by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "C" Page 3

The Complete Peanuts, vol. 1 (1950-1952)  2004 (HC) 344 pages


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: published in oblong format; intro by Garrison Keillor; biographical essay about Schultz; reprinted interview with Charles Schultz.

Published by Fantagraphics Books

The Complete Peanuts -1950 to 1952, from Fantagraphics, begins an ambitious publishing project reprinting the entirety of Charles Schulz's landmark comic strip from its beginning to its end in 2000. At two volumes a year (the next one is due towards the end of 2004), it is expected to take twelve years to complete. Most anyone who has ever glanced at a newspaper (at least in North America) has been exposed to the exploits of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and his various friends. Even after Schulz's death, the strip continues to be circulated -- not continued by other talents, but simply rerunning episodes from Schulz's 50 year canon. Most people already have an idea in their own mind as to whether they like Peanuts or not. As such, with a book like this, the presentation, the so-called "bells and whistles", are as much a selling point as the strips themselves.

With that being said, a consideration of the strips is not without merit. The gimmick here is that this is every single daily and Sunday strip, in proper chronological order. Some of these strips have been included in other Peanuts books, but some haven't been published since they first graced a newspaper almost 55 years ago. Part of the fun here, aside from the humour itself, is watching the development of the series, the gradual introduction (and phasing out) of familiar characters, the evolution of Schulz's art style, and more.

Peanuts has always been a varied series, moreso than many. Some gags are observational, deriving humour from the everyday, while others veer off into surrealism; some are wordplay, others slapstick; some induce genuine chuckles, others more a simple smirk; some strips are barely jokes at all, aiming for a more cloying or maudlin reaction. All that is in evidence here, with the contrasts perhaps even sharper than later when Schulz would be more sure of his formula. But even in these early strips Schulz employs character-based humour -- jokes that are amusing largely because of our understanding of the personalities (Schroeder and his musical obsessions being a prime example). I wouldn't say there are too many other funny strips that do the same. The irony is that Schulz, in an interview at the back of the book, seemed to feel his humour was more situational than character driven.

The intriguing thing is watching the characters evolve, to realize they started slightly younger than they became (even Charlie Brown begins as a pre-schooler). Lucy is introduced as a youngster, still sleeping in a crib, and by the end of this volume, Linus still hasn't learned to speak. Whether Schulz planned to age his characters, or whether he just felt more comfortable writing them as precocious children, rather than toddlers, is unclear. Snoopy is a semi-realistic puppy (and an awfully cute one) rather than the anthropomorphized, thinking character he would later become. In other ways, the series has remained so timeless that it's fun to spot occasional period allusions, like Charlie Brown listening to a radio drama.

The familiarity one has with the characters adds an extra layer of nuance, as if you're reading an unfolding saga, rather than a collection of unrelated gags. When Lucy first refers to having a kid brother, the reader can't help but feel a tingle of foreknowledge, knowing that this is the first introduction of Linus -- albeit, unseen and unnamed.

Reading the strips themselves, the humour remains intact. Obviously, there is hit and miss, particularly later in the book when Schulz seems to be going through a cloying phase, but the chuckles, often oblique, are there from the get go. There can be an appeal to a collection that reading the strips on a daily basis lacks -- if a gag falls flat, you have but to glance down at the next one. There is also an insulating innocence to the series that makes it an agreeable relief from the realities of today -- the Peanuts gang are unfamiliar with terrorism alerts and global poverty. Losing yourself in their world is its own comforting security blanket.

Peanuts has been collected and re-collected many times over the years (there are even concurrent, rival collections in the store). So is Fantagraphics offering something extra?

This is the "complete" Peanuts, which will certainly be a plus to those eager to watch the series evolve. My main quibble is that the Sundays are presented, like the dailies, in black and white. If it's going to be the definitive Peanuts, colour for the Sundays would definitely be in order.

The book contains an introduction by Garrison Keillor, an author who hails from Schulz's home state of Minnesota; a thoughtful essay on the strip and its times by David Michaelis; and a re-presentation of an interview Schulz gave in 1987. It's a frank, lengthy interview, providing telling insight into Schultz, his views, and his life, presenting a man who is both likeable but also, curiously, a little bitter, sometimes over seeming inconsequential things (still chafing at the title "Peanuts" itself, which wasn't his choice) and remarkably sure of his opinions (explaining all the creative "mistakes" that were made with Superman). There's also an index allowing you to zero in on key moments and signature gags -- which, with over 600 strips reprinted, is extremely useful. All are enjoyable and provide various insights either into the strip itself, or into Schulz.

What's missing is an analysis of the strips actually reprinted in this volume. Peanuts has been embraced by those who see in it a greater meaning than simply whimsical gags involving erudite children with interests beyond their years. The 1950s saw writers in various fields -- Miller and Osborne in theatre; Serling and Chayefsky on TV -- lancing the boil of middle class conformity, revealing a suppuration of broken dreams and seething anxieties, while psychoanalysis was becoming Western Civilization's new confessional. The arrival of melancholic, neurotic Charlie Brown into this mix might seem inevitable, but he's also seen as a daring characterization to have been attempted in the daily funny papers in the climate of state sanctioned optimism of 1950s America. Edgy stuff, in its way, and reflective of Schulz's own deep rooted anxieties. Even the packaging of this book, with the dustjacket a brooding mix of black and Red Ochre seems more appropriate for a collection of Maus.

But the catch is: that's not wholly evident in these early strips. Even Michaelis suggests in his essay that it wasn't until 1954 that Peanuts truly came into its own. This earlier Charlie Brown is more carefree, more confident -- he even has girlfriends! He is prone to his share of disappointments, but that seems not to be the defining nature of the character (though towards the end of this collection trade mark exclamations like "I can't stand it!" are uttered with greater frequency). Which, perhaps, adds to the melancholia -- as we see a Charlie Brown before life's iniquities wore him down. But I would've enjoyed seeing someone take an analytical eye to these early strips, rather than analyse the series it has yet to fully become (surely those can be saved for later volumes). What do scholars, more thoughtful than I, make of certain intriguing quirks and idiosyncracies in these earlier strips?

The series commences as an ensemble, focusing equally on Charlie Brown, Patty (not the much later Peppermint Patty), Shermy and soon Violet -- the latter three would gradually become sidelined in favour of more colourful personalities. And there's Snoopy, though in these early strips, it's not entirely clear whose dog he is. Why is Charlie Brown named in the very first strip...while the others are only named weeks later? There's no other indication that he is meant to be any more important than Shermy or Patty. And why is he always referred to as "Charlie Brown"? Never "Charlie"? The others are known by their first names. What is the significance, creative, thematic, or sociological, to the fact that he is forever married to his surname even when addressed by friends? After lending his own name to the character, did Schulz feel uncomfortable writing about a character named "Charles". Did calling him "Charlie Brown" provide a protective distance? Even the choice of surname is curious given that there was a famous early 20th Century strip about a precocious child called "Buster Brown". Other points to ponder are the fact that the strip is generally told from, and sympathetic to, the children's point of view. Yet when Lucy is introduced, as a toddler speaking in stilted sentences, the gags with her frequently seem to stem from an adult/outsider point of view, as though Schulz is being inspired, not by insider recollections of his own childhood, but as an adult, perhaps observing his own children (a recurring gag with Lucy calling her father from her crib being an example). And why was it that Lucy aged and, ultimately, supplanted Patty who was, in many ways, her spiritual predecessor?

The Complete Peanuts, naturally, lives up to its name (absent colour aside) and with the extras of essays and indexes makes for a nice little tome on the shelf. But for a work that is intended to stand as THE Peanuts collection, presumably for eternity, commentaries focusing on the strips in each volume, and their place in the greater Peanuts legacy, might have added just that extra touch of insight and meticulousness.

The Complete Concrete  1994 (SC TPB) 320 pages

Written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick.
Letters: Bill Spicer. Editor: Randy Stradley.

Reprinting: Concrete #1-10 (1986-1988)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Geary Gravel.

Suggested (mildly) for mature readers

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Paul Chadwick's unusual hybrid of introspective human drama, slice-of-life comedy, and fantasy-heroics began as a series of short stories published in the anthology comic, Dark Horse Presents. Then the character graduated to his own, full length comic, the entire run of the which is collected in this over-sized, black and white compilation. Subsequently, Chadwick would present the adventures of his titular hero in a series of mini-series, such as Concrete: Fragile Creature and others (and the original short stories have also been collected in a TPB).

The concept behind Concrete is that a mild mannered nebbish and writer finds his mind trapped in a huge, largely impervious, rock-like body. The down side? Obviously, it affects his whole life, hobbling his ability to interact with others, even forcing his whole lifestyle to be altered to accommodate it (like sitting in a chair made of cinder blocks because he'd crush a regular chair). The plus side? He is almost invulnerable and can use his new-found prowess to live the life he always wanted to do, emulating his personal hero, the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, by attempting grand feats and, as a writer, chronicling them. With his sidekicks, personal assistant, Larry Munro, and the government scientist, Maureen Vonnegut, assigned to study him, Concrete sets out on various "grand" adventures, such as swimming the Atlantic, or climbing Mt. Everest, as well as smaller jobs such as hiring himself out as a body guard to a rock star, or helping a poor farming family out around the farm, as well as simply dealing with the peculiarities of his strange condition (such as a sequence where his body starts growing horns, and no one's sure how, or why, or what to do about it). Compounding all this is that Concrete is forced to live a lie. To the world at large, he is the only survivor of a U.S. government experiment in creating cyborgs, but the truth is radically different, a truth that is fully detailed part way through this collection.

I had previously read the later TPB collection, Fragile Creature, and reading this earlier collection my feelings toward the series remain pretty much the same. It's an easy series to like.

Chadwick's subdued, realist, and meticulous art suits the work perfectly, grounding the bizarre fantasy of a giant stone man in an instantly recognizable reality. And when Concrete undertakes his more ambitious feats -- like swimming an ocean -- Chadwick's art allows us to be right there with him, whereas another, more stylized art style, might never let us share as fully in Concrete's adventures. And the character design for Concrete himself is sublimely perfect. Interestingly, the concept behind Concrete would seem to be the wish fulfilment of a couch potato -- and it is, for us the readers. But appaarently Chadwick himself has led a more adventurous life (including mountain climbing), which perhaps lends that extra touch of verisimilitude to some of the sequences.

In Concrete, Chadwick has created an enduring, endearing, compassionate hero -- a noble, yet vaguely tragic, everyman capable of extraordinary things. The stories cleverly mix the mundane and the larger than life, as heroic efforts often run up against the ignoble realities of, well, reality, as Concrete's great plans often go awry. The result is a series that is more real, and gentle hearted, than a super hero series...yet more flamboyant, and grandiose, than a simple slice-of-life melodrama. The various stories wander along at a gentle, unhurried pace, building occasionally to quirky, or ironic denouements.

At the same time, that's part of what keeps the series from being truly great. Chadwick clearly likes to thwart expectations, to present stories that don't necessarily wrap up with tidy, climactic resolutions. He's going for a supposed "realism". Yet the result can often lead to stories that seem a little too much like shaggy dog stories, that never quite build to anything. In a sequence in the story about swimming the Atlantic, Concrete encounters a derelict boat ala the legendary Mary Celeste -- but the story ends without his ever learning anything more about it. Once or twice that can be clever and challenging, leaving more unsaid than said. Do it too often, though, and it can become frustrating, and lead the cynic to wonder whether Chadwick just doesn't quite know how to deliver on his premises.

Not that I want to make it seem like the stories don't resolve, or leave threads dangling. I just mean that, as often as not, you can finish a chapter having genuinely enjoyed it...but vaguely dissatisfied. Character threads likewise can fizzle out. Throughout these stories Concrete and Larry both are a little romantically infatuated with Maureen Vonnegut. But nothing comes of it.

And for a book drenched in humanity and compassion, where Concrete and his friends are so well portrayed with humour and empathy, Chadwick fares less well at depicting supporting characters and guest stars. Actually, in the whole book, there's a surprising meanness, or at least cynicism, to Chadwick's world view. In the story about the rock star, for instance, Concrete starts to bond with his troubled employer...only to have him turn out not to be what he presented himself as. In another sequence, Concrete encounters some seemingly friendly East Europeans (this being back during the Cold War) who he is instantly suspicious of and, lo and behold, they turn out to be mean old spies. Nothing exactly surprising there, I'm afraid.

Yet with those flaws acknowledged, The Complete Concrete stands as an affecting series, at once funny, serious, melancholic and uplifting. With its "super" protagonist, it might appeal to those who like a little "super heroism" in their comicbooks...even as it might equally appeal to those who turn their noses up at "men-in-tights". Because, rock body notwithstanding, there are no costumed villains or world-shattering plots to be uncovered. Concrete is just a noble, but average man, with above average ambitions, who views the world as it is as quite enough of a challenge in itself.

Original cover price: $34.95 CDN./ $24.95 USA

Concrete: Fragile Creatures  1994 (SC TPB) 156 pgs.

cover by Paul ChadwickWritten by Paul Chadwick. Ilustrated by Paul Chadwick, with assistance from Jed Hotchkiss.
Colours: Elizabeth Chadwick. Letters: Bill Spicer.

Reprinting: Concrete: Fragile Creature #1-4 (1991-1992 mini-series) plus an eight page story ("Fire at Twilight", supplemental to the main story) that was originally published in an issue of Dark Horse Presents.

Additional notes: essay by Chadwick

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse, copyright Paul Chadwick.

Mature Readers

This has been released as both a colour and a black & white TPB.

Concrete was one of those things I'd heard a lot of good things about, but in a way that actually kind of put me off trying it. Y'know, all the wrong people (the intelligentsia) seemed to praise it for all the wrong reasons (it's "better" than that superhero crap the rest of us read). Eventually, I picked up this, one of the TPB collections about Concrete, a would-be writer trapped in a huge body made of, literally, concrete (apparently thanks to some aliens).

And it was quite endearing.

Despite the super-powers, Concrete isn't really a superhero saga. There are echoes of superherodom in that Concrete is a decent guy, even an idealist at times, it's just the story doesn't put him in situations where he can battle villains or right wrongs. Instead, it's about muddling through life. It's a funny, wry, and compassionate comedy-drama. It's slice-of-life...except that it avoids the mundane because, after all, this is the "life" of a seven foot guy made out of concrete (he can't sit on regular chairs, etc). And, in this story, his life entails the larger-than-life milieu inherent in working on a movie set. It's a surprisingly comfortable marriage between the escapism that (most of us) like about comics, with the more down-to-earth reality to which some pundits feel the medium should devote itself.

The story has Concrete getting a job employing his powers behind-the-scenes on a low-budget SF/fantasy movie, the producers figuring he can save them a bundle in equipment and the like. Concrete joins the film crew and experiences ups and downs (some of it based on Chadwick's own movie experiences) as the movie hits funding problems, personality conflicts, and even sabotage. While in a sub-plot, Concrete's friend, Maureen, embarks on an affair with a scientist radical that could get her into hot water with the government officials who employ her to make a medical study of Concrete.

The dialogue is well written and witty at times, the realist art quite effective and moody. The colouring by Elizabeth Chadwick is nice, though sometimes whole scenes are presented in shades of one color -- but if there was a thematic justification for it, it escaped me.

The whole thing is just so darn...likeable.

However, after all is said and done, it's a bit...light weight. The plot is a little loose, perhaps because Chadwick was drawing too much on his own experiences, giving us little vignettes that never become much more. The story tries to get more heightened with a plotline involving sabotage, but it seems a bit haphazard, as if Chadwick threw it in to appeal to those of us crass enough to want a dramatic thread, but couldn't be bothered to put any great effort into it.

The back cover states: "movies are dreams. And a dream, like a person, is a fragile creature". It's easy to assume that "Fragile Creatures" will have greater meaning than just the precariousness of a film shoot, encompassing broader themes like the human condition. Easy to assume. Not so easy to confirm. There's a gentle, absorbing atmosphere at work, and Concrete is a well delineated character, but most of the supporting characters never quite become more than that: supporting characters. The people he meets are interesting, quirky, likeable...but don't move up from being people to appear in this scene or that, or to serve a plot point. When the story ends and Concrete attends a preview screening with these people he's worked with, Chadwick writes of the nostalgia, of the intensity of the emotion that working with a group of people in a pressure situation can invoke (anyone who's worked on any kind of short term project knows what he means) but because the characters weren't fully realized, he fails to entirely transfer that emotion to the reader. We enjoyed hanging with the characters...we just don't particularly miss 'em when they're gone.

This mini-series received an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series. It's an oddly endearing, warm hug of a read, even if Concrete lacks a little...weight.

Cover price: $22.35 CDN./$15.95 CDN.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma  2006 (SC TPB) 160 pgs.

cover by Paul ChadwickWritten and illustrated by Paul Chadwick.
black & white. Letters: Bill Spicer. Editor:Diana Schutz.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series

Additional notes: intro and afterward by Chadwick; covers; a couple of illustrated poems.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse, copyright Paul Chadwick.

Recommended for Mature Readers

Reviewed Nov. 2011

In many respects, Concrete is an anomaly in the comic book field -- although it arises from a mini-trend. That is, comics are so consumed by super heroes, and the expectation that that is what the audience is buying, that sometimes when creators try to branch out into other genres they try and tweak them to be friendly to the super hero fan. Comics like Ex Machina, which is first and foremost a political drama about a mayor -- except it's a mayor who is a retired super hero. Or even The Silencers, which takes a Godfather/mobsters milieu...except the hoods have super powers.

Concrete, though, may've been one of the first of these "hybrids". In its case, it's about a normal everyman who is kidnapped and experimented upon by mysterious aliens who transplant his brain into a cyborg body akin to concrete -- he's now super strong and largely invulnerable. A perfect origin for a super hero...right? Except Concrete isn't a super hero comic. Sure, crime and danger sometimes occur in the stories...but sometimes they don't. Instead it's largely a human drama, sometimes exploring the literal aspect of its scenario (Concrete is so big and clumsy he needs special furniture and appliances to get through the day) and sometimes the plots and themes could just as easily be about a normal flesh and blood hero.

Yet it can stand out from many other "slice of life" comics by virtue of a couple of points. One -- the art! I've sometimes remarked that the irony about creator owned, non-fantasy comics (that are often embraced by critics as more sophisticated and superior to super hero comics) is how the art is often...well, kind of rough. They may have the better, more adult scripts, but the art is often crude, or deliberately cartoony. The creators may brag that they've eschewed the easy money of drawing super heroes but, honestly, I doubt most could land such a gig even if they wanted. No such criticism could be made about Paul Chadwick who in fact got his start drawing mainstream super heroes. His art is detailed, and realist, atmospheric and clearly composed. And Human Dilemma may be his best work yet. The art, in short, is beautiful to look at.

Another way Concrete stands out (at least from some projects that come to mind) is that it can be political. That is, a lot of slice-of-life comics tend to be autobiographical in origin, the creators interested in simply exploring the intimate and human aspects of life and relationships (which Concrete does, too). Those that are political tend to be political in a historical context (depicting life in Nazi Germany or something). In Concrete, Chadwick sometimes explores broader social and political issues that are bigger than his characters. Concrete's background is that he was a political speech writer before his, um, mishap, and with his invulnerable body and notoriety, willingly seeks out bigger experiences, and champions causes, like environmentalism.

Concrete began, I believe, as a series of short pieces, then starred in a 10 issue series -- and since then has been published irregularly in various self-titled mini-series, of which The Human Dilemma is the most recent (though it was published more than half a decade ago).

In Human Dilemma he is approached by a rich industrialist who wants to hire Concrete as a spokesman for a new social initiative to curb over population -- a program wherein couples would be paid to pursue a life without children, even getting themselves sterilized. While Concrete weather's the critical firestorm such a proposal engenders from the political right, feeling a bit like his views are being lost (or misconstrued) in a barrage of counter propaganda, other plot threads bubble along, including cutaways to a psychotic misfit who is working himself into homicidal rage over the matter, as well as plots more close to home to Concrete and his friends. His aide Larry proposes to his girlfriend, then begins to have cold feet, while Concrete's relationship with his long time associate (the scientist studying his unique condition), the lovely Maureen, takes an unexpectedly sexual turn.

Oh, yeah -- there's sex, too. Concrete has always being a nominally "mature readers" comic, but not especially gratuitously so (at least in the stories I've read). Yet here there's considerably more nudity and sex than in previous stories. That's another way Chadwick maybe breaks with conventions. Sex has always held a dubious place in comics -- either the mild titillation of big breasted heroines in mainstream super hero comics, or blatantly erotic/porn comics which can veer into objectification, even misogyny, or the independent comics that treat sex as academic, or even slightly sordid. Yet with Human Dilemma, Chadwick unapologetically presents sex as...sensual. As mentioned, his art is realistic, and his women are beautiful (a theme of sensuality has permeated past stories, as Concrete collects erotic paintings). Yet it manages to seem oddly...wholesome. A necessary part of the story, and telling about these characters' lives, rather than gratuitous or exploitive.

The appeal of Concrete stories is, as alluded to earlier, its mix of the escapist-fantasy of a concrete hero (and celebrity -- most of us unlikely to be invited on network TV to discuss issues of the day), with otherwise fairly realist stories and dilemmas. Chadwick could've told a similar story about a normal guy acting as spokesman for a controversial idea...but the addition of the fantasy quirk makes it just a little more interesting, a little more off-beat, a little, escapism and kitchen sink realism rolled into one. And Chadwick's handling of scenes and dialogue, and characters, is rarely less than spot on -- even as he veers effortlessly from whimsy to pathos, witty comedy to serious drama...and even bursts of ugly violence. Concrete himself is a well realized, likeable personality -- thoughtful and introspective, yet not infallible, able to get out debated on the issues, and with his own shallow points. Chadwick wants to use the story to explore (or expound upon) themes of environmentalism and the dangers of over-population, without losing track of the characters or of telling a story. He presents an idea, through Concrete, yet it isn't one sided, and he shows the extremes on all sides, for both chilling...and comic...effect. His media satire bits are dead on (when we hear voices from the TV that are obviously supposed to be commentators/agitators like Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter -- even a David Letterman "Top 10" list sounds true to Letterman's show).

At the same time, as with other Concrete stories I've read, the nature of such stories -- without a "villain" to be fought, or an easy dilemma to be settled -- is they can kind of ramble to an end rather than satisfyingly build to a climax. And by trying to tie in some of the sub-plots to the main theme (Larry's cold feet about marriage and fatherhood, or a major occurrence with Concrete himself) they can feel a little too self-consciously contrived -- a little too convenient to the story. Even some incidences -- like a scene where Concrete and Maureen are present during an unexpected, and unexpectedly violent, bit of road rage can seem a bit too trivialized (I suspect real people would be considerably more shaken up).

Yet at the same time, the fact that most of the sub-plots do tie into the larger themes at least allows the story to feel like a self-contained work -- a graphic novel, as opposed to something where half the scenes seem extraneous, or of relevance only if you've read past Concrete stories.

In the end, Human Dilemma may well be one of the best of the Concrete series -- and the series overall is well regarded. It's thoughtful, without being boringly pretentious, juggling the bigger social issues with the, well, the human dilemma (as the title says), quirkily funny, and pensively dramatic, beautifully illustrated in black & white and, at times, sexy and sensual.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$12.95 CDN.

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