Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Zot and Geography

"Jenny said, when she was just five years old
There was nothin' happening at all
Every time she puts on the radio
There was nothin' goin' down at all, not at all
Then, one fine mornin', she puts on a New York station
You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started shakin' to that fine, fine music
You know, her life was saved by rock'n'roll."

--Lou Reed, "Rock'n' Roll" 

In my last post, I wrote glowingly about Scott McCloud's Zot! (1987-1991). I'm not about to change my mind about what I think about the merits of the book, nor am I going to retract my belief that mainstream superhero books have a lot to learn from the lessons of Zot! However, I would be remiss if I did not also share my thoughts about how geography structures the book as a whole.

Last time I wrote about Zot's interest in geography and world-building. Clearly, the series juxtaposes the futuristic and utopian urban environment of Zot's planet and the humdrum planet that Jenny lives on to make its point about futurity and fantasy. Zot's planet stands-in for fantasy and romance while Jenny's suburban existence represents a Cheever-esque realism. Taken on its own terms, there seems nothing wrong to me on how McCloud differentiates these worlds in terms of genre.

However, Zot! produces another set of geographic binaries that is more problematic. McCloud places in opposition the suburbs of New York where Jenny lives in and the urban-core of Manhattan. Jenny, like the central figure of Lou Reed's song "Rock'n'Roll" is a suburban kid, but for her the city doesn't promise the musical kicks of the AM station or the darker thrills that Reed depicts in "I'm Waiting for My Man." Instead the city remains alien, a violent place marred by crime, institutionalized dysfunction, and racial antagonism. Where Zot's Earth is paradise, and Jenny's suburb is merely mundane, the city is a dystopia.

While McCloud expresses far more antipathy toward the city than Reed, both are united in that they depict the city as primarily a zone that is made distinct from the suburbs by its racial otherness. For Reed, New York City is the cite of soul-enriching black music and, more problematically, Harlem drug dealers. McCloud too fixates on inner-city crime, but he finds no pleasure in it.What makes Manhattan dystopic is that it remains, essentially, racially other and that confronting this difference seems to be the only thing that seriously harms Zot, both physically and emotionally.  

Zot's first defeat at the hands of the city comes when he attempts to stop a mugging in New York City. All to predictably the mugger is a black teenager (with an odd karate headband) and his victim is a white woman. Zot manages to stop the mugging, but things turn for the worse when he is attacked by the black teenager's older, bigger, and stronger accomplices. These gang members beat Zot into the ground and continue to beat him once they've got him there. Zot, normally so full of confidence, has suffered his first real defeat. However, even more disturbing for Zot is when he calls out for help the crowd of strangers around him is too afraid to help. Zot is more devastated by the crowd's lack of intervention then he is by the beat down. Commenting on this particular episode in the collection, McCloud wrote that he was embarrassed by the scene: "The would-be purse-snatcher and his bigger gang member friends were just lazy stock characters of a sort common in  the mainstream titles of the day, and they strike a false note to me now."

However, in the final chapter of the collection Zot is made again victim to the city's violence. Once Zot is stuck on Jenny's Earth for good, he tries to make a life for himself as an urban superhero. Apparently, the 'burbs are a crime-free zone. Zot finds this task more difficult than he does at home on his own Earth. Instead of being attacked by mad scientists or crazed robots, Zot has to seek crime out and he does not always find it. In these sections, it's obvious that McCloud is satirizing superhero story conventions where the hero manages to always stumble upon a crime in progress. However, Zot does find crime and he nearly dies for the privilege. Assisting the police on a raid on a crack-house, Zot is shot and seriously wounded. While these events happen off-panel, the crack-house and the surrounding crime are clearly racially coded as black.

If the book's geography betrays a series of assumptions about crime and race, this is pointedly not to say that McCloud is a racist. At times, McCloud tries actively to address the negative implications of racism.In one scene, Zot is riding the subways when he makes a disturbing discovery about residential segregation. Zot is an innocent and on his world racism is not a problem and thus, he cannot fully comprehend why the racial composition of the subway trains shift depending n the neighborhood he is in. This issue too would later embarrass McCloud. In the collection he writes, "When I look at it again, all these years later, I want to reach over and pat my younger self on the head and say: 'Nice effort, but let's try sticking closer to home from now on, okay?" Although this scene seems borrowed from Brother from Another Planet (1984), it seems like an observation that a formerly New York-based cartoonist would be able to make.

McCloud takes far more of a risk in writing Ronnie, a black kid living in the white 'burbs, and this risk pays off for him far more than the subway scene. Ronnie is the son of a teacher and a hardware store owner and is thus a member of the black middle class that has left the city. However, Ronnie's father would still prefer it if his son's friends were black. McCloud illustrates this compelling in "Clash of Titans" (Zot! #31):

FATHER: Why do you hang out with those kids, Ronnie? They're not your kind. . . 
RONNIE: They're my friends. Dad. It's a white town. . .
FATHER: I know. . . I know. . . it's my fault for raising you here. But do all your friends have to be white? The kids from the city. . .
RONNIE: I'm scared of those kids, Dad. Those kids hate me. I'm not like them. Can I go to my room now, please?
Although this scene reproduces the geographic binaries that render the suburbs white and safe and the city dangerous and black, it also complicates those boundaries. There is a hint of honesty here that the stock figures of Manhattan do not have, cannot have as they're written. Ronnie is a fully developed character who must contend with the class aspirations of his family and his father's call for racial solidarity. He must figure out how to be black, while being groomed to wear a white collar. At the same time, Ronnie is trying to figure out who he wants to be and this doesn't always coincide with the professional and social ambitions that his father has for him. Ronnie's story illustrates the strength of the series, but it also points out the deficiencies that are inherent to Zot!'s troubling geographic distinctions.

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