.

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Page 45 (an award-wining retail store)

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #2 of 6 (£2-60, Dark Horse). Life and death and reproduction. And one of those rare second issue reviews. Ron, now known to the world as the environmental campaigner "Concrete", can't have kids because he can't have sex.

He can't have sex because his body - however strong, and possibly ageless - has no reproductive organs. But he's as passionate as you or I, and it's almost cruel that Maureen, the biologist who's been monitoring his condition from the beginning and become his closest companion, is not only a loving and compassionate human being, but also a very beautiful, sensual woman.

Over the course of several series their friendship has grown, but it's always had its limits. Instead Concrete has developed a love of nude portraits - what he can't feel physically, he can savour with his eyes - and he's become an obsessive collector.

A few days ago Concrete's condition - specifically his infertility - brought him to the attention of the CEO of the number three fast-food franchise in America, who wants to tackle worldwide overpopulation by providing contraceptives and education to women in poor countries - "the conventional stuff of which there's never enough" - but, crucially, wants to bring the message home to America where each child born has a sevenfold impact on consumption.

"I want to change norms. I want childlessness to become acceptable, even chic. The foundation will pay young couples to choose educations and good works over child-bearing."

And who better to lead the campaign (for a large sum of money) than the world's least eligible bachelor? The catch is that the CEO isn't pussy-footing around: "To receive the entirety of payments, they must be sterilised, graduate from college, and even agree never to adopt."

And that was a step too radical for Concrete until this morning, when his price was found in the form of the one painting he's been dying to acquire above all others.

But just as Ron agrees to be the campaign's spokesman, it appears that one of those occasional changes in Concrete's body is about to begin... There are instances, I concede, where Chadwick slips dangerously close to using his characters as mere conduits for debate, but the debate is always an intelligent, even-handed one, and his strength has always been the heart that beats in his cast.

Plus, the cover this second issue is such a perfect composition, telling you everything you need to know about Maureen and Ron, that I'm going to ask Dominique to pop it on-site.

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Every Day Is Like Wednesday reviews The World Below (Dark Horse)

link

The World Below (Dark Horse), by Paul Chadwick In introductory material presented with this new collection of a short-lived action adventure series from the man who brought us Concrete, Chadwick talks about how any TV producers in the reading audience might like a story that’s just like Lost but different.

He sells his brilliant if hardly transcendental genre story way too short. Mixing elements of British sci-fi comics and old-school pulp prose sci-fi, Chadwick sends an expert group of explorer/soldiers into a bizarre underground land, one that he populates with animals, monsters and machinery among the most alien I’ve ever encountered in comics.

The imagination that must have went into that world-building is impressive as all hell; Chadwick invented creatures that operated so far outside of our normal understanding of science that a reader could feel just as lost as his protagonists. You’ve literally never seen anything like the world in The World Below.

J. Caleb Mozzocco , Every Day is Like Wednesday

 

 


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