April 20, 2020

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Zero Revisited

Zero
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Michael Walsh, Tradd Moore, Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske, Will Tempest, Vanesa Del Rey, Matt Taylor, Jorge Coelho, Tonci Zonjic, Michael Gaydos, Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, Adam Gorham, Alberto Ponticelli, Marek Oleksicki, Ian Bertram, Stathis Tsemberlidis, Robert Sammelin, and Tula Lotay
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Design by Tom Muller
Published by Image Comics

Introduction

Zero tells the story of the life of Edward Zero, a man born and raised by "The Agency" to be a perfect spying and killing machine. Through the first three arcs of the series, I came to really love Zero, for its blend of cynicism, espionage, and realpolitik. Not to mention, the stunning and varied art (as each issue is drawn by a different talented artist). Then the fourth and final arc came along, and we (the reader) were spending time with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. And Edward was exploring alternate dimensions with a collective fungal consciousness.

Basically, the book took a real left turn, and I wasn't prepared for it, and I was unhappy with it. I'd come to think of Zero as one thing, and it became something else. I've reread it a few times since the series concluded in 2015, each time hoping that I would *get* the story. And it's not necessarily that I didn't understand what was happening in the story, I just didn't understand why it was happening and why it was the story that Kot was telling. But I can see in retrospect that this was a case of me being attached to what I thought the story was and should be, rather than just trusting the author to take the reader where they thought the story should go. I don't feel great about that, but that's life sometimes.
I'm also in a different and more receptive place than I was the last time I read the book, 2-3 years ago. I've had a very challenging few years. My work has been particularly stressful, and at the same time my mother's mental and physical health declined significantly. She was profoundly depressed and also delusional for a long time, and hospice eventually got involved. My mom passed away at the end of last summer, and so I honestly feel like, having been through that process, the story read differently to me this time around.

What Kot does (I think) in the first three arcs of Zero is essentially make a case for the world as it is. Cynical and dark and violent. But what he does in the final arc is make the case that we are not powerless to change this world. He seems to be saying it’s never too late to change oneself, and by changing oneself one can change the entire world. The final arc in that way feels like a response to the first three arcs of Zero. We don’t have to just take the world as it is, we can work for a better world, the world as it should be. As part of that, Zero says, we must work to end the dominance of "the black thing"/"the ugly spirit" in our lives (a concept I will discuss in greater detail below). And we should seek forgiveness and compassion in ourselves and others.

So let's take a more detailed look at the final arc of Zero, including the significance of the title of the fourth arc, “Who by Fire”.

Synopsis of The Final Arc

The arc begins with someone typing on an old typewriter, who turns out to be beat author William S. Burroughs - he’s in Tangiers, Morocco in 1961 with his friend, poet Allen Ginsberg (these characters have not appeared in Zero to this point). William is typing about Edward Zero and Ginsberg Nova (an enemy of Edward's from earlier in the series). And then the story moves to 2025 (where the prior arc ended). Edward has just gone through a brutal fight with the brother of the man he killed years earlier, and has seen the destruction of The Agency that controlled his life.  Edward is critically injured, but he's taken himself to a secret facility to see people that The Agency has held captive for years. These people were exposed to some sort of strange fungal infection and have the appearance of mushrooms growing on them. These people also appear to have incredible knowledge about things they couldn't possibly know.

Edward is critically injured and he's engaging in conversation with one of the "mushroom people", who happens to look a lot like the young man (that turns out to be Edward's son) that we've seen a number of times throughout the series, in a scene from the future in 2038. But it's not his son speaking, it's the collective voice of the beings that exist as fungi in our universe. The beings ask Edward to engage with them in order to save his own life, and to also help expel the "black thing" inside him. Edward ingests a little of their substance and he speak of dreams he remembers - an older him, and the boy, on a cliff. Apparently dreams are how they traverse the multiverse.
Ian Bertram, issue #15
And then we're back to William and Allen. And William lays out exactly what's happening now. It came to him in a nightmare after he and Allen did some mushrooms:
"isn't it strange how a certain expansive state emerges? It's as if the mushrooms open up the imagination, or a way to travel through the universe. I found myself--I found myself curiously identifying with memories of the fungal underworld. I traversed entire universes, I watched them die and grow. The constant of this was a spore. I merged with it. I was a spore"
And what did William dream? An old man on a cliff and his son pointing a gun at his head. So there we are. All these stories are connected. The idea of the "black thing" or the "ugly spirit" is also discussed.  Apparently the ugly spirit is somewhat like the mushroom beings, but it is not truly like them. The mushrooms are in a symbiotic relationship with humans, whereas the ugly spirit is a parasite. It’s Allen, not William, who first explains the idea of the ugly spirit by asking “what if the ugly spirit or the mushrooms originate the war impulse or amplify it? What is war is something we have to grow through in order to abandon it? Imagine universes without guns.”

But Burroughs is having none of it. He likes his guns. Burroughs struggles greatly with this idea, as he knows all too well the ugly spirit. He himself felt it when he accidentally, but recklessly, killed his wife Joan Vollmer while playing “William Tell” with a bottle on top of her head.
 
Next the story brings us Allen and William deep in the philosophical discussion that accompanies ingesting mushrooms. Burroughs posits that they entire universe may just be a holographic projection (an idea Kot looks at further in The Surface, my review here) of our dead minds. The projector (i.e., the individual) “creates deep change by resolving blocks of their own behavior and by inventing and integrating new ones. The projected, that is the world, follows suit...if something truly changes inside a person and that person interacts with the world, which it inevitably does, the resonance of the change eventually influences everything and everyone else.” 

This is such a key idea to where this final arc is really going. If the entire universe is somehow just a projection from our minds, then changing how we think and how we feel can truly change the universe. But in order to do that, we must overcome and evolve and ultimately move past those building blocks that make us up and also hold us back.

Kot pushes this idea forward by having the narrator shift to Zizek.  Zizek was Edward's handler at the Agency, and Edward killed Zizek for unknown reasons. Unbeknownst to Edward, Zizek loved Edward's mother Marina and loved Edward as well, and essentially thought of him like a son (and saved Edward's life before he was born). Zizek speaks to Edward and he says:

“I had to do what I have done. One day you’ll understand, maybe. Maybe this day. I am not your father but the sins of the fathers become the sins of the sons. And who knows what else was in your DNA? Whoever… Did things to your mother before I arrived, whoever got her pregnant, there were plenty possibilities there, and she told me, none were good and none were her choice at all… She lived in a world men like me built. In a world men like you built...Edward? This is important. You have to listen really close, otherwise nothing will change. 'You' are a story 'the universe' is telling 'itself'.”

What William is trying to explain to Allen (and Zizek to Edward) is that changing yourself can change the universe.  Edward abandoned his son because he had the world to fix, but it was really Edward himself who needed fixing, and as a result of this decision he ended up abandoning the boy and ended up on that cliff in 2038 with a gun pointed at him. Edward was afraid that his son would turn out like him and in doing so he created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  And also enabled and strengthened the ugly spirit within himself, which also exists within all men.
Stathis Tsemberlidis, issue #16
This ugly spirit is the impulse for war, to kill, to hurt, to dominate others, to rape, and to push away any emotions to the contrary. It's what drove the men who raped Edward's mother and who otherwise fought in the wars into which Edward was born in Bosnia, in 1993. It's also the dark impulse that compelled William to shoot Joan. It's also the dark impulse that later on in life tells William not to care for his estranged son Bill (who subsequently dies).  Subsequently, Kot and his artistic partners show us a way through the seemingly infinite loop of war and hatred and violence that is the ugly spirit:
It occurs to me that one of the key inciting factor of violence is shame...If, through our genetic memory, we have access to everything that has ever happened to any of us...then if violence occurred repeatedly within, it makes logical sense to assume it will happen again. But the world isn't all logic...you can't have a soul without chaos can you. So the idea that the violence has to occur again is false, created by the ugly spirit so it can feed on the soul. Shame is a soul-eating emotion.
Zero lays out the modus operandi of the ugly spirit. It fosters those feelings that are within men. To "other" others, even though in reality all is one, and divisions are false. The ugly spirit ultimately just spreads and fosters death. But compassion and forgiveness are a way through the ugly spirit. And as the issue ends, in a heart-rending sequence, we see the spirit of the adult Edward return to the moment of his own birth and his mothers death. And forgiveness is asked by Zizek to Edward, by William to his lost son, and by Edward to his unnamed son.

This reconciliation and forgiveness between three pairs of fathers and sons continues into the remarkable conclusion of Zero. As we see the acts of violence undone, and we see Edward hugging his son. We see William and a now-alive Joan and Bill all embracing. And Zizek and Edward embracing as well. The change within these people is changing the universe, and as this happens, Edward is "unkilled" and he graphically removes the vile, ugly spirit from inside himself. This frees him to be the person he was meant to be, and he travels into another, better universe.

In the final pages of the story, we see that some of the acts of violence that have been done by him or the Agency have been undone, and in the end, Edward returns to Iceland to be with Siobhan (the woman with whom he has attempted to make a life after the fall of The Agency). We also see that in this new world, a sad story told by one character to another earlier in Zero (about wild horses during World War II who run into a lake at the exact moment it is freezing, and themselves end up completely frozen) ends quite differently. The wild horses didn't freeze to death in the water, but instead are running free. It's really quite beautiful imagery from artist Tula Lotay and colorist Jordie Bellaire.

Who By Fire

Who by Fire” is the title of the final arc of Zero. It's also a line from the Unetanah Tokef, an ancient poem recited in prayer by Jews as part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. It’s a pretty haunting poem, as it sets forth the judgment that takes places on Rosh Hashanah, as God decides whether to inscribe someone into the book of life...or not. In part:

And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.
As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once. In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.
It's a powerful poem, and a severe one. It brings to mind the most wrathful visions of God as divine judge, literally sitting and looking over a book and deciding the fate of human beings. Who will live and who will die (and how will they die). But there's a hopeful message at the end of this poem. God does not want people to suffer and die, only to repent and to turn away from their wickedness. God understands our limitations as weak, limited, transient beings. So we must just show that we are trying to turn in the right direction, towards repentance, prayer, and righteousness, and we may then be spared God's most harsh decree.
Robert Sammelin, issue #17
This conception of God as literal judge is one with which I've been uncomfortable for a very long time. I found this notion to be cruel and capricious, and lacking compassion. But as I've gotten older I've become more comfortable with it, not because I'm comfortable with this idea of God as Judge, jury and executioner (I'm not).  But because I've realized that it's all metaphor. The act of personifying God makes the most sense to me if I think of it as a metaphor, rather than a description of what God is *actually* like. I don't exactly know what I believe about God, but I know that I don't believe in the literal super-being (and neither do many philosophers and religious scholars). But if I think about the poem as metaphor, it makes a lot more sense and is easier to accept.

The reality is that within a given time period, people will live and they will die (that feels more true now than ever). It's just a fact that some people will die by violence, and some will be spared, and some will be comfortable, and some will be afflicted. But the poem also says that "repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree". Does this mean that if I pray and follow the rules, God will spare me and I get to live longer? No, it doesn't mean that. Becoming a better person doesn't guarantee a longer life. In fact, in some cases, it may shorten your life depending on the sorts of risks you take on in helping others.
 
What it does mean is that if you were to really embrace the ideas of "repentance, prayer and righteousness" and you took these ideas seriously, then you would work to undo the bad that you have done in this world. You would seek forgiveness from those you have wronged. You would think seriously about the state of the world and all of the ways in which you could be working to make it better. You would be kinder and less selfish and more compassionate and giving of your time, money, and love. Doing all of these things in no way guarantees you any more time on Earth. But what they provide is the knowledge that you're using whatever time you have on Earth to benefit others and make the world a little better than how you found it.

And if we think of our conception of "God" as less personified, and more as metaphor for the spirit of goodness in the universe, then by taking these concrete steps to make ourselves better people and to help those around us, we can't help but put more goodness and righteousness and love into the universe. This does not lessen the harshness of the fact that righteous people will suffer and die. But it does bring more meaning to the lives we do lead when we are here. And those actions may have repercussions beyond anything we can conceive. While we are alive, we should try to do all the good that we can, and move towards life and love and forgiveness, and away from violence and hatred and death (all those things that comprise the "ugly spirit").

Tula Lotay, issue #18

Conclusion

The ideas in the Unetanah Tokef very much encapsulate what Kot is saying in the final arc of Zero. The entire final arc of Zero represents the idea of Teshuvah - of turning, turning away from evil and wickedness, and turning towards compassion and righteousness. What we conceive of as "God" could in fact be a network of inter-dimensional mushroom beings. Who am I to say otherwise?  And in forcing Edward and William and Zizek to reckon with all of they've done, and to learn to let go of their hatred and the darkness and violence, and to release the "ugly spirit" inside of them, isn't that another way of saying that Edward can turn towards repentance, prayer and righteousness? Not to satisfy the whims of God-as-judge, but to make not only his own life better, but to make better the whole universe.  To move towards love and compassion and kindness: those are the things to which we should aspire, and they are as "Godly" as anything else in this universe. Will doing these things transport us to another universe where things are better? No. But we have no idea of the impact in the universe that we could have if we truly became the people we should be. If enough people were to turn towards righteousness, and away from darkness and violence, who knows what could happen?

So I really got something out of my latest reading of Zero that I hadn't previously. And it wasn't about the book - all the wisdom and insight were always there. But it wasn't something I was ready to see at the time.  But now, in the dark and scary times that we're living in, and having gone through the long, painful loss of my mother, I think I was more receptive than ever to the message of the story. We don't have to just accept the darkness and evil and terribleness of the world as it is. We can work towards something better. There's still a lot of "ugly spirit" in me that I need work on removing, but that's a task worth taking on.