Low #7: Don’t Worry About the Backstory, Baby

Low #7 Cover
The cover of Low #7, in which a robot polar bear is ridden and Rick Remender flirts with literary greatness.

I have been a sharp critic of Low, but I keep buying it because Greg Tocchini’s colors skate down all the reward pathways of my brain. Low #8 came out recently and I bought it too—but I haven’t even read it yet because I am still stuck on the beauty of Low #7. It’s a gem of a short story, and a true stand-alone issue: complete, self-contained, and able to justify its own existence. Other stand-alones between arcs shouldn’t even be called “stand-alones.” They should just be called “confusing interludes,” and then everyone would know what to expect.

Low #7 on the other hand, is the clearest and best issue of the series thus far, with fewer characters, less noise, and more digestible sincerity. It might also be the best thing I’ve ever seen from Rick Remender, period—he builds strong story bones and then stays out of his own way in Low #7. Tocchini adds strong action, expression, and color—but he holds himself back from accidentally turbo-powering Remender’s latent cheeseball factor.

Low #7.2

The story shows us one day in the life of two people: A high-ranking government official and her artist girlfriend. We don’t need to get to know anyone else. The story has only two locations: home in the morning, at work during the day, and home in the evening. There’s no narration, no thought boxes, no backstory pressed into dialogue. There are no flashbacks, no fancy cutting or jumping. World-building is kept to a minimum. All we need to know is that these two people love each other, and art is considered dangerous and illegal in this city-state.

It’s a utilitarian world we haven’t seen before—so the interiors are calm in the scenes with the women, and our eyes are held by their faces. Tocchini fills the panels with rusty reds, sea greens and whites, but makes the artist’s hair and garment a bright blue that tilts at a strange angle from the rest of the palette. It feels like a quarter tone of music, caught between notes, just a little jarring. It adds to our sense that she vibrates at a different frequency than both her lover and the rest of the city-state. The sexual tension between the women is palpable, but so is their everyday discontent with their lives and each other. It makes their love believable.

Low #7.1

The themes of artistic freedom and a totalitarian state are classic and played the usual way. In this case the newness is all in Tocchini’s wonderful details and in Remender’s one hundred little decisions to hold back and not hammer on the story’s big ideas. Instead he focuses on the feelings of the two women, keeping everything on a human level and forcing lofty themes through that lens. The story moves organically, moment to moment, glance to glance, taking its time.

In the middle pages, when the government official is terrorizing an underground printing press, the panels get more frenetic and busy with scuffles and bodies. Tocchini keeps these panels earthbound and physical as the scene deteriorates into a brawl. The panels narrow and shrink and then dash off the edge of the page, deepening the effect of a scuffle in dim rooms with low ceilings. He manages to give us the impression of a fight at the same time that he blocks the fight out for us like dance steps.

By the time we get to the story’s climax and last big struggle, everything… is … gut-wrenching. It is gut-wrenching in exactly the way Remender tries and fails to make things gut-wrenching in so much else that he does! Rick Remender, stop and notice what you did and how you did it in Low #7. Here you made us feel, just what you wanted us to feel. And we feel it hard.

Previous writings on Low:

Low #1: I’m Allergic to the People in Low

Happy Family Postscript: I feel bad for being mean about Low, and then I dig myself in deeper

Low #3: Low and Behold! (Now I Like Low)

Low #4: I’m not Mad, I’m Just Disappointed

Low #4: I’m Not Mad, I’m Just Disappointed

image

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.

LOW and BEHOLD

I like Low now (I objected to a few things about it here and then here). This is why you keep reading past the second issue, especially when there are sea creatures and mech suits involved.

Mammoth

The following review appeared over at Newsarama in the Best Shots column today:

Low #3
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Greg Tocchini
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini hit their stride with Low #3. Remender’s writing is expressive but not over-blown in this story of a woman and her adult son who have to work together to survive. Tocchini’s rich artwork takes us seamlessly from an indulgent, futuristic city to the terrifying depths of the ocean. Low #3 gives us a lush adventure story and is a good place for new readers to jump on.

For thousands of years, humans have lived deep underwater to escape dangerous levels of solar radiation. Time is up for the domed city, where the air and the culture have become equally toxic. Stel and her son Marik are on a last-ditch mission to find a probe that has returned to earth with information. The mission doubles as Stel’s intervention for Marik, who is a self-pitying, guilt-ridden junkie.

Tocchini’s art makes each of the issue’s four segments distinct but also lets the story flow from one to the other. He toggles between blue-green highlights in orange-dominated panels to orange accents on shadowy blues and greens. In the beginning scene, Stel interrupts a crowded orgy to ask a senator for a small submarine. Tocchini uses apricots, pinks and tans to create a blur of bodies melting into each other and into the draped cloth around them, and we register that the end is nigh for this city. By the end of the issue when the story opens back out to the ocean, Stel and Marik are small figures in orange suits moving through a dark blue expanse.

Remender’s writing is strong in this issue because he is manages the characters’ emotions well. In Low #3, he tugs on the readers’ heartstrings less violently but more effectively than he did in the first two issues. In the first issue, I thought he went overboard in showing us how happy the family was before tragedy struck. In the second issue, Marik’s dissolution felt jarring after the wholesomeness of the first issue. In the third issue, Marik’s problems make more sense against a backdrop of citywide hedonism — and we can see that he is just an ordinary self-centered addict. Stel’s mix of sadness and sweetness is tempered by her will to survive and her tough love for Marik. Their frustration with each other is on a level we can understand from real life, even though they are in an extraordinary situation. Now that they are confronting each other, they also balance each other. When they yell at each other we can understand why each one is frustrated, and there’s some catharsis that they are both getting yelled at.

The energy level of the issue keeps building until the visual release of Marik and Stel coming out of their small pod into the gorgeously painted ocean. Tocchini’s art really soars in this underwater world. As Stel watches Marik swim, she has a nuanced emotional moment that doesn’t feel sentimental or heavy-handed. Stel has been an emotional character from the start, but this issue let me feel things alongside her for the first time. With Low #3, Remender has proven that he can write about family dynamics. It feels like there is a long, satisfying adventure story ahead of us now, and new readers can jump on here and understand the gist of the story.

Happy Family Postscript

Yesterday I called the portrayal of the Caines in Low #1 “Happy Family Porn.” I think Remender and Tocchini did convey the ominous feeling that a very long honeymoon was about to be over. But from Remender’s own writing about the story, it seemed like he was trying to get us to care a lot about the family. And his efforts to make me care repelled me instead. Even after they weren’t happy anymore, my first impression lingered on that they were really annoying people with an unbelievable family dynamic.

image

Maybe there’s a general rustiness in depicting believable happy families of origin in comics. Comics, like children’s books, seem to exact a huge amount of orphaning. When families are still intact, they tend to be evil dynasties where no one can trust each other. The best family feeling comes from teams of adult misfits who have chosen to hang together. I think there are good storytelling reasons why it tends to be that way.

Being happy with a mom and a dad is just weird even in real life. A lot of us have families that DID bust up irreparably in real life, and you know what? It wasn’t all that hunky dory before the festival of estrangement and fragmentation.

So, I wanted to highlight a couple of families I really like in recent comics titles.

Laura’s family in The Wicked and the Divine:

image

They’re all kind of ignoring each other, but they’re also choosing to be physically near each other. The parents look kind of zoned out watching TV, plus they’re self-medicating with wine. But they’re sitting close together. They look comfy. So, this seems like a happy family.

Later they fight:

image

But it’s ok.

Ditto for the Khans in Ms. Marvel.

image

Mrs. Khan has had it with this convo. Mr. Khan’s big meaty forearm is in the air like “OK, let’s just table this guys.” But you know, everyone is fine. Mr. and Mrs. Khan are going to stay married. They’re just being strict with Kamala because they care and they’re good parents.

In both these cases, real disagreements (not cutesy snarky disagreements) are ok because these families aren’t going to fall apart. There’s no fragility…because these are, essentially, happy families. It’s not sugary sweet, but it’s real.