Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 11, 2008

Scott McCloud Is Driving Me Nuts


So I'm reading the above book, which showed up in my mailbox in fairly unexpected fashion. I was happy to see it. I like the Zot! comics, even though it's very much a young writer's first major work, covered in soft down and looking up at you with big eyes, wanting you to love it. The writing can be forced and cliched, and I tend to agree with the oft-repeated assessment that Scott McCloud's lack of craft chops hampers the work at critical times, although I'm not always certain McCloud has a grasp on how this manifested itself. For instance, I found a single panel in the Weaver family hallway where the passageway looks 28 feet wide more distracting than the sum total of the at-times almost rudimentary figure-drawing McCloud himself chooses to pick on. Still, I think McCloud makes up for this kind of thing with a generally thoughtful approach to the page that draws on his already-ongoing study of formal techniques and his growing, ahead-of-the-curve familiarity with manga. As is the case with many of the best comics, moments of poor execution are the price you pay for getting the specifics of emphasis that only the author can provide, in the way it's always fascinating and I think usually more rewarding to hear a songwriter sing his own catalog no matter how wobbly the voice.

I would argue that what makes Zot! a work worth considering can't be found in its big-foot aspects, nor is it in the way it serves as a symbol for so many revisionist superhero genre comics of its time, and surely won't be uncovered by placing it in the context of McCloud's later career as a theoretician or even asserting its status as a harbinger of Japanese-influenced western comics works to come. For me, Zot!'s primary strength can be found in McCloud's sometimes raw treatment of the emotional life of white, suburban teens. This is even more greatly emphasized in this volume because the first, color issues of the title and its fairly straight-forward children's fantasy has not been reprinted. By making that time unknowable to the reader, at least in a sense, McCloud allows for an even greater connection between protagonist Jenny Weaver and her brother Butch having this core experience and the kind of dewy nostalgia that can grip teenagers and convince them that retreating into some happier time a few conceptions of self ago is so wholly desirable.

My reading of Zot! sees the series as a progression of studies on how children and teens use fantasy to negotiate reality. In the case of Jenny Weaver, this moves from the total immersion and escape marked by the first several issues to a process where the best elements of that experience are brought into her more earthly existence in a way that enhances them, makes them more clearly understandable and more fulfilling to negotiate. This set of stories literally brings the Peter Pan science fantasy superhero Zot into Jenny's world so that his presence escalates the seriousness and raises the stakes; in the book's last moments the characters return to that fantasy in a healthier, more fulfilling and less dangerously consuming way. It's a nice message, and a hopeful one for a lot of fantasy-lovers, a message whose values McCloud himself has gone on to embody through his own career and in building a family and in becoming one of the most solicitous boosters of younger artists and their particular gifts in comics industry history. It's also one worth lingering on for its own sake and the specificity of its insights, not as a stepping stone to somewhere else. Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection does great with the latter, not as well with the former.

The comics in this new, comfortable-to-carry volume are supplemented by written material where McCloud holds forth in prose on his own growth as an artist, and what came into play from his own life at various times during the series creation, and what he was trying to get at in key moments within the narrative. What the volume lacks is much in the way of recognition of the work's dead-on evocation of teenage dissatisfaction bordering on hopelessness. This is what drives me a little bit crazy, because I think the work's greatest strength lies in its at-times brutal emotional core. All of McCloud's characters are battered in some way by childhood trauma. They suffer things like abandonment, divorced parents, dislocation, poverty, loneliness, alienation, body issues, disengagement, bullying, sexual identity issues and a special brand of suffocating boredom that sucks all by itself and makes all the previous things listed that much worse. Jenny Weaver doesn't get to go to another world; she desperately needs to go there. Despite McCloud suggesting otherwise, the issue where it's briefly suggested that the fantasy elements may be something Jenny made up from whole cloth and she's really messed up in a much sadder and more grounded-in-reality story to which we're not privy, that is a much better and more evocative work than the way-similar Buffy, The Vampire Slayer television show episode that aired years later. In the latter we have to accept the character's mental illness as an alternate explanation for actions such as setting fire to one's high school. In Zot!, the underlying melancholy of Jenny Weaver's life and the corrosive cynicism she holds at bay is almost always in evidence, metaphor-free. As such, it constantly calls into question the fragility of our own coping mechanisms -- including comics like McCloud's.

I've read this new book once and plan to again, and I still have no idea how McCloud feels about the thematic backbone of this work, how these comics relate to and evoke the cartoonist's own encounters with certain elements of growing up. Instead I learned a lot about how they "worked" for people years later or how there's an occasional, cute connection between the work on the page and the cartoonist's life in his late twenties. The closest thing in the book along the lines of what I hoped for is McCloud's backhanded admission that there's an element of nuclear dread that hovers over the whole book, the way that kids of a certain generation placed their personal struggles with mortality onto the specter of species-wide extinction falling from the sky. He notes how his own fears of the future can be seen in his villainous triptych (Dekko, Zybox, 9-Jack-9) and in the book's general celebration of the past, but even then he doesn't get into his own outlook at that age or how those feelings might specifically press on his individual characters. Let me put it like this: while McCloud notes what seems like three dozen times that he was a total nerd as a kid, we never learn if he was happy. You know? I'd rather have skipped the story about how his father's death drove McCloud to taking less overtime in DC production for the sake of just a little bit about how his relationship with his dad might have been reflected in a series of absentee parents he portrays in this, his longest fictional work.

It could be that I'm barking up the wrong tree. I have no right to expect that kind of insight, and even less than no right to expect it exactly where I want it. It could be something McCloud is saving for another time, or another place, or simply doesn't want to get into. It could very well be that I'm projecting an emotional core onto a work where the author simply saw another set of tools in an oft-discussed toolbox. Heck, it could be that there's no there there, and that this will always be the comic that McCloud did on his way to doing Understanding Comics and the part of his life with more meaning to be found in its pages was his early marriage rather than the only hinted-at and vaguely described childhood. Just because I react to a work in a specific way doesn't mean anyone else has to, including the author. That such a notion even gets floated probably indicates something seriously wrong with me. I still suspect there's a thing or two we're not hearing, but maybe it's better that way; I don't know. In the end, it shouldn't change how anyone looks at the comic book, and it certainly doesn't for me. Not in any way that matters. Still, when McCloud says that the entire work is encapsulated on the page from which the above image is drawn, the kiss between two worlds and two different ways of seeing them, I also see that old comic book's book-ended image: an opening page that asks a question the kiss on the last page answered, its sad-eyed young person sitting outside on a summer night hoping for something fantastic to happen, knowing that it will.
posted 8:10 am PST | Permalink

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