Review: ‘Zot! 1987-1991’ by Scott McCloud
Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991
By Scott McCloud
HarperCollins, July 2008, $24.95
There are those of us – only a few now, I bet – who keep hoping that Scott McCloud will finally get the comics-about-comics thing out of his system and go back to fictional comics. (1998’s [[[The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln]]] is generally skipped over in these laments, as it is in all other discussions of McCloud’s career, including the one in this book.) Oh, sure, [[[Understanding Comics]]] was one of the great graphic novels of the early ‘90s, and a major roadmark towards the modern comics field, and [[[Reinventing Comics]]] and [[[Making Comics]]] have their strong points as well, but, we keep wondering, what about [[[Zot!]]]?
We were heartened when Kitchen Sink Press reprinted three-quarters of McCloud’s Zot! run in three nice trade paperbacks in 1997-98, and then disheartened again when KSP went under before finishing up with the fourth volume to collect “Earth Stories,” generally considered McCloud’s best stories. And since then, we’ve mostly just been waiting and hoping, living on crumbs like “Hearts and Minds” and McCloud’s other webcomics.
But now Zot! is back, in something like a definitive form, from one of those real big-time bookstore publishers that the comics field is so in awe of. HarperCollins has been McCloud’s trade publisher as far back as Understanding Comics, so their imprint on this book implies a lot about their commitment to comics, and to McCloud.
But maybe I need to back up a bit, for those of you who weren’t around for the days of Eclipse in the late ‘80s. Zot! was McCloud’s comics debut, starting with a ten-issue storyline in full color in 1984-85 and continuing with twenty-six more issues in black and white starting in 1987. Those color comics are now only available in the first, long-out-of-print, Kitchen Sink trade paperback collection of Zot! from ten years ago, though this book hints that they may be reprinted if Zot! 1987-1991 is successful enough. (And maybe then we’ll get Chuck Austen’s art from two “fill-in” issues from the time of McCloud’s wedding, plus all of Matt Feazell’s “Dimension 10½ “ back-up strips.)
Zot! is a superhero comic, more or less – the hero is Zachary T. Paleozogt, a fifteen-year-old boy with rocket boots, a ten-shot blaster, and an unstoppable sense of his own abilities. He battles various supervillain-ish caricatures of varying threat in an alternate world that’s essentially the gleaming, perfect future as seen from the mid-twentieth-century. (Though there’s also interstellar travel, and some of the other planets are not nearly as utopian as Earth is.) Our viewpoint character, though, is usually Jenny, a girl from our world about a year younger than Zot – she’s complicatedly in love with him and with his world.
The stories are much more about the relationships between characters, and even the relationships between ideas, than that would seem: McCloud has always been honest about his formalist tendencies and intellectual obsessions, and those came out regularly in Zot!, cloaked more or less well in fiction. Each of the six major villains was an image of a particular kind of bad future for the human race – as I said, some more plausible and frightening than others – and the tension between Zot’s “perfect” world and our own, clearly imperfect, one was the main engine of the series. Zot was an optimist (without being a Pollyanna; he simply believed in doing the right thing and nearly always managed to do it), while Jenny was a pessimist who continually wanted to get out of her world for Zot’s better one. (Zot! also has an extensive group of minor characters, who have their own places in the schema – it doesn’t come across as contrived, but it’s an easy series to analyze and create theoretical structures from.)
McCloud was a strong writer even this far back; and there are moments of emotional power in the early stories in this collection that match anything anyone else has done in comics. (Those stories, though, are often too tied to the battling-the-villain premise to be as strong as their best moments.) By the last year of the series, though, with “Earth Stories,” McCloud had greatly matured as a writer, and threw aside many of the crutches he’d been using before that, particularly in a sequence of five issues that each focus on one day in the life of a particular support character of the series.
Re-reading the stories now, I was struck by the humanity and depth of feeling in them; I remember Zot! as a comic of fun and adventure, but McCloud’s precise linework and devastatingly effective dialogue were somehow forgotten. And the end of the series was a real ending; McCloud could do more Zot! stories, but there’s no reason for him to do so.
This edition not only reprints all of the purely McCloud stories from the black-and-white run of Zot!, but also has useful new introductions and afterwords by McCloud (for the book as a whole and for each separate story, as well as McCloud’s thumbnails for the “Getting to 99” story (which Chuck Austen drew for publication). It’s a big fat book – nearly six hundred pages – of excellent comics and thoughtful reflections by their creator twenty years later. It’s a shoo-in for an Eisner nomination for Best Graphic Album/Reprint, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it wins. These are vital comics works, as exciting as when they were first published, and this book should find thousands of eager readers across the country, in homes and libraries – I hope, particularly, that this makes it way into a lot of Young Adult collections, where it will be loved.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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