Damn it, Greg Tocchini, this is glorious.
Stel and Marik may have left the city of Salus, but Low hasn’t been able to outswim its own chintziness.
I wanted to like Low #4. The previous issue made a strong showing. Isolating the mother and son and putting them in a survival situation was good for a story that had been overly detailed and floundering in melodrama. But now that the story has been re-peopled and re-cluttered in Low #4, it just feels like a bodice-ripper nestled in some show-offy world-building. Writer Rick Remender gets in his own way, mixing copious exposition with overly colorful, unnecessary snippets of ambient dialogue. Greg Tocchini can and does make everything look gorgeous, but in this issue the feelings of the main characters are obscured by sexual mixed messages and ornate scenes of pirates doing gross things to each other.
The issue suffered for a number of reasons. Near the end of Issue #3, Stel and Marik left their isolated underwater city-state in a Hail Mary bid for their people’s survival. They had lived their whole lives there, cut off from other outposts. They didn’t even know if any other cities still existed, or where they might be. And then, right at the beginning of the very next issue, they’ve arrived at the fabled “third city.” It feels abrupt, like we were cheated of the journey and the suspense of not knowing whether they could make it. When they almost die in the first pages of Low #4, it’s too much crisis too early in the issue and throws off the energy heading back into the story. In Stel’s delirium as her oxygen levels dip, she soliloquizes again about her life philosophy and it feels repetitive and cheesy – especially for a life-threatening situation. It makes it hard to want her to stay alive. Themes and paradigms should not be parroted at us verbatim in word balloons.
My main gripe is with the intellectual dishonesty of Low. I saw all the nudity and sex before, but I just thought it was Remender and Tocchini being wacky. I thought Tocchini’s fun 1970s euro-porn flavorings made the book winkingly dirty but didn’t necessarily detract from Low’s earnest main themes of love, loyalty, family, optimism, and faith. I thought Remender would smooth out the rough spots and prove that he had the writing chops to bring the characters to the forefront and make us believe in their personalities and emotions. And that’s why Low #4 is so disappointing.
Remender has been spinning Low as a story with a strong female protagonist, where the main characters are part of a family, and family ties are important. In the first three issues I strenuously ignored a lot of the signs that the spin is crap. For instance, I glossed over a part in the third issue when it really seemed like a Senator strong-arm the widowed Stel into having sex with him in exchange for his help getting Marik out of prison. Remender and Tocchini seemed to enjoy putting Stel in a situation where coercive sex was on the table, but then they glossed over whether it actually happened or not. I glossed over it too, as a reader and a reviewer, because I thought it was a little embarrassing for the creators and I was focusing on other aspects of the issue. And of course, Marik was in jail in the first place because in the second issue, he accidentally killed a prostitute after having sex with her. Now that I’m typing this, I feel embarrassed that I didn’t already see that this whole storyline is a disingenuous excuse for pretty smut. I mean, there was a huge orgy in the third issue, and now in the fourth issue—in an entirely different city—there are also whole rooms full of hedonistic naked people. Some of them are killing each other, and there are some shackled sex-slave types casually getting killed execution-style. It’s distracting to say the least. Furthermore, Tocchini could have easily given us the gist of all the naked bodies, and peeing, and knives, and bestiality. Remender peppering in bits of dialogue in pirate-speak is just garish.
I’ve loved Tocchini’s colors, his interiors, his underwater scenes, and just the composition of his panels and pages. He’s the only reason I’ve made it four issues into Low. But he disappoints me as well, because his rendering of body language and facial expressions are complicit with Remender’s own bad judgment.
Here’s the last straw for me. In Low #4, we encounter Stel’s long-lost daughter Tajo who is now grown. Tajo is lolling about in a string bikini next to the evil pirate king who kidnapped her when she was about ten. This happened in the first issue and was a defining event for Stel and for this book. Any emotional charge we might feel at Stel realizing that her daughter is alive is drowned out by the weird sexual tension between Tajo and her kidnapper. Tajo is flopping about poutily in the underwater-city equivalent of a bean-bag chair, panel after panel. I think we are actually supposed to believe that there is nothing overtly sexual about how she lies around suggestively, getting called “my dear poppet” by her kidnapper, who she calls “father.” I’m pretty sure we are not supposed to think she has been groomed since childhood as some kind of highly favored sex slave for him, even though this book has been throwing illicit sex at our heads. There is an undeniable sex slave feeling to the situation, but no, the book has toggled dishonestly back to being about “family” and “loyalty.” Even without the May-December incest vibe that we are supposed to pretend we don’t notice (I guess??), it’s just gross for anyone to ever call anyone else “my dear poppet” with a straight face in a book. Any sort of book. It’s way too plummy.
Remender invested in Low’s emotional credibility. He hyped it; he marketed it to us. He almost got me to believe in it. Then he torpedoed it, and for WHAT. If I could gauge how emotionally dense he thinks I am, maybe I could calibrate myself to that level and keep reading Low. But the story is too inconsistent to get a read on. Tocchini is amazing, let’s face it, and Remender confuses matters by showing intermittent signs of being able to write. So I don’t know what the characters are supposed to believe, what I’m supposed to believe, what Remender thinks I’m capable of seeing, and whether I’m supposed to sort of be tricked into thinking one thing until later when there will be some kind of reveal and it will all finally make sense. My not-knowing does not take the form of curiousity. I’ve lost faith in these storytellers and their intentions. So good luck getting me to believe in the relationships inside Low when the creators can’t even establish a relationship with me as a reader.