Wait, didn’t I just do a roundup of my Image backlog yesterday? Yes I did, but this title is a special case. Though I’ve enjoyed a lot of comics that Rick Remender has written over the years, he’s also managed to write one that I gave up on after following it for a little while: “Fear Agent.” That was a morose, depressing yarn whose protagonist is ground down at every possible opportunity masquerading as a rollicking, two-fisted sci-fi action adventure story. Though it’s clear that Remender is bigger on grinding down his characters than building them up, he has managed to make that aspect of his writing just more palatable in his work for Marvel. Being reined in by the constraints of working in a corporate superhero universe likely means you can only grind down a character so far before you’re required to build them back up again, I suppose. It’s been a concern of mine that this aspect of his writing would overwhelm his Image titles. Fortunately “Black Science” and “Deadly Class” have managed to (mostly) dodge that particular bullet. Not “Low,” however. Amazing art aside, this title is pretty much everything I’ve been worried about seeing in Remender’s latest creator-owned work.
This series takes place in the distant future where the expansion of our sun has irradiated the surface and sent humanity down to the bottoms of the oceans to live out the rest of their days. It’s in this world that the Caine family lives, residing in the once-great city of Salus. They’re a proud, loving family of five led by their gregarious father Johl, ever-optimistic mother Stel, orderly son Marik, and energetic daughters Della and Tajo. It’s on a day like any other that Johl decides its time for his daughters to learn how to operate their family’s Helm -- a mechanical suit used to gather supplies for the city -- and so mother, father, and daughters head out for an undersea trip.
Faster than you can say, “Well what can go wrong with that?” they’re attacked by pirates. Johl is mortally wounded, Della and Tajo are kidnapped, and Stel is left to fend for herself on their damaged ship. Yet the mother survives and continues to hold out hope that her daughters will be found, even though these events turn Marik into an angry and bitter cynic. Hope arrives in the form of a long-lost interstellar probe that has crash-landed on Earth’s surface which may hold the location of a new planet for humans to call their home. Now it’s up to Stel to round up the means to find this probe and maybe even re-unite her family in the process.
Let’s start with the art because Greg Tocchini’s work is the best thing about this series. I’ve previously seen his work at Marvel on issues of “FF” and the “Otherworld” arc of Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force” run. It was different, but his computer-assisted art never left a strong impression on me with a lot of aspects from it feeling vague and undefined. In the years since, the man has clearly stepped up his game as the world of “Low” feels vividly realized on the page. The undersea cities, giant underwater craft, even larger marine life -- they all boast a distinct style to them that I enjoyed taking in. Tocchini’s work creates a credible, believable world that you want to see explored in as much detail as possible.
Much as I liked the art here, I realize that there are some people who may not be as impressed by the artist’s impressionistic approach at certain points. Tocchini isn’t a detail-oriented artist who will draw every single rivet and seam in this world, but provide you with enough detail to appreciate the majesty of any given scene. I’m not sure how many people will respond to it, but it’s certainly an approach which worked for me. Also, if you’ve got a thing against cheesecake in your art, then you may have a problem with certain parts of this volume as well. Tocchini is working in a style that rocks the swingin’ 60’s and that’s the kind of gratuitousness you can expect to see on display here.
I will also commend Remender’s writing insofar as he has come up with an interesting world and characters and knows how to write a good action scene. The opening scenes that feature the introduction of the Caine family and their world are probably the best parts of the volume. Running second would be the insane arena battle at the end when the action reaches its highest pitch and things start falling apart even more in Stel’s life.
That’s the crux of my problem with this series. Remender starts things off with an impassioned foreword about the genesis of “Low,” his experience with therapy, and struggle to become a more positive thinker. Stel represents the first overtly optimistic character he has written in his career and I was excited to read about her adventures after reading about her origins.
Regrettably, it appears that the primary use the writer has for Stel’s optimism is to put her through an increasingly awful gamut of setbacks and humiliations. Losing most of her family early on is bad enough. This should be where we see how she copes with this loss and builds herself back up. Instead, Remender skips ahead ten years and shows her carrying on without much change to her character, save for dealing with the trainwreck her son’s life has become. Then there’s the matter of what she has to go through to get a ship to explore the surface, the fate of said ship, the forgotten city she and Marik find their way into and the many, many depressing encounters they have there. What is less traumatizing: To have both your daughters taken away from you early in their lives, or to find one of them later only to see that she has become a brainwashed sex slave?
This is the kind of thing that the back half of “Low” is built on. Everyone is ground down by fate’s bootheel and even when you think that hope might spring eternal, something happens to let you know that there’s always a catch and that things may have been better off the way they were before. Stel may be the most optimistic character Remender has ever written, but he uses that optimism here as an excuse to pile on as much depressing drama as possible. It feels like he’s saying, “Hey, it’s cool! She’s not going to let all of this horrible stuff get to her! Stel’s an optimist after all!” It doesn’t work that way. Seeing the character suffer through all of what she does in the first volume essentially makes a joke of Stel’s personality.
In fact, most everything about this volume does a good job of making me more pessimistic. There’s a moment halfway through which really underlines this. Stel, after having found out about the crashed probe, goes to visit one of the city’s senator’s. He’s busy hosting an orgy because there’s no point in doing anything else as the city’s air is set to run out in six months. After pleading her case, the senator agrees to provide Stel with the ship she needs only after she agrees to “serve” him. We’ve cut to another scene at this point, but later on Stel tells Marik that she got the ship after a senator exposed his weakness to her and she applied pressure where she needed to.
I know what the conversation with Marik was meant to imply. That Stel crushed the senator’s nuts enough to get him to hand over the ship without turning over any sexual favors. Is that really the case? Stel may have just been paraphrasing things to her son to avoid dealing with the really nasty truth that required the narrative to cut away after the senator’s proposition. It’s a “glass half empty/half full” situation, and I can’t help but think the worst about it. Nothing in this first volume gives me any reason to be optimistic about it.
There you have it. “Low” is a beautiful book, put together well enough from a narrative sense and virtually undone by its need to grind down its cast for the sake of drama. It doesn’t have to work that way. Characters don’t have to constantly encounter setbacks which result in nothing but bad things happening to them to make a good story. Even if they do, pitching it at the right tone can actually make things quite entertaining -- witness the latest volume of Remender’s own “Deadly Class.” “Low,” however is a depressing read from beginning to end. After this volume, I’m not sure if I want to read any more of it, let alone follow Stel’s journey to its clearly bitter end.