Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991
Zot! changed my life. The 36-issue comic series by Scott McCloud ran from 1984 to 1991. It started as a manga-influenced light-hearted superhero series, but by the end, McCloud was telling powerful stories about everyday life as a teen.
McCloud is better known today as the author of Understanding Comics, a non-fiction exploration of the format; its followup, Reinventing Comics, which examines technology; and a how-to book, Making Comics. But he originally started with this series, an homage to the things he loved: science fiction, superheroes, and manga design (before many people in this country had seen many Japanese comics).
In this series, Jenny lives every child’s daydream: escaping to another, better world than the one she finds so painful. Her parents are fighting and will likely divorce, but she has Zot!, a boy hero from another dimension. In his world, it’s always an optimistic 1965, where science creates only wonderful things that make the world better and villains are defeated with a raygun after a loopy spaceship chase.
Zot’s a classic hero who makes the right decisions easily and always saves the day… until he visits our world. Jenny is an ordinary girl, frustrated by high school when she knows there’s so much more out there. The supporting cast includes Peabody, Zot’s robot butler; Uncle Max, an artist and inventor; Butch, Jenny’s brother, who turns into a monkey in Zot’s world; and Woody, well-meaning geek and classmate of Jenny’s.
The art features the speedlines, closeup panels, and simplified design of manga, but those elements are incorporated into layouts and backgrounds inspired by classic American comics. There’s a ton of energy in these pages, packed with feelings and ideas and imagination. And thoughtful observations, as when Zot finds himself wondering about the differences between his world and ours.
The stories here divide into two sections: The first, “Heroes and Villains”, contains the more traditional adventure tales. Zot and Jenny have to defeat a robot that’s taken over the earth while looking for a soul, for example, or the steam-powered polluting Dr. Bellows, or Dekko, the mechanical man who once was an artist. His story features creative use of abstract art techniques when illustrating the world from his perspective.
The second, “Earth Stories”, features character spotlights, with each getting their own focus issue, and explorations of life here in the real world. In addition to Jenny and Zot, there’s Jenny’s mother, thinking about what happens to dreams when you grow up; Ronnie, a gamer who wants to write superhero comics; Brandy, his girlfriend, who’s trying to keep her family together and cover for her drunk mom; Woody, learning about everyday heroism; and Terry, whose coming-out story is the best-known of the set. That last one, in the subtle way it captures her pain and fear, still makes me cry in sympathy.
Those stories are why the series is still so fondly remembered today, but even in the earlier chapters, there’s a hint of real life intruding. Zot and Jenny, for example, are flustered when she’s referred to as his girlfriend, since they’re not sure how to define their relationship or whether they’re ready for the question of sex. Later, Jenny finds a kind of friendship with Woody that she can’t share with Zot, one based on struggling with not fitting in.
Then there’s the first time Zot comes to our Earth and is astounded by the differences. He gets mugged, and what he finds most surprising is not that there are bad people committing crimes, but that other people see it happening and don’t try to stop it. His fresh, positive eyes show just how different things are from what we hoped they would be.
The transition story between the two phases, “Ring in the New”, is my favorite. It begins with cameos of just about every important character as Max throws a New Year’s party. Jennie and Woody are visiting, which leads to discussion about the differences between the worlds. After Zot brings them back to their home Earth, he winds up trapped there. Jenny’s disheartened, knowing she has to stay in the world she dislikes, but Zot sees it as a place of possibilities.
This is a coming-of-age story, both for the characters and for the young artist who drew them. The introduction, also by McCloud, briefly tells his life story and how he came to create this work. There are also pages about the material not reprinted here and the minimal art changes McCloud made for this collection.
I looked forward to rereading Zot! in this volume, because it had been many years since I’d seen the comics. It is early work, with occasional cheesy elements and art glitches. (There are also stunningly beautiful panel choices and powerful emotional moments, in contrast to the impression McCloud’s notes give that all of it needs improvement.) What made the book seem all-new to me was McCloud’s notes. They appear after each story and explain his goals, what was going on in his life when the pages were created, and how he reacts to them now.
They’re as powerful, or even more so, than the comics they describe. When McCloud writes about why he told a story about Zot making a cola commercial and “selling out”, he also mentions how he and his wife couldn’t afford to buy macaroni-and-cheese. That such art was created out of such struggle … it makes it all the more poignant.
I also found it enlightening to hear what inspired the various villains McCloud created and his criticisms of his own work. And to be reminded of the “which character should get hit in the face with a pie?” contest, from days when fan communication happened in letter columns.
For me, the life-changing part comes in here: After reading and dropping the usual superheroes and Archies as a kid, I began reading comics again in graduate school. After a bit, I tired of DC and Marvel superheroes, and Zot! was the first independent comic I tried (even though I had to track it down in back issues, since it had ended by this point). It was similar enough to what I was used to that I was comfortable with it, but it was creative enough to keep me interested and emotionally real enough to be a gateway to the alternative comics I moved on to. If not for Zot!, and soon after Understanding Comics, I might not have kept reading comics, which would mean no reviewing, no website, no exposure to the full range of the comic medium, and no meeting my husband. So thank you, Scott McCloud.
The first 10 color issues, not reprinted here, are available in an out-of-print book from Kitchen Sink Press. This volume contains issues #11-18 and #21-36; the missing 19 and 20 were drawn by Chuck Austen so that McCloud could take some time off to marry and go on his honeymoon. (Another sign of another time: fill-ins instead of lengthy hiatuses.) McCloud’s layouts for those two issues are included instead in reduced form.