Though years of manga-influenced Western artists and small-press hero titles have lessened its shock of the new, Scott McCloud's '80s era comics series Zot! remains a unique storytelling experience. Originally debuting as a color comic on the now-defunct Eclipse Comics line in 1984 — two years before The Dark Night Returns and Watchmen, two years after the first Fantagraphics issue of Love And Rockets — McCloud's title had a ten-issue color run before getting "retooled" into a 26-issue black-and-white series. Reprinting the latter, the new 576-page Zot!: The Complete Black And White Collection (Harper) makes for an enjoyably hefty tome.
The centerpiece of Zot! — as depicted on a moodily shaded front cover panel — is the relationship between Zachary T. Paleozogt and the sad-eyed Jenny Weaver. Zach, a.k.a. Zot, is a superhero from an alternate version of Earth. Jenny is a high-school girl living in a quiet Eastern town, whose parents are on the verge of getting a divorce. Their worlds are diametrically opposed, and each character reflects the circumstances in which they were reared. Zot is an irrepressible optimist, while, for Jenny, her world has become a place of perpetual disappointment. She's unable to see the strengths of her own Earth and at times doesn't even acknowledge the very real group of friends around her. But Zot's dimension fascinates her.
When the black-and-white collection opens, we see our heroine moping over Zot's temporary absence as the hero gleefully fights one of the series' bizarro techno-villains back in his dimension. ("I like this one!" Zot declares mid-battle. "He's really getting into it!") The young girl wishes she could abandon her world for Zot's, but the naïf superhero is just as fascinated with hers. "For someone who's lived here all your life," he tells her early in the book, "you don't seem to appreciate your homeworld much!"
The first seventeen issues of the black-and-white comics primarily focus on Zot's sci-fi world — which looks like a quaintly anachronistic future vision from some '40s pulp — with Jenny and her brother Butch traveling between the dimensions as our title hero faces a series of inventively outlandish adversaries. McCloud's villains are the clever inventions you'd expect from a smart twenty-something writer/artist nerd with creative resources beyond the parameters of strict comicdom. Among these are Dekko, a robotic former artist obsessed with destroying the messy natural world and replacing it with one of sterile lines, and the Devoes, a largely faceless techno-cult who use a de-evolutionary ray to turn their victims into talking monkeys. (Yup, this was the '80s, alright!) In mainstream comics, the only one to so consistently come up with a similar batch of satiric wackos was Steve Gerber in his earlier Howard the Duck run. But where Gerber used his villains as the objects for angry social criticism, McCloud's touch is more light-handed and, at times, even empathetic.
With issue #28, though, Zot! underwent a major tonal shift as our hero found himself stranded in Jenny's dimension, and McCloud began focusing single issues on his heroine's Earthbound friends. In a way, the act was comparable to the moment Love And Rockets' Jaime Hernandez took his protagonist Maggie out of the world of pro-solar mechanics and dinosaurs and plunked her down into the So Cal barrio. While McCloud's big move doesn't have the same degree of specificity that Hernandez did — Jenny's Anytown U.S.A. setting is just a tad too generic — as a storytelling gambit, it seriously opened up the writer/artist. The stories may have become smaller, but our interest in McCloud's characters grew. In one memorable issue, he devotes the entire thing to a bedroom conversation between Zot and Jenny about whether the couple should "have sex." The results are both convincingly awkward and believably tender.
McCloud's art was significantly inspired by the largely untranslated manga of the day, most particularly Osamu Tezuka, whose Astro Boy and Metropolis comics can be clearly seen in Zot's "future world." Though he can be especially hard on himself in the new collection's copious between-chapter notes, McCloud's clean linework is snugly suited to his boyish and girlish characters. While Zot! doesn't shy away from grimmer themes — one of the later stories centers on the demoralizing effects of gay bashing, for instance — McCloud's essentially humanistic take runs counter to the hard-boiled cynicism so prevalent in mainstream comics of its day. His art beautifully mirrors this.
As a collection, Zot! is not without its minor glitches: McCloud's decision to exclude the early color stories results in a few characters and plot points popping up awkwardly – the most glaring revolving around Jenny's brother Butch turning into a monkey whenever he enters Zot's dimensions. Too, midway into the run McCloud handed the art chores over to Chuck Austin for two issues, so the writer/artist could go on his honeymoon. Austin's finished artwork isn't included in this collection: instead, we're treated to shrunken versions of artist McCloud's roughs, fitting four pages onto a single book page. A definite eyestrain.
The gateway to Zot's world reopens in issue #36, the final chapter in the black-and-white collection. With his series' conclusion, McCloud would turn his considerable energies toward formalistic comics theory, writing three books about creating and understanding comics, calling the charge for web comics and other new storytelling delivery systems, generally providing a Zot-like voice of optimism for the future of graphic storytelling. While these critical works have provided some much-needed starting points for a serious discussion of the medium, this comic book reader, for one, can't help wishing that the man would step back into the storytelling biz. At the end of this collection, McCloud makes reference to an idea he's been nurturing since the Zot! days that would make a "great graphic novel." Perhaps this book reflects a first step back into that welcome creative direction?