By Alasdair Stuart
Ales Kot is one of the most interesting, innovative writers working in the field today. His previous work including Change, Wild Children and a couple of really fun issues of Suicide Squad are all well worth tracking down. Zero, his spy/science fiction series has been great from the first issue. With Issue #5, produced with Will Tempest, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles, it steps up in a very big way. Here are five things I liked about Issue #5.
It's a tiny little moment but this opening exchange sets up so much in three shots. Zero's isolation, the surveillance on both him and his handler and their differing levels of emotional distance. He's staggered by what's happened, physically and emotionally, and seems to have run for the intellectual high castle of his training to survive. No emotions, no regrets, just the mission, clean and pure.
The cold, clean lines and forced perspective give us a sense of just how off kilter Zero is. He's badly wounded, his equilibrium is shot and, as we find out later, there's no certainty he'll return to service. Tempest's precise, narrow lines and exemplary character work are key throughout but this atmosphere shot is one of the standouts. Likewise the always impressive Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles on colors and lettering respectively do wonders for the tone of the book. This feels like it's set in a medical waiting room, all cast off furniture and polite, suppressed terror.
3. The Soldier
The regimented nature of the panel work in the first half of the issue really heightens the exchange in what is, essentially, a verbal fight. It's classic fight psychology too, the interviewer closing the distance, throwing some exploratory shots, getting her opponent rattled. What's really interesting about this though is how defensive Zero is. He's withdrawn, immobile, refusing to acknowledge the fight in the vain hope that means it won't happen.
4. Stuck in the Middle
There's incredible narrative discipline to both Zero himself and the issue, but here, he cracks. That little hint of swagger, of belligerent pride, is enough. The tiny smile in the third panel tells you everything you need to know too; he's dropped his guard, shown a weakness. I love how ambiguous it is though. You have no idea if she's proud, relieved, amused, sad, smug or all of the above.
There's a blisteringly clever thing done with panel structure as a means of generating emotion and tempo throughout this issue. The early pages are all rigidly defined grids, just as Zero's existence and emotional state is. The story dictates the structure and the structure accentuates the story, using the sort of decelerated time approach that Paul Gravett talks about in Comic Art but applied to emotion, deceit and nuance. It's brilliant, just blisteringly smart graphic storytelling.
This is the moment where the comic basically kicks a hole in the speakers.
From this scene on, the panel layout explodes, getting wider and wider as Zero begins to find out what's really going on. Here it's used to show both the brutally efficient moment of violence and the divide between the characters. Elsewhere, as we've seen, it's used to emphasize emotion and atmosphere. It permeates the issue and makes this an insanely strong, smart piece of storytelling.
What happens in the second half of the issue is as impressive but really shouldn't be spoiled. This issue is a game changer and Zero now takes its place as one of the best titles in Image's ridiculously stacked current line-up. Brilliant, cold and completely enthralling, Zero Issue # 5 is available now.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance journalist and podcaster. He hosts Pseudopod (www.pseudopod.org), a weekly horror fiction podcast and co-hosts Escape Pod (www.escapepod.org) it's science fiction sister show. He's also written books and modules for the official Doctor Who, Primeval and Victoriana RPGs and can be found online at www.twitter.com/alasdairstuart.