In reading the first two selections for this series of articles, I noticed a link between them. Both Nexus and Miracleman were taking characters within the superhero genre and using them to push it to the extreme until they threatened to break it. In the case of Miracleman, Alan Moore did in fact break it only to reconstruct it at the very end. Perhaps the two seminal works in the superhero genre of the era, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, also followed the same path of pushing the idea of superhero comics to their logical conclusion only to become the new mold.
Zot! may have only been important for the fact that its creator had no desire to deconstruct the superhero genre in a market that was suddenly overwhelmed with deconstructions if that creator didn’t happen to be Scott McCloud. Of course, Scott McCloud would go on to write the textbook on comics as a medium and an art form, Understanding Comics, so Zot! doesn’t get to be a simple piece of counter-programming. This book gets the distinction of being “that comic” Scott McCloud cut his teeth on before creating his masterpiece.
Currently, Zot! is only available in a single collection with stories spanning from 1987 to 1991. Reading through that quite thick collection of Zot!, I was paying special attention to how each page was crafted so as to chart the evolution of a creator. As characters were drawn simpler, they became more expressive. Speed lines and panel layouts borrowed from manga brought a whole new level of motion and pacing to the book’s action. I had a good chuckle when an electrical outlet somehow appeared menacing as I remembered a chapter in Understanding Comics about symbols and attributing personhood to things with a “face.” Reading became this game of trying to spot the lessons McCloud was learning and would later teach or, more sadistically, looking for any failings from this theoretical master.
I was reading the book wrong.Yes, Zot! is an important book as it charts the progress of an amazing writer/cartoonist but it doesn’t redefine the medium because, well, Understanding Comics (and maybe Reinventing Comics) did that. As the story of a girl falling in love with a boy from a perfect world and going on wonderful adventures, it doesn’t redefine the superhero genre either. However, as I have already mention, it really doesn’t want to. That’s not McCloud’s ambition. After ten issues of a color series (very purposefully not collected) and a few black and white issues of Zot! based around the fantastic adventures of an Astro Boy-inspired protagonist, the book shifts focus. It slows down, scales back, and holds a mirror up to its audience.
The character of Zot was always the eternal optimist, a superhero in action and in nature, but the book’s lead Jenny was anything but. She was unsatisfied, pessimistic, and uncertain. The dichotomy between her and Zot was as great as the one between her world (the real world for all intents and purposes) and Zot’s near perfect, futuristic home. Of course, Zot was unchanging so it was up to Jenny to be the character to face her fears and try to mature as a person but there was a problem with the structure of the stories. Any time Jenny would journey to Zot’s world, she was running away from her problems and indulging in a very real fantasy. There could be no substantial growth so long as that option was available.
When Zot and Jenny become stranded on her world, Zot! becomes an entirely different comic. No longer is it about superhero adventures with themes of hope versus disillusionment. It actively becomes about hope and disillusionment, learning to express oneself, living with serious anxieties about the future, and so much more of the human experience. Zot’s still there, of course, and willing to play the role of fairy godmother in order to help out his ailing friends. These are the stories truly worth remembering and when I reached them I was confronted with how wrong I had been in my approach to the book. I had to start over once Zot! taught me how to properly read it.In the “Earth Stories” as Scott McCloud calls them (the majority of which were published in 1990 and 1991 thus straining this series of articles’ premise), there are several issues divided up between the perspectives of different supporting characters that act as something more character-driven than what came before. Jenny’s mother gets a spotlight issue that, while it may irk some readers due to being a bit on the “important” or “literary” side of things, captures a feeling of time lost and dreams forgotten. It’s a very adult story filled with adult fears that the teenaged characters of Zot! are just starting to grapple with. Other stories reflect the lives of people that may have been likely to read something like Zot!; people looking for some manner of escapism to help them cope with their troubles.
I found myself relating more than I’d care to admit to the character of Ronnie in “Clash of the Titans.” Heck, I’m sure that the story of an insecure kid that wanted to write comic books more than anything even if he may not have had the talent for it resonated with a lot of readers. Are Ronnie’s ideas really as silly as the Blotch or any of the other crazy villains that readers enjoyed seeing Zot fight before the book’s change of setting? Moving from the more traditional superhero genre and then back down to a slice of life puts readers in the mindset of a lot of these characters. They know truly amazing things are possible. They’ve already happened but now they’re having trouble remembering them and they’re not entirely sure when or if they’ll come back.
Zot! ends with a return to the perfect world that had been closed off and Jenny, with her parents finally divorced and her relationship with Zot cemented more firmly, wanting to move there permanently. She desperately wants to live a life of pure escapism but it’s Zot that stands in her way by telling her that if she moves to his world, he’ll stay behind in hers. It may seem cruel for the boy who never has to grow up to stand in her way but it’s the resolution of a longstanding conflict for Jenny. She’s going to have to live without the promise of a better future and try to make the best of the lot she was given but, as the joyride through Zot’s world at the end suggests, she still gets to enjoy the occasional vacation from the real world.
Ending a superhero comic (or whatever it is that Zot! ended as) by denying the characters and by extension the readers a permanent getaway from the real world with only the promise of occasional escapism struck me as a particularly honest ending. While your Alan Moores, Mike Barons, and Frank Millers went about tearing down the superhero paradigm, McCloud used the genre as a tool to say something about humanity. I have no doubt that it meant as much to those who read the conclusion in 1991 as it did to me in 2014.