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Graphic Depictions: Sam Kieth's Zero Girl

A couple of weeks ago, reader Robert Sparling wrote to us pointing out a gap in our coverage: graphic novels and trade collections that the average joe stumbling into a comics shop might miss. Damn. He was right. But did we have time to add that to the editorial load?

Thankfully, Robert stepped up to fill that very void. And this is his first piece. Let us know how you like it.

When I picked up the graphic novel Zero Girl, written and penciled by Sam Kieth, I had no idea what I was buying.

For those unaware, Sam Kieth wrote the critically acclaimed series The Maxx, a book that gained mainstream success despite being labeled as anything but. I'll admit, I never read it and I saw only a few episodes of the short-lived MTV animated series based on it, but I'd gleaned from interviews and articles concerning Sam Kieth that he is no writer (or artist for that matter) to be overlooked.

After picking up Zero Girl, in short order, I had my mind blown.

It's the story of a loner/outsider named Amy Smootster, and her unique propensity for soaking her feet whenever she is embarrassed (her feet are literally soaked with water through an unexplained quirk of Amy's body). Amy is sixteen and understandably, not enjoying high school, suffering as a target of ridicule for her peers. Shocking as it is, Kieth actually chooses to make Amy's tormentors female bullies, physically violent toward her, where most writers would make them catty girls who set out to ruin Amy's self-esteem or cause some other psychological damage. In hopes of turning guidance counselor Tim's attention away from the "weird girl," the bullies assure him that Amy is a "goth" and a "slut."

Tim sets out to help Amy, whom he considers to be "troubled" after he discovers that she lives alone and spends a lot of time hiding and sleeping around campus. When he finally gets to speak with her, she dismisses him as attempting to "save (her)."

He also discovers that Amy sees the world in shapes; circles are safe and friendly and squares are dangerous. Amy seems to have some strange power over circles. They can protect her from harm (in one instance, saving Tim and herself from a cascade of falling bricks by shielding them with a circular cut-out piece of newspaper). As we get farther into the comic, we discover that the "squares" may be trying to kill Tim and Amy, and only the "circles" can save them.

But all this is background for the real story, the most unsettling and painfully well-written aspect of the comic: the budding romance between Amy and Tim. Kieth takes an incredibly taboo subject (one which he is personally familiar with, as he admits in his afterword) and treats it with the weight and respect it deserves.

Amy is actually far more mature then her sixteen years, perhaps even more so than the elder Tim, and actively questions him on why the idea is so impossible for them to be together. Reading these exchanges between Amy and Tim, which border on flagrant flirting sometimes and outright fights in others, the reader is made to feel the discomfort of the situation. How can Tim deny that he is feeling a connection to Amy? How can Amy convince him that it's okay for them to be together? Would it be right if they were together?

The reader has to ask these questions and it's almost impossible to answer them. The issue is too fractured, too conditional, to be fleshed out in any certain way, and Kieth drags the reader through the muck of his moral questioning. You may feel dirty reading this comic, but it's a good, intelligent kind of dirty.

As the plot progresses, Amy and Tim's relationship (if one exists at all) is discovered and brought into question. At the same time, the "squares" begin manifesting in one of Amy's bullies, turning her into quite the little psychotic with an extreme dislike for circles and Amy. In the end, it comes down to Amy and whether she can survive a "square" assault alone, and finally discover whether she and Tim can be together.

The art on this comic is expert, perhaps the most dynamic art recently done in comic books or graphic novels. Kieth's artwork, it would seem, never repeats a pencil line. Every time we see Amy or Tim, they are rendered slightly different. Sometimes the art is very humanistic and gritty. People are drawn proportionately and with great detail. At other times, Kieth opts for a different approach, making them seem cartoonish and exaggerated.

Zero Girl also requires a graphic format. The artwork flows so well with the words, you could not separate the two and get the same story. When Tim is being questioned about his involvement with Amy, the reader can clearly see that Tim has started to see the world the way Amy does: in shapes. The policemen questioning him begin to change shape, one's head stretching to triangular proportions while the other's head elongates into a cylinder. It's downplayed and not mentioned in text, but it's a fantastic visual device.

Kieth also has no qualms about suddenly switching mediums. Several panels appear to be pencil and ink, and suddenly the book breaks into a pastel-colored pencil motif to depict one scene or another. Even watercolor gets some space.

Buy it. Read it. It's a very affordable $14.95 at your local comic shop or bookseller and well worth the moral debate that will inevitably ensue inside your head. I recommend Zero Girl to comic book aficionados, English professors, art students, and anyone who just plain likes a good read with an added bonus of visual storytelling.

Currently 30% off at Amazon -- Zero Girl

Robert Sparling

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