Becoming a monster’s not all bad, or so Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko assured us. The Marvel Revolution was in part founded on the premise that fantastical physical transformations will, at the very least, make life more hectic and interesting. Even the most grotesque of metamorphoses will bring with them, it seems, a life that’s seductively free from routine and purposelessness. At the very least, monsterdom offers the option of simply refusing to conform. Schools can be destroyed. Authority figures can be stomped. The work-place can be reduced to tomorrow’s pre-flattened building site. Things – whatever they might be – can finally be made to happen. The body warps and resets, and then there’s a life full of surprises, if not happiness or peace-of-mind, ahead.
Not so for poor Ron Lithgow. The aliens came, they placed his brain into a great cumbersome shell of a body built from what seemed to be stone, and then they disappeared again, never to return. 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. Even his new vulnerabilities would function as jeopardy-heightening weaknesses, with the threats posed by limb-removing grenades and concussion-causing hit-and-run drivers working to further spice up his new, combat-saturated life. With Lithgow even acquiring the franchise-friendly codename of “Concrete,” a career as a noble and yet suffering rock-covered super-person would surely seem to be beckoning.
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. Yet even if there were, it’s unlikely that Concrete would be interested in playing with them. (Few entirely sane human beings would be, after all.) 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. He sits and sleeps on furniture made of bricks (for nothing else can bear his weight) while he depends upon his friend and assistant Larry even to the point of opening up envelopes. 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. Once folks have made it past the shock of his appearance, he’s no more and no less interesting than you or I would be. His situation seems impossibly interesting, and yet his presence is, where most folks are concerned, no more fascinating than that of any other typical human being. He’s celebrity without charisma or achievement, he’s the remarkable without a purpose to serve or a context to be defined by. Scientists may find his new frame an endlessly enticing enigma, as Lithgow’s much-adored Dr. Maureen Vonnegut does, but Concrete himself is an ordinary man trapped in a freak show that’s all his own. Even his old life as a speechwriter has been taken from him. 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.
In this, Chadwick didn’t just throw out the wildly absurd traditions of never-ending super-conflict and perpetually world-threatening crises. He also pushed away the melodramatic extremes that have traditionally accompanied the behemothic transformation. Though the physical and situational similarities between Concrete and the likes of Marvel’s the Thing are, at first, hard for the comics reader to shake off, Chadwick displays no interest in having his title character express himself in terms of an excess of angst, rage, and tantrum throwing. Instead, Ron Lithgow deals with his situation with a mixture of resignation, bewilderment, bittersweet good humour, and private regret. In that, it’s not that Concrete is nothing but a critique of the super-hero comic; for in many ways, that’s the very least of the book’s appeal. But to the reader who’s used to the trope of the noble, order-serving monster, Chadwick’s stories become all the more fascinating because of the way in which they persistently contradict genre expectations. Concrete’s a super-strong and bizarrely imposing figure, and yet the reader can never forget that he’s been as fundamentally abused as it’s possible to imagine. His power rarely compensates for what’s been lost, and when it does, it’s mostly through means that are anything but violent and confrontational. Even though Concrete’s famous, he’s distinctly E-List; despite his fantastic abilities, he’s perpetually and profoundly adrift. 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?
There’s a painful and perpetual conflict between Concrete’s longing for a meaningful, fulfilling life and the identities that are continually ascribed to him by others. In the exquisite “Little Pushes,” for example, he’s invited to a Hollywood party in which he’s treated as either curiosity, Greek chorus, or commodity, and he responds by finally throwing his huge frame into the rose-covered swimming pool and soaking all present. In the absence of anyone else’s empathy, sometimes it’s all we can do to defiantly define ourselves as an unwelcome presence. Time and time again, Chadwick succeeds in illuminating the casual and unthinking prejudice that faces those who are visibly different in a society that takes conformity not just for granted but as a sign of kinship and even virtue.
As such, the character of Concrete works as a touching symbol of extreme physical and mental disability. For not only is Lithgow’s monstrous body quite obviously both different and disturbing; his very presence forces those around him to start thinking about the taken-for-granted assumptions of their lives. He is, through no fault of his own, often a demanding intrusion into the closed minds and comforting routines of everyday existence. Even to socialise with him requires special arrangements at the cost of tedious tasks and even risks. Can the transport and the floorboards handle his weight? Will the company appreciate his presence, or will they regard him as “gross,” as the young women in “The Grey Embrace” do? Will the likes of motel owners, as in “Visible Breath,” treat him as if he was less than human? For no matter how novel his appearance might be, Ron Lithgow himself is no more impressive and charismatic than any other typical human being. Whatever he has to offer as an individual is often more than cancelled out by the costs, both perceived and actual, of knowing him. For all the wonder that he embodies to the sympathetic mind, he’s no more than an average individual whose life has been absurdly swallowed up by an extreme measure of terrible luck. He can do remarkable things, but he’s a distraction rather than a star. For all that he has to offer, he is not one of us, and what that leaves him to be is one of Chadwick’s main preoccupations.
This short story form is perfect for transmitting the ubiquity of prejudice where difference is concerned. Each of Chadwick’s tender, charming, and yet often painful tales carries Lithgow into a different situation, and yet the same mix of low-level bigotry and insular disinterest works to limit his freedom and his happiness in each. In “Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous” (the very first published Concrete tale), his attempts to earn a living through a celebrity appearance leads to a manipulative housewife and a roomful of boisterous children waiting to be entertained for free. If he’s both different and a fixture in the press, it seems, it’s fair game to steal his time and abuse his trust. It’s a theme that pops up more than just once or twice. In the wry and moving “Next Best,” for example, Concrete finds there’s no-one who’ll spend time with him except for his loyal pooch, Tripod. By contrast, those rare moments of absorption which seem to stray in the direction of happiness tend to occur when Concrete is entirely alone and using the unique advantages of his new body. “Under the Desert Skies” finds Concrete sitting alone in the desert and writing long into the night, his marvellously powerful eyes allowing him to work by starlight, while “Water God” offers him a respite from mocking children with an hour submerged under the sea in a “secret world.” It’s in such moments, when his new body helps Lithgow pursue his own interests on his own terms, that Concrete comes closest to happiness.
Chadwick’s short stories are unarguably melancholic at their heart, but they’re always also good humoured and, ultimately, optimistic too. The very fact that Lithgow keeps striving to define for himself what his life might mean in the face of such mental, physical, and social difficulties projects the sense that defeatism is no answer to adversity at all. Furthermore, there are sweetly underplayed and yet telling moments in which Lithgow’s perseverance and fundamental decency results in his being incorporated into the affections of others. The frightened child is won over by patience and kindness in “Goodwill Ambassador,” the lost victims of a plane crash finally rescued, if not entirely unscratched, in “Straight in the Eye.” In the end, Chadwick’s first volume of Concrete short stories succeeds in presenting us with a likable, if hardly perfect, individual who’s managed to keep struggling to remain himself in the face of both apathy and antipathy. More than just a great deal’s been lost, and yet small and hardly insignificant victories have been won along the way too. Of the ranks of revisionist super-people of the Third Wave comics of the Eighties, it’s perhaps Concrete who was, in many ways, the most human and inspiring of them all.
There’ll be a post about Paul Chadwick’s art in the pages of Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-1989 going up at my blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics at the same time as this appears here at Sequart.