Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Zero 13, originally released December 17th, 2014.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Drew: It’s easy for the neophile to be frustrated with art. As much as our society claims to value innovation, our art tends to rely heavily on the comforts of the known. That’s not to say the majority of art is devoid of surprise, just that the forms that those surprises take are so prescribed as to be relatively predictable. Whether it’s the hero returning home or the melody returning to the home key, our most tried-and-true structures leave only the smaller details to truly distinguish themselves. Zero 13 contains a masterful example of this kind of small surprise, but this issue’s biggest surprise might lie in what it reveals about the larger form of the series.
That formal surprise comes in the form of a direct callback to issue 1 (something we didn’t quite catch in our discussion of issue 12), which brings some decidedly profound repercussions to the Agency for what at the time looked like a clean mission on Zero’s part. It turns out the bionic tech Zero ripped out of that Palestinian terrorist has been applied to a few of his compatriots, including his brother. They’ve somehow tracked that mission back to the Agency, and are bringing their vengeance to bear on everyone they can find.
I suppose it’s no surprise that where Zero started his story had purpose beyond introducing us to his world — this is an Ales Kot story, after all — but the sudden significance of that first story still caught me off-guard. It serves as a macro reassertion of the micro connectivity of this series; everything matters. I’ve expressed before that this series might require more RAM than I generally have available, which makes it a challenging, but rewarding read. Everything here informs everything else — there are no details, just equally-important focal points calibrated for different levels of scope.
To give you a concrete example, let’s examine the way colorist Jordie Bellaire uses yellows to punctuate the violence in this issue. She’s incredibly strict about yellow in her palette elsewhere, giving this issue a strong blue/yellow dichotomy that tells a lot of the story, even without Alberto Ponticelli’s incredible linework. That dichotomy is actually present on the cover of the issue, but we first see it put to explicit narrative use on the opening page.
There’s a lot this page does well — I’m particularly enamored of how the slightly non-linear path the camera takes as it pulls in on that window puts us off-kilter — but I want to draw you attention to the dim yellow of the window. Right off the bat, we’ve established blue as the color of quiet (perhaps misleading quiet), and yellow the color of violence.
Once the lights are cut, Bellaire doesn’t use anything resembling yellow again until page nine — a full eight pages later — where the gunfire in the Agency office cuts through all the blue like a lightning bolt in the night sky.
Those yellows are such a jarring contrast with the blues leading up to (and following) it, the image almost sears itself in your memory. If the first page set up the yellow-violence linkage, this one makes sure we understand it clearly.
That understanding is essential for the suspense in the sequence that follows, as Zero makes his way to the elevator (which we’ve already established is back online — remember how everything matters?).
Because of the pattern the creative team established with just those two pages, we only need the color of the button and the light in the elevator to know what’s about to happen. Er, we at least know it’s about to be violent — I don’t think anyone could have anticipated exactly how brutal this particular fight scene was going to be.
And it is fucking brutal. This series has never shied away from giving its violence a visceral weight, but this scene gives a whole new meaning to the word visceral. Indeed, the “smaller surprise” I mentioned earlier wasn’t the fight, but just how gnarly the fight is. It’s a hard-hitting close-combat scene even without the presence of the two huge guns, but you can be sure those guns make their presence known. It’s a brilliant pice of staging, choreography, and directing, with the entire creative team coming together to produce something that simply couldn’t exist in any other comic.
It’s a bravura sequence that I’m avoiding posting any images of, but only because I’ve already included three whole pages of art, and because I’m certain Patrick is going to talk about that fight scene. Actually, I’m so in awe of that scene, I can barely process how mind-blowing that final page reveal really is. I mean, that’s cool and all, but didn’t Zero just punch clear through a dude’s mouth?
Patrick: He did! His whole fist, blowing past (and undoubtedly through) the teeth and into the back of the throat. I was so struck by the uber-ugly of this sequence that it was hard to see anything else. It’s like any great horror movie — daring the reader to witness everything the page has to offer. The aforementioned mouth-punching is the single most horrific thing that happens in the elevator, but it comes at the end of a knock-down-drag-out brawl — a patient game of gory escalation, that somehow outpaces the reader’s imagination without ever losing it. In fact, we sit in this fight for four whole pages without it being very gruesome at all; the initial action is all guns and rote close-quarters-combat. Ponticelli and Bellaire dish out a little bit of blood, but they’re clearly working within the confines of precision at this point. Notice how the very first move Zero makes is good and tactical.
There’s even a little bit of risk built-in to Zero’s calculated maneuver here, as that shotgun takes a chunk out of his shoulder. But there’s no arguing that he’s being reckless or overly tenacious in this moment. There’s a thoughtful, almost clean, application of Zero’s training as he proceeds to disarm his opponents and turn their own weapons against them. The soldiers respond in kind, tactically repositioning themselves to take advantage of their greater numbers. As far as close-quarters elevator-warfare goes, everything is actually fairly civil…for the the first four pages.
The scene takes a turn only after Ponticelli and Kot insist on keeping the reader in the elevator longer than we might expect. They expressly offer themselves — and us — an out on this one. The elevator doors slide to a close with our perspective firmly locked on the other side.
You’ve seen this in movies and comics before. Whatever’s about to happen on the other side of that door is something either unspeakably awful or unspeakably cool — probably both — but we’ll check in with the hero when his job is done. That’s the glossy spy story trope this moment is meant to trigger: hopefully, we can turn the page, hear a ding, and watch the doors open to reveal some clearing smoke, and two subdued dudes at Zero’s feet. But Kot and Ponticelli have something different in mind. Breaking the pattern of plodding, horizontal paneling that’s been telling the story up to this point, the next page presents five vertical slices of panels, alternating perspective between outside and inside the elevator. The page is so well deployed; it’s half dare and half tease. You want to see what’s going on in there, but every time you do, it’s just something you don’t want to see. Bellaire plays her part expertly here, setting off those violent panels with that same yellower palette, this time adding drippy spatters of red to the mix. And then the next page confirms that we’re locked in to the bitter fucking end.
Zero has always done a phenomenal job of exploring the human cost of global warfare and espionage. We’ve seen heartbreaking explorations of the toll war takes on women, and many of the issues leading up to this point have explored the damage to Zero’s psychology as he tries to escape his past. This issue expresses that cost in terms of brain matter blasted against a wall, teeth shattered on the ground, and bones snapping out of the skin. It’s cold, and ugly, but never allows us to be detached from it — remember, we were invited in.
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?
You both already touched on this, but I love how “realistic,” for a lack of a better word, this fight is. Zero punching through a guy’s mouth aside, this isn’t a fight that’s won with a convenient knock-out punch or a quick display of force on either side’s behalf — it’s messy, it lasts forever, and it’s down to the wire until the very last moment, and that strikes me like how a fight between two highly-skilled agents such as these may play out in real life (although, again, without the mouth-punching). The hero’s not gonna get an easy win just because he’s the hero, even against these guys who are probably no more than fodder.
(then again, when has anything been easy for Zero anyway?)
I wanted — so badly — to post the page with the fist-through-the-face, but there’s really no doing it justice unless it’s been proceeded by every single blow that came before. As horrifying as the moment is, you really need to see it in context to believe it.
Right? I felt it was absolutely necessary to include two full pages just to give us context for the page when the elevator actually arrives. EVERYTHING HERE MATTERS.
Patrick, I love your read on that sequence where the doors close — I understood subconsciously that the doors slowly closing on that violence was funny, but I don’t think it connected with me that I was just anticipating the punchline of the doors opening with the violence done. We’ve seen that gag so many times, I had a straight-up autonomic response to it.
Still, Ponticelli’s camera never settles into normal. Notice how, in the last page I posted (Zero outside the Elevator), every single shot is slightly canted except for the shot of the elevator buttons, which acts to emphasize those canted angles. Everything is askew right through that shot of the doors closing (almost halfway through the scene). After that point, the shots are too tight and the background is too abstract to really be able to comment on the axis of the camera, but by the time those doors open again, we’re back to pretty strict level shots.
Man, I would really love to do a commentary track with the whole creative team.