Scott McCloud, 1984-1991
One of the items on my livejournal list of interests is "redemption of the
ludicrous." I love the idea of taking something silly and building a quality
work of art around it. Ed Wood does this,
taking some of the worst films ever made and somehow making them seriously
moving by showing the wider context of what they meant to the people involved
in them. My favorite book, Watchmen, does
this by taking characters from a second-tier comic book company of the 1960s
and weaving a profound and narratologically groundbreaking story around them.
In fact, a lot of comics do this. They take children's stories from half a
century ago and use them as the foundation for what can only be called
Zot! is a microcosm of this sort of thing. Its first ten issues
were a brightly-colored adventure story that might as well have been a Saturday
morning cartoon — a well-done Saturday morning cartoon, a Saturday morning
cartoon with a few serious points slipped in to get the gears turning in
sugar-addled young minds, but a Saturday morning cartoon nonetheless.
They tell the story of a heroic, perpetually optimistic teenage boy named Zot
from a utopian alternate world, who befriends a lonely girl named Jenny from our
Earth and takes her along as he hops from planet to planet trying to stop an
interstellar war. Fun stuff for the kiddies, and notable as one of the first
American comics influenced by manga, but not really my sort of thing.
But after an absence of a year and a half, Zot! came back. And it was
different. Economics had dictated a shift to black and white, but writer/artist
Scott McCloud seemed to find the change inspiring. McCloud has never been a
vibrant artist. He's not gifted with the sort of felicitous line that allows
some artists to just go scribble scribble and turn out something that looks
alive. But his art in the black-and-white run of Zot! is beautiful.
Beautiful the way blueprints are beautiful. The style is so clean that it
doesn't even feel like a style — it feels like McCloud is channeling the
fundamental language of comics, even though that is as impossible as speaking
without an accent.
Upon its return, Zot! did three main things. It established Jenny's
world (ie, ours) as a place, with a supporting cast including Terry the
sarcastic friend and Woody the shrimpy nerd. It also built Zot's world into
more of a superhero universe than one of sci-fi adventure, building up a
"rogues' gallery" of supervillains including old characters such as Dekko
and 9-Jack-9 and new ones such as Zybox and Bellows and the Blotch. Finally,
it served as a place for McCloud to explore some of the techniques he would
showcase a few years later in his masterpiece
Understanding Comics, including aspect-to-aspect transitions and
climbing up the picture plane into the realm of abstraction.
But while it was more cerebral and experimental than Marvel and DC superhero
books, Zot! had also come to resemble them much more than the Astro
Boy-style children's adventure that had originally inspired it. So with
the last nine issues, McCloud did something that moved the series beyond
being just an excellent 1980s superhero comic and into The Canon: he got rid
of Zot's world. At the end of #27, Zot is stranded on Earth with no way to
get back to the setting of the color issues. No more supervillains. No more
flying cars, no more robot butlers, no more zap guns. Instead, we got this:
Zot! became a comic examining the difficult lives of a group of geeky
kids at a New England high school. Each issue spotlights a different person
and explores how the medium of comics can be used to create poignant real-world
character studies. The only twist is Zot himself, the naive stranger in a
strange land who sometimes lets the other kids see things from an outside
perspective. In earlier issues of Zot! you had de-evolutionary rays
foiling AI assassins in outer space and it elicited maybe a smirk. But in the
Earth Stories, Zot flies around an empty gym and the miracle this represents
makes it hard not to break into a sobbing fit.
The character studies are very good. I can't honestly call them "great"; I've
read better, seen better. But they stand out for a couple of reasons. One is
that they're done in comics, which can do things books and movies can't. There
are moments in Zot! whose artistry is so perfect that I actually did
cry, just for like ten or fifteen seconds (which was itself pretty strange, since
until a year or so ago it was very hard for me to start crying and just as hard
to stop. I guess the breakup forced me to practice pulling myself together.)
But as for the other...
Well, it's the redemption of the ludicrous! Zot! would not have worked
nearly as well had #28 been #1. What made Zot! work so well was that
we weren't just told that Zot was a good-hearted, boundlessly optimistic
and decent hero — we'd seen it, for 27 issues. We knew
the zany world Zot had come from because it had been the setting for most of
the series. What made the Earth Stories so moving was not just their literary
quality, but the fact that they were appearing in Zot! — look how
far the series had come! It's just like the way "A Day in the Life" becomes
even more powerful when you reflect on the fact that this is the same group
that a few years earlier could only manage "Love Me Do."
And as with the Beatles, the Earth Stories were not an unimaginable change of
pace but rather the result of steady evolution. McCloud had been moving in this
direction for a while. Probably the real turning point had been when he brought
back Woody after several issues, "home from Europe"; once a short, prepubescent
geek with glasses, he was now a tall, handsome... geek with glasses. And while
I'm not going to make the same mistake people have made about Ready, Okay!
and claim that McCloud has put himself into the book, I will say that it's clear
that he knows this guy — and not from comics. Woody's return
represents an acknowledgment (later made explicit, as the book gets pretty
meta in places toward the end) that buried beneath every escapist story is
another story: the story of what we're trying to escape from.
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