Zot! 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection
Scott McCloud
black and white/ 575 pages

Zot! is timeless. The story of a super-powered, improbably good youth from a dimension very close to ours, its landscape is the landscape of nostalgia — a funnybook past of futuristic wonder which becomes brighter and more exciting the more it recedes. Zot is all the super-hero comics from your childhood as you remember them, rather than as they actually were — with the excitement and the goofy villains and the action; without the fusty clubhouse odor, or the grinding, bleary sound of middle-aged men pandering to children, and doing it badly. Alan Moore and Frank Miller made super-heroes more adult by giving them sexual hang-ups and nasty dispositions. Scott McCloud, contemporaneously, made them more adult through a self-conscious, insistent wonder — the very insistence of which introduced a kind of adult uncertainty, an acknowledgment of illusion and eventual loss.

The Moore/Miller, R-rated path to super-hero maturity is still very much alive in comics like Marvel Zombies, or, for that matter, All-Star Batman and Robin. Zot!’s take, on the other hand is — still, and somewhat surprisingly, very much alive. In its quiet way, Zot! was, if not an inspiration, then at least a forerunner of a whole school of intelligent-naif storytelling. There’s a little bit of McCloud in the Morrison/Quitely All-Star Superman, certainly. And Alan Moore’s Tom Strong even looks like Zot, down to that skin-tight red shirt.

Moore and Morrison both justify their fetishization of the funnybook past through complicated — or, if you prefer, batshit crazy — theories about the mystical significance of fictions. For Moore, dumb super-hero adventures are, literally, magical; for Morrison they’re analogues for the structure of reality. McCloud likes to talk about his formalist and system-building tendencies too – in the volume’s copious notes, he eagerly explains that his characters are based on the Jungian functions of the human mind. But, compared to the Kabbalah-spouting, pomo paranoiac crankiness of his successors, he’s just a piker — or, more accurately, just a humanist. There’s no shamanic, theological reference point for McCloud. Zot!’s too-perfect-to-be-true, sunlit future-past is a story with literary ambitions, but not with cosmological ones.

As a result, McCloud can sometimes be what Morrison and Moore almost never are: low-key. Especially in the black-and-white comics collected here, heroic fantasy has never looked so much smaller than life. Arch-enemies come back from the dead to attend a New Year’s party; friends catch up on small talk while super-battles are waged just off-panel; everybody on earth, it seems, takes interdimensional portals completely in stride. The art, too, is winningly erratic, with detailed, cross-hatched backgrounds populated by frankly stiff figures. In the notes, McCloud frets about his artistic limitations, but to me, at least, the amateurishness is charming, and sometimes more than charming. A half-page picture of Jenny (McCloud’s normal-girl protagonist) asleep in the water, with a diving Zot reflected in the pool that covers her lower belly, is sensual and clunky — sensual, in fact, because it’s clunky. The sexuality of the image is displaced by the mediocrity of the draftsmanship; Jenny really doesn’t look real enough to reach out and touch, and that distance infuses the image with an awkward poignancy.

McCloud’s technical limitations don’t always serve him well, of course. Especially when Zot’s world drops out and we’re stuck on earth, the author’s weaknesses as a storyteller are sometimes painfully apparent. Bereft of super-villains, we’re stuck with nerds with hearts of gold, evil jocks, the closeted lesbian, the alcoholic mother, the divorcing parents, the jerky older brother who comes through in a pinch. Reading the second half of the volume is like going through a YA problem-novel checklist.

When Zot is on its game, though, the amazing and the mundane, the clichéd melodrama and the pedestrian detail, are constantly wrong-footing each other. Zot’s comic-book world and Jenny’s more realistic one bump one another off-course, so that the reader can look at, and appreciate, both from unfamiliar perspectives. The best example of this is probably the moment when Zot, Jenny, and some other friends watch the New Year’s celebration on Zot’s earth. The year changes from 1965 — to 1965. Nobody on Zot’s earth realizes that the new year is the same as the old; only Jenny and the folks from her (or our) world notice that time is essentially standing still. It’s an odd and unsettling metaphor for the way super-hero comics constantly erase their pasts in order to maintain their eternal futuristic presents; a kind of mini-ret-con. Zot’s world suddenly seems much less substantial, its goodness and excitement built on amnesia. But where Grant Morrison would embrace this meta-fictional insight, McCloud just leaves it there; the characters are curious about the oddity of a world without history, but that’s about it. No further apocalyptic revelations follow; it’s just another inexplicable fact about Zot’s world, like space-travel or invisibility. It’s fun to think about, but it doesn’t have to lead anywhere in particular.

The anti-climax of this revelation is nicely done, and certainly fits with McCloud’s general tone. But at the same time, there’s an audible “thunk” as he lets the issue drop which reverberates uncomfortably backwards and forwards through the book. The contrast between history and historylessness seems like it is, or should be, at the core of the series. The past is what gives weight to moral actions; without it there’s no right, no wrong, and no love. Zot’s lack of memory, his innocence and self-certainty should, logically, also be his cruelty and uncanniness. Various characters do pay lip service to Zot’s egotism, but again, McCloud never really follows up — there’s never a moment when Zot does something that could actually be construed as mean. The closest he comes is when he agrees to do a Cola commercial for money. But then he apologizes. And gives all the money to charity.

McCloud does try to “educate” Zot — the hero fails several times in the course of the book, and each occurance is treated as an emotional end-of-innocence. One instance, in which a young girl is introduced and then gratuitously killed off in order to give Zot an excuse for rampant emoting, is particularly unfortunate. But unfortunate or not, none of these episodes really makes any difference; Zot comes back each time as cheerful and self-confident as ever. Moreoever, not only does Zot seem unaffected by his experiences, but the book does as well. The reader is supposed to accept Zot as a moral innocent even as his past is silently and continuously erased.

The difficulty here is not that Zot isn’t sufficiently real. It’s that he’s insufficiently unreal. He’s stuck with the cheerful verisimilitude of Superman, when he needs a bit more of the creepy unhumanness of Peter Pan. McCloud toys with this perspective only once, when Zot asks Jenny casually if she’d like to have sex. The scene has an eerie, prelapsarian tinge — a hint that total innocence has some very disturbing implications. But the comic quickly pulls back; Zot’s just a nice, forthright kid, y’all. He even carries around condoms! Everything’s safe and above-board here.

Zot’s perfecttion should, in short, have a dark side. McCloud isn’t willing to give him one and as a result the series goes subtly but decisively out of whack. A major theme of the last half of the book is that Jenny wants to go live permanently in Zot’s world. This is presented as a terrible idea — running away from her problems, turning her back on the beauty of the world, etc. etc. etc. But all of these counter-arguments sound a lot like special pleading. The fact is that running away is a sound strategy for dealing with one’s difficulties; it’s not foolproof or anything, but on the whole it works better than holding on to them. And if Zot’s world is just a kind of egalitarian paradise — like Sweden with rocket cars — then why not move there? Jenny can even visit home whenever she wants. What, exactly, is the big deal?

Perhaps the big deal has to do with losing your past, and therefore your soul. In his concluding notes, McCloud remarks that Zot! is “a world where looking back and looking forward are one and the same. The far flung future, the distant past, and every moment in between.” That sounds like fairie; eternity is flattened out, nostalgia suffuses reality, and all the happy, super boys never grow up. To be out of time is to be dead. Zot! circles around this insight and then, with a whoosh of rocket boots and an impish smile, it flies away.

This review first appeared in The Comics Journal.

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