Zero 15

zero 15

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Zero 15, originally released January 28th, 2015.

Patrick: Last time we talked about Zero, Drew was interested in the discrete loops of experience necessarily unshared by the artist and the audience. This came on the heels of two issues which seemed to actively push the audience away — largely wordless volumes soaked cover-to-cover in intense, non-romantic violence with cryptic references to half-remembered song lyrics — so it was easy, almost necessary, to rely solely on the reader’s perspective of the events in question. With issue 15, Ales Kot and artist Ian Bertram re-introduce the concept of the meta-narrative first explored in issue 10, and along with it, a fictionalized version of Williams S. Burroughs, as the author of this story. The move simultaneously buys into the culture of exploring authorial intention and discounting it all together, as the experiences, reality, dreams and non-reality of creator and creation merge, both on the page and off.

Which is to say: it’s a trippy outing dominated by psychotropic drug imagery. Let’s start with the facts of Edward Zero’s saga, even though those end up being the most malleable. In fact, I’m tempted to put “facts” in quotes, to better match the explanation given to him by the fungus child that shepherds the character — and the audience — into a new plane of consciousness. The mushroom child refuses to definitively draw a distinction between Zero and himself, between the fungus and the people, the material crafted by the agency and the material crafted by the author. There’s a ton of clever word play going on, and the insistence on putting just about every noun, pronoun and verb in quotes is fascinating, but nothing quite gets me like this cleverly inserted (or is it cleverly omitted?) “h.”


The difference between “the black thing” writhing inside Zero and “the black thing” writing inside Zero is sort of an arbitrary distinction, based on the premise that he’s a fictional character. That should be a self-evident fact, but Kot goes one step further, revealing the story’s supposed creator: William S. Burroughs.

In fact, most of this issue follows Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg during a particular fertile period in Burrow’s writing career. Burroughs was living in Tangiers, and living the life of a drugged-up ex-pat in 1956, but for all of his creative accomplishments over that time, the death of his wife, Joan Volmer, characterizes this era in his life. We get some of this in the issue itself, but the events are intentionally hazy, calling on the “textures of the world [getting] smudgier, thicker” observation Ginsberg makes a few pages previous. The widely accepted version of the facts is that Burroughs and Volmer were both unable to get access to their drugs of choice, and Burroughs’ wandering eye and insatiable libido was driving them further apart. One night, while both were unhappy and intoxicated, Burroughs retrieved his revolver and said that he and Joan would perform their “William Tell” act. With a highball glass balanced atop her head, Joan Volmer was shot and killed by Burroughs. An accident? A moment of unsuppressed rage? Ian Bertram presents the incident with an unnervingly disorienting trick of perspective, shifting the panels lower and lower, showing us the whole room but denying the reader the visual certainty that straight lines provide.

burrows vs volmer

In his own accounts later on, Burroughs claims that this whole “William Tell” thing didn’t happen at all, and that the gun was dropped, and discharged on its own. That’s a point I want to linger on for a second, because we don’t have any real way of knowing what actually happened, and either version of the events is contingent on the words of a writer informing us. As tragic as this event was — and as much as it would effect Burrow’s approach to art and life (more on that in a minute) — this is, in effect a story. A story told by Burroughs, told by Kot.

In his forward to the novel Queer, Burroughs wrote about the death of his wife:

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out”

The Ugly Spirit is name-checked several times throughout this issue, sometimes in Burrow’s narration-box-poetry and sometimes coming out of the Fungus Kid’s mouth. The inescapable blackness ends up being a concern for both the characters in the story and the “writer” of the story. Of course, that’s all a moot point because even Burroughs has now become a character in Zero.

Which of course leads me to the following question: is Zero an exercise in Kot exorcising his own Ugly Spirit? Or is he borrowing Burrow’s Ugly Spirit? Ginsberg asks Burroughs if he’ll ever finish this story, and Burroughs replies that if he doesn’t someone else will, which directly draws our attention to the fact that this story is indeed being told by someone else: Kot. This allows us not to conflate Burroughs with Kot, but also sort of excuses any emotional or intellectual borrowing that Kot might be doing here.

I’m finding this issue to be incredibly challenging, but also very rewarding. I love that Burroughs mentions the dream he had, and basically describes the flashforward scenes we’ve been asking about since the first issue. In Burroughs’ mind, this is an evocative set of images and ideas, but he waves it away as the echo of a mushroom trip. Is Burroughs experiencing Kot’s narrative? Are we experiencing Burroughs’? What’s the difference between dream, story, and trip? And who’s in control of any of it anyway?

Drew, I’ll pass this over to you with the unenviable task of trying to articulate what this monologue is doing in this issue.

zero vs surface

We saw that little speech over in the first issue of The Surface. Is Kot making a point to assert his Kot-ness over Burroughs? Or is Kot simply writing the idea that forced its way to the top of his mind again and again? Or is there some kind of meta-uber-narrative connecting all of his work?

Drew: If anything, it’s Kot acquiescing his Kot-ness to Burroughs. It looks like that is a real quote from Burroughs, albeit from an essay he wrote about Brion Gysin and not something he necessarily said out loud, so its repetition is at the very least an indication of its significance to Kot. Not that that really clarifies anything. It seems the notion of words and ideas echoing through the multiverse is very much a part of this narrative, so truly any and all readings seem valid. Or, as Burroughs puts it here:

Multiverse allows for every variation, after all.

I think the implication is that all of this, from Zero’s adventures to this fictionalized version of Burroughs, is happening somewhere in a multiverse, and that mushrooms — either the psychedelic or symbiotic varieties — somehow allow them to communicate. Burroughs confesses having a dream very much like the opening images of the series — what we’ve understood to be the framing device of the story we’re reading — but maybe that’s not so much a flashforward as some kind of shared dream between Burroughs and Zero.

Traverse Multiverse

In this way, there is no fiction, just windows into a universe where other things have happened/are happening/will happen. It’s an appropriately comic book-y idea, with overtones of how Earth Prime comic book writers transcribe/create the adventures of our favorite DC heroes, but of course, Kot takes it a step further, twisting the postmodern knife just a little more.

Is it just me, or did everything just get smudgy?

Patrick cited this conversation as an indication of Burrough’s state of mind, but I’d also like us to consider the postmodern implications: these guys are just talking about the artist drawing them. Bertram’s loose lines could easily be described as “drawn by a very talented artist with less time on his or her hands,” and his use of a single, heavy line weight throughout could easily be described as “smudgier” and “thicker” than, say, Marek Oleksicki’s more traditional approach in the previous issue. Perhaps the haze of this period of Burrough’s life isn’t cause by drugs or guilt, but simply because this period of his life is handled by a different artist.

Elephant in the room time: I’m not partial to mind-fucks, and tend to prefer to disregard authorial intention, so this issue is rushing headlong into space I’m not entirely comfortable with, but as Patrick indicated, it’s incredibly rewarding. Everything here works, no matter how you credit any of it as “fictional” or “real” — are Burroughs and Ginsberg talking about a change in their drugs, a change in the weather, or are they talking about the artist rendering them? Are Zero’s flash-forwards images from his future, dreams he’s having, some kind of shared dream he’s having with William S. Burroughs? Is he non-fictional somewhere in the multiverse, is he the result of a story told in part by both Burroughs and Kot, or is it even that story a fiction which Kot has created? I think the answer to all of these is “yes,” but extrapolating what that means — for us, for Zero, and for Kot, is several orders of magnitude more complicated than basically anything else we’re reading. Challenging, indeed.

Which is to say, I don’t have any kind of unified theory on this issue, but I love it. It’s easy to see all of the awareness of writers and artists as an assertion of their importance, but this issue actually pushes through that membrane, giving the audience free rein to pursue whatever of the multitude of meanings most appeals to them. Will all of them be equally valid in the end? At least in some way, but as with every issue of Zero, we’ll just have to come back next month to find out.

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?

6 comments on “Zero 15

  1. I found this issue absolutely fascinating to read, but I am SO happy I didn’t have to write about it.

    Patrick, thanks for the background about Burroughs, I did not know any of that, and it definitely helped me understand the issue better, not to mention that it was interesting in its own right.

    • Kot clearly has a fondness for Burroughs, but I think his status as a writer whose life is as much a part of his legacy as his writings is perfect for this issue. Can we separate Burrough’s work from his life? Should we? It’s a clever way to push an issue I tend to side-step whenever I can.

    • My little sister was in town and hanging out with me while I wrote this piece and she saw me sort of grumbling and clicking around wikipedia instead of writing and asked what I was writing about. I tried to explain the series to her, but was coming up short, mostly getting bogged down in what was so fascinating about this issue. She put forth that it’s not fair for artists to assume the reader is so familiar with the same set of references as they are, and while I usually tend to agree with that assessment, something about the references here seemed worthy of investigation. Kot leaves enough bread crumbs to follow – Ginsberg is name checked, as is Joan Volmer.

      So like, as long as there’s something compelling about the work itself, I don’t mind being inundated with references to thinks I don’t know. And really, we put up with so many more references in any superhero story, and are just sort of expected to keep up with 80 years of publishing history.

      • Is it ever unfair, though? In general, I wouldn’t hold allusions against any artist, so long as they don’t get in the way of telling a meaningful story. I’d say that this issue works even if you don’t realize Burroughs was a real person — it’s obviously more interesting if you know that he is, but I’m not sure that information changes the story, necessarily.

        • Correct – it’s not “unfair.” We actually clashed on this for a second. I know Courtney gets kinda angry at any fiction that tricks her. Like she almost rage quit LOST because Ben said they had to “move the island.” She said “how the hell was I supposed to know that they had to move the island?” It’s interesting – she’s very smart, and I sometimes wonder if she perceives anything she can’t predict as false somehow. Or at least, she’s mildly threatened by narratives that don’t line up with her expectations. Therefore, when she reads and doesn’t understand a references, she feels like the artist is calling her a dummy. Then I called her a dummy.

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