Page 45 Review by Stephen
"You think that just because you love life that everyone else has to? It doesn't work that way."
"Do you mind if we keep trying anyway?"
"Oh, look at you. Look what they've done to you."
From the creator of UNDERSTANDING COMICS, I present you with 576 pages of inspired and inspirational wonder starring a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager from another dimension. As Scott mentions throughout this substantially annotated package, this is a book divided into two radically different sorts of story and at this highly affordable price I heartily recommend it both to those of you who enjoy profoundly moving straight fiction (and that you start at #28, as I did when the comics came out), as well as those of you who like your adventure all action and animated (start at the beginning, like Mark).
Zot or Zacchary sees the best in all things and in all people. He's no simplistic naïf, but an effective force for good - for positive thinking and kindness. His is an endearing, rarely faltering optimism which he strives to impress upon others, carrying his new-found friends from Earth high above the clouds - both literally and metaphorically - to stare into the majesty of the sun or show them the light that can shine in their eyes.
For ground-bound Jenny it's not so easy: her mother rarely appears until the final few episodes, whilst her father is permanently absent. With her parents' potential divorce hanging over her head, she endures school coursework that no longer means anything to her, and stares instead at the drenching rain streaming down her window pane. No wonder then that rather than making her own world better, she'd desperately prefer moving to Zot's dimension where the best of Earth has been built on. There Zot is an effortless hero, a blonde Astro Boy fighting an amusingly light-hearted fight against larger-than-life malcontents, alongside his highly inventive friends, and across the futuristic backdrop of a Euro/Japanese cityscape of clean, gleaming, monumental architecture. There's really little sense of danger, for Zachary just knows he will win and do so with grace.
Take the first villain here: a cartoon Victorian mad-scientist. He's all flying/time machine with black spherical bombs whose fuses fizzle and which Zot diffuses with a wet finger and thumb. Yes, Dr. Bellows is angry, but when pulled from the pond, all sagging and soggy, even he's not immune to Zot's casual words of kindness:
"Doctor Bellows, I just want you to know that you may be a rotten human being -- but you make a great bad guy."
The events of #24, then, come as a gut-punch to the stomach, when Zot fails for the first time, and does so irreparably, resulting in the death of the young woman in his charge. Everyone is understandably stunned, but Zachary waits to make sure that Jenny is safely back home on Earth and tenderly reassured. Only then does he speed out into the cold, dark wilderness, his face unreadable, to crash alone into the pitch-black ocean, crawl onto the shore and burst into inconsolable tears. He won't allow himself to be seen let alone cared for in this state, not because he's afraid of showing weakness but in case his rare despair rubs off on anyone else. It's the ultimate act of selflessness.
Slowly, while all this is happening, Scott has been building his cast up on Earth*, particularly Woody, a nerdy Francophile and role-playing game's master with the most enormous crush on Jenny. She lets him down as gently as she can, and he disappears to France before returning taller, decidedly more handsome, and better at expressing himself. As early as #17 McCloud drops in a conversation that will become everything I fell in love with during the later, straighter fiction, as Woody tells Jenny how he used to hate it before going away:
"That's partly my fault, Woody. I'm sorry."
"At least you tried to be nice to me, Jenny... Why do you think I got so hung-up on you in the first place? Most kids walked all over me. Even my best friends made fun of me for being short!"
"Not any more, I'll bet! God, you're so different now!"
"Not really, Jenny."
"Oh, I know, but --"
"Jenny -- That's important. When I was short and dorky-looking I kept telling myself not to worry, that what I look like doesn't matter, it's just some random thing. Just some accident of heredity. It's what's inside that counts. I'm not going to stop believing that just 'cause it's not to my advantage anymore."
So they sit under the tree and open up to each other, and it's the same breath of fresh air that will become Scott's hallmark in the second half of the book, anticipating the issue he went on to call "Normal".
And so we come to that second section of short stories, each a masterpiece of non-judgemental sideways storytelling about courage and love, sex and relationships. Jenny loves Zot in a dreamy way - in that, I-want-to-be-with-you-always way. Zot loves Jenny in a cheerful way ("Who wouldn't?" he tells Woody when he asks). Woody loves Jenny in a profound, butterflies-in-your stomach way. Whilst Terry... her story's the slow-burner here, but you get a hint of it as far back as #22. But they're young (Jenny is 14, Zot 15 for most of this), just beginning to grapple with self-awareness and Jenny's early conversation on the subject with Zot doesn't seem to help much. All that Zot's clear about is that he doesn't want "love" to mean "own" and he's as good as his word, never pressuring Jenny to choose between him and Woody because... well, he likes Woody. Don't worry, it's all resolved in one of the most tender issues of any comic I've read in which two of the characters sit in a bedroom a talk about sex. It's quite the surprise.
Oddly for me, this is where Scott is most down about his own artistic limitations. He thinks that issue is particularly rigid and visually dull. I think that visually it's the finest in the book. But then Scott's consistently critical of his own art (once in the introduction, directly above a glowing sunset image in a park that couldn't be more line-perfect had it been drawn by Gerhard). He does have limitations but they're few and far between. Personally I don't care for some of his early inking when he's using Terry Austin techniques on the metal (thin line just inside the form, then the broadest of zip-a-tone horizontal lines across the whole - c.f. Cyclops' mask over John Byrne's pencils in UNCANNY X-MEN circa #115; Byrne didn't care for it, either), and whilst I relish some of McCloud's meticulous, photo-realist autumnal landscapes towards the end, the simpler cartoon figures of Zot and Jenny descending towards her porch in the foreground don't mesh as well as Sim's Cerebus did against Gerhard's intricate cross-hatching. But I firmly disagree with Scott when he criticises his renditions of "normal" people in casual clothes sitting around and talking. I think that's his strength: he nails their movements, and gives their gentle features shades of subtle expression - sheepish embarrassment during the sex issue was a particular success.
Lastly, then, that "Normal" issue and its consequent "Sometimes, A Direction". I'm pleased to say that Scott found a way to maintain its format. As I wrote in the preview, "One of the final issues was one of the most moving comics I ever read, and certainly the finest "coming out" story I've encountered in any medium, I think, which came with a false ending. By which I mean that the story ended, and it ended on a sadly all-too realistic downer, after which the letter column was all that was left..." ...Until you turn over the letter column page, onto a one-page extra heartbeat of exhilaration and relief.
Scott talks about feeling uncomfortable with presenting an ending which would have been perhaps insultingly glib given the very real prevalence and violence of homophobia ("As I write this in 2008," reports Scott, "our local news in Southern California is reporting from a middle school nearby Oxnard, where an openly gay student named Lawrence King had actually dared to wear feminine clothes to school and apparently ruffled a few feathers in the process. As Lawrence sat in computer class last Tuesday, one of his classmates walked up to him, pulled out a handgun, and shot him in the head."). But, as he also says, the whole premise of the comic ZOT! is hope and optimism, and to deny that possibility would have been entirely out of keeping with the work as a whole. Better still, however, is the issue that follows in which Woody as school newspaper reporter summons the most extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, to stand up and be counted not for himself, but for others, thereby enacting everything our blonde Astro Boy stood for.
So yes, I think this may be my longest review of all time, and I'm sorry for that, but then it's a very big book, and a pivotal one in American comics, straddling as it did the energetic, imaginative independent comic scene and its move towards fiction and matters of contemporary importance, and the conservative corporate superhero series which shied away from any search potential controversy. Also, I did read every single word of this book from cover to cover again to do it full justice, and I have another full page of notes I discarded about Jenny's disillusioned mother dreaming of Autumns past, Brandy's (deluded or determined?) brightness, and references to Grant Morrison's DOOM PATROL (Art Dekko etc.). What it's done is propelled me as close to prayer as I'm likely to get, in the hope that after his inestimable services to comics with UNDERSTANDING COMICS etc. Scott returns once again to straight fiction. Because he's very, very good at it.