Monday, November 27, 2006

Rock Bottom
Joe Casey & Charlie Adlard

For a while now Joe Casey has been quietly building a career as one of the most versatile writers in comics. It probably helps that he never reached the level of popularity that circumscribed the careers of many of his peers. He's written a few popular comics but many unpopular ones as well. This has enabled him to settle into a satisfying career as a dependable mid-list writer, highly respected but by no means a marquee attraction. Thus even when he's writing books like Avengers and Fantastic Four he can still devote a sizable amount of effort towards independent work. I can't begin to speculate which is more fulfilling, but just the fact that he continues to hoe parallel fields when he could easily have abandoned publishers like AiT/Planet Lar for (no doubt) greener pastures speaks volumes. So many creators of similar stature seem to be more concerned with signing exclusivity deals than producing more personal work - not my place to castigate anyone for the kind of work they choose to pursue, but as a consumer and a critic it is still slightly disappointing that careers like Casey's are more and more a rarity*.

Rock Bottom is, at least on the surface, a familiar story: the idea of a man turning or being turned into rock has a long pedigree in comics, all the way back to the Thing and it, The Living Colossus and Concrete (although, of those three, you can probably guess which one is least fondly remembered - hint: it's the same one who got crushed to powder by the Hulk). The volume at hand tackles the question, albeit from a different angle: whereas the Thing and Concrete are essentially forced to make their peace with their conditions, living lives that have been fundamentally altered by their transformations, the protagonist of Rock Bottom is faced with a slightly more pressing predicament. Thomas Dare wakes up one day to discover that he is slowly turning to stone. There's no cure for this condition. It can only be fatal.

Dare hasn't lived a particularly good life. He is filled with regrets and surrounded by loose ends. As the end comes, he is given cause to reflect on his own fatherless upbringing, and how his situation - both medical and moral - reflects that of his long-dead father. How much of a person's life is dictated by their heritage? Of course, this would be a wonderful opportunity for Dare to rise above his own limitations, to use his final days to become something better - but Casey resists the temptation, for the most part, to wrap the story in some kind of redemptive arc. The "message", as such, is far less upbeat, but in its own way more reassuring: regardless of the ways they live their lives, the casual cruelty and neglect with which they inflict each other, people still contain the potential for kindness. Reality is often messy, filled with ambiguities and uncertainties - but at least we contain the potential to rise above our circumstances if given the opportunity.

For the most part, Casey succeeds by remaining close to the proverbial ground. There are no cosmic explanations or weird plot twists, this is essentially the story of a man in his final days, attempting to face an inevitable end with some modicum of dignity. Dare isn't a saint and he leaves life with more than his share of regrets. Casey overreaches in the book's final act, pushing for a far more cosmic resolution than the story perhaps called for. Undoubtedly the ending is much more in line with how such events would actually play out in the "real" world, but ultimately it's more than a little unsatisfying to see Dare's story subsumed by the demands of ostensible reality. Thankfully the last few pages regain the book's equanimity, allowing Dare and the reader to leave with something resembling grace.

Although he's been one of the industry's best-kept secrets for quite some time already, Charlie Adlard's work here represents perhaps the best of his career. Like most all AiT/ Planet Lar books, Rock Bottom is presented in black & white - interestingly, Adlard has chosen to work exclusively in fine ink lines, with a line so even and unvaried that it could have been produced by a technical pen. There is no cross-hatching, no spotted blacks, just black lines on white paper - with the sole exception of the creeping graytones of Dare's petrification. It's a pretty ballsy move, considering everything that could have gone wrong: a black & white page relies on balance and contrast much more so than a color page, and unvarying line weights can blend together without the leavening influence of color. To his credit the composition is never anything less than crystalline in clarity. The effect is peculiarly clinical, framing Dare's story in as unsentimental a context as possible.

This is not a happy story or even a very sympathetic story, but regardless of a few extraneous detours it is most importantly a surpassingly human story. It is definitely significant achievement for all involved, and a resounding rssponse to any who had written off the publisher after recent setbacks.

*Props to Peter David and Brian Michael Bendis, however - two of the most mainstream of mainstream writers, both of whom have also pointedly kept their toes in creator-owned work. The opportunities are there for those who seek to pursue them.

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