Turn To Stone | Paul Chadwick’s Concrete

concreteheaderWith The World Below now available in trade paperback, we take a look back at Paul Chadwick's best known work: the stunning 7-volume series Concrete.

 

 

Concrete Vol. 1-7

160-208 pgs. B&W; $12.95 ea.

(W / A: Paul Chadwick)

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.Paul Chadwick's Concrete sounds like it should be an average superhero comic. There's nothing standard about it, though, and, despite his origins, the title character certainly isn't a superhero. The elegant art sets a calmer tone than you would find in any action-oriented comic and evokes the dirt, wear and vitality of the real world, setting the stage for a more grounded story.

 

While camping, average guy Ron Lithgow and his friend Michael are captured by aliens. Their minds are transplanted into hulking stone bodies. The humans, incidentally, aren't singled out among Earth's inhabitants: a deer and a bear are each subjected to the same treatment. Unlike most comic book aliens, these don't even try communicating with the humans, a strong sign that Earthlings are nothing more than test subjects. Ron and Michael attempt an escape, resulting in the latter's death and the aliens' departure. Any hope of Ron regaining his old body is lost, and, thanks to an agreement with the military intent on keeping the aliens secret, he even loses his identity. Instead, he is presented as a government-created cyborg and allowed to live as an oddball celebrity.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.In most comics, Ron would devote his life to fighting crime, but that's the furthest thing from his mind. Though his new body, misleadingly reminiscent of the Fantastic Four's Thing, is inhumanly powerful and durable, there's no Dr. Doom or Annihilus for him to punch. His benevolent streak manifests in other ways: he uses his fame and clout to push important causes, he volunteers to revitalize an ailing farm, and, in a story fraught with moral complications, he engages in what could be considered eco-terrorism. He performs other feats for his own satisfaction as he explores the world. Chadwick gives Concrete the means and, more importantly, the drive to accomplish the fantastic. Even for fans of more traditional superhero stories, it's refreshing to see that sense of daring as the point of a story, rather than as an excuse for some action scenes.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.Ron's unique perspective on his superpowers stems naturally from his previous life. He was a quiet man, accustomed to living in others' shadows: he made a living as a speechwriter, an important but almost invisible presence in a senator's office. For the few panels in which we actually see a pre-Concrete Ron Lithgow, he avoids others' eyes and almost gives the impression of mumbling. Once transformed, he's uneasy with his newfound celebrity, although his experience at the periphery of the public eye helps him adapt. His self-esteem is shaky, often leading him to second-guess his choices. The reader benefits from Concrete's internal monologue: he constantly ponders his own lot and the world around him, a habit exacerbated by the amount of time he spends alone, whether he is in his private warehouse or wandering through nature. While idly exploring his condition, he asks questions that most would never consider. Ron spent so many years living inside his own head that he's now in awe of the chance to go into the world and act. As related in the story Strange Armor, a young Ron would read about treks to the South Pole but could imagine no heroism in himself beyond unburdening the rest of his party by wandering away to die. His unassuming nature is occasionally countered by the arrogance of the mighty, but he usually remembers that, however big he may be, he's still just a small part of this world.

 

Concrete is accompanied regularly by a pair of friends, both acquired since his metamorphosis. Dr. Maureen Vonnegut was assigned the task of studying his alien physiology. Her exhaustive work has yielded plenty of pseudo-scientific information about him, from his strength levels to his regenerative process. Her more important role in the narrative, though, is that of an attractive woman, a constant reminder of the limitations of Ron's monstrous, smooth-crotched body. His human desires undiluted by his inability to realize them, he spends volume after volume longing for her. Concrete's other companion is his assistant, aspiring novelist and womanizer Larry Munro. Protagonist of the first Concrete story, he is the reader's access point series, lucking into a job with Ron and allowing the reader to get to know him. As time passes, Larry develops into a well-rounded character, the story Killer Smile giving him an engrossing arc that continues to affect him for the rest of the series.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.The full Concrete canon is available in seven volumes from Dark Horse Books, each one exploring a different theme. The first two, respectively dubbed Depths and Heights, establish the series's unique style and the general tone of Ron's adventures. They contain some of the stories most representative of the series as a whole, including both Concrete's aborted cross-Atlantic swim and his successful but unprovable solo ascent of Everest. In a more mundane outing, he feels guilty about being paid to simply attend a party; when the promise of hefty payment turns out to be a hoax, his good nature compels him to stay around to avoid disappointing a birthday party full of children. Bits like this are the heart of the series, in which Chadwick explores his characters' quirks as much as he does Concrete's feats. These volumes also feature some of the more extreme experimentation with Concrete's new body (allowing it to starve, for example) and the fruits of his open request that the public suggest new usages for his powers.

 

In the third volume, Fragile Creature, Ron is enlisted to perform special effects in a movie, a thinly veiled He-Man rip-off. This allows Chadwick to indulge in drawing some barbarian-style fantasy scenes, as well as exploring Ron's sense of responsibility and culpability when disaster strikes the set. He questions whether anyone can safely use such amazing abilities. This and several of the book's other stories touch on art in one form or another. Concrete has a large art collection, consisting mostly of nudes: he can't feel another's touch and uses art as an inadequate substitute. It takes a special place in his life, leading to encounters with artists and other collectors.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.Killer Smile is the biggest digression from the usual Concrete style. Though the entire series seems borne of a flirtation with superhero tropes, this story is Chadwick's take on the suspense genre. He never cedes his usual thoughtfulness-in fact, Larry's constant internal monologue helps to put the reader in his shoes-but the pace is quicker and danger feels closer than ever. When Larry becomes the hostage of an armed nut, a strain of darkness is injected the series with lasting effects. The following volume, Think Like a Mountain, thrusts upon Concrete a heightened sense of environmental responsibility. Although vaguely aware of the damage being done to the Earth, he is relatively complacent until a protest group convinces him to take action. The rest of the story is spent blurring lines as to how much one can ethically do to help the planet. Ron occasionally edges into morally uncomfortable territory, but Chadwick refrains from preaching too directly. Both Killer Smile and Think Like a Mountain suffer from the decision to group stories thematically rather than chronologically. The former, full of darker moments, can be a little depressing, and even the most environmentally conscious reader will be sick of the subject by the end of the latter. However, these volumes are well worth reading, even if one has to take a break between the main stories and the back-up material.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.Strange Armor was adapted from the screenplay for an unproduced Concrete movie and delves further into Ron's transformation and adaptation to his new life. On the surface, it may seem unnecessary to retread this territory, but Chadwick takes full advantage of the opportunity: he embellishes on the story and shows us a more vulnerable and emotional Ron, one who hasn't yet resigned himself to life in the body of a monster. Paul Chadwick's fingerprints are more obvious here than anywhere else in the series, in the Hollywood-ization of the origin story (now with a more conventional structure, including a traditional antagonist) as much as the short story in which Ron actually meets his creator.

 

Finally, the most recent volume is The Human Dilemma, featuring a story with even more drastic repercussions than Killer Smile. It deals with the weighty issues of overpopulation and birth control, as well as developing the personal lives of the cast in a way that is both perfectly in keeping with what's come before and yet utterly unpredictable. Concrete himself does something that I doubt anyone would have expected. The characters have been irreparably changed, and, although the ending is by no means a cliffhanger, I look forward to seeing how they cope with these changes.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.Despite many readers' initial impressions, Concrete is not truly about superpowers: it investigates many aspects of life, ranging from Concrete's perpetual loneliness to the drive to explore and to accomplish that has been dulled in so many of us. The science fiction trappings are simply a platform from which Chadwick can show us the wonders and terrors of our world.

 

The essence of the series is best summed up by the title character himself at the end of Strange Armor, "I could shut myself off, a cold lump of scar tissue…or I could just get on with it. Embrace life, despite it all. Because it's there, in some measure, even for those of us who are wounded…or diminished. Which, I suppose, is everyone." | Sean Smith

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