Here’s the thing: whenever you have a deeply personal comic, as in the case of Rick Remender’s Low, you get an equal dose of high art and self indulgence. The highs of a brilliantly realized world contrasted with overly heavy messages and ideas. Characters wrung through the depths of loss and despair as a means to resoundingly show off hope and optimism. It’s a teetering balance that both succeeds and fails – with readers’ themselves ultimately tipping the scale either way into their own personal opinions of active like or dislike. Low ends up being a story you want to love but may end up hating instead.
Story: Humans have lived in the oceans’ depths for eons, the only answer to a sun that has irradiated the Earth. Probe after probe has come back empty; no other habitable planets have been found. With air recycling ability finally running out and dome cities succumbing to hedonistic despair, one family (specifically, mother Stel) survives on a religion based around hope. But when her family is targeted by pirates and Stel loses nearly everything, what will keep her going and not succumbing to a numb nihilistic end herself?
The underwater cities in Low were very much “Fall of the Roman Empire” scenarios – with either a Caligula/Nero government of callous hedonism or the Barbarian horde (pirates) plundering and perverting what is left of humanity’s best and brightest. It makes for a bleak story and certainly author Remender enjoys the lack of sense in each death he writes. The point is clear: the purest definition of hope is found only in the contrast of the most absolute profundity of despair.
The choice to put a preface stating that the story was written during therapy for depression puts perhaps too much of an emphasis on the story being a message piece. Unfortunately, what’s sanative for the author’s soul can be less affecting for a reader not burdened with a negative message on the world. Admittedly, I spent most of Low being incredibly impressed and then equally annoyed for that very reason. There are some really great ideas, concepts, worldbuilding, art and more; but at the same time, everything comes off as being shoehorned into a tight mold in order to further the underlying themes. Characters don’t feel real, the villains cartoony, and the family a depressing version of the Jetsons.
Oddly enough, the art had the same conflicting issues as the writing. At times, it is absolutely stunning, a joy to explore and enjoy. But then whole panels are completely inscrutable. A fluffy, upbeat, mostly naked June Jetson bouncing around with legs akimbo and playful banterings until the family is butchered. It’s odd to say that the art and the writing didn’t gel when this is such a mature and professional piece; Remender’s gravitas paired with beautiful but very 1960s inspired illustrations created a dissonance that I had a hard time grappling. I began to wish strongly that the art was used for a different story; or that the story used a different artist. Intricate illustrations paired with very shallow, one-dimensional characters; a story with heavy messages married to artwork that was flippant and frolicky.
In deciding how to rate Low, what stood out was that this was very professional from start to finish. Even with the art and story tone duality issues, it’s a book I did not regret reading. But at the same time, it’s too tough a prospect for me to want to continue, either. What matters to me is that stories like this get published and that I am so glad to have Image comics in business providing such intriguing work. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.