Every year at August’s end, we vacation with friends in Manzanita, a peaceful small town on the Oregon Coast. And every year, no matter which beach house we rent, a few shelves are stocked with books left by tourists past. You can picture the shelves without trying, battered copies of Robert Ludlum and Danielle Steel (or substitute James Patterson and Meg Cabot, and so on).
“Why do all the houses have the same books?” I asked.
“Because this is what people on vacation want to read,” answered my friend.
The same town, though, boasts one of those tiny independent bookstores custom-made to spur new discoveries. Stieg Larsson and other hot favorites are lined up near the front, sure, but every year I discover a treasure I wouldn’t expect to find in a space hardly larger than the bookshelves at our rented homes.
Walking into the Cloud and Leaf bookstore this morning for my annual visit, I noticed a three-volume biography of Picasso. A guide to organic gardening. A Kenneth Koch book on teaching poetry to children. And then like a lightning bolt (maybe because a lightning bolt was part of the cover logo), I saw it: “Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection,” by Scott McCloud.
McCloud is probably best known for the 1994 book “Understanding Comics,” although he’s also known for his early adoption of digital comics (and more recently, the Google Chrome Comic and inventions such as the 24 Hour Comic). (“Depending on who you ask, I'm either comics' leading theorist or a deranged lunatic…,” he says on his website.
I, though, first knew and loved McCloud in the days of "Zot!," the comic he first published when I was a geeky teenager and he, though I didn’t realize it until today, wasn’t much older. The jacket cover calls the 1987-1991 collection a collision of American and Japanese storytelling: “a frenetic and innovative exploration of comics’ potential.” But to me it was just a superhero sendup that was zany and touching and bittersweet: the tale of Earth girl Jenny of our own imperfect world, and of Zot, a sunny superhero from a Utopian parallel Earth. The series, I learned today, was packaged and republished by Harper in 2008, with ample new commentary from McCloud.
I skimmed through it first to find one of my favorite "Zot!" pages, a scene that inspired me on its publication to buy the original piece of artwork from the book. I understand better, 20 years later, why it grabbed the heart of my barely adult self so much that I wanted the original brush strokes for myself: A young woman who feels invincible is walking, arms outstretched, on top of the monkey bars at a child’s playground. She wonders what she will look like when she is old. Her boyfriend answers that it’s hard to imagine, she looks so young and beautiful now. “I think I’ll always look young,” she says, taking step after step into the starry night. “I know I always have.”
When I approached McCloud at a San Diego Comic Convention when that issue came out, and asked to buy the page, he told me the story of how he came up with the scene. Reading his notes in the collection today, I saw that he told the same story, and added that it’s a passage he likes as much as anything else in the entire series. I loved hearing that.
I bought the book and brought it back to the vacation house, where it’ll be my beach reading for the next few days, as exciting a find as any thriller. I can’t believe the book has been out for two years, and yet I’d never come across it. And it occurs to me that this is the best kind of summer-vacation reading in our modern age – discovering the perfect book that no computer-generated recommendation list or big-box shopping visit could provide, a find that requires a quirky human curator and, most of all, a customer with time to browse.
Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.