I mentioned this in one entry in my Beginner’s Guide series, and rereading it now in this big collection, I think I may have undersold it a little. This volume collects all McCloud’s B&W Zot!s: it therefore omits the first 10 colour issues, a two-parter with a guest artist (to give McCloud time for his honeymoon), and some very funny stick-figure addenda strips by Matt Feazel. It started as a charming superhero adventure series, one that felt more like Astro Boy than any US series. Zot is the top superhero on an alternate-Earth, a utopian pick-and-mix blend of the history of SF. Zot flies with jet boots and has a ray gun, but his greatest assets are his unshakeable confidence and total optimism. It’s smart and bright, with the best use of speed-lines since Infantino’s heyday, and has some terrific villains – 9-Jack-9 in particular is magnificent, looking like no one else ever, unbeatable and very sinister. McCloud has demonstrated his deep formal understanding of comics in a series of book-length comic analyses since then, so it’s unsurprising how beautifully executed, despite the odd moment of clumsiness in some of the draughtsmanship. These are some of the most delightful and entertaining comics you’ll find this side of Osamu Tezuka*.

The comic always featured our Earth too, thanks to dimensional travel and Zot getting friendly with an Earth girl named Jenny. Her and her friends and family grew in importance, and while there were some awkward and leaden moments of ‘wow, on THIS Earth…’, it wasn’t long before his depiction of this world became more and more thoughtful and artistically honest. Eventually, after 27 issues where the centre of attention was Zot’s glittering Earth, he was stranded on this one. No supervillains, almost no ‘action’ as superhero comics understand it, just the people, focussing on sometimes apparently negligible members of the supporting cast. The surprising thing was how much better the comic became. A good friend of mine, Nigel Fletcher, cites #33 as a contender for his favourite comic ever, and he is totally right, a very beautiful and moving tale about being different in school – and with an inspired and wholly original formal trick at its end, intelligently preserved in this collection. My friend is right in describing it as a masterpiece (see The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide for his full review). A few of the other issues in this nine-issue run on Earth are nearly as good.

I’ve always been a huge admirer of people who can do different styles so well (Hawks or Wilder in movies, Tezuka or Kirby or Kurtzman in comics, for instance), but it’s rare for someone to change tone so completely in a comic book, from superhero SF adventure and fun to human drama – and not just for one issue between fight scenes, but for a lengthy run. To do this with a wonderful and delightful title is even more extraordinary, and to do it and produce far better comics from it is amazing. This is a great series, and I highly recommend it.

Footnote: McCloud is returning to fictional comics, after all those big comics about comics, plus the recent online comic accompanying Google’s new browser. I’m very much looking forward to this, but it is hard to imagine him topping Zot!

* By the way, Tezuka provided a key moment when I interviewed McCloud many years ago (1990 or ’91, I think). He was very guarded at first, and clearly trying to work out how much of his attention I was worth. When I realised his mention of Jack Kirby was testing my knowledge, it gave some idea of the kind of comic fans he must have talked to; he tried Spiegelman next, and I knew who he was too; then he tried Osamu Tezuka, and when I said I was an admirer and had written an obituary for him not so long before, I was in, and he was an enthusiastic participant in the interview from then on.