Ignorance is bliss
Thomas Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
Drew: If I ever needed an example of cognitive dissonance, I would simply point to the above statements, acknowledging that the majority of people know that both are true. It makes no sense, but we at once want to know things that will disturb us while wanting to unknow things that enrich our lives. It’s perhaps most true when it comes to analyzing the arts. Some folks prefer to examine their art, while others believe they are happier without that closer look, as though art were some mysterious and secretly unsavory sausage whose origins could only yield misery. It should be obvious that I’m in the first group, which is why a thoughtful, intricate work like Ales Kot and Michael Gaydos’ Zero 10 is so utterly rewarding.
The issue picks up with Zero telling his tale to the youth sent to kill him, this time painting a portrait of his life after leaving the Agency. Kot avoids inserting any copy to the first several pages of that story, allowing Gaydos the space to fill in Zero’s day-to-day life.
Gaydos slows the action WAY DOWN in these opening pages, really making us feel the mundanity of the routine. Indeed, while Gaydos uses the nine-panel grid to inform all of his layouts, this is the only nine-panel page in the whole issue. The framing device of Zero telling this story makes it clear that this subjectivity is his: he’s bored of everything he’s doing here, even if he doesn’t say it outright. We walk through another day of this routine (cleverly summed up with a shorthand of visual references introduced in these first few pages), but it’s not until we reach ANOTHER story within a story that Kot pulls the rug out from under us.
Zero finds himself in a “live play,” some kind of guerrilla theatre played out on the streets of his small Icelandic town. The “this is theatre. All of this.” clearly strikes a chord with Zero, who is very self-consciously playing the role of Roland, a chef who is decidedly not a secret agent, but things get even weirder. As one of the actresses explains the scene — where an old man encounters his younger self from an alternate universe — it sounds strikingly like the scene of our framing device, where Zero is confronting a remarkably young secret agent. But then it gets even weirder, as we see that the actor playing the old man also only has one eye, suggesting that Zero is also the young man.
Is it an act of serendipity, or another example of Zero’s subjectivity creeping into his story? We don’t get any hints, but it doesn’t matter: Zero is clearly profoundly affected by it, even if we don’t know how. In the play, the young man is meant to acknowledge the “good thing” he has that the old man has lost, but Zero has literally nothing he cares about here. As Roland, he has nothing, which may be why he breaks down and admits that his real name is Edward. Is it because he wants to be real, or because he wants to pretend to be happy? Kot and Gaydos play the scene with such ambiguity that there’s no way of knowing here (and perhaps ever). It’s clear that this moment represents some kind of turning point for Zero, but it’s not clear what direction he’ll be headed when we meet up with him again next month.
It’s a quiet, reflective place to pause the narrative, but meanwhile, the little postmodernist in me is going totally apeshit. I love stories, so naturally, I love stories about stories. A story within a story within a story is basically awesomeness cubed to me, and Kot does not disappoint with the nods to the power and limits of art. I’ve already mentioned Zero’s subjectivity, but I think one of the more important parts of this issue is that he’s telling the story of how a story affected him. That’s obviously a message that’s going to find a sympathetic ear on a site devoted to writing about how stories affect us, but I think it might actually be important for us to understand how Kot relates to this narrative, or even how he wants us to relate to it.
I think many artists would like to think themselves capable of crafting the kind of art that touches Zero so profoundly here, but the kind of guerrilla theatre Kot depicts obviously has the capability of spilling into real life in a much more subtle and affecting way than the strictures of sequential art. Indeed, Gaydos’ employment of that strict nine-panel grid emphasizes the parameters of the medium, making us aware of the limitations AND the strengths of comics — let’s not forget that each issue of this series has featured a different artist, ostensibly to utilize their strengths in a narrative that seems to change character every single chapter. If Zero’s “living play” finds strength in having no borders, Zero finds strength from having clearly delineated ones.
Okay, acknowledging my own subjectivity time: I tend to read a lot of comics as postmodern celebrations of their medium, but I’d happily cash all of those in to give this reading more credibility — Kot and Gaydos offer some beautiful insights here. Spencer! I can’t wait to hear what you thought of this issue. My understanding is that you were going to shotgun all 10 issues this weekend. I’m super jealous — I’ve often said that this series is TOO smart (or rather, that I don’t have as much time to devote to thinking about it as I would like), so I can only imagine the connections you’re making after reading the whole thing in one go. As a heartbreaking example: do you suppose the “good thing” the old man talks about could have been Mina?
Spencer: For the record, I did shotgun all ten issues this weekend, but I don’t know if it’s the best way to read Zero. There’s much to be gained from rereading this series in close succession, but with its episodic nature, I think that there’s more benefit to just letting each issue rest a bit before moving onto the next one. Anyway, I think you’re right on the money about Mina, Drew. What other good thing has Zero ever even had to begin with?
Notice how, in Zero’s lonely walk through town, he focuses his attention on lovers and families. Mina obviously weights heavily on his mind. Perhaps his mother does too, but she was never truly a part of his life; he lost her before he even knew her, whereas Mina was probably the most important part of his life before she was ripped away. Without Mina (and, to a lesser extent, without Zizek), Zero has nobody.
That’s what initially draws Zero to the old man. Before there’s any hints of missing eyes or alternate dimensions, Zero just sees someone who is as alone as he is. Gaydos does a phenomenal job of mirroring the two men before the narrative gives us any reason to, crafting the two pages in perfect symmetry and literally positioning the two as mirror reflections of each other. The only difference is that Zero is still young; he should have what those other couples have, but instead he’s as alone as a man nearing the end of his life. Even worse, if the old man is somehow a version of Zero from another universe (and in this book, that’s entirely possible), then our Edward doesn’t even get the luxury of being the version who hung onto Mina. Robert claims that there has to be a universe where the two ended up happy, but we certainly don’t see any evidence of that here. Both Zeroes (be they the same literally or just symbolically) end up miserable and alone, suggesting that this is perhaps a fate they can never truly escape.
Drew, I too was touched by Zero’s reaction to “this is theater. All of this,” and obviously it applies heavily to the life Zero has been living as Roland in Iceland, but giving it further thought, it actually applies to pretty much every moment of Zero’s entire existence. I mean, when has Zero not been acting? He was a secret agent, who lies and acts for a profession, but even in his private time he had to pretend to be a loyal, sociopathic pawn of the Agency despite the fact that he skipped his pills and eventually defected altogether. As far as I can tell, the only time Zero wasn’t acting was in the few private moments he got to spend with Mina. When Zero reveals his real name, could that moment be his decision to quit acting, his decision to finally be the real Edward Zero even if he has no idea who that may be without Mina?
There was one other line in this issue I found to be just as significant as “this is theater”:
Actually, with the “all of it” tacked onto the end, “everything mattered. All of it,” could very well be a continuation of or counterpoint to “this is theater. All of this.” I don’t necessarily think Kot has given us enough to fully interpret this line yet, but I can certainly speculate about it. Part of me thinks it might be a reference to Mina and all those happy couples he saw in the town, to the normal life that he didn’t realize mattered until it was denied him, but I think it might apply more to the decision he makes. Actions matter, actions have consequences; back in issue five, Zero talked about how “much of the human population died because he made a choice,” and whatever it is that Zero’s decided at the end of the issue, I wonder if it’s the decision, the one that changes everything. Either way, we know that decisions are important, and without knowing exactly what decision Zero makes that leads to such calamity, that makes every single thing Zero does significant; “everything matters.”
This idea also ties into the alternate universes theory Zero sometimes alludes to. One popular theory behind alternate universes is that a new one pops into existence every time we make a decision; if that’s the theory Kot is following, then every decision his characters make is so significant, so important, matters so much that it literally creates a new world. Even without crazy splash pages of walking machines filling the ocean or of the Agency’s creepy cocoons, Zero 10 still pays a lot of attention to the title’s more sci-fi elements. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, there’s also the goop we see on Zero’s hands in his dream:
Is it just me, or does that goop look a lot like the creepy walkers we saw in issue five (or, more specifically, what the walkers are made of)? Zero also had another, absolutely horrifying dream where he talks to his mother, but Zero has never met his mother, and at this point at least doesn’t even know who she was or what she looked like. In both dreams, Zero is displaying knowledge of people, events, and/or technology he should know nothing about. I don’t know what to make of it yet, but it’s certainly hinting at Zero’s greater importance in the grand scheme of things.
Still, this issue is less about the grand scheme of things and more about one specific moment in Zero’s life, one specific moment when everything changes for him. We can’t yet be sure exactly what Zero’s next move will be, but knowing Kot, it’s sure to be unexpected, complex, and tragically beautiful. Or maybe just plain tragic. Either one would fit.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?