An Unspoken History- A Retrospective on Zot! and Race by Gail Tolbertsmith

I remember, as my eyes scanned over the final lines of Zot! Issue #29, my brain pausing, and then I let out a low, long breath of air. Up until that point, the issue had done, in my view, a very good job of communicating its message; its depiction of the rampant racial segregation and poverty of New York, viewed through the eyes of an alien who had come from a Utopian society, was affecting in a way that I think many comics even today struggle with communicating. However, the last line- spoken after a panel of careful, deliberate consideration- says “Maybe the South won.” I had to take a break after reading that as I felt my mind buzz.

To be clear, this was not the first time that Zot! had moved me. The initial issues, filled with the adventures of the alien human living in Utopia, with its fantastical villains and dynamic artwork, tended to take my breath away. Reading Dekko’s issues, both his debut and in his black and white end, was so inspiring to me that I would bring up the beauty of this work both in casual conversation and online. A scene that has continued to stick with me was a mass dance in the rain after a casually averted extinction of the human race. Zot! Tended towards the melancholic and the wistful, the bombastic and the beautiful. But after the titular character was stranded on Earth due to mechanical shenanigans, the series leaned hard into its melancholy, exploring the lives of the teenagers that made up Jenny’s friend group. As the series took its directional tone and attitude for the end of the series tackling multiple issues, such as racism and homophobia, what fascinated me personally was the way it decided to look at these issues. It was effective, truly, and the way that it resonated with me continues to surprise me.

But why? I thought to myself. In re-readings I kept coming back to the line at the end of issue #29- so effective in its condemnation- but had to contextualize it in the broader scheme of both my life and history. One of the most misunderstood, and, frankly, mischaracterized eras of American history is the Civil War and its aftermath. I remember reading an old textbook that my mother used to have from her days as a schoolchild in Virginia; it was filled with interesting interpretations of history, and those that were most egregious were, in a way, amusing. Filled with slavery apologia and deliberate obfuscation of the why Virginia fought for the Confederacy, the gaggles of people that insist upon the ever nebulous “state’s rights” suddenly had a spawning point, at least in my own mind. This, however, only echoes a part of the problem. In much of the contemporary discourse, very little is said about why the North went to war; how the business interests of industrialists helped drive the decision; how little the lives of slaves actually mattered to the forces at play. In W.E.B. Dubois’ seminal text, Black Reconstruction, a historical examination of the many classes at play leads him to proclaim that, far from the idea that the slaves were freed by the Union or Abraham Lincoln, that enslaved people freed themselves. As it continues, and describes the development of, and eventual overthrow, of the Reconstruction period, the development of racist policy in its wake does display a level of victory on the part of the former slaveholding states-A quieter, less visible sort, but one that has the same level of brutality.

Zot’s scanning over the NYC of the late 80s/Early 90s brought to the fore a problem he didn’t understand; the actual reality of systemic racism. The way that the issue is structured lets the whole of it gradually unfold. Zot begins his journey in Manhattan, where he proclaims that he is searching “for crime”, and as he continues on through his being mostly ignored, he finds himself directed by white New Yorkers towards the “bad neighborhoods.” When Zot asks them if they even live there, they answer “Oh, we just never go into the bad parts.” As he goes on his search for crime, what he instead finds is that the people living there see the police, the landlords, and the White House as the source of crime. Sure, they mention muggings and murders, but what is clearly displayed in these panels is how so much is plaguing Black residents and how little systemic forces help, and, in fact, actively partake in causing their suffering.

Zot himself ends up being directed to a train station, the people saying that it’s as good a place to start as any. He views homelessness (another problem he doesn’t understand), and as he rides the train, he watches as white passengers leave in certain, richer neighborhoods, and Black passengers leave trains in poorer ones. He even refers to it as a “changing of the guard.”

As he witnesses the rampant segregation and comes to his final conclusion- that he may be living in a timeline where the South won the Civil War- the purpose of this issue is clear; it is an attempt to challenge the mythological image of the “post-racial” society. What makes it effective, however, is that beyond just challenging the American present, it challenges the view of the past, by saying that the racism present in the delightfully liberal face of New York echoes the violent racism of the South.

What makes Zot! #29 so effective, then, is how the issue unfolds and how it resurrects a history long ignored. Its depiction of the actual systemic presence of racism deflects from many usual portrayals of it being a simple matter of individual prejudice, making the final lines hit all the more hard. In the realm of intent, I highly doubt that Scott McCloud was meaning to evoke Dubois, or, really, even to challenge the mythos of American progress to that much of an extent. As much as it challenges the concept, Zot! tends to actually fall into these trappings more often than not, as a consequence of the concept of utopianism as dreamed by the American industrialist. But, for me, I found the subtleties and the unfolding nature of the issue to be one that allowed for a critique that is still rich in the modern day.

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