When I first set out to read Best Wishes, I was poised to be both its biggest fan and its harshest critic. Concrete being my favourite comics work of all time, there was no way that any subsequent Dark Horse x Chadwick creation could live up to the masterful writing and ingeniously observed characterisation of that unmatchable series. Or so I thought… Seven years in the making, this highly anticipated new graphic novel bringing Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson and Concrete creator Paul Chadwick back together – in the latter’s first published comics work since 2013 – is every bit as wonderful as the duo’s previous output.
The pure joy of reading this densely woven yarn very much relies on the unexpectedness of what’s to follow on each successive page, so any allusions to the plot here should be kept to a minimum. Taking place in the ever faithful meet-cute setting that is New York City, in brief the story sees two complete strangers, Mary Capolavoro and Calvin Rupp, brought together at the unveiling of a fountain rumoured to have magical powers. As their lives intertwine in the most unexpected of ways, Mary and Cal must contend with insecurities, envy, sudden fame, obsession, drought both literal and metaphorical, workplace tensions, confused sexuality, and one very important symbol, as they strive to find love, success and meaning in an increasingly complicated modern world.
It’s uncommon to find a work of fiction that so effortlessly roots itself in realistic, conflict driven drama while maintaining not only an incisive sense of humour, but also an irrepressible optimism, and the romantic ideal that ‘anything could happen’. And in its 164 pages of intricately illustrated monochrome, including a remarkable 13-panel page, everything really does happen in Best Wishes. Much like Chadwick’s Ron Lithgow, or Stanley Ipkiss in Richardson’s The Mask, Mary becomes an overnight sensation in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ scenario that brings with it a serious imposter complex. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery with a ticket I found on the sidewalk”, she confides in Cal, as she navigates a cultural storm of her own unwitting creation. Chadwick excels at painting on the page these anxieties that one’s success has been unearned, and that their inadequacies and insecurities will be uncovered at any moment on a global stage. Nothing is taken for granted, everything is questioned to the point of unbearable tension, and a potential change of fortune awaits in every next panel. The story unfolds as unexpectedly as real life – or perhaps real life through the lens of a Hallmark dramedy – making for a truly complex rendering of Richardson’s original treatment.
Where modest heroine Mary will bring Concrete readers to think of Maureen Vonnegut in all her grace and intelligence, Cal, the frustrated artist who longs for recognition, shares undeniable characteristics with male-ego-personified Larry Munro. Cal is certainly not the textbook romantic lead, and observing his attempts to advance himself both in the workplace and in the eyes of Mary is often an excruciating exercise. Chadwick once summarised Concrete‘s existence as “one of sustained low-level embarrassment, punctuated by episodes of acute humiliation”, and Best Wishes has its fair share of these trademark cringe-worthy moments that lay the human soul totally exposed. Chadwick openly admits to all these characters being self-inspired, and his first-hand intimacy with their psychology allows for keenly observed dialogue and expertly executed physical gestures, be it a clenched fist in the corner of a panel, or a once bubbling fountain that stands stagnant in a period of creative impotence. This tendency towards self-investment in his characters would explain why the third vertex of the Best Wishes love triangle, Mary’s seemingly well-adjusted pro football player boyfriend Josh, is regrettably granted less of a plausible personality, however this is the singular detraction from an otherwise perfect marriage of Chadwick’s script writing and Richardson’s story.
“It’s easier to believe in magic in the old world, where stones hewn in fanciful, mythological shapes spill waters that sing of another time”, an anonymous narrator propounds in the opening lines to Best Wishes. The challenge that Richardson and Chadwick set themselves to write a tale full of hope and romance unfolding in the present day makes their work all the more refreshing to read. If you look hard enough, magic can still be found in the world around us, whether in a cultural moment that unites a divided city, a viral video that makes people smile across continents, or, as the case may be, in the long awaited reunion of two of comics’ most talented creators.
Mike Richarson & Paul Chadwick (W), Paul Chadwick (A/L) • Dark Horse Comics, $19.99