The first two-thirds of Zot! (1987 - 1991) are certainly enjoyable enough. Scott McCloud creates a fun, thoughtful, and zany superhero pastiche featuring the invulnerable teenaged Zot and his Earth-pal, Jenny.
Zot fights surreal foes who are rarely menacing, except in their ability to provoke existential crises. The 'villains' often embody abstract concepts, and rare do little more than rant and, er, make art. These portion of Zot! are oddly charming, although not spectacular - perhaps because, as a superhero epic, we're expecting more in the way of action. Or, at the very least, palpable tension.
The superhero stories pick up some assistance from the notes at the end of each arc. I'm generally not so fussed about this sort of whatnot, but McCloud is nothing if not a thoughtful creator. Especially as a reader that's not familiar with art and its history, having McCloud explain his influences and ambitions was surprisingly useful. Similarly, McCloud draws thoughtful connections between Zot! and its autobiographical inspirations as well - how his personal life changed his work (and possibly vice versa).
If Zot! stopped two-thirds of the way through, it would've been an educational read, and an enjoyable one. And that's about the end of it.
But... then there's the final third of the collection, the 'Earth Stories'. Which elevates Zot! to being one of the best comics ever created.
The set-up is surprisingly undramatic: Zot is accidentally trapped on Earth, and, frankly, he isn't bothered at all. He finds our world fascinating, warts and all. Jenny is more upset than he is - she misses having the ability to escape to Zot's utopian homeworld.
Through Zot's 'innocent' eyes, we see the ordinary lives of ordinary people and learn that, in truth, there is no 'ordinary'. Zot himself serves as a sort of passive catalyst for events, his presence inspiring people to open up, share or simply strive to be more. I suspect the 'Earth Stories' are so poignant because they're contrasted with the four-colour utopia of Zot's own world, and thus rely on the first two-thirds of the book to work so well. But I also suspect they're powerful because they're so damn good. (I dare you not to cry at #33 - "Normal". Although, in my defense, I was already a complete wreck by the end of #32 - "Invincible".)
Zot! is simply too big to review properly - too extraordinary in its treatment of the ordinary, but words like 'heartbreaking' and 'optimistic' and 'timeless' should be bandied around. God goddamn, but, this book is a thing.
This belongs alongside - if not on top of - the canon of the great comics: not just for the story (in fact, despite the 'story'), but for the impossibly engaging characters and the way it uses the medium of comics itself. This is a comic about, I suppose, comics - the way people see reality and compare it to impossible ideals. Jenny has a physical escape into Zot's world, but is forced to confront the reality of her own life. Eventually she settles into a maturity that balances both escapism and responsibility. And this is a comic that simultaneously encourages us to acknowledge our challenges and the face them, but also to find joy in our lives.
Probably the best comparison I can come up would be Patrick Ness' books - specifically More Than This and The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Like Ness, McCloud uses an ostensibly SF/Fy lens to talk - uncensored and unsparingly - about human lives. There's also something about the empathetic portrayal of teenagers as a combination of maturity and unfettered joy, confusion and idealism. Pulling off a story (or stories) of this nature requires both a deep love of imaginative fiction, in all its forms, but also a mind-boggling talent for infusing a page with relentless emotional power.
Some books are too big to review properly. Zot! is one of them. Just read it.