Zed: A Cosmic Tale by Michel Gagné
Michael Gagné’s Zed: A Cosmic Tale is an artistic wonder that was over a decade in the making. It’s a fast read, but it’s one you’ll want to look through multiple times because the art is unique and stunning: It doesn’t look anything like what you think of when you hear the words “comic book.” Gagné’s art is extremely stylized with a large number of full-page panels or pages with only a few large panels. Though it’s in black-and-white, I hardly even noticed: It felt like it was in color because there were so many shades of gray used.
The story is seemingly simple, yet compelling because we are led to feel compassion for our young hero, Zed, to whom such terrible things happen. In fact, what happens to him and around him is so incredibly awful, he asks the existential “why” multiple times throughout the story. The juxtaposition between the severity of the events and the simplicity of the story makes Zed a unique book. At the most basic plot level, the book is about Zed’s being blamed for a catastrophe that is really the work of an alien madman, and Zed must figure out a way to eventually defeat this powerful dictator. But this simple summary is deceiving
The story seems like a simple story for kids under ten: The artwork is pleasant, and young Zed is so incredibly cute you want to reach into the book and give him a hug. However, the author jars the reader by setting up a discrepancy between the wonderful artwork that has an appeal to the child in all of us and the more adult language and content: The language used is not for kids — it feels as if little Nemo’s father just started swearing up a storm — and the events that Zed goes through are devastating. Some will not like this odd mixture, but I think it’s funny because it’s so shocking and unexpected, like a movie rated G slipping into PG-13 at random and totally unexpected moments. I think YA readers will enjoy it too, because it looks like the book is aimed below them, but they soon will take joy in the more serious plot and language.
The events are really quite devastating. I don’t want to give away too much, but the basic set-up is fairly revealing: The opening sequence, in which Zed inadvertently blows up an entire group of people, including his parents, sets up a chain reaction that destroys the entire planet! Of course, there’s an intergalactic bad guy behind all this, but our young Zed is set up as a galaxy-wide patsy. Zed escapes, but he will keep losing to the bad guy until the very end of the graphic novel. What happens is pretty awful since a ton of people die. Zed, of course, wins in the end.
Though the above paragraph may make the graphic novel sound like the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the worst of a kind of movie I hate, the pace of Zed moves quickly enough and our character succeeds enough times that I never felt the tone was too depressing for my tastes. Plus, good things do happen: Zed gets to meet God twice, and some people’s lives are saved when you think they are doomed. And my favorite characters are in the book more than I thought they would be — The rock band. They are drawn in such a fantastic way they visually express the spirit of rock music. Visually, they are my favorite characters in the entire book.
The story behind this book is worth knowing: The individual issues that came out from 2001 to 2012 were all solid chapters in a longer story, but they needed to be read together. Gagné believed enough in his vision to keep chipping away at it until he was done. However, he noticed one problem at the end: His style had changed over the course of eleven years. He felt that he should go back and fix the entire project so that it was consistent visually and reflected the level of mastery he had finally achieved by the end of his work on this project. And he did so. This graphic novel is polished, and it has an artistically unified feel. Gagné includes some bonus pages to show what the earlier artwork looked like and what the major changes were that he had to make to over 75% of the book. These bonus pages increased my admiration for the graphic novel.
Though some may find the basic story too simple and others may not like the odd juxtaposition between look and content, others will realize that the simplicity of the story allows for Gagné to focus on his incredible artwork, and many readers, I hope, will be glad that the story speaks to the child in them while having content for an older age bracket. For me, Zed is near-perfect, and it’s a book I’ll reread multiple times.