Reading volumes one and two of Zero, I was struck by how intelligent the material is. And then I became aware that this was a work created by an individual that was so much smarter than me. Ales Kot is certainly better read, more well-traveled, and more politically aware than I am as a writer and a human being. Reading his work, I am intimidated. Now, what I like to do when something intimidates me is to look at it and break it down so that I may understand it with the hopes that this will remove the intimidation factor. It’s a reaction prompted by the make-up of my brain and Zero is for all its creative efforts aims can be boiled down to being a book about reactions.
Zero is the story of an operative within an ill-defined agency named Edward Zero. He is the perfect result of physical conditioning, chemical enhancement, and constant mental stimulation. He is born in 1993, the year of my second-oldest sister’s birth, and his life is chronicled up to the year of 2038. It is eventful.
Each issue is illustrated by a different artist and serving as a done-in-one comic based around a single important moment in Zero’s life that builds from the last issue in some manner. The artist’s each have their different strengths that serve to make them the perfect candidate for the issue they have been selected to handle. Michael Walsh handles the art duties on issue one because his style is immediately the most palatable to a mass audience while still capturing the grit and the brutality of the fight across the Gaza Strip. Issue ten goes a different route by employing Michael Gaydos on a story of a much smaller scale for his ability to portray emotion with a series of realistically depicted characters.
My favorite example of artist matching the material is Will Tempest on issue five, the end of the first volume. His work is clean to the point of appearing sterile, giving readers the impression that they are reading something akin to a safety manual on a flight that is about ready to take off. It puts readers into the mindset of Zero himself as he undergoes the crushing boredom and rigidness of his routine. Emotion is portrayed more through the choice of shot than actual expression by the characters, their faces unchanging as a rule.
The portrayal of emotion struck me as a particularly interesting facet of the series. Edward Zero, thanks to the medication his unnamed agency keeps him on, does not feel in the way that most people do. His life is a study in precision and effectiveness so when he suddenly acts impulsively near the end of the first issue after absorbing the sight of a child’s mutilated, it is a shock that is unrivaled until a moment in which he verbally expresses emotion for the first time in issue seven with two words followed by a panel highlighted in red.
As it goes with most characters, the more the audience learns about Zero the more tragic his life becomes. Following the first issue with a flashback to his childhood establishes a connection with a certain character which is paid off in the third issue when he loses a connection as an adult that he was shown having since childhood. Then the fourth issue weaves back to Zero’s origin as a child soldier to create pathos to his interactions in a favela with a former Agency member and his band of armed children that he has taken under his wing, perhaps showing them a kindness he has never experienced before. That fourth issue also ends with Zero being given the same wound, a missing left eye, as the man in the favela which indicates that it may be time for Zero to transition out of his current life. The fifth issue ties it all together with questions about Zero’s actions in the first issue being brought to the forefront as he recovers from his injury in the fourth issue and his loss of love in the third all while recalling the rigidity of his training as a child. It’s a brilliant way of crafting standalone issues to be part of something larger both thematically and chronologically.
The second volume goes more inward with Zero coming to terms with his transformation as he’s already gone off the program of medication. His origins are explored more heavily with issue nine with a story that leads up to the tragic circumstances of his birth, adding waves of complexity to the acts he commits in the seventh issue in which he may or may not have been aware of vital information about a target that he’s killed. It’s all a matter of complexity layered on top of complexity.
Reading these volumes, I was reminded of a quote from the film adaptation of The Bourne Identity. It’s right at the end of the large action sequence at the end of what I would believe is act two when Bourne confronts the assassin sent after him. The assassin, known as the Professor, begins speaking and indicates that he is not sure why he was sent after Bourne with the implication that he believes he may have been sent so that Bourne could tie him off. I was struck by one of the final lines he says, something repeated at other points during the trilogy: “Look at this. Look at what they make you give.”
Edward Zero’s story is definitely the story of what they (with they being the agency) make him give. He gives his time, the love of his life, and his own eye. There’s a question of what he has left to give and just what he’d do to keep it for himself. This makes his efforts to assert his humanity and save himself from his employers carry a sense of uncertainty. Can he ever be free? Or will the intense conditioning he’s gone through keep him from ever being able to fully embrace himself as an individual. Has he already given all he had left?
Of course, this doesn’t encompass the entire book. I’ve neglected to mention the book’s ample science-fiction elements that start at one level in the first volume only to reach a critical mass by the end. It starts with the plausible (genetically and mechanically enhanced super-soldiers) to the far out (teleportation and what looks like an alternate life form of some sort). Just as this is the story of a man in transition, it is also the story of a world in transition as the book moves further and further into the future. And for that not to be the most fascinating part of the book says a lot for Kot’s ability as a writer to carry readers along with Zero on his journey of discovery.
This is the sort of book I and many others will relish as something that can be read again and again with more and more layers of depth being unveiled. Starting over with the information gained from each new chapter promises new levels of understanding. Each piece stands alone but it is also a part of a whole; a story comprised of moments made more meaningful by the next.