Round-headed kid

Actually … hero? Maybe anti-hero, but no … OK, protagonist? I’m not even sure about that. I’m not saying Shulz wasn’t an artistic marvel, as he obviously was, but count me among the “geez, Peanuts is fucked-up!” audience. I’ve been in that sector ever since reading it in the funnies, among my earliest reading materials at age 4. I kept reading it in part because one simply didn’t not read Peanuts, and in part because it was reinforced constantly via collections lying around everywhere, and certainly because my age group was the one directly targeted by the animated version. (Fun me fact: You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown aired  in 1972, when I was about the age of the kids in the story, and considering the mock Nixon-McGovern election we ran in 2nd grade, at that exact moment, it taught me everything I needed to know about democracy.)

Yeah, fucking hilarious. Ha. Ha ha.

I only followed it at all because the stuff I liked was frequent enough – Linus’ irrepressible equanimity, Snoopy’s daft (deft?) release of any grip on reality, and Schroeder’s completely rational decision to focus on something important. But I couldn’t stand the way the kids treated one another, and Charlie Brown’s self-defeating qualities were so patently pathological I wanted to run off; the whole “laugh through the pain” thing wore thin fast. By the time some of my peers got to the point of teen suicide, I swore off reading it indefinitely.

However, investigation on this topic has been done and done again; I have nothing to add. My interest here lies in two comics, each by an unspeakably skilled writer-illustrator, which indubitably take a reader’s experience with Peanuts and turn it into something new, providing enough commentary to matter but not fearing to go where the new thoughts will. And both rely on the concept that Charlie Brown’s value as a character lies in connecting the reader, possibly involuntarily, with the misery of the human experience and to a confrontation with the existential void.

Sure it is. Just hold this football!

Paul Chadwick’s Concrete began in 1986 and might fairly be called Dark Horse’s breakout “we are legit art” comics moment. Ron Lithgow’s brain now resides in a big stony body, and he lives a new life in which personal satisfaction slips into and out of his grasp.

As culture commentary, it’s justly famous – look at the government’s solution to the revelation that alien life exists and abductions occur. They saturate the marketplace with Concrete over-hype and paraphernalia, specifically to bore the public and make him a joke, thus flooding and removing any genuine interest in the topic. The title is full of stuff like this. Every issue offers its own treatise on modern existence which outdoes academic philosophy and sociology by a light-year.

Ron, or rather Concrete, romanticizes historical “iron men” like Richard Burton, and he seeks to enjoy his new life via his new capabilities. Every story trades off among his success or failure in doing this or in helping with some social endeavor, his moments of heroism or discovery that go unnoticed, and the small personal tragedies that fill the lives of those around him. That last matters: the single consistent story element is everyone else’s ongoing failure to connect with or understand the environment, society, and people around them. Triumphs – like when Concrete helps conceal the body of the farmer killed by his family – are only ever about finding brief ways to cope. His core insight is that the human sense of belonging that had always missed him in his back-story is missing in everyone else too, right now, and has always been so.

I bet I’m shocking the Concrete fan right now. No, no! The whole book is deeply humanistic and idealistic – it’s based on sympathy for him as a person, responding to his intense empathy, and respecting his capacity for insight. Hasn’t everyone been calling it the gentlest title in comics for thirty years? It must be!

But I say hogwash. Ron was miserable and fully suicidal, not borderline, before his abduction and transformation. Not once does he long for a return to normality. His powerful insights and occasional moments of peace are only possible because his sexuality and general experience of “the human flesh” are now absent or transmuted into forms that no human can contact. He suffers when he tries to connect either with other people or with the physical world around him, then sighs and briefly re-achieves repose when he accepts detachment. No one else, not even his closest friends who genuinely love him, can experience his feelings and insights – only the reader. Like Charlie Brown, when Concrete sighs (and it’s the same sigh, for the same reasons, every time), he sighs alone.

Pretty much, yeah.

Cut to 15 years later and Weapon Brown, by some lunatic named Jason Yungbluth, at first easily mistaken for a cheap cash-in upon a familiar pop culture image translated into an equally familiar and badly shopworn apocalyptic setting … but look again. Unlike Concrete, it’s a much more literal and referential translation of the Shulz character – bringing all the locked-down seething force of it into glorious dark action. Subtle it ain’t.

I’m restraining myself from raving about the incredible parodies and re-imaginings of 100+ years’ worth of newspaper comics characters that fill the title, which show that Yungbluth isn’t only a Mad Magazine veteran, he’s a brilliant one. He doesn’t just make fun of them, he nails them, with and without love and sometimes both. Readers of the title will know what an effort it takes not to identify and spend a whole post on the eventual primary antagonist, but I really want to focus on the leading man and not on anyone else.

This time it’s not the sigh, it’s the Aaugh! rendered (incredibly) as moving as it could possibly be even though the character has embraced utter nihilism and a vicious satisfaction that the world is as thoroughly vile as he always knew it to be. There’s genius in that. Brown doesn’t even like killing and fucking. Even the license afforded him by the utter destruction of normal society around him isn’t enough to compensate for the messed-up wreck a few years of ordinary pre-apocalypse childhood had left him. His despair at facing the void can always be felt again, no matter how much scar tissue has built up since the last time.

Concrete and Weapon Brown mean a lot to me, actually much more so in combination than as separate titles. They share the original foundation of unflinching tenacity when standing outside of social inclusion, knowing that this very inclusion is the engine of human affairs and yet wholly a chimera, knowing how it has inflicted terrible pain not only upon oneself but equally upon those who purport to have it, and knowing that nothing you can do or say will convince others to let it go. It’s about not wanting it. Both the serene, “desert and stars” perspective in Concrete and the cold, grinning hatred in Weapon Brown were embedded deep in my life-experience by age 18; I am pretty certain that lacking these led straight to the fate of the real-life Charlie Browns I once knew before they saw that age.

Links: Paul Chadwick website, Weapon Brown webpage

Next: We got this

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 5, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Weapon Brown looks like a ton of fun. (On a slightly related note, I picked up Electric Lullaby Meat Market but whatever edition I got doesn’t seem to have illustrations, though the prose is rather lively.)

    Peanuts is another of those cultural staples whose fixity in the aesthetic firmament tends to puzzle me. It’s not *bad*, but I think I can agree on chuck’s long-suffering sufferingness reaching it’s expiration date on maybe the second or third repetition. Snoopy, Linus, Schroeder, check, check, check.

    I will say that I was viscerally shaken when I found out in the late 90s Bill Watterson had retired, having picked up Calvin & Hobbes entirely through trade paperbacks in easons. We shall not see his like again.


    • (Uh, that’s a ‘check’ of agreement on those characters, by the way.)

      I’m sorry to hear about those peers of yours. My own perspective on social in/exclusion has been complicated down the years, but I gather from my brother (who works in teaching) that standards have improved since we were anonymously herded into the yard during lunch-breaks, lord-of-the-flies style. I suppose I should be glad for that.


    • Hi Morgan,

      Some of what you said lets me know that you will truly appreciate the main story in _Weapon Brown_. Once you read it, you’ll thank me for not being more clear.

      P.,S. I apologize for having misled you somehow, but there aren’t any illustrations in _The Electric Lullaby Meat Market_.


      • (…Looking back at the original post, I think I must have been confusing ELMM with your inset from The Magic Goes Away. Mea culpa.)

        I’m paging through the archives of WB and I’m most of the way there. I’m completely floored, by the way, particularly by the steadily-improving frame-composition in what was already a showcase for top-notch draughtsmanship. I love how it straddles and interweaves cunning caricature and realist grotesquerie. And that’s just the visuals.

        Is the ‘thank me for not being more clear’ simple spoiler-avoidance, or was there some aspect of possible self-identification you thought it wise not to advertise? (I will say I was both horrified and laughing at Ms. Wormwood’s appearance. Yeesh.)

        I’ve also read through some of the excerpts from Concrete and World Below on Paul Chadwick’s page, which look fabulous, so I’ll have to see if I can catch up on those. (For some reason, what I like most is the x-ray cutaway views of Ron’s construct anatomy, complete with cellular viscera and organometallic armature- it’s like H.R. Giger had a baby with the michellin man.)

        Anyway, I’m loving what I’m seeing- thanks for the references.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Santiago Verón

    I’m totally invested in themes of social inclusion. (And wasn’t that interested in the relationship between art and politics until reading this blog, thanks!) And it just so happens I’ve been thinking about the themes of suicide and self-expression over the past month, because of a workshop on graphic novel scriptwriting that I was taking. Anyway I was wondering what your thoughts were on the relevance of “social inclusion” related to other subjects like… well, the other stuff your public life is about.

    I mean, I read the forums on The Forge for years, and in my own country I try to stay up to date with the self-publishing efforts of roleplaying games, videogames and comics… I know it may be different for every person, but I was wondering, if we can generalize… If you see a relationship between the subject of self-inclusion and some of these other topics, perhaps some more than others? Topics like expressing oneself through art/stories, self-publishing, roleplaying games / comics, whether as a passive participant or as an author; or maybe just “being nerd”.

    About this last one, I know (well, let’s say I assume from the movies) that especially in American culture, there is an archetype of the nerd kid, who wishes he was included, who wishes he were popular, who’s into comics and rpgs. (And who is, I think, apolitical.)

    I mean, if we look at your previous post, “Found”, I can imagine a link from “feeling bad for not being included” towards “losing oneself in entertainment” or “self-expressing oneself through art and being included that way”. I’m wondering what could we link between “desire for inclusion” and “self publishing”, or why the practices of RPGs and comics specifically (instead of, say, music).


    • I want to thank you for this comment. It’s one of those “the internet doesn’t actually suck” moments.

      Your point about which venues I’ve chosen is well-taken. Unlike a lot (although not all) people who favor fringe pop culture, I’m not an under-achiever. Academics, music, and theater, and there’s more, but I don’t like speaking publicly this way. I’ll only say that in multiple professional circumstances, I not only do well, but I also deliver significant, lasting impact to the local practices and values. How that relates to material gain is another issue.

      I’m not too good with generalizing statements, let alone fully self-descriptive ones. This blog is the only public “show myself” activity I’ve attempted, and as you’ve seen, I’ve taken a scattershot wave-front approach rather than making a thesis statement. My own interpretive inclinations – putting myself momentarily in the position of reader – lead me toward socio-political, economic framing rather than inward-to-action psychology.

      My history in self-publishing games is constantly in cultural revision – there’s even a whole book in preparation about it, not by me – much of that to do with positioning oneself relative to me as if I were the sun. Too dangerous to touch or associate with too closely, and as it happens even to look at, but providing the context in which to regard oneself (not it) as the center of things. Needless to say I find that outlook distasteful and incorrect, and have frequently taken steps to “de-sun” myself, but have accepted it as the new normal for what passes itself off as “indie gaming” these days.

      For my rarely-stated thoughts on the results regarding myself personally and the Forge specifically, see [Interview] Never before seen by eyes of whoever; the initial topic is necessary to start, but the discussion kicks in on the second page.

      But that may be getting off-topic. To stick to the point you made, I do see a connection between the withdrawal of creative power that McNeil criticizes in “Dream Sequence” and the social cowardice which has made “indie” into a deeply-identifiable brand rather than an anarchic, un-characterizable action.


      • The word-count is a bit intimidating, both in the interview and the succeeding forge thread, but for me the standout bit was your avowed distrust/rejection of PR-related granfalloonery within the forge community itself. Out of curiosity, did that have anything to do with the Winter of the Forge?


        • Not so much as the Winter when it was implemented, but rather to several other things in the 2005-2007 period.

          1. My new rule at the GenCon Forge booth that people who’d participated for two years couldn’t continue there. I wanted to stay focused on newcomers who needed a leg up, not to foment a community of insiders with an indefinite cheap track to GenCon.

          2. Rearranging the forums at the Forge to diminish the potential for puffery and wankery specifically to ground abstractions, suggestions, and claims in actual-play experience. I noted that those who inaccurately insisted on interpreting this as “no more theory at the Forge” were generally the primary culprits.

          3. The announcement (long before the Winter itself) that the Forge was intended to be a finite endeavor. Clinton and I had proceeded with that in mind almost from the start, meaning, as soon as we thought about what to do eventually. So it surprised us that it drew such astonishment at the time, and even more so five-plus years later when I said the time had come.


  3. Santiago Verón

    Thanks a lot to both of you!
    (I can’t seem to log in and press those ‘Like’ buttons, so, I did this instead.)


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