Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Zot!’ #11-36

Could it be … the end?!?!?!?

Zot! by Scott McCloud (writer/artist; layouts, issues #19-20), Ivy Ratafia (plot assist, issues #27-36), Chuck Austen (finisher, issues #19-20), Norman Felchle (art assists, issues #19-20), Mick Gray (art assists, issues #19-20), and Bob Lappan (letterer).

Published by Eclipse Comics, 26 issues (#11-36), cover dated January 1987 – July 1991.

It’s not really that type of book, but look out for SPOILERS all the same!

In the magnificent collected edition of these issues (linked to below!), Scott McCloud writes in the afterword: “When Understanding Comics hit the stands in May 1993, fans saw it as a book about comics by the guy who did Zot!, but within a few months, Zot! was demoted to ‘that series McCloud did before Understanding Comics.'” That’s true, and it’s a bit sad, because Zot! is a marvelous comic that is still pretty well known among comics aficionados but perhaps not by more casual (or younger) fans. McCloud is lauded for his books about comics, but he’s less lauded for his actual comics-making ability, which is quite strong. Zot! is his first and probably best comic, and it’s definitely worth owning.

You’ll notice that this begins with issue #11, which is what the collected edition covers, as well. Zot! began in 1984, when McCloud was not yet 24 years old, and ten color issues came out before McCloud, a bit burned out, went on hiatus. McCloud seems the tiniest bit embarrassed by them in the collected edition – he calls them his “training wheels” – and while they’re not quite as good as these issues, they’re still a rollicking good adventure with some nice pathos thrown in, and it’s clear that McCloud, even at this early age, knew what we was doing (the art is quite good, too, with one issue in which a villain goes a bit insane(r) a stand-out). The chances of those issues ever getting collected are slim, but you can find them around if you’re interested. After 18 months (issue #10 came out in July 1985, and issue #11 shipped in January 1987), McCloud brought the book back, in black and white (which was almost certainly an economic decision, but it worked creatively, too) and with a slightly more serious tone (a major plot point in the first ten issues was the death of a character, so it was never all shiny and happy, but the tone definitely shifted). The book really took off.

Zot! is the story of Zachary T. Paleozogt (whose nickname is Zot), a teenager who lives on an alternate dimension Earth, one in which it’s 1965 but it’s a 1965 of 1930s science fiction, meaning it’s all futuristic and utopian. Zot himself isn’t the only main character and often not the most important one – he’s friends with Jenny Weaver, a teen who lives on “our” Earth and who meets Zot in issue #1 and has many adventures with him in his dimension (she can do this because he can return her to her world at the same time she left, so no one notices her absence). By the beginning of issue #11, she’s back on her Earth, Zot is on his, and she misses him. Zot is off having adventures in his own world while Jenny is having difficulties navigating high school, a surly brother (Butch went to Zot’s world with Jenny and was turned in a monkey – it’s a long story – but he’s become angrier and detached as he’s gotten older, and their relationship has deteriorated), and parents whose marriage is on the rocks. McCloud didn’t focus on “our” world too much in the first ten issues, but it’s clear from the early pages of issue #11 that he’s going to be comparing and contrasting Zot’s world with Jenny’s much more. Jenny, as a slightly smitten teen, thinks Zot’s world is stupendous, because despite the fact that she spent the first adventure running around getting into danger, to her it felt far more meaningful than her mundance existence. McCloud does a clever thing – she likes Zot, obviously, but is she in love with him, or with the kind of life he leads? Zot, of course, shows up in Jenny’s world for a visit with some friends, and they head into New York to check out the scene. Again, McCloud shows that he has a different idea of where to go with the story – in the original arc, we spent barely any time in “our” world, but now McCloud is more interested in how a supremely optimistic person like his title character handles the realities of the world. It does not go well, as Zot stops a kid from stealing a woman’s purse but then gets beaten to a pulp by the rest of the gang, all while passers-by look on, unmoved. That doesn’t dampen his spirits, however, because he believes that the people want to do good, they just don’t know how. It’s certainly naïve, but that’s the point. Jenny sees nothing but darkness in her world, while Zot tries to see the good side of things (he loves graffiti and is amazed by it, because in his world nobody paints on exterior walls). This tension between them drives their relationship. McCloud highlights it by having the villain from Zot’s world, Dr. Ignatius Rumbault Bellows, a ridiculous steampunk anti-technology nut, enter “our” world and attack Zot, something Zot does not take very seriously even though Jenny does. Then, at the end of issue #12, Zot tries to show Jenny how wonderful her world is, but just when he’s almost convinced her, he’s unable to save everyone from a house fire and he realizes that people actually die pointlessly, and it hits him hard. In a wonderful exchange at the end of issue #12, Zot decides he needs to return to his world, even though Jenny wants him to stay:

McCloud gives us raw, teenage emotions, but both Zot and Jenny feel it so deeply that it’s impossible to be unaffected by them. Weirdly enough, McCloud doesn’t really follow up with this in any meaningful way. It’s strange – at the very beginning of issue #13, Zot is back in “our” world, and he doesn’t mention what happened at the end of issue #12, and then they go to Zot’s world and get caught up in fighting a giant robot that’s learning as it’s going (it’s AI in 1987!) that swallows Zot and Jenny, but then Jenny wakes up in her world and no one – including Butch, who’s been to Zot’s world – knows who Zot is. Issues #13-15 deal with Zybox, the robot, as we’re pretty sure that Zybox is creating this reality early on in issue #14, and he is, but Jenny manages to break free, and she helps Zot break free, and Zybox tries to take over our world, but he is thwarted! But there’s nothing about Zot’s decision at the end of issue #12, which is strange. It’s part of McCloud’s stealthy transition of the series from an all-out adventure to a slice-of-life, coming-of-age story, which takes quite a long time so readers might be more ready for it. The first ten issues are an adventure, true, with a bit of tragedy, and then we get issues #11-12, in which Zot realizes that Jenny’s world is far different than his own. Then, however, the majority of issues #11-27 take place in Zot’s dimension, with the attendant adventurous weirdness, but McCloud keeps introducing elements that will become more important when Jenny and Zot return to her world. Of course, Zot’s inability to affect crime in New York is the beginning, but the Zybox story, which supposedly takes place partly in Jenny’s mind, shows us a sullen Butch who has grown into a grumpy older teenager, parents who are divorcing, and Jenny not having many friends. Plus, McCloud introduces the idea that Zot’s world is not real, which McCloud never pushes too much, but which is always in the back of readers’ mind because we’re conditioned to think that. McCloud only alludes to it, in issue #14 most notably but a few places elsewhere, but it’s clever that he uses the readers’ expectations against them.

Issues #11-27, as noted, are more adventurous, as Zot and Jenny spend most of the time on Zot’s world. We have the Zybox story, then the group that turned Butch into a monkey comes back in issue #16, and then Arthur Dekker comes back in issues #17-18. Dekker is an artist who gradually replaced his body parts with robotic parts, so he’s now just a robot who happens to be insane. McCloud did some amazing artwork in the original Dekker story, back in the color series, and when he returns, McCloud is on point again with the art. Dekker is able to convince his doctor that he’s not insane, and he ends up at Zot’s birthday party, where things get weird. Meanwhile, back on our Earth, Jenny gets re-acquainted with Woody, a nerd from earlier in the school year who left for a while and came back, having grown taller and buffer. Jenny was the only person who was nice to Woody before he left, so of course he wants to be friends with her. Woody will become more important later in the series, of course. Back in Zot’s world, the “Dekko” two-parter (that’s what Arthur calls himself, because he’s very into Art Deco) brings up ideas of insanity, art, and how we view reality, and it’s very well done. McCloud is dealing with some darker things, and it’s interesting that he’s doing it in “Zot’s world,” not Jenny’s. As I noted, in the first arc, there was some tragedy, but it was more a consequence of exterior machinations than internal issues, but with Zybox and then Dekko, McCloud is beginning to look at psychological issues that lead to violence, and the results make for a far deeper series.

McCloud wrote and did thumbnails for issues #19-20, and Chuck Austen – at that moment known for drawing Miracleman really badly but not known for ruining the X-Men yet – did the finished art, and it’s pretty good (McCloud has the thumbnails in the collected edition, and they’re fairly detailed). McCloud got married and went on his honeymoon and wanted to catch up, but the issues were released on the same day, which seems to wreck any lead time he created, but what do I know? It’s a “bottle episode,” almost, simply telling an adventure that has no real bearing on the rest of the series, but it’s still a fun two-part story. In issues #21-22, Zot makes a commercial for soda, which angers Jenny because he’s “sold out,” and it turns out that the soda company is a front for the Blotch, an old villain of his, so he has to fight the bad guy, which helps him get out of his contract. Issues #23-25 are perhaps the most serious of the series yet, as Zot fights 9-Jack-9, an assassin who can move through electrical systems and is virtually impossible to stop. 9-Jack-9 has been hired to kill the daughter of the president of Antares 3, who himself was killed in a military takeover some years prior. Zot has to transport the daughter back to the resistance, where she can be with her cousin, who’s the leader. In a shocking turn, Zot fails in his assignment, and Susan – the president’s daughter – is killed (not graphically, because that’s not what McCloud does, but it’s still shocking). Zot helps the resistance retake the government, but he is unable to punish 9-Jack-9, who escapes. It’s a surprising turn of events, because usually Zot defeats the villain. Finally, issues #26-27 are more light-hearted, as McCloud gives us a New Years’ Eve party and brings back all the villains he’s been using in the series, some of whom are more reformed than others. It’s a bit silly (McCloud was running a “who gets a pie in the face” poll for readers even back in the color series days, and he pay it off here), but it ends with Zot and Jenny stuck on Jenny’s Earth, a situation she is not happy with as she hates her world so much. But that’s what McCloud was moving toward – a series about regular people doing regular things, and trapping everyone away from Zot’s world was his way of doing it.

As I mentioned above, McCloud keeps introducing more elements of realism, and a good deal of issues #11-27 take place in “our” world, where Jenny feels trapped, but McCloud also starts to shade in Zot’s world a bit, as well. After they escape from Zybox in issue #15, issue #16 features the group that can turn people into monkeys – the “De-Evolutionaries.” They’re silly, but they do manage to change the president into a monkey, which leads to a couple of police officers scheming to kidnap the president and blame it on the group so that they can get promoted (it’s interesting that even in Zot’s “enlightened” world, the man is in the position to get promoted and the woman must content herself with being Lady Macbeth). It’s a silly story, but it shows that even in Zot’s world, “regular” people (not crazy super-villains, in other words) can become corrupted by the idea of power. Arthur Dekker, who turned himself into a machine because he was pursuing perfection, is also a nihilist, something we don’t see in Zot’s world because everyone loves it so much. Even issues #19-20, which McCloud designed to be self-contained, aren’t immune to this, as the ending is savagely ironic and even cynical. Zot makes his commercial strictly for the money, and it becomes more sinister when the Blotch comes into the picture, but even before that, it’s still something he does because he wants to get paid and can trade on his celebrity. Even before 9-Jack-9 kills Susan in issue #24, McCloud shows that she is a deeply unhappy teenager, a mirror image of both Jenny and Zot, almost. In archetypal fairy tale fashion, Zot is also an orphan, but McCloud doesn’t get into that too much (and it’s in the first arc, so outside the scope of this essay). The death of Susan’s parents affected her greatly, and she doesn’t have a strong will to live, which makes Zot’s efforts to keep her alive bitterly sad and makes her death even more tragic, because she never had a chance to regain a zest for life. McCloud shows that she might have a chance before cruelly pulling the rug out from under our feet, which is horrific but damned good storytelling. Zot has never failed so utterly, and McCloud makes sure we know how much it affects him:

Zot tries to kill 9-Jack-9 in issue #25, a story McCloud admits is a bit confusing, but all he does is cause the death of Jack’s human host (it’s complicated), so Jack can return in issue #26 and Zot doesn’t immediately fight him (again, it’s complicated). Issues #26-27, as somewhat silly as they can be, finish in Jenny’s world because Zot’s government is cracking down on Zot traveling between dimensions too much, and they come to shut down the equipment needed to do so. Zot’s uncle, Max, shuts it down without realizing Zot’s in Jenny’s world, and because he’s not allowed to turn it back on, Zot is trapped. The circumstances of Max shutting it down are vague (the government just doesn’t like it), but the idea of a government flexing its muscles isn’t something we often see in Zot’s world … but by the time issue #27 comes around, Zot’s world is much less like a utopia than it seemed early on in the series.

McCloud contrasts Jenny’s world – “our” world – with Zot’s a lot during these issues, too, easing us into the final issues of the series, when Zot is trapped there. Before Zot shows up in Jenny’s dimension in issue #11, she’s dealing poorly with high school. Her best and perhaps only friend, Terry, mocks her because Zot hasn’t shown up yet (it’s friendly mockery, but still), and Woody, at this point still a small, nerdy kid, is infatuated with her, but Terry keeps him away from her (given Terry’s later issues, this is ironic by McCloud, although perhaps he hadn’t made up his mind about Terry yet). Jenny is nice to him, because Jenny’s nice, but her heart belongs to Zot … she thinks. When he arrives in her dimension, all her troubles disappear, and she can introduce Terry to him, and she can zip off to the city with him … where, of course, he is beaten up. In issue #12, she pines for his world while he’s fascinated by hers, and he tells her, “Every world has its dark side, Jenny. Even mine,” but she doesn’t listen to him, responding, “But yours is so beautiful. And the people there seem so satisfied with their lives … It’s different here, Zot. It’s like everyone is a little bit … broken inside.” She’s projecting, obviously, but McCloud does want to set up Zot’s world as someplace she can escape to, while her world is a place of refuge for Zot, as it’s strange to him just as his world is strange to her. The difference is that Zot sees what’s good about the world because of the people in it, while Jenny sees the good in the stuff. Despite the fact that Zot leaves at the end of issue #12, he does learn a lesson about life, which is something that Jenny takes a bit longer to learn.

The Zybox issues show Jenny’s world, of course, but a twisted version of it, as Zybox is altering Jenny’s reality. In issue #17, Jenny is in her world at the end of the school year (time moves in Zot!, but slowly, obviously), and this is when the hunkier Woody makes his appearance. He tells Jenny that he appreciates her being nice to him before he left, because not many people were. They have a nice conversation, during which it’s clear that Woody digs her but knows she’s hung up on Zot so he doesn’t push it, but he also tells her that her feelings about her world and her life aren’t unique, that he often feels the same way, and it’s nicely done by McCloud. In issue #21, Woody takes her out on a quasi-date, but when he drops her off at her house, Zot shows up and the two of them meet. Woody hadn’t really believed that Zot was from another dimension, but Zot shows it to him and he freaks out a bit. It’s a nice exchange, and McCloud shows that Zot is both more mature and a bit more clueless than we expect:

In issue #22, we learn that Woody’s father was an ambassador in South Africa and got in trouble for meeting with the opposition parties fighting against apartheid, which is both a way for McCloud to establish his family’s liberal credentials and also to once again shade Jenny’s world a bit grayer than Zot’s world. Meanwhile, Woody tells Jenny that he loves her, which Jenny tries to deflect because of her feelings for Zot. It’s another nice conversation by McCloud, as he writes the teens very well, hesitating and unsure of themselves, and in nice contrast, again, to Zot’s world, where everything is bolder and more certain – there’s a bad guy to defeat, and Zot will do it (even though McCloud, as I noted above, is making Zot’s world less black-and-white as we go). When Jenny confronts Zot about his feelings for her, he’s unsure, too, which is a nice change of pace from his usual confidence. Again, Zot shows remarkable maturity when he discusses love:

In issue #23, we get another interesting step in the strange love triangle of Jenny, Woody, and Zot. Jenny and Woody are supposed to go out on a date, but Jenny saw 9-Jack-9 in her world, and as Jack is a major threat, she feels like she has to go to Zot’s world to figure out what’s going on. McCloud does another cool thing with the teenage emotional roller coaster: Woody gets angry, but quickly realizes how stupid that is and apologizes. McCloud continues to make sure that this love triangle is unlike most we see, as everyone is acting like people who actually care about the others, not jealous idiots. Jenny heads off to Zot’s world, and the next time she even thinks about her own world, she’s asking Zot if it would be ok to leave it and move to his. Zot doesn’t want her to give up on her world, and she tells him that everyone moves away from home, and as she just turned fifteen, she’s old enough to choose where she wants to live (another fun, perfectly teen thing for McCloud to write). For the New Years’ celebration in issues #26-27, Zot invites Woody to his world, and Woody can’t resist. What he discovers about Zot’s world I’ll get back to, but for now, it’s enough to know that he and Zot still get along, and Jenny is convinced she’s staying in Zot’s world. That notion, of course, comes crashing down when she’s trapped on her own world at the end of issue #27.

These issues show McCloud writing teenagers who experience real-life things and handle them like regular people – sometimes well, sometimes not – but because they love each other, they are able to get through it. Jenny does need to grow up a bit, but her life is far from perfect, and anyone can see the appeal a place like Zot’s dimension would have for a girl like her: she’s the sleeping beauty, she thinks, stuck in a mundane world who only needs the handsome prince to whisk her away to a fairytale world where everything is right. McCloud does a very nice job implying this while also making Jenny feel like a real character, so when her hopes are (cruelly, she thinks) dashed, we feel for her even though we recognize that her dreams were only flights of fancy.

As excellent as issues #11-27 are, they still feel like a prelude to issues #28-36, the so-called “Earth Stories,” in which McCloud pulls back on the adventures and looks at teens growing up in the late 1980s/early 1990s. While the first issue focuses on Jenny, McCloud writes about the circle of people she knows as well, while Zot almost – but not quite – fades into the background. In issue #28, Jenny has a typical day at school, but before she leaves, she finds out that her parents are going through a separation for a while, which doesn’t make her happy, to say the least. At school, we meet some of her friends, some of whom we’ve seen before (they play Dungeons & Dragons with Woody) and some of whom we haven’t. After school, she hangs out with Zot and her friends – it’s, as noted, a typical day. Zot is staying in a “spatial distortion box” – a space that’s big on the inside but can be carried around in a box – that he keeps in Jenny’s bedroom, and they share a kiss before he goes to bed. Jenny goes downstairs and we get another gut-wrenching scene:

McCloud, however, doesn’t stay focused on Jenny, as dramatic as her life can be. In issue #29, he sticks with Zot, as our hero goes into the city to fight crime and can’t find it easily. McCloud got a bit of criticism for issue #11, when Zot got beaten up by black criminals in a series with very few black people (Zot’s best friend in his dimension is black, but that didn’t count, apparently). In this issue, a bunch of white people tell him to go to Harlem, but when he goes there, he finds … just people, trying to live as best they can. Zot is frustrated by the lack of visible crime, and McCloud has him express it in comic-book logic:

He does hear someone calling for help, but he can’t find the person in the skyscraper canyons, which depresses him. When he heads to the subway, he finds a man lying on the ground, stabbed. He asks a passerby for help, and the man doesn’t want to because he’s “in a hurry.” Zot guilts him into helping, and they get the victim to a hospital, which cracks the man’s cynicism just a bit. Zot still doesn’t understand racism, which leads to this ironic and downbeat ending:

The stories continue in this vein. Issue #30 focuses on Jenny’s mother, flashing back to her own romance with Jenny’s father as she feels her family fall apart. It’s a melancholy but not hopeless story. Issues #31 and 32 are companion pieces, almost, as we get to know Ronnie, a D & D partner of Woody’s, and the girl he adores, Brandy, whom he dates but who obviously doesn’t quite feel about him the way he feels about her. Ronnie is a typical nerd – he wants to write comics, so he lives part of the time in a fantasy world – and McCloud has some fun at his own expense when Ronnie’s mother tells him that he shouldn’t write superheroes, but about his own life, and Ronnie responds. “Who the hell would want to read about me?The response to McCloud’s more realistic take on the series seems to have been positive, but I wonder if McCloud got some angry letters who missed the high adventures of the earlier issues and he was pointing out that he had moved beyond “superheroes.” Ronnie is a part of the group, but he’s also apart from it, because he’s black. His father doesn’t like that he’s friends with only white kids, but Ronnie points out that there aren’t a lot of black people in the suburbs, and when his dad suggests that he befriend some “kids from the city,” Ronnie tells him that he’s scared of them and they hate him anyway. It’s a conundrum that shows up occasionally in popular culture – how do you assimilate without losing your own culture? Ronnie is a nerd, and he doesn’t have much in common with “more authentic” black people. Does that make him a bad person? Ronnie is also grumpy because Woody, to prove a point about his odd relationship with Jenny, asked Brandy out on a date and she said yes. Ronnie doesn’t have the same attitude that Zot or even Woody has – he feels that Brandy is “his,” even though he doesn’t say it out loud. We get Brandy’s story in issue #32, in which McCloud shows us that her sunny personality is a front, as her dad isn’t around, her mother is an alcoholic and can’t keep up with rent payments, and Brandy is taking care of her younger siblings. She’s a positive person, but McCloud shows us that’s pathological, as she refuses to see darkness around her, implying that it’s all she can do to keep from drowning in it. She “dates” all the boys in their group in one night to prove a point, but Ronnie is the last one, and he’s made a huge romantic gesture that cost him a lot of money (he sold some of his old X-Men issues), which freaks Brandy out. Ronnie doesn’t really understand why she’s freaking out, but we know it’s because the money is so important to her, as someone who doesn’t have a lot, while Ronnie doesn’t think too much about it. He wants her to be “happy,” and the tragedy of the ending is that it’s written as a happy ending but McCloud makes it savagely ironic. Brandy might be forcing herself to be happy outwardly, but she’s very much not.

Issue #33, “Normal,” got the accolades (a Harvey nominee for best single issue), and it’s well worth it, as it’s an excellent story in which Terry, Jenny’s best friend, comes to terms with her attraction to girls. The issue hits so hard because Terry has been around a while, and we’ve seen how McCloud has made her a bit caustic, which in this issue we learn is a defense mechanism so gossips don’t turn their baleful eye on her. I imagine that McCloud knew he was going to write this kind of issue when he introduced Terry, but if he didn’t, it’s a good way to retroactively pardon her behavior – she’s terrified of being found out, and the best way to hide that terror is to turn it on someone else. In “Normal,” McCloud focuses on Terry, naturally, but also on some other kids – one of whom was bullied because the students thought he was gay (it’s never confirmed in the issue that he is, but that’s why it’s so insidious – just the appearance of it is enough … and in issue #34, his sister says he isn’t) and his sister, who after her brother is injured, comes out and loses friends because of it. Terry has a crush on the girl, Pamela, but she’s still in the closet, so she doesn’t say anything. McCloud does a brilliant job showing how hard it is for her, and even how hard it is for others to simply stand up to the bullies. Woody writes for the school newspaper, but he doesn’t want to do an editorial about the bullying because he doesn’t want to be called “gay,” which pisses Jenny off. She points out that Zot risks his life fighting crime, but Woody can’t stand up to injustice, and what’s great about the conversation is that neither Woody nor Jenny is really wrong, or even really right – it’s just complicated. Terry, meanwhile, derides the group earlier in the issue because they’re not “normal,” and McCloud gives them good answers:

Terry desperately wants to be “normal,” but that means betraying herself and even her friends, and she can’t do that. While Woody and Jenny are arguing, Terry freaks out because she thinks they’ll know all about her, and she runs away. Zot finds her, and we get possibly one of the best conversations in comics:

Terry finds the courage to talk to Pamela at the end (McCloud cleverly hints at an unhappy ending before switching it to a happy one), and what makes it great is that it doesn’t solve the problem, and Terry still isn’t out to her friends (except Zot, of course), but simply talking to the lesbian is an act of bravery. It’s very well done, and it’s not surprising people love this issue.

We get some fallout in issue #34, as Woody decides to write an editorial in the school newspaper, which draws the ire of the bullies (in the collected edition, McCloud actually tones down the bully’s language just a bit, as he felt it was a bit too much, but there’s still plenty of cursing, which is supposed to be jarring in a book like this, where there was an occasional “bad” word but nothing like what Dougie unleashes on Woody). Zot helps him out, hilariously, and the bullies get off his back, but the issue is more about Woody making the stand after being too scared to do something about it and his realization that he has to “break up” with Jenny. As usual, McCloud handles it well, as Woody realizes he’s too possessive and he doesn’t want to “share” Jenny with Zot. They’re still friends, but Woody is out of the picture, which leads to issue #35, where Zot and Jenny discuss having sex (another good one; it was nominated for an Eisner). McCloud doesn’t push the envelope as far as he could have, as he doesn’t have them go through with it (although, of course, the issue ends with Jenny checking out Zot’s weird room-inside-the-box, so maybe something happened off-panel?), but it’s another good conversation about their feelings and why they want to have sex and why they might not. It’s the smallest bit old-fashioned, but it’s still an excellent examination of the emotions people – especially kids – can feel about sex and how confused they can get. It doesn’t matter whether they have sex off-panel or not – it’s clear they’re going to at some point, and that’s all that matters.

The final issue of the series wasn’t supposed to be the final issue – McCloud promised in the letters column that Zot! would return – but, of course, it is the final issue, and there’s no indication McCloud will ever return to it. It’s a wonderful final issue, so there’s no real reason to continue it, anyway. McCloud checks in with the members of the group, including the few who didn’t get an entire issue, and then it’s the last day of school, but Zot hasn’t come home from crime-fighting, so Jenny gets Butch – who has become even more dissolute and disaffected since their parents split up – to help her find him. They find him in the hospital, as he was shot during a drug raid because he tried to talk to the addicts and someone – McCloud leaves it ambiguous whether it was the addicts or the police – started shooting and Zot got caught in the crossfire. Zot recovers, mainly because his uncle, Max, figured out how to open the dimensional portal, so Zot was able to recover in his dimension and return to Jenny’s world the next day, so not a lot of time passed for her. The government in Zot’s world approved interdimensional travel, so Zot takes Jenny and all her friends to his world so they can see it. Jenny, as we have seen throughout the series, is ready for more than that, and she shows up with suitcases full of her stuff. McCloud once again takes our expectations and subverts them – in stories with fantasy worlds, the fantasy world is obviously more desirable than the mundane world from which the protagonist hails, but usually a few different things happen: In some stories, the protagonist stays in the fantasy world, but it’s usually a happy thing tinged with some melancholy. Grant Morrison would mine this feeling in Doom Patrol a few years after this, when Jane can only live in the “comic-book world” because the real world is too painful, but perhaps the most famous example is Narnia, which is literally heaven and the kids can only stay forever because they’re dead. In most of the stories, however, the protagonist is usually prevented from living in the fantasy world for some reason, but they realize – on their own – that their world is all right. Neither of those things happen here: Jenny doesn’t stay in Zot’s world, nor does she realize herself that her world is a good place. Instead, Zot forces her to stay. He tells her she can’t run away from her problems, which is true (although she insists she can), and he tells her he hasn’t given up on her world, so she shouldn’t, which doesn’t move her, and then he finally tells her that if she leaves her world, he’ll never return to his. Jenny thinks he’s bluffing, and McCloud does a good job with the ambiguity of it and also with Jenny’s desperation to have a better life:

It works, and Jenny puts her stuff away, but the book is still hopeful. Jenny gets her mother to visit Zot’s world, and they all have an adventure in Zot’s world, and all is right – for now – in the universe. McCloud cleverly makes sure that not everything is resolved, partly because he did think he was going to continue the series but partly because that’s the way life is. He gives us a beautiful final sequence, allowing his cast to ride off into the proverbial sunset.

As I noted above, McCloud hints around that Zot’s world isn’t real, even though he doesn’t push it. It’s an interesting theme: comic book readers, even in the late 1980s, were used to alternate dimensions, so it was no big deal, but there’s also that long tradition of fiction where the protagonist visits that fantasy world and it turns out to be imaginary. McCloud plays with this throughout, from Zybox creating a nightmare world for Jenny in which everyone thinks she’s crazy because she talks about Zot as if he’s real, to Woody’s visit in issue #27, where he learns that Zot’s world has popular culture based on, say, the Vietnam War (Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now exist in Zot’s world), even though the Vietnam War didn’t happen in Zot’s world. Earlier in that issue, when the New Year comes in, it becomes … 1965, which is the same year it was at the beginning of the series. Zot, however, tells her that they met in 1963, and it’s been a few years, but Jenny and Woody see it go from 1965 to 1965, but no one else does. Obviously, so many people go to Zot’s world that it’s definitely not something that Jenny is imagining, but those intriguing hints about Zot’s world help keep the readers guessing about the nature of the reality that the characters experience.

McCloud’s writing is wonderful, of course, but his art is superb, as well. He would write three books about the form of comics, so it’s not surprising that he knows how to structure a comic, and he has written that Japanese manga influenced his work, so it’s usually very clean and crisp in the linework. This helps make Zot’s world look more fun and futuristic, as McCloud’s details are amazing, but as the story progressed, he began to do a bit more with the art, and it becomes even stronger. As sure as I am that the switch to black and white was mostly an economic decision (as I mentioned above), it’s also possible McCloud thought that the tone shift in the book warranted it, so it all worked out. The first ten issues are a bright, madcap adventure, and as we’ve seen, despite some wild elements in issues #11-27, McCloud was turning to a more realistic portrayal of life, and the lack of color helped with that. It didn’t limit the art; in issue #11, the first black and white issue, McCloud was able to bring us a picture like this:

Like a lot of good artists, McCloud is detailed when he needs to be (to show both Zot’s world and Jenny’s world) and a bit more abstract when he needs to be, as with the characters’ faces. This is a good trick if you can do it; it allows artists to suggest a lot of emotion with only a few tweaks to the basic template. This is evident throughout, but never more so than in issue #35, when Zot and Jenny talk about sex. In the collected edition, McCloud is harsh on his art in this issue: “Somehow,” he writes, “I managed to create the perfect showcase for everything awkward and embarrassing about my drawing style.” He continues:

A big problem in this particular instance was the need not only to create natural, convincing poses for Zot and Jenny (hard enough for me on a good day) but then to repeat them with only minimal variations throughout dozens of subsequent panels. In my attempt to keep those rows rigidly consistent, any life I might have been able to breathe into a single image was choked out of its various clones.

Well, maybe. I disagree, but I’m not the artist, I’m just looking at the effects. Early on, Jenny gets distracted and asks Zot what they were talking about (as if she could forget). He tells her “sex,” and she does this:

McCloud might not like the consistency because the last panel has had the life choked out of it, but look at how he changes what Jenny is thinking simply by tweaking her eyebrows, closing her mouth, and slightly moving her eye. It’s very impressive, whether or not McCloud thinks so. Later in this issue, McCloud might hate the sequence shown below, but you can see everything coursing through Jenny’s mind as she talks or, in most of the panels, doesn’t talk:

As difficult as it might be for McCloud to look at this stuff (and he wrote those words in 2008; maybe he’s mellowed since then), it’s a very good feat, and he does this all the time in the book. As good as his writing is, as well as he gives each of these characters a distinctive voice, a lot of what they’re going through comes from the way he draws them. As I showed above, when Zot tells Jenny at the end that he’s never going to go back to his world if she abandons hers, McCloud gives her that emotional, powerful speech, but how he draws Zot, especially when Jenny realizes he’s not bluffing, is excellent, and all he does is shift a few lines. Here are just the panels with Zot in them from that sequence:

McCloud does begin to stretch his wings a bit during the run, too, which is nice to see. He begins to use hatching a bit more to create shading (obviously, this is before the days of rendering), but he never overdoes it. He always seemed to enjoy working on Dekko stories, because he could show how Arthur Dekker sees the world, which is wildly abstract. This is the beginning of issue #17, which came out right after the somewhat goofy “Call of the Wild” in issue #16, the return of the De-Evolutionaries:

As Arthur becomes increasingly unhinged throughout the story, he begins seeing even people as completely abstract:

When McCloud does a more serious story like 9-Jack-9’s efforts to assassinate Susan in issues #23-25, McCloud uses more hatching and thicker lines to darken the tone. This is the splash page of issue #23:

Up above you can see how McCloud shows Zot after he fails to protect Susan, as he uses a lot of black and thicker inking lines to show the depths of Zot’s despair. In issue #25, when he tries to kill Jack, McCloud uses much more ragged lines than usual during the big fight, which shows both Zot’s frantic state of mind and the roughness of the battle, which is more serious than most of Zot’s conflicts.

When Zot and Jenny are trapped on “our” Earth, McCloud takes his art to another level. I’ve shown how he draws the people (as much as he might dislike it), but just the way he grounds everything in a richly detailed, realistic world is wonderful. “Autumn” in issue #30 is a showcase for McCloud to show off his delicate hatching and inking skills. Here are the first two pages:

Later on, he throws in this long shot of Jenny’s mother’s car just because he can:

McCloud shifts so easily from a thin, precise line to a slightly more impressionistic vibe (it’s not messier from a more frenetic brush stroke, just hyper-detailed to make it look messier, which was probably very time-consuming and may have contributed to his “burn-out” on the title), and it’s just marvelous to watch. In the final issue, we get a nice contrast between Zot’s futuristic, crisp world and Jenny’s messy one, and it’s easy to see why Jenny would want to stay in Zot’s world. On the other hand, McCloud has given such depth and beauty to Jenny’s world that we shift to Zot’s perspective – Jenny shouldn’t give up on her world, because she will see the beauty in it eventually. She might not think so, but we know it, thanks to the way McCloud draws it.

McCloud went on to greater fame (within the comic book community, naturally, not necessarily in the “outside world”) with his books about how to make comics, but he showed in Zot! that he actually can make great comics, not just write about how to do it. Even though he claimed he was going to return, the ending to issue #36 is a perfect ending, because it doesn’t solve everyone’s problems – Jenny is still an angst-ridden teen, Terry is still finding her way, Butch is still going through some hard times, and Jenny’s parents are still getting divorced. Perhaps McCloud would have gotten more into that had he returned, but the fact that he leaves them ambiguous is a good way to leave it, as that’s how life is. McCloud has done some actual comics since Zot! ended, but it remains his masterpiece, and he finished it before he turned 31, which is pretty impressive. If you can find the first ten issues, they’re certainly a nice read, but issues #11-36 are where McCloud really shines. The very nice trade (which, again, I linked to below, so if you use that link, we get a little bit back for the blog) has good commentary about the series and individual issues, and while it doesn’t include issues #19-20, we do get the thumbnails for that issue, and while it does fit thematically with what McCloud is doing, it’s also very standalone. Plus, you don’t get the back-up stories, which are goofy and fun but no big loss – they’re drawn by Matt Feazell and written by him and some others, and feature Zot and the gang as stick figures getting into all sorts of weird adventures. It’s fun reading the single issues because of the letters column and because, as we weirdos who read comics know, there’s just something about reading the single issues, with their tactile feel and even scent, but the trade really is a wonderful package, if you’re interested in reading this series. Zot! is one of those “1980s indie black-and-white” comics that old-school fans get all breathless about, and it really does deliver on the hype. That’s why you should own it! And be sure to take a look at the archives for more good stuff!

[As you might suspect, this is the last title from my “back-issue re-read” that I’m featuring here for a while. My first entry, not long after I started reading my back issues, was in December 2004, so it’s taken me over 18 years to make it through my back issues, which sounds like a long time, but remember that I stopped to write about a lot of them, so that meant I wasn’t reading them, and I was reading new comics at the same time! I used to be able to buzz through my back issues pretty quickly, but I have a lot more than I used to, obviously, so it takes a bit longer! Of course, since I started this, I have bought a lot of single issues that came before wherever I happened to be in the alphabet, so I didn’t include those, but I’ll get around to them eventually. In the meantime, Comics You Should Own is entering new and scary territory … the realm of the graphic novels and collected editions!!!!! This means I might have some books here that are even weirder than the weird ones I’ve already featured, as graphic novels often get weird, and it also means that I’ll be featuring some older stuff, as I don’t have those titles in single issues but have collected a lot of them over the years. The oldest single-issue stuff I’ve featured so far is from the mid- to late-1970s, but that’s only a few series where I was able to track down the issues. Other than that, I just don’t own a lot of single issues from prior to the mid-1980s. But collections … yeah, I have a lot of that stuff. So, I hope you’re ready, because it’s back to the beginning of the alphabet for me, and I have a lot to get to!]


  1. tomfitz1

    Burgas: I remember reading some or most of this series.

    I don’t know if you knew this or not (I haven’t seen it mentioned in this blog), but ZOT! did return, though not in comic form, but online in a weekly format.

    Don’t have the link, so I don’t know if it’s still available online.

  2. Eric van Schaik

    Hat’s off for finishing CYSO.
    It gave me a lot of great stories to buy. Thanks Greg. 🙂

    I wonder which collected editions and graphics novels we’ll see in your columns. Will it take another 18 years? 😉

    1. Greg Burgas

      “Finishing” – ha! 🙂

      You’re very welcome, sir – I hope I steered you in the right direction occasionally!

      I have a lot of nice GNs and trades, so we shall see! And gadzooks, it might take longer than 18 years!!!! 🙂

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