Concrete, the irregularly long running comic series written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick, is a wonderful read. It’s perfectly accessible to people who’ve never picked up a comic book before. But, somehow, it has never managed to penetrate the mainstream conciousness. The reasons for this become clear upon first reading.

In the beginning, you had Superman. A defender of truth, justice and the American way, he spent pretty much all of his free time saving his city from crime, aliens (bad ones, mind), and giant robots. He was soon after followed by Batman, Wonder Woman, and other such do-gooders who use their vast wealth and powers to make the world right.

And this was the status quo for many years, until Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to drop a little gem on us; The Fantastic Four. Self described as “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine!”, on first glance it seemed to be a superhero story like any other; A group of people granted cosmic powers, which they use to battle evil. Except, this was a team like no other. It was more like a dysfunctional family! You have Mr. Fantastic as the father figure; Brilliant, but a little cold. Sue Storm, filling in the duel roles of sister and mother (Figure that shit out!). Johnny Storm, who’s kind of a cocky asshole, hotheaded in form and function. And finally, The Thing; A man, forever trapped in the body of a stone monster.

What distinguished Marvel from their Competitor is this simple concept; What would superhuman people act like in the “real world”? Stan and Jack’s answer was this; You would have heroes, and villains, just like before. . . but possibly with more complex motivation for their actions. And maybe sometimes, their stoicism may not be as strong as a Superman’s might be.

So, what does that long winded introduction have to do with Concrete? Well. . . what’s the next step in this equation? Over the years, we’ve seen even more “realistic”, post-modern takes on the superhero, in such brilliant titles as Watchmen, Squadron Supreme and The Dark Knight Returns. Can you go even further with this idea? Apparently, yes.

Imagine, if you will, The Fantastic Four. Now, subtract three of them, and you’ve just got The Thing. Now, imagine a world in which The Thing was the only superpowered person around. Would he go fight crime? How would he find criminals? Would he try to take over the world? Nope, he’s not that strong. Just a dude made out of rock, and he has a big heart.

And that last sentence could really sum up this series. There are a lot of hyperdramatic elements; You do get aliens, killers and spies. But, unlike other comic books, all of that stuff seems to be incidental. The real focus is on what it means to be human, and how, removed from human form, a man can really see what ties the world together.

The obvious comparison here would be Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, but while Moore has a Eisnerian love of construction, Chadwick is way more conversational. Closer to Woody Allen than Kubrick, if you will. And, unlike Swamp Thing, almost none of the stories are fantastical. You have Concrete trying to climb Mt. Everest. He joins a group of eco-activists. He goes to a kid’s birthday party.

Like Swamp Thing, though, there’s a lot of talk about nature. Chadwick is an amazing artist, and his drawings of monkeys, beetles and plantlife have an incredible attention to detail. Being a generally shallow person, I would get pleasure from just looking at this book, even if I didn’t enjoy the writing.

There was an attempt to turn this into a film at one point, the story of which later became a comic, Strange Armor, which is a more in-depth retelling of his origin story. But, it’s easy to see why this never caught on as a pop culture phenomenon. It spends a lot of time talking about environmental problems, well before it was “cool” to do so. Even some controversial social issues (There’s a long running theme about overpopulation).

And if movies like The Incredibles embrace the concept of the superhero as power fantasy, this is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Chadwick’s assertion is that, even with stone skin, every man is fragile. And that’s a tough thing to sell.