Scott McCloud’s ZOT! has become somewhat forgotten over the past three decades, overshadowed by his later work on UNDERSTANDING COMICS and its sequels, and even his epic graphic novel, THE SCULPTOR. But it’s a brilliant strip, very much ahead of its time. McCloud was one of the first to apply the influences of Japanese manga to American comic book storytelling, and he branched out from doing simple hero vs. villain plotlines to stories with greater emotional depth to them. He also was a master of using the comic book form to its greatest effect, as this issue demonstrates. It shows a creator at the peak of his powers.
First, a bit of scene-setting. ZOT! is the story of young Jenny Weaver, the product of a broken home, who is ushered into a world of adventure when she meets Zot–alias Zachary Paleozogt–who comes from a parallel universe modeled after the sort of expansive visions of future life that were the rage around the turn of the century. In his own world, Zot is a super hero, using gadgets devised by his inventor uncle to keep his city and the people safe. In adventuring with Zot, Jenny finds an escape from her depressing regular life and the broken home in which she now lives. But as I mentioned earlier, by this point in ZOT!’s run, McCloud was getting a bit restless, and so he shifted the storyline away from fantastical elements into more of an exploration of character. He was interested in doing smaller, more intimate stories.
To do so, he set up a situation in which Zot is stranded on Jenny’s world, unable to return to his own. Also stranded by proxy is Jenny, who must not get a handle on her regular life without the distraction of crazy high adventure looming. McCloud had already established a small cast of friends for Jenny in the real world, but at this point he expands that circle to include several newcomers, and then he spends each issue exploring one member of the circle in depth. I feel like I also have to mention that, while he doesn’t work in a typical “mainstream” style, McCloud’s cartooning is top-notch–his command of expression, gesture, acting and environment are astonishing. The world he creates feels real and emotionally true, which is half the game right there.
This particular issue is all about Jenny’s friend Terry and the complicated feelings she’s having. At the time this story was produced in the very early 1990s, mainstream comic books completely shied away from touching on themes of same-sex romance and LGBTQ identity. The most you were ever apt to find would be veiled allusions, often very stereotypical ones. So this story of a girl grappling with questions about her sexual identity was a trailblazer. I can’t speak to the validity of the representation, but as a reader it certainly all feels genuine to me, for what that’s worth, and the whole situation is handled with sensitivity.
The plot really isn’t the important thing here–it’s the emotions that are the important part. But as I’m sure you can see from the above, the story concerns a kid at Jenny’s school who was injured in some bullying-gone-wrong when his classmates thought that he was gay. At the same time, Terry finds herself having strange feelings for this boy’s sister, who in the aftermath of the incident has come out as a lesbian. Terry’s torn between wanting to be who she is and the paralyzing fear of being ostracized and outcast by her friends and peers.
She’s also not sure that these feelings are right. Because of what society has told her, being a lesbian is wrong, it’s an aberration, something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden. Zot gets to be on top of things, figuring out what’s going on and reassuring Terry that he and her friends will stand with her no matter what she does. But ultimately, that decision to reveal herself is a choice that she’s going to have to make for herself.
And this is where McCloud’s command of the mechanics of comics comes in, for a great magic trick that provides a one-two punch to his ending. After a night of grappling with whether she wants to approach Pamela and risk being outed or not, Terry comes to school the next day and sees her in the hall. Pammy says hello–but Terry silently keeps on walking. And the story ends. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking finish, just crushing. (McCloud later reported that at least one reader stopped reading the book at this point in agony, not finding out about the “magic trick” until much later.)
Because McCloud knows that the appearance of the letters page on the right side signals the end of the story he can create that false ending–and then include an additional page after the page turn that provides the true uplifting finale. Reading this book for the first time is like an emotional roller coaster ride–but all in the hands of an expert operator in McCloud. This story as well as the rest of the black and white run of ZOT! was collected a few years ago in a big softcover volume, and I honestly don’t recall how they handled this moment in it. I’m certain that they attempted to duplicate the experience, but without the structure of a regular comic book where the letters page was a recognizable and accepted part of the package that always fell at a certain point, I’m not sure how successful that might have been. Either way, the entire series of ZOT! is well worth the time to seek out, either in collected form or the harder-to-find single issues. But this one in particular pitches a Perfect Game