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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Zero #5


Kyle digs into the latest issue of Ales Kot's critically acclaimed spy thriller.
This review may contain some elements that are considered SPOILERS of a sort, though light. Tread carefully if you are wary of such things.

Ales Kot is a writer whose style has fascinated me over the past year or so. While I still need to seek out his debut Wild Children, I was in love with Change, his 2013 mini-series that dealt with the "LA scene", a Lovecraftian style ocean-side apocalypse, and read like the sick love child of Grant Morrison and Richard Kelly. It was a breath of fresh air in the rather stale big two comics market, and made Kot a name of notice for both of those companies where he subsequently took on Suicide Squad for DC (for a sadly all too brief run) and now Secret Avengers and Iron Patriot for Marvel.

But, it is his current creator-owned series for Image where his adventurous storytelling style really gets a chance to stand-out. On it's face, Zero sounds like a typical spy thriller: a spy works for a shadowy agency and then realizes the side he's working for aren't necessarily the good guys. It's a tried and true action based formula, but its where Zero breaks the mold that allows it stand apart from the typical genre fare. It does so in two very key ways, firstly each issue is pencilled by a different artist, with the individual artist playing in the diverse storytelling styles that Kot employs be it a home invasion/youth assassin in training tale, a gritty militaristic operation in Afghanistan, or pulse pounding thriller in Rio de Janero. Each issue carries a particular flavor, and the visual metamorphosis provided by each artist underlines just how malleable Kot is willing to take the tale of Edward Zero. Additionally, the issues are relayed in a non-chronological fashion, leading to a purposeful disorientation that gives the reader just as much info as the protagonist himself has. This effect is often a favorite tool of mine, used in the best of fiction of this variety.

How does Issue #5 fare? Frankly, it's the issue where everything turns on its head. While Issues 1-4 were very strong self-contained spy tales, though varying in their influences and style, it's in this 5th issue where we learn that Kot may be taking his series in a direction that veers far more sci-fi than expected, with an even bigger scope and canvas to play with. 

The action picks back up from the fallout of Issue 4, in the first actual follow-on installment of the series, with Edward recovering from his battle with Carlyle in Rio and the injuries he sustained, including the loss of his eye. The storytelling slows down a bit from the high octane action of the previous issues, but with such a heavy emphasis on highlighting some of the bigger moments of Edward Zero's career previously, this type of breather is warranted, particularly to give greater depth to the supporting cast that we've only caught glimpses of.
While Zero is fairly broken physically, The Agency puts him through a debriefing led by Roman Zizek and Sara Cooke, each with their own handling of how to best ascertain information from our hero. Both characters are fleshed out strongly and we get an understanding of what makes them tick. Sara being the far harder-edged of the two, despite appearances, makes a particularly fascinating portrait and may quickly find her way into my favorite female characters in comics if this keeps up. Edward himself gets a number of silent, yet introspective moments that allow for greater understanding of the toll that has been taken on him physically and mentally, and just how exactly he copes (or doesn't) with the actions that he is tasked with. When Roman finally decides to take matters into his own hands, breaking Edward out of the facility in which he's recuperating this is where he begins to learn the truth of what The Agency is really involved with and it's a shocking twist that definitely belongs in the "everything you know is wrong" category. The visually "redacted" nature of the series thus far held mysteries for its readers, but the shocking final pages circle back to the beginning of the first issue and shine everything we've learned thus far into an entirely new light. 

Kot's dialogue is pitch-perfect throughout, particularly in the debriefing scenes seen here:

Though just a few simple lines of dialogue, we get a sense of just how duplicitous all three characters are without exactly knowing what their individual aims may be. The best of writers have the ability to express a multi-faceted character without having to resort to overly expository dialogue and that's exactly what Kot accomplishes here. He's assisted ably by Will Tempest, who doesn't quite get the large scale set-pieces that Kot's previous artistic partners had to work with in earlier installments, but does get to play with the elements that show off his strongest artistic asset: character faces. Tempest's ability to make subtle changes that so eloquently convey emotional beats is something of a lost art in comics, where the need for photo-realistic style often overtakes its actual service to the story. Tempest very cleanly lays out the more introspective moments within this issue and its perfectly fitting with the on-going tonal changes that each issue of Zero undergoes, from one to the next. Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles continue to provide an overarching, steady hand on coloring and lettering respectively that smooths any potential gaps in the varying visual styles.

2013 was a banner year for Image Comics and their creator-owned line, with titles like Fatale, East of West, Prophet, and Sex Criminals leading many prominent best of the year lists. Though its still in its early days, Zero will almost certainly be joining them this year, as its one of the most compelling comics currently on the stands and defies expectations at every turn. I can't wait to see what Kot has up his sleeve next. I'll surely never be able to guess it.

I give it an A.

You can pick up a copy of the first Zero collection "An Emergency", releasing on February 19th on Amazon
Or if you have my level of patience, head out to your local comic shop and pick up the first 5 issues, you will not regret it.

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