Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: Low, by Rick Remender & Greg Tocchini (Issues 1-12)

I've never been a comic book reader, though I do enjoy a good graphic novel, but recently a friend of mine has introduced me to some interesting series, such as Saga and two series by Rick Remender: Black Science and Low. Low is a work of science fiction that is also a play on its title - both "low" in terms of the setting being in the depths of the ocean and "low" in the sense of a feeling of depression. In fact, based on Remender's own admission, the work seems to be something therapeutic for him, something to help him look at life in a more positive light. Hence the focus on his main character's optimism amidst a world filled with hopelessness. In terms of the story and the science fiction ideas, Low is a great read, though one that is bogged down by a simplistic distinction between optimism and pessimism that permeates much of the character dialogue.

The series thus far centers around the fates of the Caine family, who are apparently important and powerful. Their genetic makeup allows them, and only them, to control a powerful machine (one whose power becomes apparent only later on) that helps fend off pirates. Stel and Johl Caine are the mother and father of two daughters and one son. Stel and Johl have opposing ideologies - hers is much more optimistic and his falls in the line of pessimism followed by most other people. They disagree about how the world works and how their children should turn out. Johl wants his daughters to follow in his footsteps as a protector (his son has already made up his mind not to do this), while Stel is convinced the girls want nothing to do with this line of work. She's wrong, but perhaps Johl should have listened more closely. As he takes the girls and Stel in the waters on a ship, pirates overtake them and kidnap the girls and, well, I won't say what else happens, but it sets in motion the events for the rest of the series.

Issue one, for me, wasn't great. I had trouble getting involved in the story. I had trouble deciphering the artwork. I really didn't care about the philosophical battle between optimism and pessimism. However, as soon as I began reading issue two, my misgivings (mostly) disappeared. I was engrossed by the focus on the aftermath of the kidnappings - what happened to the son, Marik, and to his mother. There is a surprising emotional power to the story. This is not a story that cares about action as much as it does its characters. Characters die, yes. Remender would do George R. R. Martin proud. But Remender causes readers to care for his characters. I won't spoil a thing, but issue six was the emotional high point of the series so far and nearly brought me to tears.

The world as well is intriguing. It's a post-apocalyptic world set in the depths of the ocean because the radiation on the surface is too much. Probes were sent out to seek out a habitable planet, and part of the plot involves the return of one such probe, an improbable return when the community Stel and Marik live in is running out of usable air. The world is very fun to explore, with lots of fantasy elements and vast amounts of communities isolated from one another by the ocean waters. It is in these other communities where we again meet back the daughters, and they turn out to be the most badass characters of all.

If I take issue with anything, it is Remender's self-help attitude from Stel. Her optimism becomes the focal point of many conversations, with almost every character taking some sort of issue with how much hope she has, as though her hope is an affront. The problem is the simplicity in which this is handled. There is no nuance - characters either have hope or they don't. And this optimism also serves to make Stel the flattest and least intriguing character of the Caine family. I know a lot of readers will disagree, as each issue is filled with letters to the publisher, many explaining how Stel's optimism has inspired them. I don't take issue with Stel being an optimist. I take issue with the fact that the story falters and stales when the discussion turns to her optimism and how one's internal state of mind can shape the external world (something straight out of a self-help book). The rest of the story is excellent, but I could do without the simplistic take on optimism.

I mentioned earlier having trouble with the artwork when I first began reading the series. That changes. I grew to find the artwork very appealing. The art has a style that adds to the series' appeal. It's not a realistic approach to comics, nor a cartoony approach, but it's a perfect fit for the story. The level of violence can get gruesome, especially one early act of violence, and the nudity sometimes feels gratuitous. I don't mind that the series begins with us seeing Stel nude, as it happens in an appropriate context, but it doesn't make a lot of sense when, later on, one of the daughters is involved in a gunfight with her breasts exposed the whole time. Why? How? Perhaps Remender and Tocchini are aiming for woman power, bare the breasts, but if that's the case, why not just bare them all the time? Not that I'm aiming accusations of sexism or anything. Low has some of the strongest, most badass female characters in any story. Between this and Saga, I think I have become hooked on comics.

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