One of the mainstays of the 1980s independent comics scene, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete tells the story of Ron Lithgow (Concrete), a soft-spoken speechwriter whose brain has been transplanted into a hulking stone body by mysterious aliens (they are never seen again in the series).
Now he can see more than perfectly well in darkness, hold his breath for an hour, and survive leaping hundreds of feet from a search and rescue plane into a lake. In a super-hero book, a life of perpetual adventure would beckon. But the Concrete of Paul Chadwick’s Complete Short Stories (1986-1989) inhabits a world that is – his own anomalous existence aside – no different to that of our Earth in the long-past Eighties. There are simply no super-villains to fight or super-heroes with whom to quarrel, pummel, and / or bond. There are no supernatural or science-fiction elements to any stories.
Concrete paved the way for impassioned, reflective comic literature focused on realism. In the absence of any of the Sturm und Drang of the super-hero book, life itself proves difficult and dispiriting enough for Concrete. Even the most apparently minor and taken-for-granted activity is now a challenging business. Real-world physics apply to Concrete. Examples include Concrete breaking objects by sitting on them (he has to sit and sleep on furniture made of bricks), or Concrete being shot forward from a braking car, due to the momentum of his large body. He is constantly breaking telephones and doorknobs. He tries to use his body for noble endeavors, such as helping out on a family farm. Later, Concrete climbs Mount Everest, becomes involved with a group of hardline environmental militants, and reluctantly agrees to become the spokesperson of a campaign to voluntarily reduce the Earth’s population.
Wherever he travels, he’s inescapably marked out as utterly different, and yet there’s little beyond his otherness to mark him out as worthy of attention. Landlocked in a sexless body, reliant on his few intimates for company and support, Concrete hasn’t been liberated, let alone empowered, by the ordeal of his whole-body transplant. Instead, he’s isolated, alienated, and almost perpetually baffled.
Unlike the traditional monster in genre fiction, who has the choice of becoming one of us or staying one of them, of becoming a redeemed member of the community or not, Concrete has no physical peers of any kind to stand with or against. In that, he inhabits an unaccommodating world in which he’s neither definitively human nor super-human, hero nor villain. Concrete’s struggles, as a consequence, are fundamentally existential. In the absence of a comforting and appropriate label that might legitimise him in the eyes of the wider society, Ron Lithgow is forced to create a life for himself in a body that can’t even deliver the most basic of human functions. Not only is sex beyond him, but so too might even be death. Over and over again, Chadwick’s gently amusing and yet telling stories investigate the same dilemma: Who are we and what can we aspire to when we’ve no social identity beyond that of an aberration? (via)