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 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.

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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:

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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:

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But it’s ok.

Ditto for the Khans in Ms. Marvel.

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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.