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Saturday, September 13th, 2008
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Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991

by Scott McCloud

Catching Up with the Boom

A review by Chris Bolton

I was a huge comic book fan in the '80s. My brother and I visited the comic shop at least one weekend a month -- though I'm sure we lobbied our mother to take us more frequently -- and it was always a major excursion that took an hour or longer. Those were the days of the "black-and-white boom," when independent, underground comics enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented success following such breakout titles as Love and Rockets and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original comics incarnation was a far cry from the annoying, kid-friendly cartoon from the '90s).

I was a Marvel kid, myself, especially crazy for Spider-Man, and most of the black-and-white titles seemed strange and not terribly exciting to me. I remember seeing Scott McCloud's comic Zot! on stands, and possibly thumbing through an issue or two, but it didn't impress me enough to buy. I was a few years yet from being able to appreciate the pleasures of a comic that didn't rely on huge battles, giant muscles, and big explosions.

Like most booms, the black-and-white craze eventually went bust, following an ill-advised spree of wild expenditures coupled with diminished returns. I'm sure there's an economic theory to explain this rise-and-crash pattern, but I like to think of it as "The Theory": money coming in must equal or exceed money going out, or you're doomed.

In the wake of the bust that left so many independent comics creators without a home for their series, McCloud finished Zot! and began to explore ideas and theories behind the comic form. His subsequent books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and most recently, Making Comics, have become seminal texts for introducing newcomers to the form, and are equally rewarding for longtime readers. With their success, at last, has come a chance to revisit McCloud's early work.

Packaged in a gorgeous new edition, Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection brings together a whopping 576 pages of material. It isn't actually entirely complete, since McCloud elected to omit the first ten issues of the comic, which he refers to as his "training wheels," but the book reads just fine without them. Collecting issues 11 through 36, including the Eisner Award winner for Best Single Issue, the book begins in 1987 as something of a generic, gee-whiz superhero comic and ends in 1991 as much more than that.

The story involves an Earth teenager named Jenny Weaver who has become friends with Zot, a super-powered hero from an alternate Earth that resembles a utopian sci-fi vision from the '60s. We don't see how they meet, but they're jumping back and forth between each other's Earths by the time the book starts. So do a number of supervillains. And one of the interesting storytelling elements contrasts Zot's breezy, idealistic attitudes about crimefighting with Jenny's darker, moodier perception of the world.

Combining elements of Japanese manga (long before it really took off in the U.S.) with a more typically American cartoon style, McCloud's art is crisp and appealing. His line work becomes more refined, naturally, over the years, and he begins experimenting formally in ways that will seem familiar to readers of his later books on comics. The action sequences are fun and hyperkinetic, but McCloud truly shines in the quieter moments, such as the heavily shaded cover image (from issue #12) of Zot holding Jenny's face in his hands. There is stark beauty and genuine feeling in these frozen images that belies the usually silly nature of the early stories. As the years passed, McCloud's interest drifted away from slam-bang heroics toward character- and emotion-driven stories, and so did the series.

The book contains more than 10,000 words of commentary by McCloud that provide fascinating insight into the progression of the comic and its creator. They also capture the heady excitement of the boom period, when creators believed things were going to change in the comic industry forever -- and they were right, even if all the changes weren't necessarily good ones. For someone who watched this fascinating period from the sidelines, it was a great chance to catch up with a unique movement whose repercussions are felt even now.

As a document of a time and place that feel so very long ago and far removed, Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection is invaluable. As a work of comic art, it's worth immeasurably more.

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