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Every science-fiction geek has a favorite Harlan Ellison story, right? Mine is "Jeffty Is Five," about a little boy born in the 1930s who never ages past five years old. Gradually, it becomes clear that not only is Jeffty an eternal little boy, but he's surrounded by a sort of bubble of childhood, trapped in amber. Jeffty can put Ovaltine lids in the mail and get back a Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Badge. His radio plays Terry and the Pirates
. When he goes to the movies they show three cartoons and two serials. Of course he gets comic books: new adventures of Dollman and Airboy, new Jingle Jangle Comics
by George Carlson (Ellison's longtime dark-horse favorite). And so on, and so on.
Anyone who's ever read anything by Harlan Ellison, ever, can guess that the story doesn't end happily. When I first read "Jeffty Is Five," I thought the bleak ending was a cop-out, another case of Ellison going grim and violent because he couldn't think of a better way to resolve the situation. Now, even though I still find it unsatisfying, I've come around to accept that perhaps the Jeffty story can't end any other way. Tackle the story honestly, and there's no way to stop modernity, cynicism, adulthood—whatever you want to call it—from crushing that bubble of innocence.
I thought about "Jeffty Is Five" when I finally sat down to read the entirety of Zot!
, the charming 1980s indie comic doomed to be known forever as "the thing Scott McCloud did before Understanding Comics
." And in fact you can see Understanding Comics
take shape in Zot!
, as McCloud develops from a shaky would-be DC draftsman into an experimenter playing with layouts and panel progressions, struggling to breathe life into cold ink. Other critics have noted the resemblance between McCloud and his Zot!
villain Dekko, a cybernetic artist whose vision reduces the world to abstract symbols right out of the Understanding/Reinventing/Making
(What I should say is that Dekko resembles McCloud as he appears in Understanding Comics
. The real Scott McCloud reminds me of most of the professional scientists I know, which is to say that the earth, and every common sight, to him do seem apparell'd in celestial light. "‘Why'—now that's a beautiful word/The second best there is," sings the scientist in Alan Menken's musical Weird Romance
. "The very best there is/Is ‘because.'")
Above all, Zot!
is McCloud wrestling with superheroes. Superhero comics were getting grim and violent in 1984, when Zot!
debuted, and McCloud's title character was designed to fight the trend toward gritty relevance with an old-fashioned knockabout punch. A superpowered blonde teenager who always wins because he knows he can, Zot looks like Captain Marvel and flits about like Peter Pan, two of literature's great overgrown boys. He comes from an idealized retro world of the future, a Tomorrowland that preserves the best of the past; just as there's no Great Depression raging in Jeffty's 1939, no racism or anti-Semitism or European pogroms, only Tom Mix and Amazing Stories
, Zot's world is ours without the bad parts. Zot's world contains no problems beyond the periodic supervillain attack, and in fact the heroes regularly hobnob with the villains between battles. Its shine attracts protagonist Jenny Weaver, a teenage girl fed up with her own imperfect universe—i.e., ours.
wants more than anything to retreat into a mix of 1930s pulp idealism and 1960s technocratic optimism. But it can't. The deeper McCloud delves into Zot's shiny world, the less satisfying he seems to find it. Even in the earliest stories in the Zot!
omnibus, you can feel McCloud losing interest in the biff-bam-pow aspect of the superhero story; the external conflicts are often resolved abruptly, sometimes without explanation, and the focus keeps shifting to the characters' feelings and relationships. Zot's world, vast as it is, seems increasingly inadequate as a stage for the kinds of stories McCloud wants to tell. McCloud's own essays in the omnibus come back again and again to his annoyance at his younger self for clinging to the superhero as a story device—and yet Zot is a charming character, one who develops personality and nuance even as his surroundings lose cohesion.
For all McCloud's sunny intentions, Zot!
gets progressively darker and more adult. Issues 23-25 form one of the most melancholy storylines, "The Ghost in the Machine," in which living computer virus 9-Jack-9 (McCloud concocts gloriously weird villains) kills ruthlessly, reduces Zot to tears, and comes out of it all nigh-invincible. In the next storyline, "Ring in the New," Jenny and her sometime boyfriend Woody finally confront the logical inconsistencies in Zot's world. How can the great peace songs of the '60s exist in a world that never had a Vietnam? How can Zot and his friends see the supervillains as serious threats but also invite them to dinner parties? "It's like someone went rummaging around in history and just took out all the bad stuff," Woody observes. "What's left is nice enough, but it doesn't always make sense!"
"Ring in the New" includes what may be the most deeply unsettling sequence in Zot!
, a New Year's celebration where December 31, 1965 turns over into…January 1, 1965. Zot's comic-book utopia is sterile, self-contained, an unstable bubble of space-time. "The laws of conservation of energy occasionally break," explains the protagonist of "Jeffty Is Five." "These are the laws that physicists call ‘weakly violated.'" A candy bar costs a nickel for Jeffty, but there's no economic depression to explain prices. Jeffty lives in a kids' world, and kids don't care about economics.
Having exposed its flaws, McCloud abandons his utopia. At the end of "Ring in the New," Zot and Jenny get trapped in Jenny's world, the "real world." The remainder of Zot!
's run comprises the "Earth Stories," a series of short stories following individual members of Jenny's circle of friends and family. In most of these issues, Zot is little more than a background presence, a symbol of a better way of life. The "Earth Stories" are frequently, and justly, considered the best portion of Zot!
But if we can't live in Zot's world, neither can Zot live in ours. The "Earth Stories" issues periodically touch on the difficulty Zot has pursuing his profession—costumed crimefighter—in a world where the laws of superhero comics don't apply. In Issue 39, "The Great Escape," he's shot while attempting to aid police in a drug raid and lands in the hospital. Not long after that, the portal between the worlds reopens. Zot!
ends there, with the characters granted one last temporary escape into fantasy.
And it has to end. The superhero is an antique fantasy for children; he's not compatible with the modern adult world. One or the other has to break down. McCloud's childhood friend Kurt Busiek grabbed the horns of the same dilemma with his series Astro City
, a sort of history of superhero comics dramatized through an average, contemporary city that happens to count dozens of superheroes among its residents. As the series has progressed, the stories have grown more sophisticated, but also darker. The alternately cheerful, nostalgic, and sentimental one-shots of the early issues have given way to longer, grittier story arcs, all building up to the current storyline, "The Dark Age," a sixteen-issue metaphor for the end of the Silver Age of comics and the dawn of the bloated, downbeat "adult" superhero stories that started to proliferate in the 1970s and continue to dominate the genre today. It's a metaphor for the shadows that fell over American culture in the real 1970s, too. Since Astro City
is, like Zot!
, a self-conscious reaction to this trend in superhero comics, an attempt to recapture the old optimism and sense of wonder, "The Dark Age" is Astro City
looping back on itself, trying to explain its own existence.
This is the way every attempt to return superheroes to a state of innocence ends. The story inevitably starts to grow up, even if the superheroes don't. Maybe it would be different if superhero comics were still written for children, but they're not. Harlan Ellison used to like to say that happiness is doing as an adult what you wanted to do as a child. But he took it back when it came to comic books: "In some way, I don't know how," he told The Comics Journal
in a 1980 interview, "Friedrich and Denny and Gerber and all of those guys got burned out in their brains. They worshipped the idols of childhood."
Not that Ellison doesn't understand that worship. The protagonist of "Jeffty Is Five" breaks down in tears when he hears those new old radio broadcasts. He wants things to be as rich and good and simple as he remembers them being long ago, even if no one who was an adult at the time remembers things that way (one of the most telling details of the story is that Jeffty's parents, trapped in the 1930s with their son, are miserable). He indulges in the fantasy of all fantasies, that heaven really did lie about us in our youth, and it wasn't our youth that made it that way—it was true. Ellison's story ends on a repeated, childlike plaint: "Tell me. Somebody please tell me."
As does Zot!
"We'll be back; we know we can't stay away forever," Woody reflects, contemplating that bright futuristic skyline. "But just for a while… Just for a while…"
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010