Sunday Slugfest: Zero #12

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 23, 2014. It shares a byline with Chris Wunderlich, Michael Bettendorf, and Jason Sacks.

Who are you and why are you reading this? It’s a valid question, I think. Are you an avid reader of Zero, interested in knowing the quality of this latest issue? Perhaps you’ve read it already and you’re just scanning around, wondering what other folks think. Maybe you’ve never heard of Zero. Maybe you’re checking in, seeing if the Bulletineers swoon, hoping to hear that this is a must-buy book (or easily passed, saving you your precious coin). Well my friends, if you’re new to the Zero game, I’m right there with you. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, having not read so much as a solicitation for the series. This isn’t just my first Zero issue, either—it’s my first Ales Kot book too! So how does it all fare?

Not all that well, I’m afraid. My instant reaction to Zero was one of mixed feelings. There seems to be a very interesting story here. The dialogue is stylish, heavy and sparse. The art impresses immediately and never lets up. And yet, I found myself disappointed. Why? It’s all about decompression, my friends. My first read-through took less than 10 minutes.

Like so many other writers today, Kot uses single, monthly issues to tell pieces of a larger story. This particular issue, however, barley has enough content to be considered a chapter. We get little more than a paragraph in the overall scheme of things. Maybe two complete ideas are expressed—in this entire issue!

The story starts off in grand fashion. I was hooked from page 1, no lie. See, there’s a young street thug who seems to have more power than he should. Edward Zero, our protagonist, investigates and listens to the hooligan’s fairly average (yet exceptionally well told) story. Just as soon as we feel invested, we realize half (or more) of this book is over and scenes change. The rest of the pages are filled with yet another two-person conversation, with even fewer words and content not entirely friendly to new readers (which I am okay with, this wasn’t meant to be a jumping on point).

Now using giant panels with limited words is a stylistic choice, I understand that, but it’s one I’m not fond of. Yes, Adam Gorham’s art is impressive, but we don’t need half a page to see the expression on a character’s face. We don’t need an entire page dedicated to Zero taking an audio recorder out of his bag. It makes for impressive layouts, there’s no doubt, but the pacing is maddening! I kid you not; there are numerous pages that fail to show more than a single action taking place.
Are you someone that can put up with that kind of storytelling? Do you like your comics fast, pretty and uber-serious? Maybe you’re a diehard fan—mind already made up? Maybe you were testing the waters and I’ve scared you off. I didn’t mean to, honest!

I want to like this book. Kot’s story is titillating, Gorham’s art is captivating and the entire package is designed with deft hands. Unfortunately, the contents amount to little more than a preview. The pace at which I’m turning pages, skimming over panels and reading what would probably amount to only a half-page of words leaves me disheartened. Perhaps it will all read better in trade.

-Chris Wunderlich

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Zero is an epic poem written in comics. Longtime readers of the series will recognize the themes woven throughout Ales Kot’s modern spy tapestry. It tackles the cost of violence, the importance of empathy, and the tangled trail we all leave behind us as we continue our journeys in time. Zero is a multi-faceted thriller that challenges its readers to think on a macro scale, as well as a micro one. Reviewing a single issue of the series shifts the focus away from the big picture and toward the individual stanza of this poem though. Kot is not telling the story alone; each facet of Zero is depicted by a different artist, although always brought to life by colorist Jordie Bellaire. It is in these stanzas that we are able to reflect on the individual components that compose the greater work with or without the context of the series.

Zero #12 is a horror story. The spores that float through the air are waiting to create the desolate future we already know is coming. Yet here they only bring the doom of a single family. In this issue, Kot and artist Adam Gorham are not interested in the horror of global destruction, but that of familial destruction. It comes in two parts, beginning with the obvious body horror and nightmare fuel of a household literally and figuratively corrupted before digging into the much more personal terror of Agent Zero’s own family.

Gorham’s construct of the house devoured by spores is a grossly captivating visual. He reminds us in a large panel of one room containing 18 panels within it that this strange fungus is absolutely everywhere. The house shared by a family of three has been consumed by an alien substance. Even the seemingly normal looking adolescent is revealed to have spores bursting from his skin alongside his acne. The body horror of the visuals is frightening in and of itself, but the revelation that this threat is not truly alien makes it all the more haunting. The rot that has consumed this family was willingly brought home by the boy. The true threat came from within, from a child who committed an atrocity in the name of love.

Gorham breaks from the terror of this haunted house to return to the Agency, Edward Zero’s home. In sweeping, wide panels it is shown to be a stronghold caked in concrete and covered in light. It is every bit the fortress that a suburban home is not. Yet when Zero is shown the secrets first revealed in Zero #9, how he was saved by an act of love and how that led him to the destruction of the man who committed it, this strength is revealed to be a sham. Zero, the ultimate killer and spy is broken not by a bullet or knife or bomb, but by regret.

In both these cases, it’s the things we do for love that may ultimately destroy us. It’s not a nihilistic or hateful statement about the bonds we share, but something more complex. Zero has treated empathy as a powerful, valuable concept, a key to humanity. Yet it is also something fragile, something easily twisted or broken. Here we see the fallout of two acts of human kindness, familial love that resulted in nothing but suffering. Horror is defined by people making poor choices. Zero #12 is a horrific reminder that even acts committed for love can be transformed into something painful.

– Chase Magnett

Zero #12 is artistically noteworthy and narratively capable. I know: “capable.” I don’t mean to say its plain bread or oatmeal, but I should preface this by saying this is the first and only issue of Zero that I’ve read. So the storytelling, for me, truly is capable. Kot has carefully planted stories that carry promise, intellect and value. As Chase mentioned, he works on a micro and macro scale. Coming in at the twelfth issue puts me out of bounds to any and all context to those scales.

I think the greatest nod in this issue goes to Kot for writing a dense plotline using little. He allows Gorham and Bellaire to tell most of the story through the art, something writers often get in the way of in comics. This book is visually striking. The whole first section of the issue deals with a house infested by fungus. Gorham uses page layouts to his advantage to intensify the infestation of the fungus by showing spores in the air and on every surface shown in a variety of panel sizes. The entire first scene is shrouded in a haze of putrid green hues that leave the pages feeling musty and moldy. It’s a job well done from Bellaire.

What’s more, is her ability to change the mood of the story with her magic palette. The second half of Zero #12 takes place in a secluded cement headquarters in the middle of a dark wooded area. Outside the agency headquarters is quiet, fortressed off by two fences and natural barriers, but inside bright lights create a clean, but uncomfortable atmosphere for Zero. Despite Gorham’s use of large panels and the lack of detail in the background, the use of close-ups and Bellaire’s office setting colors create a stressful and almost claustrophobic environment for the characters. It makes sure that every action, including inanimate camera that just stares down on Zero, is noticed.

There’s a four page sequence that contains zero text or dialogue, but speaks the loudest in this issue as Zero learns information from his file while Sara calmly smokes outside. The panels slowly narrow in on each of the characters while revealing the information. Each blow hits harder as the panels close in on Zero, while the red tones of the panels with Sara evoke a sense calm or decompression.

I’ll admit, I was confused the entire time I read the issue because I hopped in so far into the story arc, but the artwork was so well done that it didn’t matter.

-Michael Bettendorf

You know, Ales Kot is killing it in comics these days. His Secret Avengers is a heady mix of postmodern storytelling, slapstick and a kind of ineffable strangeness, while his Winter Soldier is… hmm… I could say the same things about the first two issues of that series as well. Both series are tremendous idea machines that use gorgeous storytelling to create bold, bright, colorful stories that play with the inherent strangeness of the Marvel Universe.

While his Marvel work is knowingly pomo and weird, Kot’s Zero is something else entirely: it’s modern rather than post-modern. It’s bleak and intense rather than bold and bright. It plays in the shadows, in a world that is continually hidden from readers while his other series are very much in the reader’s face.

Of all his current series, I think I like Zero best.

Zero has heft. Zero has power. It’s a deep character study mixed with an existential spy drama. It follows shifting perspectives — embodied in its diverse roster of artists — to give a view of the spy world that is fragmented and elusive, where nothing seems to stay steady because the character’s inner and outer worlds are both constantly changing. It’s dense, but it’s dense in a unique way: dense in thought, dense in action, but loose in direct storytelling. The word that Kot and his artists create is compelling. You can’t turn away as a reader, because the world is so beautifully created and the thought behind it so well considered, but it’s also a world that’s hard to visit, full of shifting visions, deep uncertainly, a nightmare that perfectly reflects our protagonist’s inner turmoil. Love is twisted into unrecognizable shapes, and a safe haven becomes dangerous through the very air that people breathe.

Zero is a series of many paradoxes, but that is what gives it power. It seems a paradox to say that you should both pick up the individual issues and pick up the trades, but both experiences are tremendous in their own way. Ales Kot’s comics kill.

– Jason Sacks

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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