Reviewer: Iain Burnside
Story Title: N/A
Written by: Paul Chadwick
Penciled by: Paul Chadwick
Inked by: Paul Chadwick
Colored by: N/A
Lettered by: Bill Spicer
Editor: Diana Schutz
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Concrete is a character that seems to have passed a lot of people by since his initial appearances in DARK HORSE PRESENTS back in the mid-’80s. Since then, Paul Chadwick has released a handful of limited series starring his creation that you can check out here. It seems that Dark Horse have been kind enough to re-release the collected editions of these stories starting in June, mainly due to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to this latest story, THE HUMAN DILEMMA. And really, if Jamie Hatton gives it his seal of approval then who could dare disagree about that?
Nobody that isn’t lying through their teeth, that’s who.
The basic premise of Concrete is that he is a man that has, through a series of strange events, been left trapped in an artificial body of stone and mechanics. This has left him in perpetual doubt of his humanity and his role within it. He spends his time collecting fine works of art and attempting to create some of his own, as well as exploring the world to try and better understand it. However, as he is trapped with little more than his thoughts for the majority of the time due to his unusual circumstances, he is prone to depression. No navel-gazing teen angst here, his emotions are natural reactions to being an island cut off from humanity’s mainland by an unconquerable ocean. Ironically, one of Concrete’s biggest regrets was being unable to swim the Atlantic (though he managed to climb Everest). To help him retain some semblance of a normal life, he has two close friends in his assistant Larry Munro and companion/therapist, Dr. Maureen Vonnegut. In fact, with the latter he recently shared an intimate experience that is likely to be as close an approximation to sexual intercourse that Concrete will be able to achieve in his current form.
The rest of the world surrounding this enigmatic character is very much based on reality. Compare Concrete to his obvious Marvel counterpart, The Thing, and you may begin to appreciate the differences between a ‘comic book’ and a ‘comic’. Though Concrete is, in a literal sense, a ‘super human’, there are no cosmic rays, moustache-twirling villains and brightly-clad heroes here. No, there are just a lot of very curious people that want to know more about Concrete. His appearance alone makes him a celebrity, yet his popular and thought-provoking books are what make people want to know him. Whether through empathy, fear or appreciation, everybody has an opinion on him. Hell, the closest real-world example would probably be Michael Jackson. Getting such a rational view into such a bizarre creation is unique in this medium but gladly it is so well-written that it works.
Naturally, his very presence also attracts the more opportunistic individuals out there. The one driving this story is Walter Sageman, the billionaire owner of the Puncinello Pizza chain. After a lengthy recruitment drive that eventually boiled down to base greed (Concrete accepted the offer after Sageman found him a rare painting… some fundamental human desires just can’t be helped, apparently), Concrete agreed to become the spokesperson for the Sageman Institute’s new ‘Childless by Choice’ campaign. Designed to combat over-population, the campaign offers couples over 22 several perks, among them financial aid with their education and buying their first home, should they agree to be sterilized. As Concrete has no clear affiliation with any group, race, gender, religion, and in fact cannot procreate himself (though after his encounter with Vonnegut he has been experiencing some strange itching), he is seen as the ideal person to front this drive. He is also highly intelligent and articulate enough to be able to handle the many debates this controversial notion will inspire.
It is certainly some high-concept material for a comic book to attempt to explore, and the bulk of this third issue is given over to debates that attempt to show as many sides of the argument as it can. Some agree with the campaign. Some would prefer to see the money and energy being spent on contraceptives for third world countries. Some are out-and-out appalled at the very notion of choosing to block out life. The most controversial response comes from one Randall Gordon, who dismisses the entire thing as irrelevant and challenges geneticists to create the one thing that would actually create, as he calls it, “a world of wanted children” – a sexually transmitted virus that causes infertility. Thus, Gordon steals the limelight in his own outlandish fashion. It’s hard to go into detail about this theory in a review without inflicting personal beliefs on the story, but this is certainly a notion that should provoke wider discussion among the people reading this book. Chadwick has also clearly done his homework here, as the book is filled with statistics and scientific facts that back up the beliefs of his characters. Bravo to him for having the savvy to write this so well and bravo to Dark Horse for letting people read it.
Of course, the book is not without its flaws. There is a tacked on subplot regarding Larry Munro cheating on his fiancee with a young woman infatuated with the celebrity circles that he moves in that feels rather redundant. It is well-written and would appear to be heading towards an outcome that may well tie back into the main story, but this is a mini-series, not an ongoing, and the book could do well to move these characters further to the background.
That is but a minor complaint, however. For the most part, this book easily remains one of the best on the market. Chadwick also guarantees you value for your money by packing each issue with bonus material relating directly to the story. For the most part, bonus material in comic books usually means random sketches by the artist and perhaps a couple of pages from the script for good measure. Chadwick takes this to the next level to really involve the reader in the story. In this issue, we get a three-page extract from an article entitled ‘Rubble with a Cause’ that details the debate where Gordon made his charged counter to Concrete’s campaign. It is a unique way to get further insight into the motives and emotions of these characters. We also get the obligatory art pages, five sketches with an introduction from Chadwick and a touching one-page strip about the fragility of life. These are not the standard, soulless character designs that would usually be put in here. These are extraordinary works of art in their own right. The extras are rounded off by a one-page Concrete strip, ‘Winter’, that reinforces everything we think we know about our lead character.
The fact that Chadwick puts so much effort into the incidental aspects of this book is astonishing, and pales only in comparison to the intense amount of research and passion that must have gone into the actual story itself. And to think, all we have to do is just sit back, read and enjoy… Well, if you’re up for the challenge, that is.