Hope is said to be a powerful force that can illuminate even the darkest and direst of situations, but in “Low,” writer Rick Remender & artist Greg Tocchini’s creator-owned series from Image Comics, that adage is definitely being put to the test. Set thousands of years in the future, at a time when an expanding sun has irradiated the Earth’s surface, the ongoing series finds humanity literally trapped in its darkest period yet, a time where people have been forced to take shelter in aquatic cities located on the bottom of the ocean.
â€¨Aquatic life is harsh, and often violent, as people deal with marauding pirate gangs, decadent rulers, crumbling technology, and the sobering reality that mankind may be on the verge of extinction. All hope is not lost, however, as an ancient probe returned from space and may contain the location of a new habitable world. One woman, Stel Caine, will risk everything to find this probe and bring the light of hope to a darkened world.
The road has been a tough one for Stel thus far. In “Low’s” first arc she lost her entire family to a pirate warlord and battled an apathetic society convinced the end is near. To survive and withstand these soul crushing horrors Stel has clad herself in the armor of a religious faith that believes optimism can change the world — but just how strong is that armor?
CBR News spoke with Remender about Stel’s faith, what she’s endured so far and the joy of seeing Greg Tocchini bring the world of “Low” to life. Remender also discusses the book’s second arc, which begins today in issue #7 and kicks off a tale that shows “Low” is about more than just one woman’s struggle for a better world.
CBR News: With “Low,” you’re telling a story with a protagonist very different from your other creator-owned books, Stel Caine. She’s driven by hope and optimism in a bleak, undersea, post-apocalyptic environment. Would you go so far as to call “Low” a story about faith?
Rick Remender: There’s a theory that I find interesting where objects don’t take form until you look at them. I can barely wrap my head around that. According to the theory if you get a present inside a box, the reality you’re in is constantly changing like a roulette table until you open the box and put your eyes on what’s inside. Then the molecules form into the shape of the object, which means we are in some ways forming reality by looking at it.
So Stel is a member of a church called Quantumology. They believe if a lot of people get together and maintain an optimistic appraisal and envision a bright future that bright future will come to past. She is the last member of the church though. [Laughs]
So she feels like she has the key, but she needs the remaining population of mankind to believe with her that they can turn it at the same time. It feeds into that universal idea that we’re all ostracized and alone and we’re in an uphill battle. That becomes clear to me when I see dumb dumbs in the Senate are throwing around snowballs talking about how climate change isn’t real because they’re too fucking stupid to understand basic science. It’s that same sort of disenfranchised thing where you feel like you might have an idea, a key to something, or you might be ahead of the curve on something, but the world is not listening.
Many of the great scientific breakthroughs that have happened in the past 400 years were made by people who were ostracized, disrespected, shit on by their peers, or even called witches and burnt. So Stel is that. She is that person who really might have the key and nobody is buying it. There’s a frustration to that which I like writing a lot, and she has to earn her optimism. She has to earn keeping it, and that’s very difficult.
Especially when she’s being written by you! [Laughs]
[Laughs] She has to earn it! Like her son, Marik says, “You said we could do anything. You never said it would be easy.”
Let’s talk about some of the hardships Stel endured over the course of this first arc. She lost her family, regained her son, found one of her missing daughters, and then her son perished and she possibly lost one of her missing daughters again. Is she the toughest character you’ve ever written?
When I made my mind up to write a truly optimistic character, and I know I’ve written those types of characters before in books like “Captain America,” I wanted to make Stel’s optimism much greater and in the face of much greater odds. Then I wanted to test it over and over again.
â€¨It’s a metaphor for going through therapy myself and being told that I have negative filtering. That I tend to only see the bad in things, and that I need to change the way I view the world for my own happiness. [Laughs] That optimism is constantly challenged by bad things that happened, trouble, family illness, or life. Life is always testing.
â€¨So when I made my mind up to write this eternal optimist, who was in fact a member of a church that was dedicated to the idea of optimism changing the fabric of reality, I really wanted to make Stel earn that and to show that, again, we can accomplish anything and we can change our world, but nobody said it was going to be easy.
â€¨That’s sort of the point of that first arc, and then when we open up with a new arc, we open up in the Second City, which we haven’t seen before. There we get a whole new world view where hope is illegal because it seems cruel. It’s a place where art and inspiration are seen as something that can ignite an aspect of the human spirit that serves no purpose any longer. In Voldin we start to reconnect with some characters from the first arc that we maybe didn’t know we’d be seeing again.
In the first arc, Stel hoped she would be seeing one of her long lost daughters again and that hope did come true, but the first arc ended with her daughter leaving her again. This time though, when she left she was clad in the family battle armor and appeared to be consumed by a lust for vengeance. How would you say Stel’s daughter, Tajo, is feeling at the end of the first arc?
You’ve got this young girl who was taken from her family in a pretty terrible way. Then she was brainwashed for the next 10 years. That’s a powerful thing. Cult brainwashing is something I’ve read a lot about and I find it incredibly interesting. Stockholm Syndrome and these symptoms of the way people can pray on our emotions and “gaslight” us, meaning they can continually tell us that two and two equals five, and you’re “gaslit” by somebody who is close to you and sells themselves as your anchor to safety, salvation, and security.
So this person continues to tell you that the reality you’re viewing is not the reality you’re viewing. The memories you have are not the memories you have. They’re telling you their version of things because they’re manipulating you, and that shit works! It works well! It’s why cults exist.
With Tajo I wanted to take this poor girl, break her and have her become a victim of this cultish mastermind in Roln who has twisted her up. Eventually we then get the cathartic release of the only people who can wear the Helm suit are people with Caine DNA, and that seems hopeless because Marik is in the fight of his life. Stel is in the fight of her life, and everybody is losing. You sort of forget that Tajo is there. Then there’s that cathartic release where Tajo, the victim of all this cultish brainwashing, sees Marik’s eye plucked out of his head and remembers her father. She remembers the day that happened.
â€¨So it’s the consequence of the villain doing his despicable villainy that eventually opens Tajo up to remembering how she got there and what happened. Then you get the cathartic release of her donning the suit and going out to kick the ass.
Tajo’s departure and what you’ve told us about the second arc begs the question — is “Low” primarily Stel’s story or is it more of an ensemble piece where we follow other characters as well?
It’s definitely an ensemble piece. The first six issues set up a number of characters. Some of them might have seemed like peripheral almost “D” cast that were off in the background. They’ll become primary focuses in the second arc. Issue #7 doesn’t feature Stel. It’s an examination of Voldin, the Second City, and how a forgotten member of the cast who lives there now is dealing with a world where hope is illegal and censorship is the norm. It’s a whole different examination on how our spirits can be crushed by an oppressive regime around us with a different result.
Sounds like this second arc is very much inspired by the works of classic science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley.
Yeah, there’s a lot of Huxley for sure. Then a lot of what was going on with the cartoonists that were assassinated. This was written around that time. A lot of that gave me the idea for this story; that idea of the solution to people saying things that you find unpopular is to take an AK-47 and go shoot them. I wanted to take that idea and the ugliness of it and examine that in a setting where it had taken over a whole world as an understood norm. It’s a place where if there were a Judge Dredd character his job would be to go out and kill writers, painters, and journalists.
Let’s talk a little bit about the backdrop of this world. I was lucky enough to see some of Greg Tocchini’s art for issue #7 and it looks like it takes place in a city that has a very definite character and feel to it. The Second City seems to have a polar or arctic feel. Is that correct?
Yeah, in the Second City the air filter systems are nearly done. They’re ancient and they’re breaking. So the water desalinization systems are breaking and they’re freezing the whole world. They live in an enormous lead-based dome at the bottom of the ocean and it’s in an arctic area. You’ve also got everything breaking down. So the effect is that everything is covered in ice and everything is freezing cold. That’s also a metaphor for the hearts of the people and what that particular city is enduring.
One of the things I loved about Greg’s work on the first arc is it had this beautiful almost “Heavy Metal” magazine feel to it. Does that continue into this second arc?
Yeah, it does. Greg is too good. I often will have pages come in and it takes me hours of looking at them to even understand what he’s done. He’s just too good. He’s the artist that makes other artists tend to go, “What? Aww fuck him! What is he doing?” Because it’s so brilliant!
His storytelling is wonderful. The characters are so fluid and alive. His environments are so unique and they’re so well designed. His work is pure fantasy and imagination if I could get a little Willy Wonka on it. [Laughs]
“The Last Days of American Crime,” was the last full book that Greg and I did together and we’re collecting it in July as an oversized hardcover. So it will fit right next to your “Fear Agent” and “Crawl Space” hardcovers, should you choose to own such things. You can see more of Greg’s wonderful work there. What Greg is doing though does indeed have a very European sensibility. “Last Days of American Crime” was such a hit in Europe that Greg had sold every single page of original art within a month of it hitting Germany, France, Spain, and Italy where the various editions came out.
I feel that we’re lucky that he’s making comic books. Because Greg is the kind of good where he could be working and designing the next blockbuster feature film for somebody. And I’m very fortunate to be able to cook up nonsense and have him turn it into something as beautiful as he does.
What’s it like world building with Greg? How much do you want to give him and how much do you get back that he’s added?
When we started the book I had a basic outline and a basic batch of characters. Then he did like 20 pieces of concept art. That concept work informed so many new ideas that the next things I worked on were entirely different. There’s all these ideas that grew out of his concept art; grew out of the worlds and the little gesture drawings he did where you saw Tajo and Marik together as kids. It all kind of boils up into a souffle of both of us, which is why we can do these stories that are so incredibly unique and personal in creator-owned comics and have it gel the way we do. It’s because there’s so no assembly line.
â€¨We exchange e-mails constantly. Greg does a sketch, I hit him with an idea, he hits me with another sketch. Then we build it that way, then I get on the phone with our editor, Sebastian Girner, and we talk for a few days about the various pot full of ideas that we’ve got. Sebastian then throws in ideas. Stir. Bake.
â€¨Over time we developed “Low” for four years before it came out. We started working on the book in 2010 and it didn’t come out until 2014. So the problem then is you’ve got such a richness and vastness to your world building how do you cut any of it? Because I’ll get to a point where it’s like “Oh! But there’s this thing that I want to do!” Then I ask, “But is it necessary to the story anymore?” Because the story has morphed into something that might be a little different. So you have to go, “Oh, I guess we don’t get to do that. It’s not that important. It slows the story down a bit and is there because I wanted it.”
It’s a pleasure though and it works this way on all my creator-owned books. We all talk all the time. We’re all involved in beating the stories up and throwing ideas around. It gets the creative juices flowing and keeps all of us very invested and very excited to work on the books as opposed to it feeling like a job.
I write very detailed full scripts. I just do, but I always let my artists know that the scripts are something they can interpret. So in terms of the world Greg designed for Voldin in “Low” #7, those designs are crazy imaginative. They’re out of this world! And the stuff I started him off with was, “Block style buildings, a lot of ice, very cold, and industrial.” Then what came back was that, but it was a thousand times more imaginative. It’s immediately such a beautiful world that once I saw what was constructed and how Greg built it was like I could write stories for the rest of my life just in the Second City.
One of the interesting things I noticed about Greg’s art for the cities we saw in this first arc was that not all of the characters walking around were entirely human.
I think at this point everybody is like pale white, or a mermaid, or a mutated shark. There’s no more sunlight. So there’s no more pigment. Everybody is mutating and morphing. People are turning into fish.
â€¨Then Greg will come in and I’ll write a character as one thing and he’ll come back a shark person. [Laughs] That’s the fun of it. The world is irradiated and the sun is expanding. They’ve been down there for literally tens of thousands of years. So evolution can take all different kinds of turns and steps as long as it doesn’t have sunlight. We deal with that in issue #8 where Stel runs into some things that grew in that environment as well. So the book can have this fun, otherworldly science fiction feel like we’re off in another galaxy, but it’s all here on Earth and kind of grounded and has an inherent logic.
Finally, I understand that if “Low” continues to get the fan support it’s been getting you’ll be able to follow through on your plan for it to run roughly 50 issues. Is that still the plan?
“Fear Agent” had a 55-issue outline. I had to gut some of the middle arcs though and we ended with about 32-33 issues. Of course that was at a time when nobody bought science fiction comics and nobody bought creator-owned comics. There were like two successful creator-owned comics in “The Walking Dead” and “Hellboy” and they hovered at 17-18,000 copies a month. That was unheard of.
â€¨That was a different time, but I was very satisfied with the way “Fear Agent” turned out. I think the middle arcs would have had adventure and fun, but we still got where we needed to get to on that book. So I write these stories in 32-issue chunks. With “Low” we have 50 issues outlined, but if everybody stops buying it I’m obviously going to have to cut that story short.
â€¨Fortunately the book is doing gangbusters. So I think when you look at the trade and singles market in creator-owned comics right now I think we’re going to be okay.
I know that Greg is incredibly excited and I’m incredibly excited. In order to keep Greg moving on task we’re brining in colorist Dave McCaig, who is one of the very best in the industry, to color Greg. Because at a certain point trying to pencil, ink and color a book and do eight to 10 issues a year is going to kill a man. So we were very lucky to get Dave. With him coming in I think we’ll be able to ship more copies and keep the book moving forward at a good clip.
“Low” #7 is on sale now from Image Comics.