Punches in Bunches: Paul Chadwick's Concrete: Three Uneasy Pieces


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Collecting three short stories from Dark Horse Presents, Chadwick’s latest one-shot reminds us all what being a real hero is all about.

In the world of comics, there are heroes and then, there are heroes. Often, we allow ourselves to be swept away by wild flights of fancy, high adventure, and huge blockbuster crossover events. This is all well and good – after all, comics have always been (and always will be) an exercise in playful escapism. Despite a grim and gritty turn in the last few decades, for the most part, comics like all vehicles of artistic expression, provides its audience with an escape hatch, a rabbit hole, through which we can travel to strange, exotic worlds, leaving the mundane drudgery of our daily existences behind for a few precious panels.

So concentrated on our own escape from the every-day, we sometimes lose sight of the things in life that really matter: family, trust, love, and community. I had a high school sociology teacher who put it this way: “It’s okay to fantasize or daydream or while away an afternoon in a world of your own making. Just make sure you come back, every once in a while.” Just because we need a break from the rat race, doesn’t mean we have to halt higher thought processes. Unfortunately, more often than not, modern comics publishers, eschew discussing the philosophical, not to mention practical, ramifications of a typical superhero slugfest, in favor of putting on a glitzy show for the teeming masses, who seem to only want more of the same-old, same-old.

First published over twenty-five years ago in the original run of Dark Horse Presents, Paul Chadwick’s everyman superhero comic Concrete has consistently challenged its audience to redefine its perception of the archetypal superhero. The same era saw the emergence of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and that high watermark of the graphic narrative, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, two seminal works that also questioned the relevance of the modern superhero. Yet, whereas Moore and Miller worked within the conventional boundaries of traditional comic books, Paul Chadwick was thinking a little further outside the old longbox.

Despite an origin steeped in extra-terrestrial mystery, ever since its inception, Concrete has distanced itself from traditional superhero fare. More akin to classic adventure strips in format, style, and structure, Chadwick’s new age Frankenstein’s Monster more often finds himself facing off against social evils and irate girlfriends rather than megalomaniacal supervillains. In fact, since his origin story, there have been no supernatural or super-normal elements in any of Ron Lithgow’s adventures as Concrete.

In Three Uneasy Pieces, Chadwick continues this winning formula, presenting a trio of short stories that cleave to the heart of his reluctant hero. Firmly grounded in reality, these are tales with consequences exploring timely, relevant themes sometimes drawn from the headlines we routinely forget or ignore moments after reading them. From the Eisner-esque opening act, in which Concrete inadvertently foils a crime of passion, while ruminating over his own strained relationship, to the middle piece forcing Ron to reconsider his alien origins and uncertain future, to the final chapter, where he invents an unexpectedly successful alternative to police Tasers called the Hugger (TM no less), Chadwick reminds us there are no limits to the positive impact a caring, thoughtful, selfless person can have on their community, on their society – even if their brain hasn’t been transplanted into a nigh-indestructible stone body.

And this, I would argue, is the governing theme of Chadwick’s groundbreaking character. While most of his mainstream contemporaries allow themselves to be dragged down to their adversaries’ level, resorting to violence and widespread destruction to win the day, Concrete’s methodology is much more thoughtful, restrained, and ultimately effective than say Batman’s one-time-only exception to his no-guns rule in the pages of Final Crisis. While Morrison’s brilliant end times epic plays into the adolescent power fantasy comics have typically been chained to for most of their history, Chadwick’s everyman protagonist refuses to compromise his morals when the going gets tough. Who knows how any of us would react when faced with such extraordinary situations as those found in the funny books but at the end of the day, I like to think most of us would take the high road, rather than set aside our beliefs in a moment of crisis.

With Concrete, Chadwick challenges us to revisit our own beliefs about the thematic possibilities of the graphic narrative yet he refuses to make our choices for us. Each of the stories in Three Uneasy Pieces are left open-ended, as Concrete is left to ponder the reality of his extraordinary life. There are no easy answers to any of the situations Chadwick explores, something we’re all familiar with in this digital age of media overload and high stakes politics. Heck, most of the time, uncovering the real issue lurking beneath the ten-second sound bite is the real challenge.

With the straight-ahead robustness of a pugilist working a crisp 1-2-3 combination, Chadwick delivers another thought-provoking KO with this return to his timeless, timely hero with a conscience; opening the door for a new generation of readers to discover what it truly means to be a hero.

Concrete: Three Uneasy Pieces, Paul Chadwick (W/A). Dark Horse Comics, one-shot, $2.99. On sale July 18, 2012.

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