Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Two: Zot! by Scott McCloud

Before Scott McCloud became famous for Understanding Comics he was a little known comics creator with only one real professional credit to his name. Zot! was originally a ten-issue full color series published by Eclipse Comics in 1984-85. It went on hiatus for a brief period and returned as a black and white book with issue #11 and continued to be published in this format until it finally ended with issue #36.

The hiatus was due to low sales of the original ten issues. I'm sad to say I was part of the problem at the time.

The early 80's featured an explosion on new comics coming out of the creation of Direct Market Distribution. After the dominance of Marvel and DC comics being the only comics available on the racks (with a few exceptions to this generality), it was a time of great excitement in the world of comics. It seemed like there was suddenly a tremendous wealth of new ideas and concepts available. In retrospect, much of what came out during this period were variations on the same superhero, science-fiction and fantasy tropes that had always existed in comics. But to a lot of us it felt very fresh (and quite honestly, most of the books I plan on talking about in upcoming blogs come from this time period).

At the time I didn't have regular access to a comic book store (not counting the once in a blue moon trip to Pittsburgh), and Direct Market books were not available on the newsstand. There were days of panic when I would read about some cool new comic and wonder if I would ever actually see it. I started a subscription service through Mile High Comics in Colorado and would put in a monthly order for comics. Once a month a box of joy would arrive.

Even with this service I wasn't as adventurous with new titles as I could have been. Maybe if I had been going to a comics shop regularly and had had the opportunity to browse titles before purchasing them I would have tried a wider variety of titles. As it was, most of what I subscribed to were the DC titles that had gone Direct Sales only (Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes, Infinity Inc.), and some of Marvel's Epic line of creator-owned titles. There were a few others, but these were usually only added after I had seen them at a convention or a trip into Pittsburgh (I shopped at Eide's and the nascent Phantom of the Attic whenever I made the trip).

I had seen Zot! advertised in some of the books I read (probably DNAgents, a superhero book from the same publisher), but I pretty much ignored it, for a lot of the very reasons that I eventually came to love it for. Part of the excitement of the Direct Market was that the Comics Code Authority held no sway over the content of these books. They were able to have more sophisticated and adult content (in theory, anyway). This was well before the entire Grim and Gritty fad that took over comics by the late 80's, but still, at the time the image of the character Zot just didn't grab me. It was too clean, too innocent looking, too juvenile for me when what I was looking for more adult than the mainstream comics I had been reading. It looked helplessly retro and as a result I ignored it.

The design of Zot himself immediately brings to mind the original Captain Marvel from the 1940's (SHAZAM, as he is more and more frequently being referred to). The red costume with a yellow lightning bolt on the chest has an iconic look to it (though Zot's lightning bolt is stylized to resemble a backwards Z). The squinty eyes of both characters sealed the similarity. McCloud says in one of the issues that this wasn't intentional and he only realized it after the fact. Given the lack of access to comics from the 40's at that time it's possible that while Scott had probably seen some images of C.C. Beck's art it probably wasn't just lying around. 

The other piece of artistic influence was the design of Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese Manga. Originally Zot was intended to be a robot (you can see the design in Zot! #8).

Over time I grew more adventurous and had read some great reviews of Zot! Sometime between the publication of the last color issue and the first black and white one I found the entire first ten-issue run at a pretty decent price (I seem to remember this being at a convention, but I couldn't tell you which one... It could as easily have been at Eide's or Phantom). I took the plunge and bought all of them.

Quite simply, I fell in love with the book. It was, as I had thought, helplessly retro. But it also maintained an incredible sense of hope for the future. It was fun! At a time when superheroes were starting down a dark trail (a trail I followed and thoroughly enjoyed at the time), Zot! was a palate-cleansing breath of fresh air and a renewal of wonder.

McCloud sums up his intent in an author's note in issue #1; “Welcome to Zot! no. 1, home of one of the most incorrigibly happy heroes you'll ever meet.” He goes on to say, “So that's the spirit that Zot carries inside him, the spirit of unyielding and irrational hope.”

From its inception Zot! has been at odds with the prevailing trends of the superhero genre. But for me, that is exactly what makes it stand out.

I don't want to belabor the plot points, but the essence is this... Thirteen year old Jenny Weaver has just moved to a new town with her brother Butch after her mother and father's divorce. She's feeling alone and depressed and friendless in her new middle American suburban home. Suddenly, a portal opens in mid-air and Zot flies through being chased by deadly robots. After Zot defeats the robots he takes Jenny and Butch through the portal to his world. It's the wardrobe of Narnia, or Alice's rabbit hole, one of the classic tropes of the fairy tale. Every child has fantasized about leaving this boring world behind and going to another place full of magic, wonder and adventure. Of course, there's always danger as well.

In Zot's world it is perpetually 1965, an era that looked forward to a utopian science fiction future. It's bright and shiny and clean and filled with technological marvels. The initial story line involved the MacGuffin of the search for a golden key that would open a plain wooden door that hung mysteriously in space (and the reveal of what lay behind it when it was opened was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment for me). Along the way there were chase scenes and fights with villains and mayhem involving monkeys. But the plot was always secondary to the characters for me.

McCloud later revealed that he based the personalities of the four main characters on the four main Personality Types in Jungian Psychology. Zot was Intuition. Jenny was Feeling. Butch was Sensation and the robot butler Peabody was Thinking. It was a shorthand, but it gave McCloud a firm base as to how the characters would react to any given situation. Given my interest in Jungian psychology at the time, and the academic work I did with the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (my master's thesis used that test), I'm surprised I didn't pick up on this at the time.


Even in this Utopian vision of the retro-future of 1965 there were villains, and Zot's villains were wonderful. I read someplace that each of them can seen through the lens of some vision of the future gone horribly awry. I think that's probably true, but I don't want to analyze that here (this is already going on too long).

There is the madman Dekko, an artist who over time replaced most of his body with robot parts as a work of art and an attempt at perfection. His headgear is based on the Art Deco design of the Chrysler building.

Dr. Ignatius Rumboult Bellows, a steampunk villain years before that term had been invented.

The maddening, backward-thinking cult called the De-evolutionaries (With apologies to DEVO, this group seems to have come into actual existence and have an inordinate amount of influence on politics these days).

The Blotch, a gangster who attempts to control the world through media and advertising.

And the main villain of the piece, 9-Jack-9. A truly chilling assassin with no true physical form, he exists as information on the interconnected electronic devices and computers of his world.

I saw the original art for this at a Con in Philadelphia
sometime around 1993. Way out of my price range, but
man, would I love to own this.

When Zot! returned as a black and white series with #11 I was there and waiting. The art style changed somewhat to accommodate the new format. Whereas before McCloud left open areas in his art to allow color to fill in the information, the new series relied more on intricate linework, shading and cross-hatching. For me, as a fan of black and white artwork, it became more solid. Scott's skill as an artist progressed, and he seemed to get better with each issue (by his own admission, the more detailed the work became, the slower he was. Many of the later issues of the series came out late). 

It was during this time that the influence of Japanese Manga became more apparent. Having not been exposed to very much Manga at that point I didn't realize that this is where a lot of what he was doing came from. Some of the techniques he mentions in Understanding Comics, such as the Masking effect of iconic characters played against more realistically rendered backgrounds, were on full display here. He also experimented with different kinds of panel-to-panel transitions than American comics typically did. This was another aspect of comics he talked about in Understanding Comics.

In fact, upon rereading Zot! after Understanding Comics it is easy to see that McCloud was working with many of the same ideas even then. I recently read an interview with Scott that appeared in issue #18 of the magazine Comics Interview in 1984. It is clear that even though Understanding Comics was still nine years away, McCloud was already developing the themes that would eventually become that work.

During the last story arc of Zot! the book took a very different direction than what we had previously seen, and in many ways became a very different story. Collectively known as the “Earth Stories” these issues turned the premise of the series on its head. Instead of Jenny and Butch visiting a world of marvels, Zot was trapped in their mundane world. It was the story of this optimistic outsider, a hero in his own world, forced to live life as a normal teenager. Zot, and the reader, meet Jenny's circle of friends and we get to know them. These stories are heartfelt portraits of everyday people dealing with real life issues. In one amazing issue Jenny's best friend Terry deals with the realization that she is a lesbian. This was at a time when the idea of an openly gay character in comics was still fairly taboo. The topic was treated with respect and empathy and not a trace of sensationalism. Another issue, nominated for an Eisner Award, featured Zot and Jenny having a long conversation about their relationship and whether or not they old enough to be ready to have sex. That's it... a conversation. No supervillains. Nothing blowing up. Just two teens talking openly and lovingly to each other about a difficult topic. It was beautiful.

McCloud used this image as the cover for the Black and White collection.
He felt this summed up the book better than any other single image.

In the course of doing some research for this blog I found a website review of the black and white Zot! that was a little dismissive of these issues. It referred to Zot! as an “American Manga Romance Comic” and went so far as to refer to it as “Twee.” It was obvious from the tone that the reviewer did not see these as good things. It is a Romance comic. And an action-filled superhero comic. It can also be really funny, and sad, and frightening. It's like life that way.

As I've said in previous posts, McCloud was one of the people we sent copies of Grey Legacy to, and Scott always responded in an encouraging and positive way. I've met him a couple of times and in person he has always been friendly and outgoing.

Unfortunately, right now Zot! isn't in print. There was an expensive color collection of the first ten issues published in the 90's that you may be able to find on Ebay. You can probably track down the original issues that way as well. As of this writing my store has a complete set of them on sale, though that may change tomorrow. The black and white issues were collected into one giant trade paperback a couple of years ago at the great price of $25. It's unfortunately out of print at the moment as well. I found four remaindered copies of it at a Half Price Books a couple of years ago for $4.99 each. I bought one as a gift and have been kicking myself ever since for not grabbing the other three just to have to give to people.

Zot! ended up being one of my all-time favorite books. I'm sure parts of it are dated now, and if you prefer your superheroes more in dark, grim and gritty style, then this probably won't be your thing at all. But if you want to have fun, to feel some optimism and hope, to be reminded of youthful romance, to experience a moment when the future was believed to be bright and shiny (and maybe to be reminded that it still should be), then please, find copies of Zot! and enjoy.

McCloud did a new Zot! story available exclusively on his website a few years ago. You can read more about Zot!, McCloud, Understanding Comics, and whole bunch of other stuff he does at www.scottmccloud.com.

Zot! and all other characters and images are copyright Scott McCloud.

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