What continues to impress me about the comic book industry is the growth in storytelling coming out of creator-owned publishers. We may always have our go-to superheroes at Marvel and DC, but companies like Dark Horse, IDW, Valiant, and Image have the benefit of giving writers and artists the ability to tell stories that don’t rely on decades of continuity. The freedom that offers is daunting and tremendous, but out of that comes the remarkable side-effect known as ambition and these creators are getting very ambitious. Every new idea that gets put out into the market, whether it hits or misses, is a challenge to readers. We’re asked to spend a little more time paying attention, going a bit deeper in our understanding of how the words and art work together to give us a narrative that dares to see ambiguity as an asset rather than a hindrance and presents a philosophical, religious, or political slant that has its roots in the creators but also help build this new world of sequential art. If we’re in the midst of a new comic book Renaissance, then Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini’s Low will leave a beautifully complex mark.
Several millennia in the future and humans have been forced to escape to the depths of the earth’s ocean in order to avoid the rising radiation from our expanding sun. Though probes were sent out long ago to look for a suitable replacement planet, the people now living in the undersea Dome of Salus have made peace with the inevitable death of their sun and humanity’s continued existence in their technologically advanced aquatic sanctuary. One woman, however, Stel Caine, has something no one else in Salus seems to possess: hope. She monitors for signals from lost probes, looking for a sign that what everyone thinks is inevitable can actually be circumvented. Her optimism seems to have an infectious quality, spreading to her husband, Johl, and their three children. That doesn’t stop her from being a protective mother. Initially skeptical of Johl taking their twin daughters, Della and Tajo, out hunting for mammoths (or giant squids), she relents when the girls show genuine interest in their family legacy of serving the people of Salus by operating the last Helm Suit, an advanced diving suit that can only be used by someone with Caine blood. The family’s hunting trip, minus their son Marik, takes a turn for the worse when a group of pirates decide to enact their revenge on Salus.
In the book’s Afterword, Rick Remender lays out exactly where Low originated; drawing from his own nihilism developed around the age of eight after hearing that the sun would eventually expand to the point that the planet would be uninhabitable. The sun is going to die, all life on the planet will die, and nothing will change that fact. So what’s the point? This philosophy is reflected in Johl Caine as he gives his daughters, and the readers, their history lesson and backstory. Johl is the pessimist, the one resigned to humanity’s fate to die along with their sun, but it’s Stel who’s the main character. Her philosophical opposition to Johl – and by extension Remender – makes her a reflection of Remender’s desire for something to counteract his nihilism. Who better than an optimist? To his credit, Remender doesn’t hit you over the head with the juxtaposition. Instead, the dialogue between Stel and Johl feels organic and natural to a married couple who’ve probably had the same discussion over and over again. This time they just happen to be doing it for our benefit. The only time it’s flat-out stated is by Johl before the family leaves to go hunting. It’s not heavy-handed, but, again, organic to the lecture he’s giving to his daughters. As philosophical discussions go, this is light compared to some classes I took in college.
Remender’s partnership with Greg Tocchini provides the more obvious contrasts in the Caine family with Stel and Johl the epitome of Yin and Yang right down to their hair color, which is also reflected in their daughters’. Probably not a coincidence that they had twins. Otherwise, the over-sized issue is a visual spectacle. There are several two-page spreads that showcase the scope and scale of Salus while highlighting Tocchini’s skill with inks and colors as he uses the digital medium to make the world of Low resemble slightly more defined impressionist paintings. The constant use of circles to initiate flow within the art is immediately eye-catching as well and keeps the reader aware that this is a world completely under water. If there was a real quibble it’s that some characters and scenery look a little ill-defined, so it’s hard to distinguish people and objects that would usually have more definitive lines to make them stand out. Again, it’s a quibble and could just be part of Tocchini’s style.
Final Thoughts: As a pessimist myself, I have great hope and optimism for this book. An impressive and ambitious start!