NB: The Zaucer of Zilk is currently being serialised in 2000AD, so please be aware of oncoming spoilers as well as the likelihood that most if not all of my presumptions are entirely misplaced.
Like a pair of champion athletes out-classing the opposition in a 100 metre dash while treating it as a three-legged race, Brenden McCarthy and Al Ewing have succeeded in making The Zaucer Of Zilk one of the year’s greatest comics pleasures despite hamstringing the project with thin characterisation and unfortunate plot shortcomings.
As a visually entrancing, innovatively scripted adventure caper describing the arrogant science-magician Zaucer’s development of a sense of responsibility, The Zaucer Of Zilk has undoubtedly been an absolute highlight of the comic’s year so far. A fight-them-in-the-paint-cupboards revolt against the storytelling Puritanism of the modern-era action/adventure book, The Zaucer Of Zilk is, in McCarthy’s own words, a “phantasmagorical psychedelic extravaganza”, an aesthetic experience so lush and intense and sensuous that you’d swear the strip’s pages must be eye-searingly readable even in the darkest of rooms. Where so many of the 21st century’s comics creators strive with a Spartan’s fanaticism to ground their fantastic subject matter in as mundane a setting as possible, artist and co-creator Brenden McCarthy clearly believes that one absurd pleasure is only as good as the chain reaction of fabulous conceits it can inspire. His magical-scientific, fairy-story realm of Zilk is an acid-splattered holiday parade of deliberately Fauvist-evoking colour and flying tea-pots, kaleidoscopic fancy pants, talking tropical birds and loyal dog-headed hangers-on. By despairing contrast, his “dreary little” Not-Worlds are claustrophobically rain-drowned, bleached-out bad trips evoking the soul-crushed frustration of suburban-trapped teenagers. Hypnotically beguiling, endlessly imaginative, McCarthy’s pages carry a charge of immediacy, of an irresistible physicality, which nothing else in today’s marketplace can begin to match. In a lesser artist’s work, pages this arrestingly expressionistic would threaten to slow the narrative to an eye-distracting crawl, to reduce the reading to a tableau of magnificent indulgences, but McCarthy’s consummate control of design and pacing keeps the eye moving across the very pages which constantly threaten to bog the gaze down in one marvel or another.
Similarly dismissive of the orthodoxies of show-don’t-tell and less-is-more, Ewing’s script delights in re-appropriating every verboten trick in the writer’s magic-box short of the thought balloon. Something of this virtuosity may have been enforced by the fact that McCarthy’s art simply can’t carry both the back-story of The Zaucer Of Zilk and the forward momentum of its plot. In detailing how the “physics” of Dankendreer actually work, for example, and in explaining what Charognae’s magikal assault on Zaucer and T’Tooth actually involves, Ewing’s script matches McCarthy’s art for idiosyncratic ambition and baroque opulence while constantly attending to the leg-work of who, why, what and where. In complete contrast to much of his more recent work on books such as Jennifer Blood, Ewing’s language here is rich and dense and explicitly waggish. He seems to be revelling in the opportunity to play with the rhythms as well as the sense of his work, and the influence of the British Absurdist’s love of word-play and ironic theatricality appears obvious. To readers unused even to the sparsest of scene-setting captions, Ewing’s work might seem unnecessarily ostentatious and demanding, but to those willing to read rather than just skim, the likes of his knowing, loquacious narrator pausing to reach for a nerve-restoring brandy are a joy. There’s even something of the Technicolor intensity of Stan Lee’s very best work as Marvel’s caption-filler during the company’s brief High Sixties pomp, a period whose art McCarthy’s pages often similarly evoke. “Paper mache people slump over cobwebbed continental breakfasts”;”damp wood warps and splits .. crumbling into a soggy landfill that never ends”; Ewing’s purposefully over-ripe, mind-snagging sentences anchor the reader’s understanding as events skip from one unfamiliar setting to another, establishing and re-establishing the story’s logic while complimenting the virtues of McCarthy’s extravagant storytelling.
The Zaucer Of Zilk is at its most fascinating when Ewing and McCarthy play with traditions which we rarely expect to see hybridised one with the other. Simply juxtaposing McCarthy’s wonderfully Infantino-esque super-suit for Zaucer with the tale’s various lysergic fairy-worlds creates a sense of comic dislocation. Just as with his designs for his other superheroes/not-superheroes such as Paradax and Zenith, McCarthy’s costume for Zaucer fuses a graceful Silver Age ethos with a dishevelled, attitude-saturated sense that the skin-tights are being worn with more than just a slightly-ironic air. Dropped into a stage-set crowded with, for example, a herd of wild “fancy pants” watched over by a leering Joker-face moon, the predictable conservatism of the typical costumed crime fighter’s order-serving mission inevitably clashes with the out-there anti-sense of it all.
It’s a process of generating thought-provoking incongruities which takes a disturbingly dark, oppositional air when Ewing and McCarthy portray life in the various bleaker-than-bleak Not-Worlds. Whether it’s the sight of a magical sweet-shop in the perpetual raintown of Littlehope, or the presence of TuTu in Dankendreer, the misery of living in the most futile of mundane realities is accentuated by the sight of a single precious and unobtainable object, by the presence of one colourful and momentarily determined individual. Even in their least appalling aspects, the Not-Worlds evoke the fear that any desperate expedition away-wards from the everyday and towards a better life might never be able to maintain escape velocity. At their despairing worst, they project the hopelessness of a mind drained of the ability to generate its own serotonin, of a class entirely isolated from opportunity, and the vivid, intense artistic techniques McCarthy and Ewing use to elsewhere evoke their wonderfully hallucinogenic fancies are here inverted to suggest entirely sunless, colourless, wonderless, hopeless lives. In contrast, Zaucer’s sensation-loaded homeland of Zilk, with its media superstars and besotted masses, gutter-press opinion-distorters and entirely self-interested powers-that-be, suddenly starts to feel worryingly close to home, as if it’s a fun-house mirror take on life for those who’re winning, or who can just about believe they might not entirely loose, out here in the weird world of “real life”. Similarly disturbing are the thoughts sparked off by the quietly heart-breaking sight of the likes of Dankendreer’s various broken inhabitants, the abandoned underclass of a world-prison lacking either law or principle for them to appeal to.
It’s particularly impressive to note how Ewing and McCarthy have seeded the rules by which the science/magic of their strip operates. Ewing’s long argued that magical powers, or their like, are no less and no more ridiculous and unrealistic than any other super-ability, and here he’s careful to make sure that the limitations of what can and can’t be achieved by his script’s players are clearly laid out. And so, Zaucer’s ability to tap alternative roots of power in addition to that provided by his own fame is laid out long before he and Errol Raine came to their final battle. Similarly, the fact that poor nowhere-man T’Tooth always feels “sad and alone” is established several chapters before that regrettable unhappiness became vital to Zaucer’s survival. The rules of how the “super-powers” in The Zaucer Of Zilk function may not be those immediately recognisable to long-habituated comics fans, but they are rigorously if broadly established and maintained, and they ensure that the purposeful whimsy of the strip never tumbles into slack, get-out-of-jail dei ex machina.
But there is an imprecision in its storytelling which undermines the success of The Zaucer Of Zilk, although it never leaves the strip feeling like anything other than the most welcome of entertainments. For the tale’s organised around Zaucer’s gradual realisation that he’s a moral responsibility to others which extends beyond simply allowing them to gaze upon him and applaud. Sadly, Zaucer himself is never portrayed as being a character who’s so outstandingly appalling that the reader is longing to see him both punished and reformed. Compared to the fawning underlings and tyrannical menaces around him, Zaucer seems a remarkably typical and barely objectionable individual for his world and times. Not only isn’t he outstandingly unpleasant or actively harmful, but he’s comparatively heroic when placed next to opponents such as Raine and the Zultan. The problem, it often seems, isn’t the Zaucer, but the entire cast of his world as well as its social and political structure. Everyone’s in need of getting their act together, and no-one’s positioned to set a necessarily forceful good example through either their actions or their suffering, Sadly, that’s a problem which undermines much of the dramatic tension in the story, because it’s hard to care about Zaucer and his fate when he’s neither a particularly good or bad role model. Although no-one would want The Zaucer Of Zilk redesigned to work as a furrowed-browed, by-the-numbers tale of how-the-Hero-grew-up, there is a flatness of affect in the story which leaves the spectacle rather than the characters driving the strip’s appeal.
Similarly, there’s a certain lack of logic in how we’re presented with Zaucer’s failings and then taken through the process of what threatens to be his ethical awakening. He’s certainly rude and arrogant in the story’s second chapter, after having been largely silent in the strip’s opening episode, but he’s hardly, as mentioned above, a heinous individual. Yet by chapter 3, he’s already beginning to show signs of developing a conscience where the kidnapping of TuTu is concerned, making him a man stepping out on the path to redemption before he’s ever truly threatened to damn himself. (Ewing appears to realise that things are moving too quickly at that point, labelling Zaucer’s concern for TuTu “a vestigial sense of obligation”, but the character’s doing far more than just feeling a little awkward. In fact, Zaucer’s soon demanding the right from the Zultan to follow TuTu down into a Not-World to save her, and with no little determination too.) It’s a problem of understanding exactly how Zaucer thinks and feels about the world, and of what his ideas and emotions precisely mean, that’s compounded by McCarthy’s tendency to dial down the emotions on Zaucer’s partially-helmeted face. Though it’s a decision which certainly helps create the initial impression that Zaucer’s a self-regarding and emotionally disconnected character, it makes it hard to track how his character develops from incident to incident. Just a touch more rather than less emoting would surely have been helpful, although anything of excess on that front would obviously have worked to the detriment of the story’s deliberately cool and unhysterical approach. Yet there are even moments when the confusion about Zaucer’s point of view results from a sense that Ewing’s script and McCarthy’s art are working at cross purposes. When Ewing has Zaucer uncharacteristically pleading to be allowed to help Charognaeto in chapter 8, for example, his expression is counter-intuitively one of a slightly irritated man trying to focus on the detail of a crowded ordinance survey map. As such, the subsequent appearance of tears on Zaucer’s face just one page later seems to come quite out of blue as far as the artwork is concerned. We know that Zaucer’s feeling “grief and sorrow” at that point because Ewing’s narrator tells us so, but that doesn’t touch the reader as it should, because those tears seem to be happening when the plot demands rather than because of how the character’s psyche has perceptibly changed. We can understand the logic of what we’re being shown, and easily grasp what it means for the story, but that’s not the same thing as being inspired to empathise with Zaucer’s predicament.
In the end, this does mean that there’s a trace of hollowness at the heart of The Zaucer Of Zilk which never needed to be there. Though it would have been a tragedy to present the tale as an all-too-obvious melodrama, it’s similarly a shame that the emotional core of the tale wasn’t developed with just a touch more precision and feeling. With that, The Zaucer Of Zilk might have been a remarkable rather than a thoroughly entertaining and impressive achievement. It remains one of the best strips of the year; inventive, daring, inspired, and, ultimately, conspicuously enjoyable. As a counter-blast to the grey, unimaginative literalism of so many of today’s comics, it’s a vital marker of what the medium can achieve when creators set their minds to being as imaginative and ambitious as they can. I’ve loved the strip, I look forward to every chapter appearing. And yet, it is a regret that The Zaucer Of Zilk doesn’t quite touch the heart as much as it otherwise impresses with its smart-minded, incandescently-innovative, quite frankly joyous set-pieces.