Brevity (Remix). By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Zot! 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection. By Scott McCloud. Harper. $24.95.
The nice thing about “Guy & Rodd,” as the writer and artist of Brevity style themselves, is that they take the single-panel medium seriously without taking the world or themselves seriously. The Brevity title refers to a style that, when it works, is minimalist in both words and art, putting across an amusing or cynical observation in an unusually pithy way. Guy and Rodd have a nicely skewed sense of humor. For example, as a shark eats another fish, one of the three remoras clinging to the shark thinks, “Oh great, now we’re accomplices.” Or, as a peacenik pulls up (and therefore kills) flowers to place in gun barrels, a still-unpicked flower says to another, “Such senseless brutality – when will it stop?” And then there’s the “Shrinks in Heaven” panel, with the haloed psychiatrist asking his haloed and thoroughly relaxed patient, “Couldn’t you at least pretend to have a problem?” Not all the panels work – some are far from exercises in brevity, being overly filled with words, while others are silly or obvious, such as one imagining Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings as a crossing guard saying, “You shall not pass.” But it’s nice to know that Guy and Rodd do think about what they’re doing – they offer commentary throughout this oversize “Treasury” collection, informing readers that (among other things) they hate to do research and therefore usually make up such things as the right clothing for a particular era or the shape of a narwhal. It’s also nice to know that they can work together even when they disagree – they point out some panels that one or the other of them didn’t care for, and a few that neither of them, in retrospect, considered worthwhile. And then there are the panels that could have used more brevity, such as the one showing Tolstoy erasing part of his original title, “War & Peace & Cabbage,” which would indeed have worked better without the added words, “It was a last minute change, but a good one.” The nice thing is that even though Brevity sometimes misfires, its creators are actually paying attention to what works and what doesn’t – a recipe for greater success in the future.
Scott McCloud went on to much greater success in his future after his Zot! comics: he became an intelligent analyst of the medium with some striking (if debatable) views on its value, meaning and societal implications. But that was in his three works called Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. All are light years beyond the determinedly pedestrian Zot! series, which earns its (+++) rating mostly as an artifact and because of the commentary that McCloud provides throughout the book. The Zot! series was originally done in color and then, McCloud says, restarted as a black-and-white sequence, but in fact these stories require more filling-in of the background of characters and settings than McCloud offers within the tales themselves. And the stories themselves are, really, not much to read or look at. They begin as superhero/alternative universe tales – a concept already humdrum by the late 1980s, not only in literature but also in comics (certainly for anyone familiar with the underground comics, which had gone far beyond this sort of thing more than 20 years earlier). Then they turn into illustrated tales of life on our own planet, through the well-worn device of having Zot (the eponymous superhero) stranded on our Earth. The stories have moments of pleasant insouciance, especially when Zot is fighting the strange and mostly feckless villains of his own world. And they have moments of genuine tenderness in Zot’s relationship with Jenny Weaver, whom he meets on our Earth – although Jenny herself is never very fully developed as a character. The drawing style tends to the wooden when McCloud is portraying people – a shortcoming he acknowledges – but has its fascinations, too, as when McCloud uses large panels to portray details of Zot’s world, or when he “sees” elements of that world through the distorted eyes and minds of some of the bad guys. The Zot! series did break some new ground by the long-outmoded standards of DC and (to a lesser extent) Marvel comics, and will be of interest to readers of those companies’ products and to people familiar with McCloud’s later and much better work. On their own terms, though, these stories have not worn particularly well in either narrative or artistic terms.