Zot!, heroism, love, and the bravest story in comics

Cover of "Zot!: The Complete Black and Wh...
Cover via Amazon

I’ve been a fan of Scott McCloud’s books on writing comics — books on writing in general, really, because his insights into narrative purpose and narrative structure are fascinating — but for some reason it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally picked up McCloud’s own graphic fiction, Zot! When I did, it was in the form of the complete collection, published as a single (massive) book four years ago.

As much as I knew about the formalist background of the work and some of the ideas McCloud was playing with — elemental archetypes in the characters, superhero/manga hybrids before anyone in America even knew Japan had comics — I wasn’t really sure what I was going to think of the work. In its inception, it’s basically about a teenage boy with superpowers and high-tech gadgets, zipping back and forth between our dimension and his. There are some cool moments examining the disparity between dreams and reality, between the ideal and the mundane, and the occasional shot of genuine teenage romance. But as I read the background and even as I got into the first few installments, the story sounded almost juvenile to me. Fun, but not groundbreaking or even necessarily great.

For the first third of the book, this held pretty well true. And even in the second third (or so), when the art and some of the concepts get quite stylistically inventive — McCloud does some fascinating things in this series — it still felt, well, textbook. And it was, but that wasn’t McCloud’s fault, really. After all, he’d actually written the textbooks I was comparing Zot! to, and it was just my dumb luck that I read those books first.

But then the series shifts, roughly two-thirds into the collected book, and becomes a different kind of comic altogether. Not to give too much away (but SPOILER ALERT anyway): Zot, who has been popping back and forth between his world and ours, where his maybe-sometimes-girlfriend lives, gets trapped on our side, and the whole series turns into a kind of meditation on teenage life in America.

And it is utterly transforming. And so, so beautiful.

But no story in this whole work as as powerful as Zot! #33, which is (again, SPOILER ALERT) the issue when gal pal Terry comes out of the closet.

Remember, this is 1991, and these are teenagers. This issue would have been controversial, perhaps even bold, just a few years ago. Twenty years ago, it was one of the most daring things in comics. But McCloud didn’t view it as a dare, or as some kind of social responsibility — an onus — or as a gimmick to generate buzz. It is just a story, about a girl. It is mature, and subtle, and honest, and tender, and wonderful.

I say all this as a straight man, of course. I can’t know in my heart how a gay woman would respond to this story. (If you do, please comment! Especially my friends!) But for me, the ways in which McCloud approaches this story are wonderful. Consider the page above, for example: it’s one of several dream pages where Terry is confronting her sexuality unconsciously, struggling to bring it forward enough in her consciousness that she can address it in her waking life. All the dream pages are the same: black backgrounds with an even grid of panels, every image given equal weight, while the dominant figure — Terry — sleeps at the bottom of the page. The set-up of what’s going on in some of these pages — the “you always wanted a boy” juxtaposed with Terry’s longing look at the girl in the ocean — can feel a bit obvious, maybe, but they never quite feel force-fed. Never in this dream page, for example, does Terry express her desire out loud. We are given only images. We see what she sees. And through her gaze, we understand her emotions.

Elsewhere in the story, a high school boy is bullied so severely he’s left permanently handicapped. He isn’t gay, but the bullies who beat him up think he is, and in any case, no one does anything about it. (Well, almost no one — there is a wonderful heroic moment when a school newspaper student publishes a scathing criticism of the bullies and becomes a target himself.) This violent homophobia casts Terry’s emotions in a dangerous light, and she becomes not only terrified but also severely depressed. And this is when McCloud brings his manga influence to bear, using richly detailed ink drawings of landscape and weather to signify Terry’s confusion, depression, and loneliness (notice the rain in the page below), her insecurity in a militantly anti-gay world (notice the large fence surrounding the high school), her feeling of insignificance (notice how small she is on the hillside) and her self-loathing (the extreme close-up as she condemns herself).

And, fortunately, into this scene comes Zot, not as a superhero but simply as a friend — and he is possibly at his most heroic because of it.

A couple of pages later, in the same location but the rain now ended (gotta love symbolism), Zot and Terry discuss what has happened in all the gay-bashing, and Terry opens up about her fears and her feelings. Zot comes from an apparently perfect social utopia where, if this kind of bigotry exists, only lurks in the shadows — where it belongs. Which is why he is such an interesting foil for the characters in this particular story, because while he is capable of comforting Terry, he is utterly incapable of understanding where this hateful homophobia comes from and why anyone in our world would tolerate it. But, kind soul that he is, he doesn’t get angry about this; he doesn’t try to fight homophobia or judge the bigots or solve Terry’s problems. Instead, he recognizes what Terry needs most in the moment, and he simply consoles her.

And it is that last panel that so undoes me, makes me weep every time I read it. “Look what they’ve done to you.” Those simple words — that simple gesture of holding a friend — framed once again by all that empty space and backed by that looming fence. How small Terry feels. How insignificant even a superhero like Zot is in the face of her anguish. And yet how necessary, as she crumples into him, and the most heroic thing he can do is acknowledge her pain, and hug her.

It is a masterclass in narrative perspective and in drawing (literally) characters not as characters but as human beings.

We are lucky, these 20+ years later, to live in a world at least somewhat more accepting of gays and lesbians. Even in comics, which are usually at the forefront of confronting social issues but which usually do so quietly and inoffensively, we are seeing now — finally — gay characters in major, big-name comics. From military veteran Kevin Keller, who married his partner in the Archie Comics issue Life With Archie #16 (it was the first gay wedding in comics), to gay X-Man Northstar’s wedding in Marvel Comics’ Astonishing X-Men #51, and DC’s recent retcon of the original Green Lantern as gay (a previous retcon had announced that the Green Lantern’s son was gay), mainstream comics have tackled this issue fairly fantastically in the last few years.

But so far, I haven’t seen any presentation that can compete with the emotional intensity and honesty of McCloud’s story in the Zot! series.


But we’re getting there.

It is getting better.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

One thought on “Zot!, heroism, love, and the bravest story in comics

  1. “…I can’t know in my heart how a gay woman would respond to this story…”

    I think the first thing to say is that we are not made on an assembly line, any more than straight men are. We do not come with an inbuilt package of ideas and opinions. In fact, as we become more accepted and acceptable in general society, the possibility will actually grow that such a package will form, as we become part of mainstream (and therefore normative) society. And I think that is something we will have to guard against. [see below]

    So there will be as many individual responses are there are individual gay women readers. That’s my guess.

    I respond to it as I would respond to any story. I should say that I respond to what you have said about it, because as it happens I haven’t read it! But if it is presented as a ‘story’ – one where the writer has cast aside his own notions and let the characters live, one where he has allowed his own imagination surprise him – and not as a work of instrumentalism, then it has my vote. Of course no text is ideologically or culturally neutral, but with some you can see the agenda dripping off the page, and you know that what you are reading is a piece of propaganda.* I don’t feel that is what we have here, even though Scott McCloud has incorporated in his narrative subjects and themes which deliberately pushed the envelope, in the era in which the story was conceived.

    I suppose one of my responses to ‘Zot’ is my own prejudice against the concept of the ‘Graphic Novel’. My prejudice is based not on any particular ‘canonical vs popular’ argument, but rather in having lived long enough to have appreciated that comic book art** has existed in an expressive realm of its own for decades. I remember sneaking a few copies of Marvel comics from a boy, when I was still in primary school (grade school to you), and being captivated by the work of Stan Lee. The standard of art was amazing, rather as when commercial artists were employed to design the covers of pulp paperback novels. I admit I have only ever read one graphic novel – ‘V for Vendetta’ – and that because it attracted me politically (yes, I am nothing if not contradictory!). I have enjoyed (some) movies based on graphic novels and comic books, notably ‘Kick Ass’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’; less so the Superman/Batman/CaptAmerica/etc. spin-offs, though there have been high points within that corpus. I think I disapprove of the campaign to have the graphic novel muscle in on the text-based novel, and I disapprove because I want the GN to stand on its own two feet, as a distinct and discrete artistic medium. We do not elevate painting above writing; we do not elevate writing above making music; we do not elevate music over sculpture; yet we do not claim oranges to be apples. I acknowledge that the graphic novel shares with the bulk of text-novel-writing certain aspects of plotting and structure, of course, and in fact can make metaphor very vivid (the rain in the pages shown in your post, as you pointed out). That does not make it one and the same thing.

    Zot makes an interesting statement in one of those frames. He calls Terry ‘normal’. I have startled some of my comrades within the LGBTQ/Feminist camp in the past, by pulling them up on that word. Of course we aren’t ‘normal’. Statistically speaking, we can never be within the ‘norm’. There are questions surrounding the semantics of the word ‘normal’ in its everyday use, of course, but in the exact statistical use of the word, we are not and never can be ‘normal’. The issue has always been our acceptability – no, even that is imprecise, because whether mainstream society and culture ‘accepted’ me has always been personally irrelevant. I am who I am, I have always been who I am, whether other people found that acceptable or not. Maybe ‘integration’ is a better word, but again that is not without its problems; I have felt that the more integrated we have become the more we have blunted our radical edge, the more bourgeois and respectable we have become, and that is a great loss. In the end, acceptability boils down to a matter of dumb taxonomy, and to culture and society deciding what something is by first deciding on the things that are to be excluded.

    The first gay wedding in comics. Was there ever anything that illustrated so well what concerns me about bourgeois respectability being the end – in so many meanings of that simple word – of the LGBTQ journey? Whatever happened to the calling into question of the societal concepts of conventional couplehood? I can remember this being a matter for debate in radical circles, and not just in LGBTQ radical circles. Maybe AIDS has forced the concept of monogamy on everyone. Maybe we gay people have, somehow or other, swallowed the whole, intensely normative, conservative agenda that has swept the world post-1960s. Who can say? Well, no one, because no one is asking the questions.

    I’m sorry, I have rambled. That’s because this post has got me thinking again, which is no bad thing. Thank you.


    * Yes, I know that George Orwell, for whom I have immense respect, said “All art is propaganda”, and that he made that point very powerfully. All I can say is that all propaganda is not necessarily art!

    ** Actually a thoroughly inadequate term, so I guess the term ‘graphic novel’ has a certain strength, comparatively.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: