Writer Rick Remender and artist Greg Tocchini have similar strengths and weaknesses so that some aspects of their comic Low are run-away awesome, but the misses are also compounded. The book tries hard to be aggressively, intimately human. Yet so far, everything machine, piscine, infrastructural, or geological is far more enjoyable than the portrayal of humans in this story.
This story is about the Caine family, which lives in a large domed city on the ocean floor—because the sun is expanding, and the earth’s surface has long been uninhabitable. Before long, the ocean floor will be as well. There is still faint hope that probes will return with word of other planets where humans could live.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of some enticing world-building in the first two issues. Remender alludes to history, class issues, mythology, technology, and geography. Hints dropped include “hunting ancient rattle traps,” “no response from a probe,” “looking for the third city.”
Just as Remender gives us a sense of his story’s broad scope, Tocchini conveys the physical depth and scale of a city of two million people way down in the ocean. He shows the brightness of the city’s architecture and its grooved, rounded interiors—and then contrasts that with the starkness of the seafloor and trenches outside the dome. Tocchini makes us feel like we are deep underwater with dark reds and blues, but he stays away from the distortion of overt wateriness. The submarines and the deepwater fish resemble each other in their primordial spookiness. The Caines’ giant, flippered mech suit for hunting large prey is a total delight to look at. The suit is drawn in a boldly impressionistic style, like a biology student’s sketch of a crustacean. We don’t get a close visual lock on its pieces, but we get thefeeling of how it works, and how powerfully it could move through the water.
When not in their wonderful mech suits, the people are weak and incomplete like hermit crabs. What’s meant to be pages spent building characters feels like fluttery noise to me, with nothing coalescing into a sense of real people. The heavy-handed use of themes, the flurry of dialogue, the stage-acting facial expressions loaded into sketchily drawn features—it doesn’t add up to people I can know and like. They are all the same apricot flesh-tone of the old Crayola crayon box. They lack eyebrows. Their faces are like dolls, or like the illustrations in a high school Spanish workbook, smudgily drawn in a way that makes them look cheerful but untrustworthy and unreal. Their faces look trapped in old newsprint advertisements for housewives.
The story begins with cheesy Happy Family Porn. By the end of the second issue I had not yet forgiven anyone for it. At the beginning of the first issue, the Caines—husband and wife—are strolling and lolling about naked after sex, engaged in leisurely, loving disagreement, displaying enormous smugness. I was immediately grossed out. This scene is so thick with words, so syrupy with facial expressions, so overt and drippy and intensely irritating. When the children are added, in later (clothed) scenes, it just gets that much worse. Their dad gives the daughters special stones that will glow when they are being true to themselves. Their mom says “If we believe we will, then we will. Our outlook shapes reality.” Their dad says “Those who act bravest are often most frightened.” And it’s all interlaced with everyone being teasy and sarcastic with each other. JUST LIKE A REAL FAMILY!! Oh yay, good job Caines. You’re adorable. Gag me with a wooden spoon.
Then it turns out these moments of Happy Family Porn are the last this family will ever have. And this head-over-heels tumbling from the heights of earnestness to the lowest lows is bathetic. Into the depths this thing goes. Happy Family Porn is replaced by escapist, drug-fueled sex with prostitutes in alleyways. It’s ten years later. It’s grim. Two of the kids are still missing and the one that’s left is a corrupt cop. He was the gentle one as a child, and now he says “Hey Mom” into his phone as he shoves the prostitute away with his palm smashed into her face.
We’re only two issues in, so maybe the good stuff in Low has a shot at drowning out my aversion to the faces. It seems like Remender and Tocchini can get everything right about how a PLACE feels. But when it comes to the characters, Remender doesn’t seem to know when to hold back and let less be more. Tocchini’s style of drawing faces obviously just annoys me, and maybe no one else feels that way. When it comes to the themes, well—I’m not sure I can keep reading this thing if it keeps beating me about the head with them.