Harper, 1987-1991 (2008 omnibus), 575 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-06-153727-1
These days, Scott McCloud is best-known as the thinker who came with Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, three of the most important analytical works about comics published over the past decade-and-a-half.
But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and for years before Understanding Comics, McCloud was best-known as the writer/artist behind the comic-book series Zot!. Until recently, though, only dedicated collectors or lucky readers could read McCloud’s formative work: Collecting single issues of older comics books has always been an enthusiast’s game, and a decade-old trade paperback reprint series hadn’t managed to collect all issues of Zot!
That’s partly what makes the news of this new Harper collection so exciting: for the first time, a good chunk of Zot! is back into print, along with restrospective comments by McCloud and some extra material thrown in for good measure.
Zot!, simply put, are the adventures of a young teenage girl, Jenny, after she discovers a portal to another dimension –a perpetual 1965 utopian retro-future in which lives Zot, a teenage super-hero who takes a liking to Jenny in-between battling super-villains. Jenny’s world is ours, and it’s suitably complicated: Jenny isn’t doing too well at school and finds no solace at home where her parent’s marriage is disintegrating. Zot is a rare ray of sunshine in her life, especially given how his 1965 seems to be incarnated perfection.
McCloud being McCloud, there’s a lot of clever material at play here: From a first half that seems to present light-hearted superhero stories with unusually good writing, Zot! gradually evolves along with its creator to a second half that’s grounded in our reality, tackling issues of racism, alienation and discrimination. The characterization in the last half of Zot! is daring for comics of its time, and it manages to hit emotional notes that are seldom seen in serial comics. There’s a remarkable five-issue sequence late in the book that simply follows five friends, and moments of it are heart-wrenching.
In short, fans of the Understanding Comics trilogy won’t be disappointed by McCloud’s “early work”: It’s already witty, ambitious and multi-layered. There’s a fair bit of experimentation here, and most of it does succeed at its own objectives. McCloud’s commentary helps in placing Zot! in its proper context, and reflect on how well his experiments have held up more than fifteen years later.
If there’s a problem with this Harper anthology, it’s that it doesn’t actually present the entire Zot! run. For reasons of economics in presenting a cheap volume, McCloud has opted to leave out the first ten full-color volumes of the series, along with a guest-illustrated issue. Let’s hope that this material will be collected in another volume entirely: despite McCloud’s assurances that the series was “rebooted” at issue 11, the first few volumes are like dropping into a party already in progress.
Fans who have some of the previous comics or trade paperbacks may also want to hold on to them for curiosity’s sake: This Harper trade paperback is a bit smaller than the Kitchen Sink full-page reprints, and McCloud has made a few changes to the art: While those changes are all justifiable in context as they clarify facial expressions, there’s a curious pleasure in comparing the before-and-after pages.
From a wider perspective, it’s interesting to see Zot! Being re-edited in a thick trade paperback, much like how mangas are published in Japan: given how McCloud’s been one of the pioneers in combining the strengths of both comics cultures, the physical form in which Zot! will earn its definitive run is a perfect way to give it form. Don’t be put-off by tags such as “McCloud’s first comic book series”: even today, Zot! more than holds up to careful reading. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame to see that the series ends at #36 when it reads like a prologue to an even longer sequence.