Friday, December 02, 2011
A backward glance, a compassionate caress. In this panel from Zot!, Scott McCloud depicts his titular hero bidding goodbye to his romantic interest, Jenny. Zot must return to his own utopian version of Earth, leaving Jenny to deal with her mundane problems back home. If ever there was a panel that could best encapsulate the collected black and white run of Zot! it is this one. If our hero Zot represents anything, he represents hope and the possibility of change. He is the symbol of better times to come. In contrast, Jenny is a figure grounded in realism, a pessimist at heart who hopes to expatriate herself to Zot's idealized world. In this image, the pair embraces and readies themselves for a kiss that will be all too brief. The issues anthologized in Zot! (1987-1991) deal with teenagers struggling with their own problems, wondering where the future will take them and if they will make their dreams come true.
Scott McCloud is probably better known as a comics aesthetic theorist rather than as a comic book artist. Although academics have taken issue with some of his more hazy generalizations, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2005) remain bold efforts to explain how comics work as a medium. Unquestionably, McCloud figured out how comics worked first hand when writing and drawing Zot! in the late 1980s. The book shows the maturation not only of McCloud's characters, but also illustrates the maturation of his artistic talent. While the early stories remain committed exercises in genre, the second half Zot! takes on a quieter more introspective tone that is rarely achieved in today's mainstream, superhero-heavy comic book marketplace.
The first half of Zot! focuses almost entirely on Jenny's trips to Zot's futuristic Earth of "1964." It is a planet that never ages, but is always making social and technological progress. This fantasy Earth serves McCloud's purposes in two ways. The first way is that it allows McCloud to imagine future problems that may besiege mankind in the future. Thus, Zot's super villain adversaries all represent some future menace that mankind better avoid, whether that be primtivism, hyper-capitalism, technological supremacy, or a dehumanizing aestheticism. While the villains are all a lot of fun, they are not the real strength of the first half. Zot's utopian version of Earth provides him a means to talk about the nature of escapism. Jenny's desire to live on Zot's world is really just a way to avoid her own problems. Rather than go into what these problems are exactly, McCloud only hints at Jenny's difficulties. In the first half of the collection, we learn about these problems only from Jenny's thought bubbles or from her conversation. We experience her dilemmas primarily as baggage that she brings with her on her trips to Zot's world. It's a smart move.
In the second half of the collection, McCloud changes the tone of the book radically. Doing so was a risk for McCloud and it took some real chutzpah to do so. The second half of the book finds Zot stranded on Jenny's planet, unable to return home or to facilitate her visits to Earth 1964. Zot remains a fantasy figure in these stories, but his potency as a symbol for escape is not what it once was. Instead, McCloud turns his attention to Jenny's other friends and the mundane but painful struggles they have to endure. Each of McCloud's "Earth Stories," thus focuses on a member of Jenny's nerdy and socially-maladjusted clique as they deal with problems such as family substance abuse; divorce and dysfunctional families; homophobia and coming out; and teenage dating and sexuality. Although these stories are more down-to-earth (or down to our Earth, anyway), McCloud is still extending his original theme. The new characters that McCloud introduces are, like Jenny, trying to make sense of the world while at the same time trying to figure out who they want to be. While the science fiction elements of these stories are minimized, the series remains squarely focused on the future.
One of the aspects of Zot! that made it noteworthy in its day was the influence manga had on McCloud's stories. In the late 1980s, manga was still fairly hard to find in the United States. These days, manga is easily found in chain bookstores and when I walk down the aisle I usually see a good number of teenagers sitting on the floor, working their way through book by book. Manga has also become a stronger visual influence in American comic books as seen in the work of comic book artists like Humberto Ramos, Carlos Pachecho, and Salvador Larroca. However, what seems to be missing in most mainstream comic books today, and what should serve as the real lesson of McCloud's early work, is that character has to come before both marketing and spectacle. McCloud's stories still work today because human emotion remains central to their drama. Reading an issue of Zot! I never get the sense that "nothing-will-be-the-same-again" or "everything-I-knew-was-a-lie," but I do come to understand a character better and I do see the consequences of their simple maturation.