What is Ewing & McCarthy’s ‘The Zaucer of Zilk’ About?
Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing's The Zaucer of Zilk came out this week, the first volume of a two-part story. It's a doozy of a comic, psychedelia crashing up against a traditional hero narrative and crossed with a slice of social commentary. It's bright, it's stunning, and you need it in your life. It's a cliche, but you won't find much like The Zaucer of Zilk on the stands. Not a lot of comics are mining the same veins as The Zaucer of Zilk, and that alone makes it worthy of a look. What's going to keep you looking, keep you reading, is the story that McCarthy and Ewing have cooked up for you, a story about growing old and being young and figuring out the right thing to do at the right moment. Stick with me. I'm going to try and figure out what The Zaucer of Zilk is about.
From Hero of the Beach to... something else.
Allow me a brief preamble before we get zaucy, okay? 'Cause I can't talk about Brendan McCarthy & Al Ewing's Zaucer of Zilk without talking about Frank Quitely & Grant Morrison's Flex Mentallo. I know, I know -- but just give me, say, 150 words and we'll be on our way? Ready? Here I go:
I read Flex Mentallo for the first time as an adult who was creeping his way back into being a full-time comics consumer. It rocked my socks. It's a love letter, but it's more than that. It acknowledges the warts and the rainbows, the romantic love and the filthy sex, that makes up modern superheroes. It's a holistic love letter, and it forever adjusted how I see superheroes and how I write about them. It showed me that capes can be personal, and more than that, that they can be beautiful. That our attachment to them is an incredible thing, and an uplifting thing, when done right. It's about rejecting shame. "I just wanted to talk about the comics, see? All those sh***y, amazing comics," says Wally Sage, as he lays in an alley, trying to decide whether or not he's dying.
145 words. Let's get it.
Zaucer of Zilk hit me right where Flex Mentallo hit me. I had the distinct pleasure of reading all of it in one sitting, and I positively reeled. It's a doozy of a book. It isn't particularly emotionally devastating, at least not on the surface. It's just about consequences, time, fun, magic, and celebrity. It's about knowing who you are and knowing your limits. It's about a lot of things, but for me, it's really about optimism. Zaucer of Zilk is a poptimist work, in that it leverages the bright and fascinating style of pop comics toward showing us that the world, no matter how dark it may get or how heavy the rain falls, is a place worth experiencing.
Flex forced a paradigm shift in how I look at superheroes, and Zaucer of Zilk encouraged a similar shift in how I look at comic books in a more general sense. It wasn't as seismic this time -- I've been back "in" comics for nine-going-on-ten years now and I've got old habits -- but it was just as necessary and effective. I read Zaucer of Zilk and I felt good. I felt warm, the kind of warmth you get when you read a really good comic or put on an amazing album for the first time.
It's a hard feeling to describe, but I'm sure you know it. It's when you finish a work and you can only mutter a half-hearted curse word before flipping back through to re-read all the parts you liked. It's a good feeling. It's the feeling you get when your brain is wrapping itself around something new. The Zaucer of Zilk makes me excited to read comics.
The Zaucer of Zilk is...
The Zaucer of Zilk is about a lot of things, but it is only as weird as you want it to be. I know that the look of the book, Brendan McCarthy's art, is comics code for weird, and that the promo is hyping up the psychedelic aspects of the story. But trust me: it's only as weird as you want it to be. It stars the Zaucer (a title) of Zilk (a family name), who is essentially a wizard, complete with magic wand, who has to go on a quest to battle his nemesis and save someone who was willing to sacrifice for him. Classic story, right? Change "wizard" to "hero" and "magic wand" to "webshooters," and you've got the foundation for a good Spider-Man story, complete with vintage Stan Lee-style narration. If you want a rollicking adventure story, Zaucer of Zilk is plenty enjoyable on that level. "How will the hero save the day?"
Dig a little deeper. The Zaucer of Zilk is about comic books. Ewing and McCarthy's script is incredibly self-aware. We, the readers, are acknowledged. The narration is a direct address to us in a style that's best described as Stan Lee Plus. They heighten the fourth wall-breaking antics of Marvel's omniscient teller of tales, reinventing that voice and playing up the direct connection to the reader. In that way, Zilk is about comics as much as it's about a wizard on a quest. Reading them, making them, and communicating through them. Sometimes, our teller of tales is as surprised as we are by the actions on the page. Consider that fact in light of the idea that writers are often found describing their process as attempting to steer a ship or let the characters speak, rather than creating out of whole cloth.
Let's bring it back down to Earth a little. The Zaucer of Zilk is about how we feel about getting old. The Zaucer is also known as Never-Grow-Old. He's been around for years, but he's still young. He can't die, so that means that he gets to live fast, stay young and, when he chooses and no sooner, leave behind a good-looking corpse. Time means nothing to him. He's too smooth to ever age. His enemy, Errol Raine, is an old man, mentally and physically ravaged by time. He wants to escape from time. He wants what the Zaucer has. He wants youth. He's bitter about his past and he thinks that youth is wasted on the forever-young. Being an old man isn't a problem. It's that moment when you realize that you got old, that you aren't the new hotness any more, that stings.
Old vs young. A classic battle, one reflected in our fiction and real lives. A man in the midst of his mid-life crisis wants what young men have. Young men don't care about old men. They'll burn that bridge when they come to it. But they won't, and do you know why? 'Cause young folks are going to live forever. Or so they think.
The Zaucer of Zilk is about popularity, and its cousins fame and celebrity, too. The Zaucer is famous like the British Royal Family is famous, or like Paris Hilton is famous. He has a complicated relationship with his fawning fans. They love him and follow him around. He spurns and mocks them. But, their adoration gives him the power that drives the wand. So he needs them.
Shawn Corey Carter, self-appointed God-King of Brooklyn now and forever, once said that "along with celebrity comes 'bout seventy shots to your brain." This is true. Celebrity powers the Zaucer, but that doesn't mean that he's all-powerful. What happens when that celebrity, his own notoriety, is turned against him? What happens when the cameras turn to guns, but the people keep shooting? Well, Zilk's about that, too.
The Zaucer of Zilk is about a lot of things. Ewing and McCarthy play with many different subjects over the sixty or so pages it takes to get to the end of the story. Texting, creativity, boredom, blind consumption, dreams, fantasies, and more. This is a big comic before you take into account it's page count. It's big because Ewing, McCarthy, colorist Len O'Grady, and letterer Ellie DeVille are trying to do a lot with the space they've been given, and it works out incredibly. It feels dense, like a black hole, or the old timey Bible your grandfolks used to use.
McCarthy's art is stridently and earnestly pop, to an almost uncomfortable extent. It's bright and shining and it demands that you pay attention to it. When McCarthy goes dark, as in the opening pages of The Zaucer of Zilk, he goes really dark. Everything is rain-soaked and murky, like every dark night in Gotham City ganged up on you. When he goes bright, it's blinding.
It's hard to tell who did what in terms of scripting. It's credited to McCarthy/Ewing, and that's fine by me. Their script perfectly matches the tone of the art, rapidly and smoothly shifting from melancholy to sneer to beauty to deflation from page to page, and sometimes panel-to-panel. You'll know it when you get there, but "Leg it!" ends up being one of the funniest moments in the book, an essential glimpse at the Zaucer's character.
In the end, The Zaucer of Zilk is a great comic, one of the best stories of the year, and the right comic at the right time. You may not get what I got out of it -- I doubt it, honestly! -- but you're going to get something, whether it's a warm feeling or a newfound appreciation for Brendan McCarthy's art or Al Ewing's scripting. No matter what you get out of it, the end result is worthy. McCarthy's a legend, Ewing is one of the best new writers to hit my radar in a good long while, and digging into either of their back catalogues is a good decision.
The Zaucer of Zilk is about living life better and enjoying things more.
Enjoy the concept and planning art below, courtesy of IDW. The first of two issues of The Zaucer of Zilk is out now, in both print and digital forms.