When I first started reading “Zot!,” it had just concluded. I was attending James Madison University down in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and a new friend of mine was crazy about all sorts of comics I’d never heard of, and “Zot!” topped that list. He lent me the first few issues, and I was hooked, scrambling to find as many of the 36 issues as I could find. It was a simple enough concept, with Jenny Weaver discovering an alternate Earth where the world is how we imagined the future, and among the flying cars was Zachary “Zot” Paleozogt, the world’s premiere superhero. The book had just gone on hiatus, and we figured in a year or so it would be back and by then I’d have caught up entirely.
Of course, “Zot!” didn’t come back (not including a brief online strip on Scott McCloud’s web site originally seen at CBR) and McCloud became well-known for his textbooks on comic books, like “Understanding Comics” and “Making Comics”. Eclipse Comics (“Zot!”‘s original publisher) soon went out of business, and while Kitchen Sink Press announced a four-volume collection of the entire series, only three volumes hit stores before Kitchen Sink also went out of business (and quickly making those books collector’s items as they went out-of-print).
Now, some 17 years later, “Zot!” is back in print. Or, at least, most of it is. In his introduction, McCloud explains that the first ten issues (which were in color) were what he refers to as his “training wheels”, and for the moment they’re not back in print. Likewise, Matt Feazell’s hysterically funny stick-figure back-ups as well as the Chuck Austen-drawn two-parter (giving McCloud a break while he went on his honeymoon) aren’t included in this volume. When you keep in mind that even without all of those issues this book clocks in at 576 pages, though, it’s easy to understand why lines had to be drawn somewhere.
It’s funny, though, because while McCloud calls those early issues his training wheels, I think in many ways what he chose to reprint here isn’t that far off from being the same thing. What starts off as fun but slight action/adventure stories become so much more as “Zot!” progresses. The supporting cast begins to get fleshed out as McCloud makes his way throughout the series; one-dimensional characters like Terry and Woody slowly grow and blossom into rich, interesting people, Jenny’s home situation slowly changes, and you can even see McCloud begin to backpedal a bit on what he’d written so far. Jenny begins to mellow as the book moves on, as Zot tries to show her what she’s unable to see in her own world. McCloud begins to tell tougher, richer stories with each new chapter of “Zot!”; when stories like “The Eyes of Dekko” and “The Ghost in the Machine” roll around, the book has transformed from a simple superhero story into something that wants to explore different genres and storytelling methods.
That feeling is never more evident than in the second half of “Zot!”, the section known as the “Earth Stories”. Here, superhero trappings are more or less put aside entirely as the book shifts entirely to Earth and McCloud tells stories about Jenny and her friends once she and Zot are trapped in our world. The “Earth Stories” are certainly the most popular stretch in “Zot!”‘s 36 issues, and it’s easy to see why. McCloud’s stories are more often hits than misses here (although the book does hit moments of cliche occasionally), with McCloud clearly more interested in exploring the lives of a disparate group of teenagers rather than electric assassins that can transmit through power lines.
The “Earth Stories” are thoughtful and the centerpiece of the “Zot!” collected edition; even when a story doesn’t entirely work, there’s always a little something that made it worthwhile. And of course, placing the comic in historic context is important as well; in American comics a lot of what McCloud does in “Earth Stories” is commonplace now, but certainly was a much bigger risk in that time period. It’s impressive to see him take those steps forward and try and transform “Zot!” into what he felt comics should be like, rather than worry about what the rest of the market consisted of.
Hopefully HarperCollins and McCloud will decide to eventually release a second volume with the color stories (as well as the Austen and Feazell contributions), but until then, I’m quite pleased with what they’ve done here. I’ve spent the last few days re-reading “Zot!” and enjoying the author notes that McCloud added into the volume, a commentary on each story and not only what his intentions were but what was happening in his life and career at that time. With a smart-looking trim size and a sharp design that includes cover flaps and a stark-but-beautiful cover, “Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection” is an admirable addition to one’s bookshelf.