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Graphic Novel Review: Rock Bottom by Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard

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It doesn't take long for Tom Dare's grim plight to reveal itself: after a few small symptoms (a moment of stiffness as he attempts to play keyboards at a House of Blues concert, a certain grayness on one of his fingernails), it quickly becomes apparent that Thomas is inexplicably turning to stone. It's a malady he apparently inherited from his father, and it's seemingly incurable. All that he (and we) can do is watch as the poor guy transforms into a statue.

As dramatized by Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard in the new graphic novel, Rock Bottom (AiT/Planet Lar), Dare's tale is a dark one that at first put me in mind of Stephen King's Thinner. In both horror tales, a flawed common guy is suddenly forced to deal with an accelerating physical change that'll ultimately destroy him. But where King's diminishing protagonist spent most of his book denying his personal responsibilities, Dave is more honest with himself.

An unfaithful husband, unwilling would-be father, he nonetheless manages to acquit himself with a surprise act of heroism that Ben Grim would recognize. (When we see an "artist's rendition" of our hero after his story hits the news, it even resembles Jack Kirby's earliest version of The Thing.) It's not enough to stave off the inevitable, but it does make him a national legend.

Casey's script is clear and straightforward, both pitiless in its acknowledgment of Dare's considerable failings and empathetic to his dilemma. The story's central irony – that the closer our hero gets to becoming a petrified statue, the more he discovers his humanity (in this, Dare's transmutation could be a stand-in for any number of debilitating diseases) – is an obvious one, but Casey resists the urge to belabor it. In this, he's abetted by Adlard's black-and-white art, which is surprisingly subdued in contrast to Adlard's heavily darkened inkwork for a previous collaboration with Casey, the Eisner-indebted Codeflesh.

Using fine pen lines with minimal shading, Adlard's panels all look as if they were lit by hospital fluorescents. For the first few pages of story, I have to admit the approach made my eyes slide across the page without taking much in. But once I got into it, Adlard's visual control of his characters held me. There are a lot of scenes of our hero sitting around either waiting to receive or receiving his worsening medical prognosis — Adlard keeps 'em interesting throughout. (A comparable moment set in an abortion clinic waiting room is especially fine.)

As his work in the ongoing zombie survivalist series The Walking Dead shows, Adlard is fully capable of crafting good full-blown horror action scenes. Here, he proves himself even better at visualizing quiet horror, reflecting it through the distress of those around Thomas as they watch their friend or former lover ossify.

Really, really fine storytelling, in sum, that'll linger long past many more flashy efforts. Even if it doesn't (unlike Casey's popcorn-y werewolves-in-space AiT GN, Full Moon Fever) attract the attention of the Hollywood optioners.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.