Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Zot!: This portends well for Scott McCloud's return to fiction

The posts, they continue to be written.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection
By Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud is deservedly famous for his comics on comics theory, but his other well-known work, Zot!, is also pretty highly regarded, at least by those who were around for the 80s black and white boom.  A few years ago, I read a collection of the series' first storyline (which was in color, and thus not part of this volume), and while it wasn't bad, it left me wondering what the big deal was.  But now that the rest of the series has been collected, I understand why it is held in such high regard.  After those first ten issues of bright, fun, and fairly lightweight superheroics, McCloud took some time off, and returned with an attempt to do something different and tell some more ambitious stories.  As the series went on, he even dropped the superhero aspects for the most part, choosing instead to focus on realistic human stories.  While that might not seem too shocking today, at the time, it had to be pretty groundbreaking.

While the book shows its age in the obviously youthful mindset of its creator, the still-developing artwork, and the simplicity of the plots (not to mention the way it clings to the safety of the superhero genre), it holds up quite well, providing some entertaining stories and good characters.  McCloud especially did a good job in developing his main character, Jenny, as a sort of depressed teenager who dreams of leaving her ugly, mundane world behind for the brightness and excitement of her sort-of-boyfriend Zot's futuristic, utopian alternate reality.  She seems very real, in that self-obsessed teenage way, and her despair at the broken world around her is hard to watch.  But then Zot returns to her life, and begins turning everything upside down by sometimes whisking her away for adventures fighting goofy villains in his world, and other times deciding to live in the "real world" and try to fight crime and make things better.  In a telling moment, Zot stops a mugging on a trip to New York City, and doesn't find crime-fighting as easy as he does in his dimension:

The contrast between the two worlds becomes a major theme of the series, and while McCloud does allude to some interesting metafictional ideas (time doesn't seem to flow correctly on Zot's world, and everything there seems based on Earth history in some way, as if it is an actual fictional construction that is somehow interacting with the real world), he never really explains them fully, probably because he became more interested in small, realistic stories and less in the big, fantastical superheroics.  In one of the best stories, a supercomputer named Zybox comes to Jenny's world and begins controlling people's minds, trapping Jenny and Zot in artificial mental constructions of reality.  This gives us an entire issue in which Jenny seems to be going crazy, as her friends and family have no memory of Zot and think she is making everything up.  To add to the emotional punch, one scene sees her search her diary for something about her experiences with Zot, but all she can find is references to her parents' divorce.  It's as if she really did make everything up just to escape a painful reality, and it's incredibly hard to watch.  Sure, the idea of being "trapped in a world you never made" is hardly a new one, even twenty years ago, but McCloud executes it very effectively, especially in a scene in which Jenny thinks she sees Zot, but he turns out to be an illusion:

Unfortunately, that issue might be the high point of Jenny's character development; she spends the rest of the series wishing to get away from her world and move to Zot's.  Her parents' divorce even turns out to be real, and not just a part of Zybox's illusions, but we don't see much reaction to it; it simply stays in the background.  That's actually an interesting move on McCloud's part (he avoids the big dramatic family confrontations), but it seems like it should have been addressed eventually, especially after he made the move toward more human, emotional stories.

The other main character, Zot, turns out to be kind of bland.  He's relentlessly cheery and optimistic, and while that makes for some fun scenes when he's facing off against villains, he almost comes off as moronic on Jenny's world.  That's kind of the nature of the character though; he's an idealized hero from an idealized world, unfettered by doubt and pessimism.  Luckily, there are a few moments in which we see him react emotionally to failure and death, a possibility that was never a factor in his world:

McCloud definitely did his best to make him as real as he could, but against the realistic backdrop that increasingly consumed the series, he still seems pretty shallow.

The other, minor characters do come off pretty well, from Jenny's brother Butch, who alternates between teasing and supportive; to Woody, another love interest of Jenny's who is in the unfortunate position of competing with a near-perfect superhero.  Jenny's friends are a well-defined gang as well (especially in the later stories, when they start getting stories that focus on them), consisting mostly of comics nerds who spend a lot of time playing role-playing games.  A punk named Spike seems particularly realistic; he's an obnoxious Wolverine fan who puts together crudely-drawn comics stories and wants to kill anything that moves in their gaming sessions.  Not exactly pleasant, but I've spent time around plenty of little punks like that.

So the characters are pretty good, but how about the stories they live in?  As mentioned, the first two thirds of the book are more straight-up superhero stories, with Jenny and Zot fighting various supervillains, mostly in Zot's world.  They're pretty entertaining, with the occasional stand-out chapter (like the aforementioned head trip being the best).  A goofy bit in which Zot impulsively signs a sponsorship contract for soda pop and ends up under the thumb of a Kingpin-like corporate criminal isn't bad, and a conflict with cyborg artist Dekko gives McCloud an opportunity to show off some cool modern-art imagery:

One other story sort of stands out, in which Zot's nemesis 9-Jack-9 menaces him and some interplanetary diplomats.  It's striking, in that it's darker than most of the stories and deals with death and war, and Jack's target, the young daughter of the diplomatic family, is like a version of Jenny whose depression and desire for escape from her life is taken to extreme, suicidal limits.  But it doesn't really work all that well; McCloud seems to have been trying to inject darkness and try to tell deeper stories, going so far as to reveal a connection between Jack and Zot's uncle Max.  It ends up being a weird tonal change that seems off, especially in Zot's bright, cheery world.  Maybe this is part of what sent McCloud in the other direction, finding emotional depth in the smaller, more mundane moments, rather than drama and death.

Really, the best parts of the "Heroes and Villains" section of the book are the occasional beautiful little moments, like a scene during Zybox's mental takeover of Jenny's earth in which he causes the entire planet to join together in a shared dance:

Or the incredible futuristic cityscapes that McCloud obviously enjoyed drawing:

And here and there, he managed to capture some moments of real natural beauty as well:

There's also a two-part story that McCloud didn't illustrate due to being on his honeymoon; it ended up being finished by Chuck Austen, but the small layouts are included here, and it's a nice, fast-paced action story.  It's a good example of the way McCloud was trying to push himself in new directions and tell different types of stories.

But the real good stuff comes in the final third of the book, as McCloud almost completely does away with superheroics and tells small, down-to-earth stories about Jenny and her friends and family.  The best section is probably a quartet of stories, each focusing on a single minor character.  There's Jenny's mom, who reflects on the past and her crumbling marriage.  Ronnie, a young comics fan who hopes to write his own someday, and his flighty, bohemian girlfriend Brandy each get their own chapter; Brandy's is especially poignant, since we see the personal troubles behind her cheery exterior.  And Jenny's friend Tracy is another good subject, as she deals with her awakening as a lesbian.  It's a sad, realistic depiction, as she is ashamed of herself and longs to be normal; this leads to one of the best moments in the series, after she ends up sharing her feelings with Zot:

Some of the other chapters work pretty well, although an issue-length conversation between Jenny and Zot about sex comes off (probably purposefully) as awkward and unsatisfying, and (as McCloud admits in his notes) a chapter in which Zot wanders around New York trying to find crime to fight and struggling with the backward concept of racism is a bit heavy-handed.  But overall, it's an excellent set of stories, and at the time, for a fun superhero book to step away from its roots and start telling such low-level stories must have been nothing less than mindblowing.  While this sort of thing is commonplace these days, it's fascinating to see some of the medium's early steps toward maturity.  If nothing else, McCloud's developing artwork is exquisite; his real-world images are beautiful and emotionally evocative:

So, while I wouldn't call this a masterpiece, it's a great document of a moment in comics history, and a good source for those who are curious as to whether the creator of Understanding Comics and Making Comics can actually follow his own advice (answer: he can).  McCloud's notes about what was happening in his life as he was making these comics, how he views them now, and his reflections on the themes of the work also make for fascinating reading.  He states in the afterword that he has plans to return to creating fictional comics, and after seeing what he can do (and how much more he has improved in the years since) I for one can't wait to find out what he has in store.