Hope is usually not something in plentiful supply at the end of the world.
Or if the superlative storytelling in Low by Rick Remender (writer) and Greg Tocchini (artist) with colours by Dave McCaig is to be believed, for quite a few millennia afterwards.
In the long-running graphic novel series, which has been in production since 2014, humanity has fled to the depths of the oceans to escape an expanding sun that with some truly astronomical bad timing started doing its end of life thing just as humanity had fixed climate change, war and famine.
Yes, just as hope was in the ascendancy and humanity was likely patting its collective back for staring down some truly dire existential threats and emerging somehow unscathed, the sun goes and fries the planet, turning the deserts to radioactive poison and the surface areas of the ocean into a poisonous soup.
Somehow though humanity reacted in time enough to send space travel-capable city-sized pods to the bottom of the ocean where everyone lived in peace, love and harmony and … haha, no, no, that did not happen – this is humanity we’re talking about OK?
A species not known for keeping its warmongering dick in its pants, once again gave into the very worst angels of its nature, either becoming lawlessly chaotic bastions or authoritarian hellstates or just occasionally, a reasonably well-functioning city … with a debauched and slimily corrupt government.
Three cheers for the human race which managed to escape an extinction level event only to turn on itself once again and with even less to draw on than before.
In fact, in one city, Voldin, hope is crushed ruthlessly, and indeed anything that might engender is such as art and literature or any kind of subversive thought, the idea being that if people have hope, they might just do something foolish like trying to better their lives.
And who knows where that might lead?
Voldin is the ultimate triumph of fear over hope, proof positive that when people turn inwards and let of the innate optimism that has powered humanity’s progress over multi-tens of millennia, it doesn’t go well for them.
But then as the orgy-saturated Senators of Salus make clear in their hedonistic pursuit of debauchery in its all overly-indulgent forms, giving into pleasure with the entirety of your being doesn’t exactly make for a viable path forward either.
Through the second to fourth collections of Low, which follow the gobsmackingly good scene-setting of collection one, we see humanity reacting to the possibility that hope, in the form of a probe that’s returned to Earth with proof there is a habitable planet to blast off to and establish something approaching a normal surface-of-the-planet life, in ways that leave you wondering what the hell has happened to us?
With artwork that POPS in vibrantly surreally intense colours, bringing to life a series of mini-worlds within each of the pods, and in the upper oceans and on the surface of the planets where life has, as Jeff Goldblum observed in Jurassic Park, found a truly BIZARRE way (vampiric mermaids anyone? Or what about insects made of fire?), Low is a truly stunningly imaginative piece of work.
Every single panel within every single page is a piece of gorgeously unsettling art, bringing to life, or all too often death, a story that surges from internal rebellion to murderous suppression to violence so commonplace that many people assume that that is all we have at our disposal.
When hope does make an appearance in the form of the teachings of Marik Caine, one of the members of the Cain family who act as a sort of Skywalker dynasty for Low, who dares people to look up and think big, many people simply aren’t sure what to do with it, including his sister Della who, kidnapped by a cruel hope-crushing tyrant, enforces the idea that daring to be anything but hopeless is some kind of crime.
That is until she ends up on a mission with her sister Tajo, and some truly unique and cleverly-realised characters, to reach the surface, find their mother Stel who’s gone to find the probe that could change everything, and remake humanity.
It’s kind of hard to toss aside hope when there is that much possibility on the table but Della, and others manage it, until events take a path where hope takes over and all of the certainties of the past, unattractive though they maybe, cease to matter.
Above all, Low, which is brazenly, bravely, strikingly alive with passion, good and bad, and the seductive idea that humanity always options, we just have to take them, is a tour de force of the power of hope to change absolutely EVERYTHING.
People may fight it, ignore it or pretend it means nothing, but it keeps pushing its way in over and over and over again, with one character observing that “our inner attitude has a real effect on the outer world … Primarily because it has the power to affect others.”
Persuasive words they may be but the other person in this conversation, who’s not averse to hope but is weary from sustaining it in the fact of a lot of violently impressive opposition, isn’t inclined to embrace them a first, firing back that “So hope is a lie to trick people into action?”
Not so fast cynical one says her interlocutor who while acknowledging that “Hope is a lie that becomes true”, notes that “Hope means you try, and when you try, you inspire others to —“; after that things do get suddenly messy, but the point remains that believing that things can get better, has a powerful effect on people.
This effect is everywhere in the vivaciously colourful and existentially intense environs of Low, which is brutally honest about how viciously nihilistic and cruel the human race can be but which also maintains, and not without some fearsome evidence, that we are capable of so much goodness and beauty, and yes. hope, and that it can really take us places.
In this case quite literally …
Where it takes us is for the soon-to-be-reviewed fifth collection to detail but suffice to say, with artwork that feels like a fever dream of the apocalypse sprung to life and story that is prepared to GO THERE, and then some, we can rest assured that Low will never lack for humanity, imagination, optimistic light and desperate darkness, and HOPE which beams through every last part of this story and reminds how big and powerful we can be when we just believe.