Two fundamental discrete cognate loops are shown, which are isolated from each other by the artwork. There is no form of interaction between the two which could generate mutual understanding as would be the case in a successful conversation. In the absence of such a procedure both the audience and the artists become locked in their own perceptual biases.
Stephen Willats, Art and Social Function
Drew: Where does meaning happen? I was brought up on the postmodern ideals outlined in the epigraph, but it seems that a great deal of modern society still clings to romantic notions of artistic intention. We celebrate and scorn artists based on their intentions, forgetting that the value of their art may not have anything to do with the artist. Indeed, we’re so obsessed with intention that we conflate it with meaning, minimizing the audience’s role — a role I might argue is the whole point of art in the first place. It’s because of this climate that I enjoy art that obscures its artist’s intentions. It’s easy to assume the moral is the “point” of one of Aesop’s fables, but it’s decidedly harder to draw such a clean line in something like Zero 14, where ambiguity and sheer density of ideas makes any meaning we can parse decidedly our own. The plot is as straightforward as can be — Zero defeats the Israelis attacking the Agency and leads the children (and maybe the weaponized fungus guinea pigs) to freedom — but is layered with just about every literary and visual device we’ve ever thought to mention on this series. Indeed, this issue is so full of meaningful details that the usual “focus on one or two” approach feels woefully inadequate.
There’s the blue/yellow dichotomy I mentioned last time (though its use is intriguingly broken into short one- or two-panel bursts here), there’s the references back to Zero’s training that has served as a kind of refrain for this series (“What is existence?”), there’s even the lyrical allusions — three explicit ones, by my count. Those allusions provide an interesting perspective on the “where does meaning happen” question, so I’m going to start there. The issue opens with Sarah Cooke singing The Smiths’ “Panic” as she destroys the Agency’s files, in hopes of keeping them out of the hands of the militants that have stormed the compound.
We could certainly find connections between the lyrics of the song and the series as a whole, but I’m particularly interested in what it means to Cooke here. More importantly, it feels like the lyrical content isn’t quite as significant as the idea of the song. Unlike the other lyrical allusions in this issue, this one is explicitly musical, with writer Ales Kot and letterer Clayton Cowles making a point of simulating Morrissey’s vocal style, both in the drawn out vowels and the shaky music notes surrounding the speech balloons. Tellingly, Cooke doesn’t finish the whole song, and basically trails off after the second stanza, closing with a half-remembered “la la la la la la la laaa…” Is Cooke just thinking of this song as an appropriate accompaniment for chaos, which is why she leaves out the lyrics about music? Perhaps she couldn’t think of any song that actually fit what she was doing, so she picked the song that Morrissey wrote in response to the fact that pop music was so disjointed from the realities of life — the song represents the abstract idea of and act that has no appropriate accompaniment.
Pulling back our focus a bit, I think it’s worth noting that “Panic” was rather famously misinterpreted by critics who picked up racist undertones in the imperatives to “burn the disco” and “hang the DJ”. I say “misinterpreted” not because that reading is immaterial, just that it was mistakenly tied to Morrissey’s intent (which, according to Morrissey, was totally different). In that way, the song might actually represent the fallacy of attributing intent in an ambiguous situation. In any case: apparently Cooke was a Smiths fan.
The other two allusions are less musical in their deployment, but the question of whose allusions they are is no less complex. An excerpt from Broadcast’s “Before We Begin” serves as the issue’s epigraph, and the issue’s title, “no land but the land, no sea but the sea” comes from Patti Smith’s “Land”. Both have intriguing relations to the series at large — the stanzas of “Before We Begin” included here occur at both the end and beginning of the song, reflecting the cyclical nature of the series (beyond the obvious lyrical themes), and “Land” includes segments called “Horses”, a recurring motif of this series, and “Land of 1000 Dances”, a quasi-cover of the oft–covered song, which is itself full of allusions to dances — but what really intrigues me is the question of who is making these allusions.
The obvious, and ultimate, answer is Kot, but I’m intrigued at the notion that these somehow reflect Zero’s subjectivity. This is a story he’s telling, after all. The framing device makes Zero’s role as narrator explicit, but also invokes a higher narrator presenting us with the framing device. That makes the intent a bit harder to parse, as it may be diagetic intent — a character insight, essentially — or authorial intent, which I’m less interested in. Intriguingly, there is no reference to the framing device here, allowing us to forget both that Zero is telling the story and that someone is presenting us with the story that Zero is telling. I’m inclined to read these as Zero’s own additions — perhaps he’s scoring his own life, in much the same way we see Cooke doing at the start of the issue? — but I’m not yet sure when he’s applying them. During these moments? As he’s telling the story? Perhaps sometime in between?
Taylor, I’m sorry to pass this off without coming to any grand conclusions, but I may have gone on too long already. Do you have any thoughts on who these musical references are coming from? Or maybe you’d like to comment on some of those elements I acknowledged up top? Or maybe something else, entirely — this issue is so dense, I’m sure you found a few readings I haven’t even thought of. Taylor: That’s a lot of question to answer, Drew, and I’m not really sure there’s a good answer to that which wouldn’t exceed our word count. Suffice it to say, I believe that what we take from these song meanings is really totally and completely up to the reader. Sure, we can guess why Kot chose these particular songs and he may even tell us as much at some point. Still, I think the ultimate meaning derived from the music presented here is lodged in the nebulous space among the writer, the reader, and the musician. As you illustrated above, Drew, the relationship between the artist and the reader is complex enough. But add to that another person’s art, the meaning becomes exponentially more complex. With that being said, I’m going to limit my conjecture to the art in the issue, which is stunning. Of course when I say stunning I mean it in both senses of the word — pretty and shocking. The scene that encapsulates this perfectly is set piece of the issue which is the fight between Zero and the leader of the Israelis. As drawn by Marek Oleksicki, it’s both enthralling and horrifying. Aside from some blood splatter, there is little indicating motion in any of these panels. Normally this would make us feel like nothing was moving, but the exact opposite is true here. Every punch, every kick moves and lands with ferocious and terrible force. This fight is bloody violent and we feel that in every frame. Postures and facial expressions go a long way towards making this happen. Just look at the way both Zero and his adversary grit their teeth with every punch taken. This detail has every hit looking as painful as it truly would be in real life. This isn’t Thor being walloped by an ice-giant, this is what an actual fight looks like. Of course there is horror in this very same thing. Those who find violence hard to bare would naturally be turned away from the bulk of this issue (and probably the series). Even for the stout of heart, the utter reality and pain of it leaps off the page and into your nerves. It makes the reader uncomfortable if not for the blood then certainly for the bones that seem to break with every punch.
Whether the reader takes this scene as engrossing for the action or horrifying for the violence really is up to how they choose to interpret it. As with the songs chosen by Kot in the issue, any idea we come to associate with this art depends on our past experiences and how we see the world at the moment we take in some art. Zero is a title that is totally conscious of this and gives the reader and the artist space to explore each issue. It’s rare to find such a fine balance between reader and writer, but in Zero we have just that.
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?