by Scott McCloud
576 pages, Harper Paperbacks
Review by SF Winser
Scott McCloud wrote some of the most influential books on graphic novels, ever. 'Understanding Comics' dissected the medium, 'Making Comics' promoted how to create within it. (And a third book, 'Reinventing Comics', was about the potential future of the medium and was more controversial than influential). Before this, he wrote 'Zot!'. And what an interesting beast it is.
McCloud himself, has two rather telling comments about 'Zot!'. First, his realisation of the simple fact at one stage, 'Understanding Comics' was known as his post-Zot! project. After 'Understanding Comics' came out, Zot! became 'That thing McCloud did before he wrote 'Understanding Comics'.' It's got to be an odd feeling to do something that has a loving, cultish following... And then have that beloved project almost fade into obscurity because what you did next was so huge. I laughed in recognition reading McCloud's admission in his commentary – That was precisely why I picked it up. That was pretty much the phrase in my head: 'This is that thing McCloud did before 'Understanding Comics'.I wonder what it's like?'
The second of McCloud's comments is that one cannot help but judge the poor, budding artist/writer of 'Zot!' by the standards of the cultural critic, sage-of-the-medium, comicbook-prophet that McCloud would become. And young Scotty doesn't always meet older McCloud's own ideals. McCloud knows it, comments on it and often points out places where he thinks his younger self fails before the reader even notices the 'error'. Thankfully, this isn't all false self-deprecation. It's an attempt at honesty from an often harsh critic.
So what is 'Zot!'? Zot! Is an independent teenage-angst-ridden superhero comic by an artist exploring his strengths and attempting to play with the form and function of the medium. Does that tell you anything about the story? No. Isn't it telling that that is my first response, and not a summary of the plot? In many ways, 'Zot!' is more about the exploration than it is about the characters or the story itself. This is not actually a condemnation though. McCloud is a self-confessed 'formalist. He's an explorer and experimenter, obsessed with the bones of style and media. So 'Zot!' has some nice stuff in this direction.
Okay, I should try a summary of the plot at some stage and here is probably the best spot; Zot is a superhero from a 'perfect' dimension. There is little crime, WWII never happened because the people from his dimension decided WWI was enough. He's a teenager who is sweet, cocky and painstakingly honest. He's struck up a friendship with a teenaged girl from our world, and they dimension hop in order to explore each others' worlds. He fights super-villains who have a tendency towards being friendly with himself or his uncle when they aren't trying to take over the world. She hates math, her homelife and the imperfections of the 'real world'. She loves him, but doesn't know it.
The whole thing is about the potential ways the world could destroy itself- for the first half of the series' run. It's played for fun. They're standard-plus-some-interesting-ideas sci-fi superhero tales. McCloud tries for varied tones for every story – Zot! Is a premise to base stories upon, not a wholistic stylistic work. For this part of the books run, it might be labeled a smart diversion. Clever entertainment. Artistically, there's McCloud's sometimes stilted, over-posed artwork fighting his more experimental urges both in writing and in visuals. Sometimes these competing creative directions blend to perfection – such as in the Dekko storyline, where for entire panels at a time, we see the world through the eyes of a mad, android artist who wants to recreate the world to a more formal and beautiful way.
And this first half is often fun, often interesting and the artistic lapses are forgivable. Sometimes Zot is annoying, or a non-entity. Sometimes the stories or characters are flat. It, at times, feels like a gifted amateur doing a good job at writing an above average superhero comic.
Then, half-way through, Zot and friends get stuck in our world. This last section is known as 'The Earth Stories'. This is where 'Zot!', the graphic novel, grows wings.
In these stories, Zot himself rarely appears. His role as the 'superhero' comes down, quite often, to saving people by saying the right thing at the right time, by being an inspirational idea or simply by being there. And it's awesome the way that, through this idea, Zot is much more believable a hero than he ever was in the earlier stories. He becomes more likable. More real. And much more heroic.
McCloud claims that when people talk to him about 'The Earth Stories' they often forget the two transitional tales, in particular, the one that focuses on Zot attempting his superhero antics in a real-world setting. Where he can't find crime because it isn't in a silly suit, isn't loudly attempting to destroy the world or take it over. And even when he hears a woman cry for help...she only cries out once. In a massive city... full of buildings and streets. He simply. Cannot. Save her. Because he cannot find her.
I found this story admittedly heavy handed – but completely necessary and a great step towards the honesty and themes that would follow in the final stories. It's one of my favourite parts of the entire series.
The rest of the stories are about Zot's Earth-born friends coming to grips with teenaged problems. Homosexuality. Relationships. Moral-stands. Bad home-lives. Friendship. The fantasy vs reality subtext gets a hearty workout here. The role of fantasy to improve reality... so long as you don't get carried away... seems to be the main message of the book.
In these stories, McCloud pulls off some wonderful stylistic and emotional riffs. The trick ending to one of the stories remains one of the coolest endings I have ever read in a graphic novel. Zot's honest but controlled sexuality is beautifully handled throughout without ruining the innocence of the boy-scout persona. The sudden re-examinations of character motivations has you constantly questioning how you expect characters – or even people you know in real life – to behave. People have more going on under the surface than we sometimes guess.
The plotlines are necessarily 'young' in that they are written by a young writer and about young people. Drama veers close to melodrama at times. But, lets face it, this is a superhero comic. The fact that I can point out how close the plotlines come to melodrama shows that McCloud already had me expecting better than that as a baseline. He's not trying to move the goalposts – he already did that without apparent effort. The reader is just judging him on how well he stays on the right side of that line.
After many years as a writer of non-fiction, cultural criticism, McCloud may even be returning to long-form narrative. Now that I know what he's capable of and the simple fact that he must have grown as a writer and artist, I can't help but look forward to great things.