GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "Z"


Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection (1987-1991) 2008 (SC TPB) 576 pages

cover by McCloudWritten and illustrated by Scott McCloud.
black and white. Letters: Bob Lappan. Editor: Cat Yronwode.

Reprinting: Zot #11-36 (minus back up stories, and #19 & #20 reprinted from the original layouts) - originally published by Eclipse Comics

Additional notes: extensive commentary and annotations by McCloud.

Suggested mildly for mature readers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Oct. 20, 2009

Published by HarperCollins

Scott McCloud enjoys an unusual position in comicdom. He's a high profile name, even as he's done...well, very little. His biggest claim to fame is as a non-fiction commentator on the comics medium, thanks to his seminal book, Understanding Comics, as well as subsequent tomes such as Reinventing Comics. And, of course, one could remember that snide old adage that he who can, does, he who can't...teaches.

But before McCloud became comicdoms most famous teacher/guru/self-styled visionary, his initial claim to fame (or, at least, cult status) was as the creator/writer/artist of Zot!

And with the burgeoning trend toward, not just collected editions, but massive omnibus volumes, comes this massive (almost complete) collection of that nearly twenty year old series. Why "almost complete?" Because Zot! began life as a colour comic which was cancelled after ten issues, only to resume a couple of years later in a black and white format that maybe didn't demand the same sales numbers that a colour series needed. In that format, Zot! ran till issue #36 -- and it's #11-36 that has been collected here. Minus back up features, and with issues #19-20 presented in their original rough storyboard version (the finished comics were actually drawn by Chuck Austen from McCloud's layouts) -- presumably so the book would be pure McCloud (or maybe he couldn't afford to pay Austen reprint fees). And why the first ten issues are skipped is also, I suppose, up for debate -- with McCloud suggesting both that he was less satisfied with the work looking back now, to the simple fact that another ten issues would've added 200 plus pages to this collection! Along the way, McCloud admits to having done a few retouches here and there -- but not many.

The problem with the decision to skip the first ten issues is that, although McCloud suggests in his commentary that the black & white series was a "reboot" -- it's not really. And there are a few spots with recurring characters and cryptic references to past events that just reminds you you're missing some of the background.

Anyway...so what is Zot?

Well, first off, it's a "who": Zachary T. Paleozogt, a teen from an alternate reality that is at once the past (his time is the 1960s) and the far future, as it's a Gernsbackian world of pristine skyscrapers, flying cars, and a boundless optimism. Zot is essentially a superhero on his world, flying about with jet boots and a ray gun, battling colourful villains.

The other star of the series is Jenny...a girl from our world, circa the 1980s. Zot is able to crossover from his world to Jenny's, bringing Jenny back and forth with him. And to Jenny, stuck in the stifling mundanity of American suburbia, with homework, and a disintegrating family with parents on the verge of divorce, Zot's world represents everything she wishes her world was, and isn't and never will be. Yet it's Zot, ever the Pollyanna optimist, who doesn't understand Jenny's attitude, because he sees the beauty in both worlds.

So...what is Zot!?

That's a bit harder to quantify, because it's a mercurial mishmash, at once intriguing in its changing tones and ideas...and frustrating in its inconstancy. Thematically one can see Zot! as a kind of up-date of Peter Pan. It's also a light-hearted, self-reflective parody of a comic book adventure series, following in the late '80s trend of post-Watchmen self-referential comics, where even Zot often treats his adversaries as cartoony, where his friends will gather to watch the fight and cheer as though it's a football game. Yet other times, it's a straight faced super hero/SF adventure series, and the villains are deadly and the stories veer into dark and even tragic directions. And beyond all that...it's a slice of life drama, as Jenny's world is depicted in its meticulous realism of quiet moments and mundane non-events. This "kitchen sink" aspect becomes more pronounced as the series progresses, as about two thirds of the way through Zot becomes stranded in our world and the series veers almost fully into slice-of-life realism ("almost" because, well, you still have Zot flittering about, still with jet boots and an invisibility shield, but often more as a peripheral character). This collection is even broken into two sections: #11-27 labelled "Heroes and Villains" and #28-36 as "The Earth Stories".

As I say, it's a bit of a mishmash. One could argue, like a lot of "ambitious" comics creators of his generation, McCloud was over-intellectualizing his material -- as if still wanting to cling nostalgically to a genre his younger self had affection for, even as his older self is beginning to feel an element of condescension toward it. So he justifies his continuing interest by analyzing and deconstructing it in a self-reflective way (at one point in one of the collection's many commentaries he defines his characters as reflections of Jungian archetypes!). As a contrast, in the 1970s, Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes did a series for Marvel called Omega the Unknown which also married a super hero fantasy with a downbeat, slice-of-life realism. But with that it was a story, first and foremost. With McCloud it can feel a little too self-consciously contrived.

To be fair, that may not always be intentional. Remember my earlier comment about those who can't...? At times, one could argue McCloud's problem may be that he had processed and analyzed the comics medium, learning its techniques (leading to his later books about comics) -- but perhaps he had more technique than talent.

Okay, stop there. 'Cause that's a lot harsher than it probably should be. I mean, obviously, McCloud has talent. In fact, some of the stuff here boarders on exceptional. But McCloud's interests were clearly dragging him in a direction different than the series began. And McCloud himself is constantly being self-depecrating throughout in his commentaries -- whether he truly is that self-critical or whether he's just trying to pre-empt reviews like mine will be left up to your own personal level of cynicism.

But I'll confess a problem I had with the first part of this volume is McCloud's art. His composition and storyboarding is certainly ambitious, his choice of close ups, of how to break down an action across panels. Although, again, it can at times seem like an advanced student of the comic book form more than a master of same. While his backgrounds and cityscapes are often impressively detailed and well thought through. But viscerally, they tend to look like, well, drawings, as opposed to an environment against which the stories take place. Likewise, his people can be a bit stiff and crudely drawn. McCloud was imbibing a variety of influences at the time, including Japanese Manga comics (especially notable in some of the faces like Jenny). But it's still not always great drawings per se. He can tell the scenes, convey the information the visuals need to convey, but viscerally, I didn't always find myself enjoying just looking at his pictures. As an example, issues #19-20 reprint, not the published comics, but the rough storyboards McCloud provided the actual artist -- and they are reprinted at a quarter the size of the regular pages (fitting four pages on a single page of this collection). And, honestly, I didn't necessarily enjoy the art that much less for all that it was shrunken, rough sketches.

McCloud himself acknowledges some problems with the art, even pointing out that his obsessive story boarding maybe sapped some spontaneity out of the visuals.

Likewise, McCloud's writing can be a mixed bag of intellectually clever aspects...but viscerally less compelling. As I say, the series is a mix of tones, and that very mix can make it a bit hard to figure out how to "read" a story. Some issues seem to be tongue-in-cheek where it's all a fantasy and there's no danger. And others are serious adventures where people can be killed. But it can seem less like McCloud is exploring variety in his series...and more like he hasn't settled on the "rules" himself, not worried overmuch about inner logic and consistency. With that being said, McCloud's experimentation with tones and styles can also be the series' strength...particularly in a collected edition. The two-parter in #19-20 ("Getting to 99") is a kind of cleverly off-beat "Die Hard" riff (though lighter in tone), with Zot racing in real time through a massive building complex of 99 floors in order to prevent a bomb going off. While #16 ("Call of the Wild") starts out a bit odd as, even for a series given to tongue-in-cheek, it seems rather farcical...until you quickly realize that's what it is, a "change of pace" wacky story where McCloud genuinely captures the spirit of, say, an old Marx Brothers movie in a sequential panels format.

It's some of the more serious, thriller stories that actually can be more unsatisfying. Not that they don't start out okay, but often not quite generating the necessary tension, and getting a bit muddled as they go. Some of that may be a problem with McCloud's storytelling, and partly a problem with those missing first 10 issues, as in stories with recurring villains you're not really sure whether you're supposed to have some prior knowledge -- like "The Ghost in the Machine" (#23-25) where the villain's prior connection to Zot is a bit cryptic (implying he had killed Zot's family...or something) and with a climactic revelation that isn't the least bit foreshadowed...at least not in these pages.

The characters, too, can be a bit vague. Whether that's a reflection of the same cavalier approach to inner logic, those missing first ten issues, McCloud maybe thinking too hard in terms of Jungian symbols rather than flesh-and-blood people, or simply my reservations about the art not making them "come alive" -- I don't know. But at one point McCloud refers to a poll among his readers about who was their favourite character...and I was left thinking, um, I can barely put a name to some of them, let alone decide on a favourite. Even Zot can seem a bit ephemeral, with Jenny emerging as the most "real".

Bubbling underneath is a feeling McCloud is losing interest in the very genre he is writing in. Even in the early issues, often the best scenes are those steeped in the slice-of-life realism of Jenny's world. An early scene where Jenny, her friend Terry, and Zot are hanging out at a swimming pond is memorable, in the cute dialogue, and the visual concepts (Zot lazily skimming over the pond, letting the back of his head trail in the water).

So the sudden shift in the series to the "Earth Stories" is almost inevitable. Inevitable...but still awkwardly abrupt. The characters had started pondering on the nature of Zot's dimension, all as if a prelude leading us somewhere...but it doesn't, as suddenly Zot finds himself unexpectedly stranded in Jenny's earth. And by the next issue (just so McCloud can still play around with a few fantasy toys when he wants) we learn that Zot conveniently -- but with no explanation -- has a bunch of gadgets secreted on Jenny's world. It's almost as if the change in direction came suddenly to McCloud, rather than was something he was carefully building to. Now the focus is on Jenny and her circle of friends -- some of whom were featured characters all along, some that are basically "new". Well, except that I realize there is one earlier, minor scene where most of them appeared -- so had McCloud really planned this move that far ahead, or was it that once he had, he looked back through his past issues to see if their were any minor walk ons he could turn into major characters?

And here's the thing: because when I earlier said McCloud was capable of some exceptional work...it's some of the "Earth Stories" of which I was thinking. Yet I still have a certain mixed reaction to the change. This isn't simply a change-in-direction, or a refocusing of priorities. For all intents, it's a completely different series that happens to feature characters with the same names. Even though there is a lingering fantasy aspect by virtue of Zot's continued presence, more often than not even he is just a supporting figure. So is it really fair for McCloud to pretend it's all one whole? (one could liken it to the way the old TV sitcom "Mary Tyler Moore" led to the spin-off, "Lou Grant"...which was a drama).

I tend to resist the urge to assign inherent value to "genres". Some people would probably argue the "Earth Stories" are better because slice-of-life is inherently the better, more sophisticated genre. I tend to want to believe each genre has its capacity for greatness and profundity. And if the "Earth Stories" are better than the "Heroes and Villains" stories, maybe that's more a reflection on McCloud than the respective genres.

Still, the "Earth Stories" are, for the most part, quite good. And I say that as someone who, if asked in the abstract, would probably have expressed less interest in reading those than the earlier adventure issues!

Partly McCloud's art has improved over the series, certainly with his backgrounds more textured and evocative. But also his characters, and their expressions, seem more effective. As well, as I've said in other reviews, slice-of-life tends to require less aesthetic visual appeal than super hero and adventure series (I mean, think about it: would a Chester Brown even be on an editor's short list to draw, say, Superman?) The focus in that genre is more on the writing, with the visuals mainly there to convey information.

And if McCloud's still thinking in terms of psychological archetypes, he's hidden it beneath the need to create fleshed out characters. Each issue tends to be told from a different character's point of view (with the others still involved, of course) and here perhaps McCloud is being more personal, drawing upon his own experiences and memories of kids he had known (the informal role playing game they indulge in is apparently modelled after one McCloud conceived for his friends in high school). There are still fantasy aspects here and there. Like an issue where Zot goes out to fight crime and finds it a bit trickier than in his world (in a reprise of a theme explored in one of the earliest issues in this collection) for a nice tale, though McCloud is more patronizing toward it in his commentary. Or an issue where Zot helps Woody fend off some bullies which is more awkward, trivializing the issue. But mostly it's character dramas about real people with real dilemmas. But the reason it works is because they are interesting people with interesting dilemmas (interestingly, the character that most reminded me of people I've known was Spike -- who thankfully remains a peripheral character and is the sort whose year book would probably say "Most likely to do time"). The writing is frequently subtle, and always empathetic. The stories paced out well (slice-of-life doesn't have to mean plodding or dull).

The stand out issue is "Normal" (#33) detailing one girl's coming to terms with her lesbianism. One might question whether an adult, straight, male is really best suited to writing a story about a teenage lesbian -- it's not that I don't believe people can write about whoever they want. But this isn't a story about, say, a lesbian private eye where her sexuality is merely one aspect of a character. But McCloud pulls it off well (at least, in this opinion of another straight, adult, male!) At least, he makes you believe in this girl's feelings and emotions in this situation...which is all a writer can do.

"Clash of Titans" (#31) is also quite memorable.

And funnily enough, over these issues, Zot himself becomes a more interesting character. Earlier his up-beat, unflappable good naturedness could sometimes seem a bit like a substitute for a real personality. Even his easy acceptance of being stranded on earth -- possibly to never see his friends and family again -- seemed more sociopathic than optimistic. But inserted into these "real" stories amid these "real" people, Zot's goodness becomes a genuine character trait, his open-heartedness a beacon in a world of stormy grey. When he comes to Terry in "Normal", and says what he says, McCloud shows Zot's optimism is not simply a mask to cover his ignorance. And is an extraordinarily powerful moment.

By this point, the series is also moving into more mature areas. The series had occasionally flirted with that, with occasional -- very occasional -- bits of harder profanity. But still, the shift might have seemed a bit jarring, particularly with #34 which, as a thematic companion piece to the previous issue, deals more explicitly with gay bashing, in which a bully hurls some pretty extreme invectives -- and that's in the cleaned up version! (McCloud having watered down the dialogue from the original issue which he himself decided was too jarring). Likewise, the next issue, where Jenny and Zot discuss the possibility of, y'know, doing it, might have seemed like an unusually frank conversation for a series once about a guy in tights fighting super villains. But again, it's a reasonably well done issue, joining the list of comics where a whole issue is devoted to a single, real time conversation. And its very minamalism leads to some particularly well realized moments and visuals.

When the series comes to an end, it does come to a close after a fashion. That is, you don't feel like it was cancelled in mid run. McCloud was basically done with it, had said all he wanted to say, and ties it back together with the main body of the series for a satisfying sense of completeness. McCloud himself acknowledges he often gets fans coming up to him, asking him when he will write more Zot stories, and he clearly left them with the impression that, y'know, someday. But reading his commentaries here, one doesn't get the impression he ever intends to return to the property (without him absolutely closing the door on the idea).

And so I'm left a bit unsure how to assess this collection. As mentioned, it veers about so wildly in tones and intents, it's really hard to say it works or it doesn't. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't so much. It's certainly never bad, my reservations about some of the art notwithstanding. McCloud's extensive and detailed commentaries peppered throughout also make for intriguing reading. And for a series initially intended as superhero adventure (and a parody of a super hero adventure) the human drama of the last few issues is the highlight -- and are perhaps enough to compensate for any earlier growing pains.

And maybe that's what this book is: a coming of age story. Not just for Zot, Jenny and her friends, but for McCloud, as a person, and as a storyteller. It isn't that you have to share McCloud's evolution, or feel that super hero fantasy must give way to realist drama, but you can appreciate watching him mature along his own particular life path.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.95 USA

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