How Low Can You Go: Low Vol. 1


Low (Vol. 1)
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Greg Tocchini
Color Assistant Mariane Gusmao (issues 1-6)
Letters by Rus Wooton
Edits by Sebastian Girner
Image Comics

"The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." 

- Numbers 14:18

"This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper."

- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I spent a lot of time over the years thinking about the above biblical verse. When I was younger I chafed at the notion of a wrathful, vengeful God, one who would not only visit punishment on those who transgress but also vindictively punish their children and grandchildren for the sins of their fathers. But as I've gotten older and moved away from any conception of God as a literal being, I thought more about how this is in fact quite an insightful verse with respect to human beings and the consequences of all of the decisions that we make. Now, I don't think it's a vindictive statement at all: in fact, I think it's an insightful reflection of the reality of actions and consequences. When we make bad decisions, the consequences reverberate throughout time, not just on us but on our children and our children's children. You kill someone, you commit some other serious crime, you squander your family's fortune, you will not be the only one who bears the consequences. Your family and those around you will have to live with the results of your decision. So looking at God and punishment in this way is simply a reflection of the way the world really works.

I think of this quote in the context of the Image Comics series Low, written by Rick Remender and illustrated by Greg Tocchini (Tocchini also gets color assistance from Mariane Gusmao), because on both a macro and micro level, Low is all about living with the consequences of those who came before us, whether it be our human ancestors who failed to adapt and plan for the eventual in habitability of earth, or whether it be the actions of parents, whose heads were filled with hubris or false and potentially damaging notions of hope. Low is big and epic and biblical in scope, with parallels in both the Exodus and the Noah stories.

Low also brings to mind the famous line above from T.S. Eliot, as it takes place in the distant future and humanity slowly sinks its way towards the literal blackness oblivion under the sea. A confession: post-apocalyptic stories (something like The Walking Dead) typically bore me. They're often bleak and gloomy and it feels like there's nowhere for the story to go. Low shares some of those tropes but the undersea setting and the care in world-building make it feel more alive even in the midst of humanity's dwindling future. At this distant time, perhaps millions or even billions of years in the future, the surface of Earth is no longer habitable. Humanity has retreated, or sunk low (pun intended) towards the bottom of the ocean, where what's left of humanity lives in domed cities.

There's no apocalyptic event here; there's descent and stagnation and glimmers of hope in the midst of oppressive circumstances. The title Low refers to both the geographic location of the characters (deep under the sea, but not like this) and also the way in which they are humbled, and sinking into that blackness of oblivion. Through the first six issues of the series (the book is up to issue 9, but for purposes of my review I focused on the first volume), the story effectively illustrates the fact that no matter how low you think you've sunk, there's always someplace lower.

The city of Salus is protected, by hereditary tradition, by a member of the Caine family (sometimes those Biblical analogies just present themselves). Johl Caine is the city's current protector, and married to Stel Caine, they have three children, their son Marik and their daughters Della and Tajo. As in every generation before him, Caine wears a Helmsman Suit, and advanced technology that can only be operated by someone with Caine DNA. 

Johl (against Stel's objections) takes the family outside of the city in order to begin training the girls in using the Helmsman suit. They're attacked by pirates, Johl is killed, and the girls and the Helmsman suit are taken away from Stel. The next issue (and the main part of the story) moves forward ten years, as Stel is still living in Salus as is her son Marik who is adrift in his life. Stel has never given up on searching for a new one for humanity, and she wants Marik to join her in searching for what she believes is evidence that her hope is justified. As with everything else, things don't go according to plan and they end up in the city of Poluma. As much as Salus may be slouching towards oblivion, Poluma is heading there at full speed with eyes open. Poluma is what happens when there are no consequences and evil takes over. It is a city controlled by the same pirates that destroyed the Caine family ten years earlier, pirates who keep the populace happy and occupied with deadly gladiator games under the water. But there's even more waiting for Stel and Marik in Poluma, there's surprise and tragedy.

This is remarkable, dense, detailed world building, and it begins with (and its success hinges upon) the stunning art. Sometimes you read a comic and (on something like an issue of Superman) it's not too hard to imagine a different artist might still do a good job telling the story that you're reading. By contrast, there are some stories where the style of the artist and the artistic choices are so inextricably tied to the story, it would be nearly impossible to imagine any other artist telling the story. Low is the latter (like Saga or Black Science). It's hard to imagine anyone other than Greg Tocchini bringing this story to life. This is beautiful (and sometimes beautifully ugly) art that's both intricately detailed and impressionistic (or sketchy), and like the world itself, Tocchini's art is sexy, weird, dangerous, bloody, decadent, sometimes gaudy, dirty, grimy, decaying and fading into oblivion. Without reading any dialogue you can get all of that from the art. It's widescreen, cinematic art that really conveys a world at the end of its rope. 

This is a world at the very end of humanity. Even in the more optimistic Salus, the leadership has essentially given up and have turned to hedonism as a response to resignation for their fate. After Johl Caine is killed and the helmsman suit taken, all hope seems to be lost. It's like Sodom and Gomorrah, or like when Moses ascended mount Sinai and the people were left to their own devices, and they built a false god and engaged in hedonistic activity as they believed they were abandoned by God and going to die anyway. Tocchini really brings the decadence of this society home. In a graphic (and quite funny) sequence in issue 3 of the series, He shows the "closed session" of the Salusian senate as a drug-fueled, bacchanalian orgy (side note, this comic isn't for kids) and in unflinching detail shows the degenerate nature of Salusan "leadership". Tocchini's unapologetically sexy art style serves the story well here and generally throughout the series; in the distant future, as humanity sinks towards oblivion, traditional morality and propriety seem to have been abandoned.  The book overall has a very strong sense of design, including Rus Wooton's lettering that nicely fits in with the atmospheric quality of the books.

There's so little to be hopeful about in this world, but Johl had hope and optimism in his own way (as he had hoped for one of his daughters to succeed him as protector of Salus). However, his hubris in deciding on that day to take his girls out to train leads to his death and the abduction of the children. He ignored his wife's guidance that they weren't ready and this not only killed him but sent his girls into abduction and sent Marik down a dark path as a dirty cop. More globally, his decision probably had a negative impact on the safety of Salus as it was more likely to be defeated by Poluma or any other attacker. 

Stel, by contrast, is a singularly strong, moral figure in the story. She's a believer in Quantumology, the religion of their civilization (which, in a nice touch, seems to be a merger of theoretical physics and traditional religion). Even after the loss of her husband and girls, she's still hasn't given up looking for another world for humanity. Her adherence to her faith is nicely illustrated in her visit to a Quantomologist spiritual leader. That space is almost entirely white (no background at all) and serves as a remarkable contrast to the vivid and sometimes lurid colors that illustrate most of the story. In a way, Stel's strict adherence to hope and faith is kind of refreshing. We've seen in many stories the lone "great man" standing against the forces of history and leaving steadfastly in their vision of hope, the future, etc. (see: Leonardo Dicaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator) but it's nice to see a woman for once in this role. Stel's hope drives away her son as he sees it as nothing more than irrational optimism and delusion. However, she's the seemingly lone voice that's saying that humanity can't just end with a whimper. Even in the face of tremendous personal tragedy and infinitesimal odds, she's driven by her faith and by the memory of those she's loved and lost.  She'll save humanity whether they give a shit or not.

In a biblical tale, she would be the Abraham or Moses figure, trying to lead a skeptical population to a new promised land. The other clear biblical parallel here is Noah, and Stel is a nice parallel of that story, as she is trying to get people out of the water and off of their world all together but they can't see past their immediate needs and the decadence that has consumed them (and she hasn't yet received any divine instructions yet on how to build an Ark).

Stel's hope notwithstanding, it's fundamentally a pessimistic view of the future (and frankly, Stel's adherence to hope in the face of her circumstances sometimes looks stupid or delusional). The ancestors of the characters in the story sent out probes to search for other worlds, but Low is fundamentally a critique of those ancestors (and anyone who fails to think about the consequences their actions will have on future generations). Didn't they think about this further in advance? They knew for millions of years that humanity was going to have to leave earth. But they maybe stayed too long and once they decided to finally do something it was too late. They couldn't ascend to the stars so all they did was sink to the depths. Those living in dirty underwater cities are there as a result of the consequences of their ancestors failing to think about the long term future, and so their decisions are visited on generations millennia in the future. 

I see this not just in light of the biblical ideas but also as a critique of our current attitudes towards the earth. Eventually our descendants are going to have to take drastic measures and they will likely wonder why the hell we didn't stop things before they got worse. Already we see the disastrous effects of climate change and the failure of many to even admit that there's a problem. In light of this, it's not that hard to see how humanity ends up sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Low isn't an easy read; it's a dense story and makes the reader work. But it's a beautiful, insightful, epic, highly rewarding science fiction story with a lot of food for thought. I'd absolutely recommend taking a dive (more puns) into the complex world of Low.