I think I've always been a touch intimated by the prospect of writing about Paul Chadwick's Concrete. One of the last truly great books which can be associated with the Third Wave of the Eighties, Chadwick's use of the tradition of the super-human in a real-world setting resulted in one of the most tender, smart and innovative comics of the past twenty five years and more. Of course, comics snobs will attempt to convince you that Concrete isn't really a genre comic at all, and that even if it is, it's got nothing at all to do with the superhero sub-genre. That Concrete's no member of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade is indeed beyond dispute, and yet Chadwick's comic does have its own contrary place in the super-book's tradition of noble, alienated monsters. That's something which I've touched upon in this week's The Year In Comics post over at Sequart - please do find it here- - though most of the post is a discussion of the contents of the quietly remarkable Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-9.
If you're unsure whether you want to read such a post, then perhaps the brief discussion of Chadwick's art in those first short stories that's below might change your mind. Though I've only time to touch upon four aspects of his early work, I hope I can convince the neophyte and the disinterested alike that even the earliest examples of Mr Chadwick's art are characterised by some truly impressive storytelling. (Of course, just about everyone who does know his work has long, long accepted such a contention as a given, but there may be folks reading this who haven't yet come across either Chadwick or Concrete. )
But if I can't convince you that it's worth reading further on the subject, then perhaps I might have the privilege of your company here at TooBusyThinking tomorrow, when the This Week's List feature will present 12 fine comics and comic strips which have something in common with the splendid Concrete. What that shared quality might be, I'm not saying yet, but I think it's safe to say that the list will have a great deal in it to disagree with. What else are blogger's lists for?
|From "Goodwill Ambassador", 1988|
So purposefully still and restrained is most of Chadwick's art on Concrete that it's easy to forget that he's capable of channelling his inner Kirby (*1) in a way that's every bit the equal of esteemed Kirby-charged colleagues such as Walt Simonson and Steve Rude. In the full page frame shown immediately above, a young Tibetan boy called Kirkyap is shown being convulsed with fear upon meeting Concrete for the first time. The presence of this sudden display of raw power and horror in Chadwick's art combined with the sheer scale of the piece transmits an untypically vivid sense of Kirkyap's terror. Yet as always, the key to the work's success lies primarily in the meticulous care that Chadwick has taken with the page's design. We're made to perceive events from the low-angle point of view of a Kirkyap whose chin is tilted high up in the air, which immediately accentuates his vulnerability while also emphasising Concrete's great looming mass.
*1:- Using Kirby in the sense of a metaphor for artists whose work delivers that extra umph! Other artists who offer extra Umph have long been available.
Our gaze is framed using the unique device of both of the key character's hands. When we first see the page, it's Concrete's outstretched, claw-like fingers which direct our attention up to the face of what Kirkyap perceives to be a terrifying demon. Then aspects of the composition, such as the perspective on the pack on Concrete's chest and his downwardly-curving fingernails, carry our gaze back down the page again, where the boy's hands - keep deliberately simple and therefore undistracting - push us forward to see his fellow villagers through Concrete's legs. This brilliantly elegant structure doesn't just express Kirkyap's perceptions, but his actual behaviour too. The head that's been thrown back to perceive Concrete is, as it were, then lowered to see his friends and family, a closing point which reassures the reader that nothing terrible is going to happen here. After all, no-one seems particularly concerned except for Kirkyap himself. The boy's white hands of may initially seem to be in danger of being swallowed up by the darkness of Concrete's frame, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that the daylight remains and the path towards it is clear and easy to negotiate. Beyond Concrete's silhouette is a world as bright and safe as any Kirkyap's ever known, just as a fearless life awaits beyond his fear. All - "all" - he has to do is walk forwards.
|From The Grey Embrace, 1987|
|From Next Best, 1988|
Another device that can be associated with Kirby, as well as a literal host of other creators, is the comics triptych, a sequence of three panels which portrays changes in time against a relatively constant background. (TooBusyThinking discussed Kirby's use of the technique here.) It's a remarkably rarely seen approach in today's comicbooks, but Chadwick uses it in the very early Concrete short stories to great effect. In the first example above, Concrete, responding to being called "ugly" by the young women in the scene, retreats into the privacy of the sea. His humiliation is underscored by the loneliness of his trudge to the ocean, his alienation from everyday human affairs by the fact that his absence, though achieved through remarkable means, impacts upon the young woman barely at all. In the second triptych, the sleeping Concrete's sexual fantasies are interrupted by his splendid pooch, Tripod, a choice which brings home once again how utterly emasculated Ron Lithgow is, with his brain trapped in an entirely alien body. Poor Concrete, he can't even consummate his longings in his dreams anymore. The real world and the awareness it brings of his sexless alien existence intrudes even there.
|From Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, 1986|
|From Visible Breath, 1989|
One technique that Chadwick uses that I've rarely if ever seen before is that of presenting relatively minor events in very small panels. Instead of leaping from event A to event B, Chadwick often chooses to suggest the passing of time between the two in a way which neither slows the story nor over-states the importance of the events being shown. In the first example above, Chadwick presents a montage representing a week in which Concrete must endure constant experiments before being able to set out on something of a social adventure. The designs in the second and fourth panels of the sequence represent both Dr Vonnegut's attempts to make sense of Concrete's alien body and his longing to be free of the boredom and the intrusion. The key third panel suggests the slow passing of time, in the unhurried implied movement of the clouds and the shadows. In the second sequence, Chadwick shows Ron and Maureen's reluctant acceptance of Concrete's proposal that they pretend to be man and wife, in order to make getting a motel room easier. Nothing could be less like a man and wife than Concrete's two friends response to his suggestion, with the awkward silence in the second panel followed by the unenthusiastic agreement expressed in the third. Where other artists would either avoid such moments or allocate a disproportionate body of space to them, Chadwick finds a middle way which, despite the extra burdens it places upon his workload, ensures that his story expresses a considerably greater measure of subtly-expressed emotion than is typical elsewhere.
|From Straight In The Eye, 1987|
It could be argued that the Chadwick of this period is a far more impressive storyteller than an artist. Though already both an accomplished penciller and inker in the period during which Concrete was first published, Chadwick's pages still occasionally displayed minor problems with, for example, the fluidity of his character's movement. In the above sequence, it might also be argued that the depiction of the airplane is just a touch unconvincing; Chadwick's chosen to rely on form without embellishment and there are moments when the plane lacks a sense of solidity. Yet it's a minor problem, and the man's ability to think his way through an immensely challenging scene results in a considerable, if typically underplayed, triumph. Having set himself the task of describing two quite separate dramas in each subsequent frame, Chadwick succeeds in portraying both the plane's attempts to stay in the air while presenting Concrete's night-time plunge into a lake too. Not only are there two entirely distinct physical processes to be described in the last three panels here, but the meaning of each is different too. Concrete's fall is a lonely, inevitable tumble, and it seems to occur in an ominous silence. The plane, on the other hand, is twisting and pulling in order to right itself and escape the looming danger of the tree tops. It's progress is by contrast speedy, energetic and loud. Chadwick's brilliance here can be seen in the way in which each of the two situations not only co-exist, but compliment each other. Concrete's disappearance under the waves, for example, is matched with the plane's final escape from the scene, meaning that his lonesome mission carries a sense of an even greater isolation.
- The post on Paul Chadwick's Concrete can be found at Sequart by clicking here.
- Paul Chadwick's Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-9, in the larger format, is out of print, but it's available at reasonable second-hand prices. However, the complete Concrete stories, long-form and short, are currently being collected in a smaller format by Dark Horse. Five volumes are now available, starting with Depths - 1593073437 .