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Rock Bottom

This is another recent graphic novel from Ait/Planet Lar, 112 b&w pages for $12.95. It’s from a pair of Ait/Planet Lar vets, writer Joe Casey and artist Charlie Adlard, who’ve previously teamed up on Codeflesh, a book I’ve not had the opportunity to read, though every summary I’ve encountered suggests that it’s greatly different from this current collaboration.

Rock Bottom is essentially a fable, though it doesn’t entirely disrobe from the costume of superhero comics; not only do we encounter a man with an amazing bodily state, but a child is saved from danger in a metal-crunching bit of death-defiance. The rescue might be halfway an accident and halfway a reaction to a danger caused by the rescuer himself, but that doesn’t stop the iconography from triggering familiar pulses in the reader’s brain, reminding them of writer Casey’s various and sundry superhero works, many of them featuring flawed characters staggering toward some brand of grace. It’s a familiarity the book might benefit from, as Casey has otherwise endeavored to script a short tale of human faults and the hardening of the soul, one where the most excellent bit of daring a person can manage is escaping their self-devised environment of stony emotions and interrelations as blank as granite.

Unfortunately, the book itself comes off as strangely blank itself. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of emotion and angst in here, it’s that so much of it seems schematic and inevitable-as-formula that much of its intended power simply fails to register for me. The plot sees one Thomas Dare, a blues pianist going though a rancorous divorce, literally turning to stone bit by bit. Naturally, it’s a gradual physical manifestation of the state of his soul, though a scientific rationale is also duly provided. Like clockwork, Thomas (though his own volition or the machinations of fate) runs down the list of once-loved ones and distant familial relations, confronting metaphors for human distance and generational stoicism, aided by a comic relief lawyer friend and a conflicted doctor. It’s the type of plot that’s obvious enough that once its presence is discerned, most of its of its remaining moves can be anticipated in the abstract, though the details might ultimately cohere in a different way. If you’re expecting shafts of enlightenment to gleam down upon Thomas’ craggy brow eventually, well, that is to be expected.

Artist Adlard adopts something of a fine-line approach here, eliminating all shading from his art save for the murky textures of Thomas’ hardening skin (and a certain similar surface), so as to emphasize his growing physical displacement from the otherwise stark world. After a while, there’s an evident difference drawn between physical and emotional states, as Thomas grows worse and worse, even as his personal life slowly runs with blood. Casey also applies flashes of media irony and a realities-of-medicine hospital subplot that steadfastly refuses to cohere with the main action, until it is finally subsumed into Thomas’ final lunge toward something lasting; I suppose we’re meant to see how others discover themselves through the protagonist’s transformation, but the story’s combination of predictable plot movements and stock character confrontations serve only to underline the tinny nature of the book’s introspective music.

Or, in other words, the creative team can’t quite break below the surface, even as their characters give off all appearance of doing so.

Still, there may well be some appeal to those more attuned to the surface pleasures of this type of story than I, with all its tragic forehead furrowing and heroic grasping of wisdom and latent sentimentality, as Casey and Adlard do at least manage a sense of devotion to their craftsmanship. I couldn’t say it did much for me this time around.