Tuesday, January 27, 2009
4. Zot! The Complete Black & White Collection
I'm an adult. As a kid and young man, in my involvements in various scenes and sub-cultures, I would always hear about past things or events of importance. I would maybe read about some famous, seminal show in a punk zine or a reference to some groundbreaking artist in the letters page a comic. Over time, I built up a pretty good knowledge of the history of these scenes before I was involved. But, I never experienced those things first hand. I was never actually there when it was going on. It was always the older dudes, like friends' older brothers or people you would meet at cons or shows, who had actually been there. They seemed so cool and I always felt somehow incomplete, possibly a bit of a faker, that I wasn't really there for these fundamental periods of growth in a sub-culture.
Reading this collection of Zot! made me realize that I am now one of those guys that was there. I was reading and collecting Zot! when it was actually coming out. I think I started a bit into the series, because I remember hunting around for back issues. But I also remember waiting for the next issue. I've still got them as well, boxed up somewhere in my parents' basement. I may even have Destroy! as I know I owned that at once, though I may have foolishly sold it or offloaded it at some point because it was too big. Scott McCloud is now very well known and respected (and rightly so) for his masterpiece Understanding Comics. But I was there with him, supporting him financially, back in the day when he was getting started with Zot! Kind of cool, but it also makes me feel a bit old. Will I ever be able to explain how this is cool to the next generations?
It was the covers that most attracted me to Zot!. They are so lively and colourful. I also loved Scott McCloud's clean lines. I found the stories to be engaging, but a bit light. At that age, I was always looking for something real and hard and the action in Zot! was always more cartoony. It was fun and creative (often wildly so), but I was just too young to appreciate PG things. Now that extreme ultra-violence and true toughness is no longer denied to me, I've learned to appreciate softer stuff for its own intrinsic qualities.
The storyline in Zot! really evolves. The basic premise is a teenage girl, Jenny, who meets a guy from another dimension. He is a super-positive, invincible super lad from a world of clean high technology and general mellowness. The badguys there are over-the-top villains whose occassional exuberant presence is more of an excuse for Zot! to have some fun and for the citizens to watch him doing so and have fun themselves rather than ever being a real threat. The early episodes concentrated on Zot battling the badguys, but the real theme was the difference between our earth and Zot's, especially as seen through the earth girl's eyes. This theme became more and more central until the final 8 issues, where Zot becomes stranded on earth and the whole series focuses on the lives of Jenny and her friends.
I don't remember my impressions too well when I was reading them at the time. I think they just flowed one after the other. I was reading so many comics back then that I didn't really take the time to scrutinize them critically. I just kept reading them if I liked them. Re-reading them now, along with Scott McCloud's commentaries after each story arc, I see how he was really struggling against the genre Zot! was constructed around. He wanted to tell stories about real people and their real life problems but he had this super boy from a perfect world constantly hanging around. I found that he actually works really well as a foil to help emphasize the themes of imperfection and frustration in our own world. Sometimes, the real world stories get a bit maudlin and self-involved (they are all teenagers after all), so it's also nice to have a bit of superhero and otherworldly action every now and then.
The later stories that take place on earth center around Jenny and her friends, who are the geeks and misfits of their high school. There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle pride in their depiction. There is a two-part issue that tackles homosexuality and homophobia that was quite advanced for its time. I just like the depiction of the various geeks and the scenes of them playing their homemade roleplaying game are really great. I wish he had spent a bit more time on some of the side characters from the geek group, as they were quite intriguing. There was one fat, asian kid who was super smart but always got D's. It's revealed in passing that he is secretly gay and that it is his goal to always get exactly D's because getting straight A's would be too easy for him. I would have liked to have seen his character explored more.
Zot! is a true classic from the Black & White explosion era of comics, when they took their first steps to moving out of the superhero realm. I was really grateful to be able to reread them all together and in order. There are many other great comics from that period that deserved to be rescued and repackaged in a beautiful format, with the author's comments, but not all of the artists and writers of that period achieved the success of McCloud.
If you want to get a taste of the Zot! comic, you can read an online one that McCloud did. He is experimenting here with online comics (it's entirely vertical), which is cool in and of itself, but the story captures the feeling and energy of the original Zot! stories that were more focused on Zot! saving his planet. Check out "Hearts and Minds" here.