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Fleen Book Corner: Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991

Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 (hereafter, Z!C) is an odd thing to be reading at this stage in my life. As a freshman in college, I was handed a copy of the LOUDEST comic book in the universe, giggled, and promptly forgot about the creators. More than twenty years ago, I started reading Scott McCloud’s first creator-owned series about a do-goodin’ title character with a perpetually sunny disposition; I kept with it after the initial ten, color issues (not in this collection) transitioned to the stories of this collection. A move after college and a lack of good comic shops meant that I missed out on the “Earth Stories” that formed the final arc of the comic series.

More than fifteen years ago, I rediscovered McCloud through Understanding Comics; shortly thereafter, the Kitchen Sink Press reprints found their way into my collection, but KSP went under before the fourth volume, which would have comprised the Earth Stories. Ten years ago, I was the guy that liked The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. In the past two years ago, I met McCloud, devoured Making Comics, and bugged him more than once But when will you reprint the Earth Stories?

In retrospect, McCloud has taken up as much of my reading time, over so many projects, as any author I can think of. He created the one villain (in all of the fiction of my lifetime) so chilling, evil, and plausible in his malevolence that he’s given me bad dreams1. I’ve come to admire, respect, and treasure just hanging with the guy as much as I have valued his work — but here is this creation, from the beginning of his career, that I’d never seen in full. I paused before reading those final 200-odd pages, wondering if the past two decades would affect me and my reading, at long last, of the Earth Stories.

I shouldn’t have worried.

In Zot! (the whole series in general, this book in specific, and the Earth Stories in particular), we have the work of a young man eager to get all his ideas out on the page. We can see the evolution of the creator’s skill, but also of his interests as traditional comic book tropes give way to a nuanced, quiet exploration of characters away from the fantastic. But as much as this is clearly The Scott McCloud Show (in the final issues, it seems clear that the stories are both acting as test-bed for the theories that would form Understanding Comics, and a lens focusing those ideas through practice), I’m struck by how much Z!C anticipates the path that American comics have taken in the past 20 years.

Firstly, no trend in comics in the past twenty years has been as important as the rise of manga in the West, and I think that a fair case can be made that Zot! represents the first original English manga (those of you arguing in favor of Wendy & Richard Pini’s Elfquest, I’m willing to compromise). The idea first formed in my head when I noticed how even in the early pages of Z!C, characters had a late-70s to mid-80s Japanese feel. More specifically, I thought to myself, Am I crazy, or does Jenny have just a little Leiji Matsumoto in her design?

Digging a little deeper, I found the overall approach to character art to be mangaesque; in his written chapter notes McCloud derides his own ability to draw human figures, but I found them to be prime examples of how varying degrees of detail/looseness cause the reader to invest in the story (much like Ryoichi Ikegami’s work in Mai the Psychic Girl). Just as McCloud would demonstrate in UC how an object would be drawn as cartoony until it becomes a story focus — when it would suddenly be rendered in a much more realistic style — McCloud’s characters follow a similar shift (and in the case of the sympathetic-yet-dangerously-deranged bad guy Dekko, both cartoony and hyper-detailed are found side-by-side in one character, leading to both identification and objectification at the same time … neat trick).

As an odd side-note, the manga-style character designs are even more pronounced in two issues left out of this collection; Zot! numbers 19 and 20 were storyboarded by McCloud, but drawn by Chuck Austen so that McCloud could have a break to get married and go on his honeymoon. Pulling those two issues from my collection, I was surprised to find big eyes and small noses galore … kids scribbling Naruto in the back of their three-ring bingers would recognize the work as being from one of their own tribe.

Running in parallel to the manga elements, the stories in Z!C read like the sort of stories that have become so prevalent in original graphic novels in the past decade. The Earth Stories may well remind you of Blankets (in how it explores the interior motivation of the characters, especially in dealing with a senses of alienation) or Box Office Poison (in how an ensemble of flawed, broken people is portrayed as a natural ecosystem). Much as Alex Robinson draws on post-collegiate life as a basis for BOP, McCloud’s nerdy high school geek squad resonate in so many small ways that they must have been drawn from a thousand remembered conversations and incidents. Heck, even the visual design of the Jenny’s friend Terry (there from the very beginning of Zot!) made me dig out my copy of BOP to compare visual similarities.

Finally, those chapter notes I mentioned: they wrap up each story arc, covering between one and three issues of story. They reveal the initial thoughts of McCloud the Theorist, not just in how he’s come to view his early work (according to the “tribes” model in MC), but in how he was thinking at the time. Particularly interesting was McCloud’s discussion of the six villains he created for Zot!, each representing an aspect of how our future (particularly, our technology) could work against us. The more cartoony bad guys are pretty much unable to achieve their goals, and are all LOUD muwahahaha types (cf: DESTROY). The more chilling, dangerous, less comic-booky bad guys are all quiet and deliberate, and all the more plausibly menacing to our cartoony heroes. The most banally evil of the bunch2, completely amoral about his crimes and essentially unchecked by the Good Guys to the very end, never even raises his voice.

Is it a stretch to say that this dichotomy mirrors the contrast between the Silver Age wackjob villains vs. the modern grim ‘n’ gritty? Probably, but McCloud mocked the faux-seriousness of dark heroes in one of the color issues, even as he was making Bad Guys that were motivated by more than just a gimmick and a costume. Even cape-heavy comics seem to be slowly catching onto this idea.

Only one thing could have made Z!C better for me, but it would be completely impractical. In issue #9 (part of the color run not collected here), there was a perfect moment when Jenny (arguably the main character, and the reader’s surrogate in these stories) perfectly summed up comic book logic in three little words.

Having been literally chased across planets by the forces of an oppressive dictatorship and declared enemies of the state, Jenny, Zot, and their friend Vic escape from certain capture (and DOOM) by disguising themselves as reporters (complete with a sign that says PRESS in the hat band and a sticker on Vic’s chest that says MY NAME IS VIC) and hailing a cab on the street. Asked how they could possibly have slipped the trap, Jenny puts the nail in the coffin of every sneering, posturing, moustache-twirling (and one of them actually does twirl his moustache) comic book bad guy:

They’re kinda dopey.

Z!C is full of little pure moments like that, skewering comic books by slavishly adhering to their logic, then using the corpse to build something fresh, deep, and most of all, fun. Honestly, comics just don’t get any better than this.

1 9-Jack-9, of course. He kills not for cause or passion, but because he’s paid (or not paid on time). He killed Zot’s parents and has tried to kill Zot more than once, but has maintained a completely normal social relationship with Zot’s uncle for years because it’s nothing personal — it’s just work.

2 Ibid.

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