August 8, 2014

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Series Review: Kot's Zero is Anything But Valueless

Vol. 1 (collecting issues 1-5)
Written by Ales Kot
Line Art by Michael Walsh, Tradd Moore, Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske, Will Tempest, Vanesa Del Rey, Matt Taylor, Jorge Coelho, Tonci Zonjic
Color Art by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Designed by Tom Muller
Image Comics

Zero is an espionage story. Zero is a commentary on war, terror, the surveillance state and the military industrial complex. Zero is a continuing demonstration of some of the most interesting artists you'll see in comics. Zero is a mystery about a man who is a cipher, and a story where you can trust no one.  Zero is a book you should be reading.


From issue 1, illustrated by Michael Walsh
The story of Zero is centered on Edward Zero, who works as a field agent for "the Agency."  The government of which this agency is a part is never specified.  The series covers events from 1993 to 2038, but is primarily concerned with 2018-2038, the time in which agent Zero defies his orders, investigates the truth about his origins, and ultimately leaves the Agency.  In issue 1, the story begins where it ends, in 2038, where Zero is being held at gunpoint by a young man, sitting on a chair on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. From there it jumps back to the first mission we see, where Zero infiltrates Gaza in order to retrieve super-soldier technology belonging to the Agency which has ended up in the hands of Hamas (literally, in the chest of a Hamas super soldier). He retrieves the technology, kills both the Hamas and Israeli super soldier, and lies to the Agency about how the mission was handled. This sets the tone for Zero's relationship with the agency and gives readers a good idea of where things are going from here.

The first issue also introduces the other main characters in the series - Zero's handler Roman Zizek, and Zizek's supervisor Sarah Cooke (who are sleeping together).  In the second issue, we learn the extent to which the Agency has gone to train these agents. We also see young Zero being sent on his first kill mission, and introduces his closest friend (though he is not allowed to have feelings, or at least express them) Mina Thorpe. 
From Issue 2, illustrated by Tradd Moore

The plot of the series is a mystery for Zero to unravel because Zero himself is a mystery. While the issues are frequently narrated from his perspective, he generally reveals nothing. He is a zero, a cipher. "I am nothing," he says. As the story unfolds, however, we see that his own nature, and desire for the truth, are at odds with his duties as an Agent. 

A mission goes terribly wrong for Zero and the Agency, and Zero begins to question everyone around him. He begins first covertly and then overtly defying the Agency. It becomes clear To Zero (and the reader) that there are very few people Zero should trust. It also appears that somewhere between 2018 and 2038, Zero makes a significant choices that affects all of humanity. The end of the first arc in issue 5 provides a hint at the scope of that choice. The current issue (issue 9) is a gut-wrenching look at the past, and some potentially enormous revelations regarding several of the characters in the story. To say more would take away from a new reader's enjoyment at discovering these secrets, issue by issue.




From Issue 5, illustrated by Will Tempest
This is a powerful, beautiful, thought-provoking series. Come for the stunning selection of artists (as each issue has been illustrated by a different person), stay for Kot's clear voice and incisive point of view--especially the political edge that he brings to this story. It feels like there's a real synergy between Kot and the artists involved in the book. 

Notwithstanding the variety (and range) of talented artists, there is a sense of continuity to the production. Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles consistently provide coloring and lettering throughout the series, and Tom Muller does the remarkable design work on the covers and around the book. Bellaire (recently awarded an Eisner award for her work) is a colorist of amazing skill and range; each issue looks completely different, and the color choices vary widely from issue to issue but are appropriate for the subject matter. From the sandy colors of Gaza to the sterile environments of a recovery room to the earthy browns of the favelas of Rio to the cold winter of Switzerland, Bellaire's coloring choices never feel anything other than completely on point and perfectly suited to the art.

Issue 4, illustrated by Morgan Jeske
Similarly, each choice of illustrator feels like the precisely correct artist for that issue. For example, Tradd Moore's more cartoony, manga-influenced style works perfectly for portraying the young agent Zero. Similarly, Morgan Jeske compellingly shows the dusty grime of Rio and the kinetic chase through it's favelas. By contrast, the cold, sterile, clinical lines that Will Tempest brings to issue 5 (mostly in interrogation and a recovery room) wouldn't have been as effective in Rio or Gaza, but work perfectly in that setting. Most of issue 8 is a chase sequence through the woods, and the kinetic action and innovative panel layout from Jorge Coehlo portrays the fear and confusion of this setting. 

This is not to say that the other artists couldn't have handled different issues, only to say that as a curator of talent, Kot appears to have excellent judgment. He also appears to trust his artists to tell the story, as there are many stretches in multiple issues without dialogue. Some of the exposition is accomplished with "back-matter" (included in some of the issues) such as written records of interrogations, and internal reports generated by the Agency. These documents supplement the story and provide an interesting juxtaposition between the true events and the "official" report.
Issue 8, illustrated by Jorge Coelho

Each issue of Zero feels like it is intended to make the reader uncomfortable in the best possible way, by challenging assumptions. It also feels like a grown-up response to spy stories generally and to people's fascination with and romanticism regarding that genre. You like bad-ass secret agents who are capable of losing themselves in a mission and taking on any opponent? Great, well here's such an agent, but let's take a look at actually goes into to building such a person, and what the cost would be to all those involved.

The effectiveness of the story starts with the main character, and it is a testament to Kot and the creative team that Zero is such a powerful character, considering how little we know and understand about him. What little we see of Zero's emotions comes through in tiny moments, hesitations, and glances. 


Issue 9, illustrated by Tonci Zonjic
Moreover, we see as the story unfolds that we shouldn't trust  Zero any more than we should trust any of the other characters in the story. His inscrutable poker face speaks volumes. This makes sense within the story, as it's clear that the Agency and his handlers and superiors have tried to chip away any human emotions, as those constitute a distraction. His only goal is completing the mission. But what does that do to a man? Can you really teach and instruct and beat away emotion, independent thought, and morality? Or, do all of those things simply just stay below the surface, so that the face you show the world is a complete lie? Moreover, what does it do to a larger group of people who must fulfill these goals? Those trainers, handlers and supervisors - the ones that take people and mold them and shape them into spies and killers; what would that experience do to a person?  

Issue 6, illustrated by Vanesa Del Rey
Zero wrestles with all of these questions, and doesn't attempt to create easy answers. None of them are people without merit; there are no easy "bad guys" here (as a character acting as the antagonist in one issue may be shown to be quite thoughtful in the next one), but there are clearly some profoundly broken people.  That's a significant through-line in the story. To be the sort of person who stands watch over society keeping us safe in ugly ways that we don't know (and don't want to know about), it breaks a person. It breaks their spirit, their morality. If our defense relies on people such as this, that should be concerning.  

If you're looking for a cool spy story with focus on gadgets and babes, look elsewhere. If instead, you're looking for a story which wrestles with the nature and consequences of a perpetual state of (mostly hidden) war on its participants, and which also happens to be a sampling of some of the most interesting sequential artists out there, then I highly recommend Zero.