Concrete #1-5 (Dark Horse) by Paul Chadwick, Bill Spicer, Randy Stradley
It’s unfortunately rare to find a comicbook—or any piece of entertainment, really—with a voice that is both unique and fully realized from the start. Concrete knows exactly what it wants to be right away, and it succeeds even though what it’s doing is off-beat and brave. It’s not an earth-shattering series, or even necessarily all that innovative in it’s look or storytelling techniques, but it still manages to stand out as a singular effort, the clear and well-executed vision of a creator who’s allowed to tell the stories that interest him in precisely the ways he wants. Paul Chadwick writes and draws the book, and it’s immediately clear how much thought, care, and time he’s devoted to it. Chadwick loves the world of Concrete and all the people in it, and his love is contagious, jumping off the page and infecting the reader before anyone knows what’s happening.
The premise of Concrete is familiar yet odd; the titular character is a formerly normal human who has his brain removed by aliens and placed into a giant, rock-hard body with incredible strength, senses, and jumping skills. I say it’s familiar because a) alien abductions are a well-worn trope by now, and b) the result is that Concrete is a somewhat typical outsider character, a man working to find his place in a world that he suddenly no longer fits into. This is an archetype with innumerable examples, so the core concepts of the title are actually pretty recognizable. What sets it apart is where Chadwick runs with it. For one thing, the aliens aren’t a major or ongoing part of the series. They show up for the origin story issue (#3), but depart at the end of it, presumably never to return. The thrust of the comic isn’t where Concrete came form but where he’s going, and even in that, Chadwick finds an interesting spin. Because as much as he’s seeking his purpose, it’s not as if Concrete is alone or adrift. He’s a hugely popular celebrity, he’s got a handful of loyal friends helping him to understand his new body and find himself, and he handles his situation with such thoughtfulness that it never really feels like an obstacle. So while the notion of a character who’s trying to figure out his/her identity may be cliché, the specifics of Concrete’s life and the way he deals with it make for something new, as well as producing several interesting narratives.
Every issue of Concrete is a complete tale, though it could be argued that issues #3-4 are a single two-part story. Even then, they both work on their own, and the rest of these issues are wholly self-contained, each one a brand new adventure in Concrete’s life. That’s one of the book’s best aspects, and another is that it starts with Concrete as an already established presence within his world. The reader’s POV character in the debut is not Concrete (though we do get to see his thoughts) but Larry Munro, the grad student/aspiring novelist who gets hired to be Concrete’s assistant seemingly because he’s the first person to show up for the job. When Larry meets Concrete, the latter is fully famous, having been revealed to the public as the only survivor of a secret government cyborg project. This cover story, we later learn, was cooked up by the government to hide the truth of Concrete’s past, because they figure cyborgs are less scary and easier to swallow than hyper-advanced space invaders snatching people up and performing brain transplants. The plan works, more-or-less; some people refuse to buy the cyborg story, and the alien theory even gets floated around, but it doesn’t matter in the long run, because the real point of
making Concrete a celebrity at all is to have everybody get sick of him as quickly as possible, so he can live a free life without being hounded or hunted or whatever. It’s a pretty clever scheme and a smart, believable way for Chadwick to insert his fantastical protagonist into an otherwise completely grounded, modern-day (in 1987) reality.
Not that he needed to justify it, necessarily. The first two issues are both excellent, even though at that point the reader is just as in the dark about what Concrete is as Larry and the rest of the world. Jumping right in with Concrete’s notoriety already peaking and his origins unknown is an effectively intriguing way to capture the reader’s attention. Also Concrete is a great lead even without context, boldly honest and endearingly hopeful. He just wants to make something of himself now that he has a new, improved body; he chooses to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem, and decides to become an adventurer, chasing the classically romantic dream of going to incredible places and doing unbelievable things just for the experience. And for the story, I guess, since Concrete plans on writing about his adventures as a means of making money to fund them. That’s what he needs Larry for, mostly: typing, recording, making note of the tiny details and background players, etc. While Concrete does the things, Larry keeps track of them and turns them into consumable narratives, making Larry an ideal way in for the audience, as well as a probable stand-in for/fictionalized version of Chadwick himself.
While the history with the aliens may not be entirely needed, and Concrete could and did work as a hero even without an explanation as to what/why/how he is, the issue where we finally do learn what happened to him (Concrete #3) is the strongest, most moving, best-looking issue of these first five. As a human, Concrete’s name was Ron Lithgow, and he wasn’t the only person to have their mind stuck into an alien body. His friend Michael suffers the same fate when the two of them accidentally discover the aliens during a camping trip. They spend a long time together as prisoners, their abductors performing various mysterious experiments on them, some of which are quite grueling. Throughout it all, Ron and Michael dissect their terrifying new circumstances together, and slowly but surely gather enough information to form an escape plan. It’s a compelling journey to watch them take together, and Chadwick plays it painstakingly slow, putting the reader through much of the stress and uncertainty that the characters experience, trapping us in the alien’s territory with them. In the end, Michael gives up on his own freedom, possibly even dies, in the name of making sure Ron gets away. Even though we know all along something like that must be coming, since Concrete is clearly one-of-a-kind in the series’ present, it’s still hard to watch Michael make the decision. The relationship between him and Ron is so well constructed and real that it’s tough to see it end so soon after it began (in the comic, anyway…you get the sense Ron and Michael have been buddies for ages prior to these events).
Concrete #3 is also a visual feast, because there’s so much imagination and beauty in the alien environments and technology. Even the massive, near-empty room Michael and Ron are kept in has a stimulating design, and many of the contraptions and containers they’re held in during their various tests and torments are straight gorgeous. They also each have different markings on their bodies, small, simple symbols that help us distinguish between them in their otherwise identical new bodies, and that offer some minor insight into the culture of the aliens. My favorite image, though, and one that Chadwick obviously threw all of his artistic weight behind, comes near the end, after Concrete has escaped. He stands in a lake and watches as, in the distance, the mountain where the aliens had been hiding explodes and the vessel/building that acted as Michael and Ron’s prison takes off into the night sky. It’s chilling, majestic, horrific, and enchanting all at once. It’s a moment of sheer wonder for Concrete, but also deep fear, because he only just got away from the magnificent spaceship he sees bursting forth before him. The true significance of his accomplishment isn’t totally clear, for him or the reader, until that moment, and Chadwick gives it all the awesomeness it deserves.
Part of why the art in Concrete #3 is so powerful is because none of the other issues have any of the same sci-fi elements. The whole point is to place a crazy-looking character into a real-looking world, so most of the time, Chadwick works in a heavily detailed but understated, down-to-Earth style. He shows the richness of life and the mundanity of it all at once, and explores many corners of the world, from complex theatrical rock shows to blank and boring conference rooms. All of the settings are equally solid, and Concrete sticks out just as well in any of them, which is the most important thing. Chadwick immediately masters this mix of Concrete’s otherworldliness and the all-too-common look of our own reality, so the artwork is always just as complete and on track as the writing.
I’m singing its praises enthusiastically, but Concrete is far from flawless. There are a handful of odd, uncomfortable moments, many jokes that don’t land, and a few dropped threads along the way. There’s an empty ship in the middle of the ocean in issue #2 which, when discovered, includes a logbook of some kind, but that gets lost by the end of the issue, so where the ship came from and what happened to its crew is never uncovered. The debut features a reporter named Tawny Hill, who begins to get wind of the fact that Concrete may not be what he claims, and is presented as a potential threat to the life he’s trying to build
for himself. I don’t know if she shows up later in the series, but she’s not seen once in issues #2-5, so even if she returns down the line, it feels like a badly managed storyline, either introduced way too early or abandoned way too soon. There are a few lines of dialogue that come across as semi-offensive or worse when read today, like when a pre-Concrete Ron blames his recent divorce on “the ’80s woman career/dependence thing.” He says it like he’s trying to be understanding, but it reads as reductive. In issue #5, when Concrete gets hired as a rock star’s bodyguard, there’s a scene where he tries to carry a man through the crowd at a concert, and in order to get everyone out of his way, he shouts, “This guys had AIDS!” It’s possible that this is meant to be a joke, but if so, it’s in extremely poor taste, and I’m not even convinced that was the intention, because the whole thing is played pretty straight. These bits date the comic, and they also taint it, but luckily they’re few and far between. And in some way, they’re part of the appeal, too. Chadwick is consistently doing his own thing, following his muse, and these rough patches are just as emblematic of that as all the good stuff.
Because each issue of Concrete is a new story, you never quite know what you’ll get, but there is a certain calming, uplifting mood this series instills no matter what the details of the narrative are. Concrete is so observant and analytical, he encourages his audience to be the same, to take our time and let life in, and his positivity and openness make him easy to care about. This is a cozy comicbook, warming and welcoming, Chadwick’s quirky, good-hearted creation produced with passion, talent, and focus.