[27 March 2014]
It can be hard to maintain a longform mystery story. Walking the line between regularly providing the audience new information and not giving everything away too quickly is a tricky balancing act. You have to provide satisfactory answers and at the same time constantly raise new questions, and do it all without the narrative becoming cyclical, repetitive, boring, or predictable.
Ales Kot’s Zero is not a traditional mystery tale, but it certainly has a large unanswered question looming over it. Protagonist and title character Edward Zero is a spy and assassin for some sort of top-secret government agency, and throughout the series we see glimpses of Edward’s semi-distant future (the year 2038, to be exact). In that time period, Edward seems to have somehow cut ties with his former employers, and something he did as a part of that separation evidently changed the entire world. Though it has only been teased and not truly explored so far, in Edward’s 2038, the very landscape of the planet looks dramatically different, though how and why it changed is still unknown. This is the central mystery of the series: what exactly drove Edward to quit, the details of how he managed to do so, and the consequences of that decision. Kot leads the reader to that knowledge one careful step at a time, but is sure to point out all the interesting sights and sounds along the way, so that the trip there is enjoyable in-and-of itself, regardless of how much we ultimately like the destination.
Every issue of Zero is drawn by a different artist, and each contains the complete start-to-finish story of one of Edward’s many missions. This done-in-one approach, combined with the title’s ever-changing aesthetic, allows Kot to leisurely decompress his overarching story, because each chapter offers fresh surprises and resolutions. There is no great sense of urgency when it comes to solving the bigger mystery, since each stop along the way has its own smaller series of questions and answers. Indeed, once you’re a few issues in, the hope becomes that Kot will never run out of ways to slow down, stretch out, and enhance his story, so that Zero as a series need never end. Every new mission seems to push Edward a little closer to his breaking point, yet because of his intense training in emotional self-control, he is often so inscrutable it’s hard to tell exactly how things affect him. As readers, we get to see some of his private moments of anger, hurt, and doubt, but we also see him continue to deny these feelings to his superiors and dutifully carry out the missions they assign him. How close he is to his personal limit at any moment is never entirely clear, but the more time spent with him, the better our understanding becomes. Which is another argument in favor of this book’s longevity, that by the time it does conclude, Edward’s entire character might be laid out before us, damaged and conflicted as it may be.
Also, it’s important to point out that the artists have all been superb and distinct, and most of them are relatively low-profile names. Zero serves as a showcase, then, for some of the best and boldest budding talent in comics right now, a good book to watch for reasons outside of its story. The more of these chances it provides for new artists the better, not only because the artists deserve the work, but because the comics world deserves as much fresh, original artwork as it can contain. Having a new artist every issue also adds a nice layer of external mystery to Zero, because the look of the comic is just as hard to anticipate as anything the story might do.
At the same time, colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Clayton Cowles are right there with Kot on every issue, helping tie things together visually and keep the longer threads running through each of the more self-contained spy adventure stories. No matter who provides the pencil-and-ink work, Bellaire always does the 2038 scenes in the same blue-grey wash, so there is a visual consistency in that recurring setting from issue to issue despite the artistic change-ups. She also uses a slightly darker version of the same palette (with a dash of muted computer-screen green) for any scenes between Edward’s handler, Zizek, and Zizek’s direct superior, Cooke. Zizek and Cooke have a definitely sexual/arguably romantic relationship on top of their professional one, which makes their interactions murky at best. Bellaire underlines that with her coloring, and gives their dynamic a look of its own, outside the fluctuating styles of the title as a whole.
For Cowles’ part, his solid, bold, no-nonsense lettering fits with the emotionally stifled Edward and the brutal and unforgiving world in which he lives and works. The letters never get in the way or steal attention from any of the artists, but they refuse to be ignored, either, and in that way they are also like Edward. He gets the job done without wanting applause or reward, and he won’t ever back down or give up the fight. Hands down, though, Cowles’ best contributions are Zizek’s wobbly speech bubbles, which display the weariness and weakness of the character. He’s been doing his job for far too long and has very little to show for it, and that’s evident in everything he says, regardless of the actual words he uses, simply because of the shape of his dialogue balloons. It’s a nice touch of characterization and, again, it keeps Zizek consistent and recognizable no matter who’s drawing him.
It is Kot as writer who most impressively pulls off the juggling act of telling a full story every issue while still adding to the big picture all the time. He very quickly establishes beats of different weight and length, telling an arrhythmic but tightly composed story right away. And he continues to resolve different things at different speeds all the time, so there are always multiple plotlines to follow, each providing its own payoff at its own pace. It only takes two issues to meet the love of Edward’s life—a fellow agent named Mina Thorpe with whom he grew up in an agency training facility—and then see her die in the field in the middle of him trying to save her. That’s a short thread with a sudden gut-punch conclusion, but the impact of her death echoes through even the most recent issue, when Edward confronted her killer and watched him kill himself in much the same manner he did Mina. And even that, though obviously a moment of great finality, is not the true end of the tale, because we have yet to really see Edward’s reaction to the suicide. Kot never closes off one narrative avenue without discovering at least one more, which is precisely why Zero is such a nice example of how to tell a giant mystery story without growing frustratingly obscure or dully transparent.
Kot also structured the beginning of the series just right, enticing readers with the perfect little glances at Edward’s future, then present, and then past, before properly launching into what has so far been a mostly chronological story. The debut issue opens in 2038, then quickly moves to 2018, which is, for all intents and purpose, the story’s present. Then the second issue is set entirely in the past, 2000-2001, and focuses on Edward’s training as a child and his first official mission. After that, we return to his “present” in January 2019, and things move forward fairly steadily from there, because Kot has laid out so much intriguing groundwork he can now just run with it. By starting with the far future in issue #1 and following it up with the distant past in #2, Kot gave the present-tense stuff some helpful and probably necessary context. Everything that happens now has more meat and meaning because we understand where Edward is coming from and, to a lesser extent, where he’s headed. What remains is the hook of this comic, the details of how he gets from point A to point B.
Month-to-month, Zero feels like a spy comic with a bit of a sci-fi twist; it takes place a few years down the road, and there is some fantastical technology involved in much of Edward’s work, but the point is seeing him complete a mission every time. In the end, though, I wonder if Zero won’t reveal itself to actually be a sci-fi epic that happens to star a spy. The little bit we’ve seen of Edward’s world in 2038, and even in 2019, certainly suggests that it is dangerous fictional science at the heart of whatever dark days Edward has ahead of him. Whatever this series shapes up to be, though, it is already an accomplished piece of comicbook fiction, telling stories large and small with an array of skilled artists and never becoming chaotic or confusing. On the contrary, it is sturdy in its build, and Kot clearly knows where he’s taking us and the best way to get there, so there’s never any risk of getting lost. From its very first page, Zero has been a book about a broken, internally torn super-spy slowly breaking away from the people who control him, and that’s just as true now as ever. Yet at the same time, I’m not sure any of us know what this series is really about yet, and as excited as I am to find out, I also hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while.