Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection
For those coming in late, Zot! was a 36 issue series created by Scott McCloud and published from 1984-1991. It's about how a teenage Jenny Weaver is accidentally whisked away to an alternate-universe Earth, which is portrayed as a retro-futuristic technological utopia. There she meets and falls in love with Zachary T. Paleozogt, or Zot for short, a costumed crimefighter. After their initial adventure together, their friendship is sustained by visitations to each other's home-worlds. Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection collects the series after its initial ten issue run, which was printed in color. Other than that, the issues not included are the work supplied by Chuck Austen in #19-20. Accompanying the reprinted material is extensive commentary by McCloud himself.
At the heart of Zot! are the differences between the two worlds, embodied by the contrasting personalities of Zot and Jenny. Trapped in the suburbs and bored with school, Jenny is sensitive, self-absorbed, and overflowing with ennui. It doesn't help that her absentee parents are going through a painful separation. Like many an adolescent in her situation, Jenny possesses a strong impulse to escape into fantasy. But in her case she can literally step into a different world. Zot's Earth has none of the problems of Jenny's Earth, and only seems to suffer from the occasional supervillain infestation. McCloud isn't a great artist - his figures don't always look like they properly inhabit their environments. But he manages to render some jaw-droppingly beautiful cityscapes on Zot's world. He also has a knack for designing visually striking villains, the chapters dealing with antagonists Dekko and Zybox being particularly impressive. It's a fun world to envision, no doubt. But even there McCloud's attention begins to waver. Over time, Jenny's Earth takes on greater prominence. Whether this is a reflection of McCloud's evolving interests, or perhaps due to the use of photo references, her Earth looks more nuanced and textured. Its natural beauty only makes Zot's more advanced world seem cold and antiseptic by comparison. And the problems posed by its flamboyant rogues gallery seem somewhat abstract next to the emotional hang-ups of Jenny and her friends. My younger self certainly felt greater resonance with the scenes of her bemoaning stuff like math homework, though those sentiments have become far removed nowadays.
One story that retains much of its emotional impact is "The Season of Dreams". Jenny wakes up to find that Zot is a figment of her imagination inspired by a television show. She's also been undergoing psychiatric treatment for her hallucinations. While this is eventually proven to be part of an elaborate ruse, it goes to the crux of Jenny's relationship with Zot and his world. Without his presence, Jenny has a complete breakdown that underlines just how dependent on him she's become, and to how desperately she wants, or needs, to escape reality. McCloud manages to convey Jenny's emotional fragility with wonderful conviction, and it remains the most powerful expression of despair and hopelessness found in the comic.
Zot himself comes across as a less interesting character with time. If Jenny always walks around as if crushed by defeat, Zot's default mode is pure ebullience. His optimism and self-confidence are a salve to Jenny's misery, and frankly that's a relief at times. But he's neither capable of maturing or being corrupted. That works in the earlier chapters when he's operating on his world. He's practically invincible there. But even when the tone of the series shifts and Zot experiences loss in "The Ghost in the Machine", he maintains his cheery attitude to the point of sounding amnesic. This dissonance increases when he operates on Jenny's Earth. In response to a question on whether he's ever been disappointed, he responds matter-of-factly "Haven't been so far." That's an odd answer from someone whose early efforts at being a do-gooder on Jenny's Earth have all been mixed at best. It seems that McCloud was signaling his unwillingness to follow the contemporaneous "grim and gritty" superhero trend, which is fine. But as the series becomes more realistic in its outlook, Zot's static nature becomes all the more incongruous.
A most curious experiment happens in the story "Ring in the New", a new year's party taking place in Zot's Earth. When Woody, Zot's rival for Jenny's affections, begins to examine the differences between the two worlds, he notices glaring inconsistencies. His findings are rather disturbing: "It's like someone went rummaging around in history and just took out all the bad stuff. What's left is nice enough, but it doesn't always make sense!" McCloud however refuses to arrive at any conclusions, pulling back as if realizing that he still wanted to maintain the notion that Zot's world is a viable alternate reality, or at the very least a symbol of a better way of life. But it conflicts with his implicit desire to move past the series original science-fiction setting.
What we get instead in the last nine issues is a form of compromise. Zot becomes more of a supporting character in most of them while the series focuses on Jenny's circle of friends and family. Each of them is just as damaged as Jenny. And each of them is aided by Zot, who acts as an external catalyst for change and growth. After all the supervillains and high-tech action in the previous stories, the number of real-world issues being addressed is surprising in its scope: poverty, alcoholism, sexual identity politics, racism, crime, youthful idealism, loosing one's virginity, school bullying, social justice, divorce, the stifling environment of academic institutions and of suburbia itself. I never got to this point with my original encounter of Zot, which is the shame as I would have loved these stories. As it is, McCloud's tackling of these topics is usually broad and superficial. A few, like Zot and Jenny discussing sex, have a certain poignant awkwardness to them. Others, like Zot's unsuccessful attempts to understand crime on a different world, are a bit too obvious with their delivery. But overall, they are an entertaining brew of coming-of-age drama containing a dash of superheroics, and I can understand why they are so highly regarded among fans. Anyone who grew up reading superhero comics at the time would have had their views of the medium enriched by them. Zot! might not have the penetrating insight or formal experimentation of a Watchmen, but its approach is far more personable, and in its own way more effective. As for myself, I ended up adopting the perspective of Jenny's mother, a person already beaten down by life. As she watches the Zot-Jenny-Woody love triangle unfold from the sidelines, she ruminates "...and when did life become so trivial. When did all the magic go out?"
Does the mundane finally triumph over the fantastic? Towards the end, Zot opens the portal between the worlds one last time for Jenny, her friends, and her family. As they escape to an Earth full of gleaming futuristic structures on flying cars, Woody reflects "We'll be back; we know we can't stay away forever. But just for a while… Just for a while…"