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The ability of the superhero to carry serious graphic literature has been a polarizing subject in the comics world since at least the 1960s. Hardcore fans of indie creators see superheroes as mere kid's stuff, while fans of traditional superhero books insist that the genre can be used to explore all kinds of sophisticated, adult concerns. As with any question of art, no definitive answer will ever be reached, but some fresh thoughts came to mind on the subject thanks to a new series by Paul Chadwick, Concrete: The Human Dilemma, and a recent panel I attended on the future of the graphic novel. Among the questions I found myself thinking about was this: Where does Superman stand on abortion? It seemed central to the debate.

The wildly eclectic mix of participants on the panel, convened at the annual publishing industry tradeshow Book Expo America, included indie creators Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve) and Charles Burns (Black Hole) with superhero/pulp auteur Frank Miller (Sin City) and novelist-turned-superhero-comics writer Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis), who sat next to comic autobiographer and movie celebrity Harvey Pekar (American Splendor.) Thanks to Pekar's irrepressible personality, things got a little warm when he denounced superhero books as "escapist" and worthless when there were more important things to spend your energy on like "getting Bush out of office." Meltzer later gave an impassioned and reasonable argument for regarding all comic genres on a continuum rather than a hierarchy. As both he and Miller explained the influence of the tragedy of September 11 on their work using superheroes, Pekar rolled his eyes and made faces.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #1

That same week the final issue of Concrete: The Human Dilemma, a limited six-issue series, appeared (Dark Horse Comics; 32 pages each; $3.50). Published off and on for nearly twenty years, with two newly packaged collections appearing in July and September, Concrete endures as one of the smartest-written "superheroes" ever created. Twice the size of an average man, with a rock-like epidermis, extraordinary strength, endurance and heightened senses, Concrete has all the attributes of a classic do-gooder. But here is where it starts to get interesting. Neither a troubled billionaire nor a brilliant scientist caught in an experiment gone wrong, Concrete has a secret past as Ronald Lithgow, a senatorial speechwriter. Captured by aliens while taking a remote mountain hike, he escaped, but only after having his brain transferred to a fantastical new body. Under the cover of being an experimental, government cyborg named Concrete, he lives as just another celebrity in L.A.'s freak show.

Accompanied by Maureen Vonnegut, a biologist, and Larry Munro, his personal assistant, Concrete never fights evil geniuses or giant robots. Instead he lives the life you might expect an egghead lefty policy wonk with a supernatural body to live. He explores the world and does good deeds where he can. Past stories follow him climbing Mount Everest, working to save a family farm and being hired out as the bodyguard of a paranoid rock star. Using the tropes of the superhero genre, where Concrete often finds himself thrust into life-or-death adventures, Chadwick weaves in broader themes of the environment and social issues, along with the humorous quotidian details of Concrete's life as a walking boulder, such as his difficulties with unsupportive furniture.

The Human Dilemma tells of Concrete's new job as the spokesman for a foundation dedicated to population control. (Try lighting the Bat Signal for that!) Well paid for his efforts, he somewhat reluctantly stumps for their controversial program that would provide financial benefits for couples that undergo sterilization. As the story builds Concrete has an increasingly difficult time staying "on message" in the vicious world of pundit media, while Larry finds himself in the unfortunate position of impregnating a one-night stand. Meanwhile a mysterious character, disturbed by Concrete and the foundation he represents, plots an assassination.

Concrete rushes to the rescue, but too late

These and other parallel narratives, including a surprising love story, all involve birth and death and the human population's impact on the world. Yet Chadwick never lets any message overtake the needs of telling an exiting yarn. Instead, he uses ingenious dramatic irony to explore an issue's nuance. For example, L.A.'s traffic jams, just one result of over-population, become a frequent motif in The Human Dilemma. One scene has Concrete, stuck in a steamy gridlock, leaping to the rescue of someone caught in a dangerous road rage incident. But, in the first of several missed chances at heroism during the series, he can't save the victim.

The scene looks exactly like something from a mainstream superhero book, but with important differences. Thanks to starting his career drawing a different kind of loser hero, Marvel's ill-conceived Dazzler series, about a crime-fighting roller disco queen, Chadwick knows the basics of the mainstream look. Using the best of that style, such as its dramatic angles, to create dynamic pages, Chadwick also infuses the artwork with quirks, like the frequent use of X-ray shots into a character's body, so that no one could mistake it for mere hackwork. Another major difference between The Human Dilemma and more mainstream books is Chadwick's uses of black and white rather than color. This perfectly suits the material, which explores the gray nuances of decisions about bringing another life into world.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #4

But there's another reason you wouldn't mistake Concrete for any other superhero. Chadwick, and not some corporation, owns Concrete, allowing the character to take positions on real issues. When, during a scene in The Human Dilemma, an interviewer asks Concrete if he is pro-choice, "You bet," is the unequivocal reply. The scene startled me into thinking about where other characters stand on major issues. We'll never know, because mainstream superheroes cannot be invested with that level of political awareness. They always have a secret, over-riding agenda, spelled out in the earnings reports of their corporate masters: sell product. This is the "ick-factor" that makes some people roll their eyes when they hear about mainstream superheroes taking on meaningful subjects. A whiff of exploitation follows Spider-Man and his ilk wherever they go. Using him to comment on September 11, for example, would be as gross as using Snap, Crackle and Pop.

Paul Chadwick's The Human Dilemma, and his other Concrete tales prove the superhero genre has no inherent literary limitations except the ones brought by a character's real-life role in the culture. Either they are there to move you or to move the products they are associated with. Owned by an artist and not a company, Concrete can be invested with meaningful characteristics that give his stories literary weight. Concrete: The Human Dilemma goes beyond mere genre, combining surprising visuals, smart characters, an entertaining story and above all, engaging issues into a work of valuable literature.