Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

09 September 2008

Zot!, 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection

Collects: Zot! #11-36 (Eclipse)

Released: July 2008 (Harper)

Format: 576 pages / black and white / $24.95 / ISBN: 9780061537271

Scott McCloud’s Zot! is one of those titles that had a high regard-to-access ratio. That is, the title was critically well regarded, but most people weren’t going to track down the back issues from an ‘80s black-and-white comic from a smaller publisher.

Now that Harper has published Zot!, 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection, readers don’t have to work hard to track down the adventures of McCloud’s eponymous protagonist, an optimistic superhero from the far-flung fabulous future of 1965, and Jenny, a normal girl from our world. But is it worth it?

Zot! coverLike Watchmen, going against the critical wisdom will make you look foolish, dense, or contrarian. I can certainly see some of what critics like so much about this book. McCloud’s art, for instance, is outstanding, as clear and open as Zot himself. In his commentaries on the issues, McCloud often mentions how his perfectionistic tendencies put him behind frequently, and I can believe it; obviously a lot of attention has gone into each page, each panel, each line. For those whose impression of McCloud comes from his avatar in Understanding Comics , this is likely to be a bit of a shock — a pleasant one, but a shock nonetheless.

The commentaries on each storyline are also interesting. McCloud comments on how the plots were influenced by his life, newly married and living hand-to-mouth occasionally (his realization that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were making a mint off products like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles macaroni and cheese, then realizing he has to settle for regular, cheaper mac and cheese is priceless). He gives a great deal of access to his thoughts and theories, showing how a man who started with an offbeat but not worldshattering superhero comic ended up writing the seminal Understanding Comics after transforming what his comic was about.

But I didn’t particularly enjoy that shift. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Zot! is trapped in our world, and after his world — full of optimism, technology, and supervillains — he has trouble dealing with the mundanity of this world. (Or so Jenny thinks.) His optimism remains, but the book evolves into a teenage drama book, albeit one with a superhero hanging around. To be fair, I think the teenage drama is better done, if only because Zot! seems too invincible in his native environment. (Yes, I know heroes are invincible, and I know Zot loses occasionally, but he isn’t really challenged enough.) The story in which he is challenged the most, “Getting to 99” (#19-20), is presented only in McCloud’s rough, unpublished layouts that served as a script for fill-in artist Chuck Austen. Even when he’s challenged for Jenny’s affection, his rival backs down in an eminently reasonable manner.

So the best stories are in the teenage drama; the absolute best, in which one of the characters realizes her homosexuality, can stand against much of the best stories of that era, regardless of genre. Zot is perfect for that story: a visitor from a world where people are free to be what they are and what they want to be, realizing what this character has suffered by denying her nature, is beautiful. There are other stories dealing with traditional coming-of-age themes like teenage sex and parental divorce, and by and large, they hold up.

Unfortunately, as a vehicle for these stories, he uses Jenny’s circle of friends. Most of these character have had little more than cameos for the first two-thirds of the book, and McCloud expects us to care about them like we do for Zot and Jenny, and that’s just not happening; Ronnie, in particular, comes across as slightly creepy, and Spike feels like a random element thrown into stories just to fill space, not be a character or move the plot.

To a degree, though, I’m selling McCloud short; the real center of this book is Jenny, not Zot. She met Zot in the first ten color issues (not included here), and in this book, we see Zot’s world through her eyes. It’s a lot better than our world — cleaner, safer, happier — and Jenny becomes convinced only there can she find happiness. The world’s stagnation doesn’t bother her because she’s looking for stability as her parents move toward divorce. The book ends only when she’s forced to accept that Zot’s world is only an escape, not a permanent refuge. Jenny’s story is interesting, but she never quite gains the personality that draws the reader to her — she’s pleasant, but somewhat less than magnetic.

I received this book for free from the Harper table at the American Library Association annual meeting. (As a side note: I usually have difficulty finding a link to the cover of a volume — one that’s the actual cover, straight on, and of the size I generally use. I had no trouble this time. This is the difference between something pushed by the Marvel / DC / Diamond forces and a more conventional force like Harper.) I even got it signed by Mr. McCloud, even though his hand was in a brace; he seemed very pleasant. Because of that, I wish I enjoyed this slightly more than I did, but even though I see the quality, I feel this might be more appropriate and more moving for younger people (to be fair, they were the ones buying comics back then) or people who are more in touch with their high school days.

Rating: Zot! cover, except smaller Zot! cover, except smaller Half the Zot! cover, except smaller(2.5 of 5)

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