Palpable Fantasy: Paul Chadwick’s Concrete
[Shawna Gore, now an editor at Dark Horse, wrote this piece for the program book of Foolscap, a literary-minded convention in the Seattle area, in 1999. It appears here with her permission –Paul]
I was thirteen, I think, when I first knew who Paul Chadwick was. Actually, let me qualify that—I was thirteen when I first knew who Concrete was. I had spent the early part of my childhood under the influence of my older brother, who is still an avid comics reader, and I remember the day he showed up after a trip to the closest comics shop with his first copy of Concrete.
There wasn’t even a comics shop in our rural hometown, so the one we frequented was a good twenty minute trip by car to the next town. After that first copy of Concrete my brother found—which was actually number four or five—we chanced upon issues only sporadically, since trips to the comics shops were so infrequent. But still, we were hooked. And, at the time, this was some pretty revolutionary stuff. Environmentalism hadn’t yet achieved the pop-culture cool status that came with the early 90’s and the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, but from the events depicted on the pages of this treasured comic, I was learning to think differently about how my actions affect the world we live in. And I was also learning a lot about human nature, which is something I’d never been able to say about a comic book up to that point.
One of the obvious reasons I took to Concrete as much as did was how much he reminded me of my brother. Like Concrete, my brother was a little too big for his own good. It was a trait that benefited him in certain instances—he was never the target of any bully’s attention—but I knew he often felt isolated because certain clothes didn’t fit him right and his feet were too big and clumsy for the high school dance floor. But I knew my brother for the intelligent and tender person that lived inside his “big lug” body. And for those same reasons, I came to know and care about Concrete.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many stories written by Paul that have been so intense and action-packed that I was compelled to read an entire graphic novel in one fevered sitting without taking the time to enjoy the art as much as I should (that usually came with the second and third readings). And I’ve read just as many that have made me tear up and feel the weight of his stone man’s emotional torment. Paul Chadwick doesn’t write stories that make the world seem like it’s an easy place to live. But he also doesn’t write about a world for which there’s no hope.
I think I’ve figured out one of the secrets to Paul’s success as a comic book creator, and it’s not a complex notion. What Paul does best is this—he devises a situation that is entirely inhumane and tries to approach it in the most human way possible. And ‘human’ in this case is the real thing—faulted , self-conscious, doubtful, apprehensive . . . and always determined to go on.
Whether it’s on the pages of Concrete, or his latest comics venture, The World Below, Paul’s work is not laced with the golden boys and girls that comics are typically known for, nor are his villains outlandish, caped criminal masterminds. He seems to relish the creative freedom it takes to create a situation where a man is kidnapped by aliens and his human body replaced by rock, or an entire mysterious world that is accessible only through its sinkhole entrance in rural Washington. But from there, the exceptional is the background for what simply becomes good human drama (laced with a good amount of excitement, always). Extraordinary feats are tackled by people with relatively ordinary capabilities—and that’s how the fantasy works.
This isn’t to say I’ve never enjoyed superhero comics, because the opposite is really true. I spent a big chunk of my life reading everything from Daredevil and Spider Man to Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew (hey, I was a kid!), and I found these unlikely adventures inspiring and very exciting. But at some point, most people want the fantasy to become a little more palpable—a little more applicable to his or her own life, and once I discovered that was possible, I’ve had a difficult time going back.
Luckily, this world of “palpable fantasy” needn’t be as dry as some would make it. Whether Concrete is walking on the ocean floor surrounded by sharks and manta rays, exploring the mysteries of his own foreign body, or making like a living steam shovel to save the lives of trapped miners, there has never been a Concrete story that’s been less-than-compelling. It’s like Paul is always composing stories as “thank-you”s for his fans. Pay close attention to a letter column he’s written sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.
Twelve years after I read my first issue of Concrete, I find myself in the fortunate position of working with Paul Chadwick on a professional level. As the publicist for Dark Horse, I get to collaborate with a number of my favorite comics creators, from Frank Miller and Gary Gianni to Mark Schultz and Mike Mignola. And while all of these people are gems to deal with, I know I can always look forward to talking with Paul. He’s a rare creator in that he takes as much responsibility for his own work as he expects others to take for theirs. And I’ve seen him “in action” at conventions, talking with readers, drawing Concrete at the request of fans, and listening to the inevitable kind words that come at the mention of his life’s work. He’s decidedly humble in these situations, but don’t let that stop you from saying hello.
If you’re fortunate enough to meet Paul at Foolscap, let him know you read his books. And let him know what they’ve meant to you. Creators like Paul are few and far between. We need to keep them going, so people like me can enjoy their work for years to come. I know that sounds selfish, but my world wouldn’t be the same without it.