Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Zero 18, originally released July 1st, 2015.
Drew: I don’t love fetishizing endings. I resent the idea that the final moments of a work of art are somehow more important than all of the other moments that came before. I do, however, appreciate that it’s not until the end of a work that we can properly understand what it is. It’s not that the last piece of the narrative puzzle is necessarily more important than the rest, it just happens to be the last one added, which makes it the one that completes the image. True to that analogy, most endings are increasingly predictable as they approach — by that late in a narrative, we have a sense of likely conclusions. But then there are those narratives that aren’t so easily tied down. Zero started as a relatively straightforward spy series, but became increasingly postmodern, turning itself into a pointed commentary on the artificial division between “life” and “art.” Even with that trajectory in mind, issue 18 offers a conclusion of such bizarre beauty that nobody could have ever predicted.
Indeed, the conclusion is so strange that I’m honestly not sure to talk about it. Essentially: the three dramas this series has focused on over the last few issues — William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, Zizek and Zero, and Zero and the boy — are all one in the same. That is, they are all multiversal versions of one another, that the fungus somehow allows Zero to traverse and experience, allowing him to “choose” his own. The meta-physicality of that choice might seem jarring in light of this series’ first few issues, but what’s more shocking is that, when faced with an infinity of alternate realities, Zero opts for the totally non-metaphysical one, returning to his quiet domestic life with Siobhan in Iceland.
Or, at least, maybe he makes that choice. The fungus explains that there are limits to what multiverse Zero can chose, so could be that something like choosing to live with Mina or choosing to never be involved with the agency wasn’t possible, but I personally find his decision to chose that life inspiring. He doesn’t regret all of his decisions — in fact, he necessarily has to value the ones that brought him to that situation in the first place — he simply misses the life he had made for himself.
Of course, he doesn’t quite choose that “reality” — his wounds (including his distinctive eye) miraculously heal as he approaches the cabin.
So, is he in a slightly altered version of the reality he knew, or is this heaven? Writer Ales Kot and artist Tula Lotay cleverly toe the line, starting Zero’s journey home by having him visit the family the agency made him kill back in issue 2. They’re alive and well, as are the horses this series has often mused about. Back in issue 6, Robert suggested that the horses went to an alternate reality when they fell through the ice, apparently the same reality Zero has chosen for himself. But again, is this simply the best of all possible worlds for Zero, or is he in some kind of afterlife?
I suppose it’s absurd to draw a distinction between those two, but I’m fascinated at how utterly unexpected these questions are from anything that has come before, yet somehow swirls around the same images and themes that this series has always traded in. As he begins his journey, Zero is reminded that “it’s all theatre,” reminding us that concerns of “reality” are entirely secondary to meaning. Whether Zero is dead or alive doesn’t matter so long as we understand the significance of his choice.
But, that reading ignores the significance of “the black thing,” which Zero removes just before he’s allowed to “choose” his multiverse. I’m struggling to think of a reading that doesn’t paint the black thing as life itself, something that must be shed in order to gain access to the afterlife. Perhaps the black thing prevented Zero from successfully choosing the best of all possible worlds? I like that reading too, but I can’t reconcile it with the fact that Zero already had chosen the quiet life in Iceland, it was simply taken from him by the agency.
Oof. I might need more distance to really comment on this issue, and what it means for this series. We may now have the whole thing at our fingertips, but I think it will be a long time before I manage to fit it into my brain. I’ve commented before that this series requires more bandwidth than I typically have on hand, and this issue is no different. I look forward to sitting down with all 18 issues in the near future, but for now, I can’t muster much more than babble. Are your thoughts any more coherent, Patrick?
Patrick: I suppose it’d be disingenuous to claim that my thoughts on this issue are coherent at all. What’s more, I almost feel like that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of this conclusion. If “the black thing” can represent something that the reader is grappling with, I think it could stand in for the burden of literal understanding. As the Zero audience, that’s the only way we’re able to experience the series: to understand it. Zero and Zizek and Burroughs all have different means of interacting with their worlds, and all three have the power to both create and destroy life. That power — the ability and will to change things — is “the black thing.” It’s no coincidence that the title of the issue is “Surrender,” as that’s precisely what all of these characters need to do to move on from the pain “the black thing” has caused them. So too must the reader surrender our ability to understand what Zero is experiencing in those final pages.
I always love it when Kot tells his story with copy-less pages, and I usually see it as a sign of faith in his co-storytellers. In Zero’s chosen multiversal coda, I’m not totally convinced that clarity is the point. The images of the scenes Drew mentioned above are all very clear, but presented without any narrative or character-based context. Each page evokes a separate emotion from the reader, and it’s not really about whether the pieces line up to tell a plausible tale, but whether the emotions it elicits are sincere. A few pages earlier, Zero asks “is… this… (Zizek)… or… the fungus… talking?” and his answer is the delightfully cryptic “Does it matter? As long as it feels real?” And man, oh man, does Zero’s ending feel real.
The page that I found most potent was Zero’s return to the cliffs of Dover. Not only are there no fungus monsters sprouting up from the sea, the standard future-color palette is missing. In fact, these colors are almost the opposite of the cool blues we’re used to seeing. That’a nice bit of intentionally diverging from the established color code by series’ colorist Jordie Bellaire. Also absent: the boy holding a gun to our hero’s head.
The page is peaceful in a way this series never is. It’s also paced in such a way that the emotional power of the moment is impossible to mistake or ignore. Essentially, this moment, and every moment after Zero removes “the black thing,” transcends literal meaning. Who cares what’s really happening, so long as it feels real?
I briefly mentioned Bellaire’s coloring in this issue, but I really want to loop back around to how instrumental she has been in crafting the visual identity of this series. There’s one page in particular, where she wields four different color palettes, each one signifying a specific time-period explored throughout the course of the series.
Grays for Burrough’s life, green for Zizek-fungus, a rose tint for Edward’s mother, and those blues for this apocalyptic future. There are no such thing as a model sheet for these characters as they’re always drawn by different artists. That flexibility has allowed Kot to work with some of the best artists in the industry — including several that are on my read-everything-they-draw list — but it also forces the reader to see these characters and situations as interpreted by 18 different artists. I’m convinced that some of this multiversal stuff ends up being more intuitive because we’re constantly confronted by slightly-alternate-universe versions of these characters every month. The only way we could ever make these connections, and know that the thing that looks different is actually the same, is because Bellaire lays this incredibly rich color foundation. Flip back through this issue, and you’ll be amazed by how much of the story is told strictly through color.
Drew, I think you’re probably right about needing a few weeks for this ending to sink in. In a lot of ways, the series ended with that ultra-violent attack on the agency four issues ago. But that’s only a finale inasmuch as “the black thing” can provide closure. War begets war, violence begets violence. What these last issues have tried to do is convince the reader to trade that all in for surrender, peace and love. That’s a good trade.
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?