Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Zero #6. Written by Ales Kot (Suicide Squad, Secret Avengers) with art by Vanesa R. Del Rey (Hit) and Jordie Bellaire (Moon Knight, The Manhattan Projects), this issue ventures into the Large Hadron Collider to dramatically change the course of the series. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.)
Richard Zero has lost an eye, but only now can he truly see. Cleared for active duty after passing his psych evaluation following the injury, Zero is sent to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Meyrin, Switzerland, to deal with a hostage situation, and his mission exposes truths that rock the secret agent to his core, forcing him to reconsider the path he’s on and move in a different direction. Zero #6 continues the series’ trend of delivering action-packed, philosophically dense, emotionally resonant standalone stories that are part of a larger ongoing narrative, and this issue reaches a new high point as it paves the way for a future that is significantly different than what came before.
The regular Zero creative team of writer Ales Kot, colorist Jordie Bellaire, letterer Clayton Cowles, and designer Tom Muller is joined by artist Vanesa R. Del Rey for this momentous issue, and from the very first pages, it’s clear that Rey is the perfect artist to realize this multi-faceted narrative. The issue begins with a three-page sequence showing a stampede of horses running through snow-covered woods near Leningrad, a visual that is accompanied by narration describing phase shift, the phenomenon that causes molecules to behave differently in certain circumstances. The narration uses the example of water becoming ice, but also considers the process of matter creation, a different kind of phase shift that turns energy into matter. As the horses run through the forest, they flee to a lake that has not yet frozen, sending them crashing through the super-cooled surface. “Boom! Phase shift,” the narrator says. “Where did the horses go?”
So what do dying horses have to do with secret agents? All will be made clear by the end of the issue, but those pages are a mesmerizing beginning to the story, because of the evocative artwork from Del Rey and Bellaire. Del Rey’s linework and framing captures the horses’ frenzied motion in the opening panels, while Bellaire’s dominant pale blue coloring creates the chilly environment, building to a stunning two-page splash that reveals Del Rey’s immense inking talent as the black horses crash through the almost-frozen lake. It’s the type of image one wouldn’t expect from a hard-hitting espionage action series like Zero, but this series is all about challenging genre expectations.
That opening scene is a great bit of foreshadowing for the end of the issue, and not just because the narration is a speech delivered by Ginsberg Nova, one of the series’ antagonists, in the story’s final moments. This chapter is titled “Horse Collectors,” a callback to a scene from last issue where Sarah Cooke, one of Richard’s superiors, tells him the story of Simo Häyhä, the Finnish WWII sniper with the highest number of confirmed sniper kills in the world. After taking a shot to the face from a Russian sniper, Häyhä lost his talent and became a horse collector for the military. “The Agency has no interest in horse collectors,” Cooke says, a foreboding line that sets up the events in this issue. Zero is only valuable to the Agency if he can complete his missions, and if he becomes unreliable, he’s easily expendable.
Kot has done exceptional work keeping the momentum of this book moving at a rapid pace, and each issue contains a major new development that adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story. The previous issue revealed a future populated by strange giant organisms to incorporate a heavy dose of science fiction into the title, and #6 completely upends Zero’s relationship with his employers when he discovers the identity of the man under Ginsberg Nova’s mask. The journey to that revelation is full of the extreme violence that is a key element of this series, and Del Rey’s artwork depicts the ugliness of the carnage in stark, graphic detail. Her art is dynamic, but never glamorizes the action, and a close-quarters hand-to-hand fight between Zero and a knife-wielding attacker does excellent work showing the struggle for control over two pages before Zero plunges the knife in the man’s throat with a visceral “GLUGH” sound effect.
Zero is an ideal comic for readers looking for ruthless action, but the depth of the characterizations is what makes it such an enthralling title. The gruesome events inside the Large Hadron Collider are balanced by a surprisingly tender scene between Cooke and Roman Zizek, Zero’s handler, which shows that their relationship has become something more than just casual sexual dalliance. The two sit on the floor eating popcorn like an actual romantic couple, but they’re looking over Zero’s recent test results instead of watching a movie. They sit there holding hands until Zizek receives a phone call announcing the arrival of a mysterious package, and that small moment of intimacy does a lot to relieve some of the tension before the story kicks into high gear.
The main relationship in this issue is that between Richard Zero and Ginsberg Nova, a dynamic that becomes very complex by the end of the chapter. Last issue revealed Nova’s affinity for the secret agent in a chilling sequence that showed him spying on Zero from a distance, and this issue adds sexual undertones to that attraction as Nova strokes his crotch, while watching Zero kill men on security-camera footage. (It’s not a coincidence that a close-up panel of Nova clutching his penis through his pants is accompanied by the line, “Come to me.”)
Nova calls Zero his “angel of death,” but where does his affection come from? Zero and the readers find out when Nova enters the Large Hadron Collider and delivers the speech from the beginning of the issue as he stands in front of the giant machine, which has been outfitted with the same mycotic membrane that appeared on Nova’s teleportation device in #3. (Second warning: big honking spoilers ahead.) As Nova reaches the final line of that opening monologue, he pulls off his mask to expose his true face, and it’s one that Zero has known for quite a while. Ginsberg Nova is Robert, Zero’s classmate introduced back in #2, a student of the Agency who broke free from its teachings to become the world’s most notorious terrorist. It’s a shocking development that completely transforms the relationship between the two characters and opens up a wealth of storytelling avenues for the future, posing questions about how Robert strayed from the Agency, why he became infatuated with Richard, and when he decided to fight the establishment rather than serve it. Thanks to this book’s time-jumping, open-ended structure, Kot has plenty of opportunities to answer them.
Learning the truth about Robert is what pushes Zero over the edge, and that aforementioned package sent to Zizek contains an origami horse and a piece of paper containing a simple message: “I QUIT.” While tying into the overall horse motif of the issue, the origami horse could also be a reference to the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, which introduces the question of whether or not Deckard is a Replicant when he discovers an origami unicorn left for him by policeman Gaff. The origami suggests that Deckard’s unicorn dream from earlier in the film has been implanted in his mind, and Zero sending an origami horse to Zizek is his way of saying that he’s no longer going to live as a machine that blindly follows orders. It’s also a clever way of foreshadowing trouble ahead for Zizek now that he’s lost his agent, making his role as handler obsolete. He’s on his way to becoming a horse collector, and Zero’s origami is the first in Zizek’s menagerie.
Zero features a different artist with each issue, a conceit that has made it one of the most visually captivating comics on the stands. Kot has done phenomenal work gearing his scripts to the strengths of his artists: Michael Walsh’s gritty linework and blunt, brutal fight choreography heightened the impact of #1’s extended action sequence; Tradd Moore brought a youthful energy that contrasted with horrifically detailed violence for a flashback to Zero’s childhood in #2; Mateus Santolouco turned up the style and visual flair for a story about high class terrorists in Shanghai; #4’s revelatory journey to Rio De Janeiro was realized through Morgan Jeske’s raw inks and street art-inspired layouts; and Will Tempest’s clean (almost sterile) linework and attention to subtle character details was a remarkable fit for an austere story about Zero coming to terms with his place in the Agency in #5.
Bellaire’s coloring enhances the work of each of these artists, showing an impeccable understanding of using color to create specific environments and moods. Kot has expressed an affinity for the work of late-era Tony Scott films for their use of intense color filters, and Scott’s visual aesthetic has a lot of similarities to Bellaire’s work in this issue. She assigns one chief color for each scene: cool pale blue for the opening horse stampede, garish neon green for Nova watching Zero on security cameras, a richer blue for the exchange between Cooke and Zizek, and blood red for moments of intense violence. Her use of blue is especially impressive, dulling the shade for the horses, deepening it for Cooke and Zisek, and brightly illuminating it for the final scene when Ginsberg Nova reveals his identity and forces Zero to reconsider his own.
Muller is an integral part of Zero’s visuals, working with the interior artists to create bold cover images that dictate the style of the interior trade dress. The cover for this issue is a somber close-up of Zero’s face by Del Rey that becomes an arresting image when paired with the brightly colored rings that emanate from the black hole where Zero’s left eye should be. (Zero losing his eye is also a brilliant way of connecting him to one of the most famous secret agents in comics: the one-eyed Nick Fury.) Each of the three variant covers also includes these rings, spotlighting specific areas of the drawings, while creating cohesion between the works of Del Rey, Nick Dragotta, Francesco Francavilla, and Cameron Stewart. For the title page at the end of the issue, Muller puts an origami horse in front of those rings, which are all colored different shades of blue to carry the dominant hue of the issue into the production design.
The title may be Zero, but this series is an incredibly substantial read each month. In just six issues, it’s become one of the most riveting comics available, offering a spotlight for a huge array of artistic talent while telling a story that becomes more immersive and layered with every new chapter. The reveals in #6 radically turn up the stakes for future issues, and now that Zero has broken the Agency’s hold over him, he finds himself in a dangerous, but liberated position. The creative team’s work on this series proves that total freedom is a wonderful thing, and after this issue, the landscape is more open than ever.