Back in 1987 I was just venturing into the world outside my insular world of Marvel and DC superheroes with titles like Grendel, Mage and Cerebus. Zot had been on my radar before in it’s earlier colour incarnation, but it seemed a little too technicolour and optimistic for my evolving tastes of the time (this was the late 80s and grim and gritty was the order of the day remember). Then came the stories in this enormous 575 page collection; black and white and promising something a little more original than superheroes yet retaining enough of the genre traits to make me feel on comfortable and familiar ground.
Which, on reading his introduction and the numerous text pieces between story arcs, seems pretty much what Scott McCloud was thinking at the time as well. Making Zot black and white and exploring different storytelling techniques and themes allowed McCloud to venture into the types of stories he wanted to tell. Yet by retaining the vivid red and gold costume and superhero adventuring of Zot he still had the familiar to fall back on. (And despite it being black and white, Zot the character is always a colour image in my mind’s eye against the black and white beauty of the rest of the world.)
Zot takes place between two worlds. Zot’s world is perennially 1965, albeit a 1965 of seeming peace and tranquillity with hover cars, jet packs, futuristic cities and mad science villains who never quite achieve their dastardly plans. And then there’s Jenny Weaver’s world, much like ours, where beauty and peace and tranquillity are much harder to find, often overwhelmed by the darkness, disappointment and all too human failings.
When you join the book, Zot and Jenny and the supporting cast on Zot’s world have already been fleshed out in the previous 10 colour comics. You can’t get them anymore, but you really don’t need to; they’re brightly coloured try outs for the book that McCloud wanted to write – this book that you hold. And for the first portion of the book Zot continues where the colour series left off; fun, exuberant superheroics, with Zot and Jenny flitting between the two worlds, meeting and beating the various examples of cartoon villainy that inhabit Zot’s world. Zot is a fun and simple superhero book, but one with delicate human touches and a sentimentality in the growing relationship between Zot and Jenny.
(Zot & Jenny, a very teenage love story. From Zot by Scott McCloud)
In the second half of the book the tone changes somewhat, with McCloud exploring the relationship between the worlds, the relationship between Zot and Jenny and Zot’s reaction to his inevitable failure as a hero on this far more complicated Earth. The retreat from superhero trappings is completed when Zot is conveniently trapped on Jenny’s normal Earth for the last nine issues. In these “Earth Stories” McCloud takes delight in pushing Zot a little further down in the mix and allowing him to flesh out the supporting cast of Jenny’s world. And if the first half of Zot is Zot’s story, the second half really belongs to Jenny.
From the very start McCloud let us know that Jenny’s family life wasn’t the most stable and she’s become used to using Zot’s perfect world to escape her problems, but with the link to Zot’s world lost she finally has to face up to her life and it’s many imperfections. And if Jenny’s life is far from perfect, she’s hardly alone, as we see when Jenny’s friends are given time to tell their stories.
At the time, I found “Earth Stories” really touching, and I’d regularly feel a tear welling up. I am a terrible blubber at these sorts of things and when I read the stories originally I was even more so. But on re-reading the book, some of the emotional power is diminished and there were no tears flowing, just a sentimental melancholy. This is primarily due to the fact that Zot is written about teenagers, and written by a young, idealistic author who was yet to find his true calling in comics. McCloud admits as much in the entertaining and informative text pieces that sit between the issues, as well as the admission that towards the end of “Earth Stories” he was desperate to start his next phase of comics with a little book he had in mind called Understanding Comics. There are occasions when the stereotypical problems (the gay friend, the bully, the alcoholic parent) and McCloud’s writing sometimes paint too broad a picture and fails to do anything more than illustrate a cliche.
(From the “gay friend” issue. From Zot by Scott McCloud)
But despite it not quite hitting me as hard in the emotional jaw, the last half of Zot does still prove to be a highly enjoyable mix of sentimentality and romantic comedy adventure. Think of it almost like some very well crafted teen drama book or TV series and you’ve got the tone of Zot. Much of my disappointment of reading it again comes from my own nostalgic recollections of the comic and I feel confident that someone coming to it today, as a new work would possibly see some of the flaws, but may not find them as distracting as I did.
Overly nostalgic and the flawed early attempts of McCloud to break away from the spandex clad adventures of his youth it may be. But it’s also an enjoyable, fun, sentimental and occasionally thought provoking comic experience.
Following Zot: The Complete Black & White Collection …… Hearts & Minds
Scott McCloud’s website is a source of news and views on the medium of comics and also hosts many of his experimental webcomics. McCloud’s obsession with the medium and it’s transfer online is something he’s talked about in his essential reference books on the medium: Understanding Comics, Re-Inventing Comics and Making Comics.
But of particular interest to readers of Zot is his “Hearts And Minds” Zot Graphic Novel available only on the website. The image below isn’t from the comic, it IS the comic; a map of all 16 episodes and 440 panels.
As McCloud himself says, the art for this online graphic novel is simplistic, as he was getting used to his graphics tablet and the plot is often just there to function as a handler for many of the experiments he’s undertaking, some of which just don’t work. But it’s forever interesting to see this great scholar of comic technique and style genuinely attempt to push the boundaries of the comic medium using his simple idea of the computer screen not representing a page of comics or even a panel, but merely a window into a comic scene.
McCloud may have gone onto bigger and better things with his essential trilogy of graphic novels that critically dissect and analyse the comic artform, but Zot can stand quite proudly as his very impressive first steps.