When I wrote my review of Zojaqan #2 back in late 2017, I joked that the series’ sporadic release schedule was perfectly suited to a book about falling unpredictably forward in time. As if to prove me right, issue #3 arrived three months later and issues #4 and 5 never materialized, flung far into an unlikely future, only for this trade paperback to collect all of them before half had even been published. Despite these shipping maladies, apparently an oversight at Diamond, Zojaqan: The Complete Series appeared fully formed this week and ready to complete its wild, grandiose saga.
Zojaqan is the legend and the life of one woman, who goes by Shannon Kind or The Shan. Mysteriously transported to a foreign world, Shannon finds herself unstuck in time, tumbling randomly through the centuries as she watches the world around her evolve.
The crux of the story sees Shannon interacting with the native Zoja as she raises them up from a primitive prey species to a major power in their world and beyond, but there’s more than that. The book also looks at Shannon as the single mother of a murdered son, the daughter of immigrants, a reluctant deity, a beleaguered postal worker, and a conquering hero astride the land. It’s a broad ranging story that’s fascinating to finally read in collection, but also surprisingly rewarding in its individual chapters.
Each issue of Zojaqan offers something different, from issue #1’s largely silent exploration of survival on a geological timescale to issue #3’s sword and sorcery battles against a malevolent trickster god to issue #4’s more human stories of resistance and beyond. This verisimilitude is at once chaotic and organizing, serving the structure of the individual chapters well but requiring more distance than most comics to see the gestalt that they form. Though the book holds a consistent tone that you’ll like or dislike – and I do expect like – loving an individual issue is no guarantee that the series will ever quite scratch that itch again.
What holds the book together is Shannon. Though each chapter focuses on a different part of her life – and some I wish we’d see a little more consistently – there is a familiarity and stability that comes with getting to know The Shan. She’s an aspirational figure to be sure, a badass woman of color who survives every attempt of a foreign world to break her and remains human and devoted to individuals despite her god-like perspective. However, though those ideals are enshrined at the story’s highest levels, the subtext consistently paints her as a flawed protagonist, unable to fathom her incredible importance and slow to break out of old patterns.
It’s truly rare that a story gives a woman, much less a Ghanian-American woman with natural hair, a chance to kick this much ass. Shannon Kind speaks to the certainty you have about certain people, especially women, that there is nothing that could be thrown at them that they could not adapt to and survive. From nothing but a postman’s wisdom and an average woman’s athletic regime, Shannon thoroughly demonstrates why humans, even sometimes a single human, are apex predators on our world. The book never makes the mistake of putting this above the narrative, but it revels in it when it has the chance and it’s a great bit of tone between its frequent musings on religion, society, and morality.
With every other character and concept able to be lost at a moment’s notice as Shannon tumbles through time, it’s essential that we connect with her and the series doesn’t let us down. There is a case to be made that Zojaqan doesn’t take advantage of Shannon’s various relationships, both over decades and in the past, as well as it should, but that’s the cost of its varied yet specific goals.
Colin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing do a fine job of crafting a culture for the Zoja, cleverly interpreting the Shan’s decrees through the lens of time. It’s easy to sympathize with Shannon as you watch these small lives on the page improve so distinctly only to get snared on dogma or identity and fall disastrously short. And, at the same time, sometimes you can see where Shannon made mistakes and it’s just as frustrating to watch her go on without truly accepting that everything she says has immense sway over these people, that they can never just be her friends, no matter how much she needs them to be.
The vastness of Zojaqan is both a strength and a weakness. It seems obvious that this book had a complex editorial gestation, whether that came from editor Adrian Wassel or collaboration with Nathan Gooden or just the churning of the Kelly/Lanzing hivemind. Some ideas are clearly cut down for the sake of others while the book struggles at times to balance the density of ideas with the necessity of Gooding’s artwork. The result is a strong book that nonetheless clearly didn’t get to explore or explain all of its ideas the way that it wished it could have. In the scope of the full series, Issue #3 is a particularly strong example, as it introduces a slew of new concepts and then turns towards the title’s true meaning. The Ageless is particularly mysterious and its role, its relation to Shannon’s power, and the nature of its trees are never really explained. Such ideas have to be merely hinted and even then there’s only time for a visually engaging but otherwise fairly simplistic look at the cycle of violence to round out this issue’s arc.
Personally, however, it’s the final chapter that challenged me the most. There’s simply not enough space to put everything that needs to be said about Shannon’s relationship with the Zoja and Luther on the page. That can leave the ending confusing, not in any sense of not following the action, but in the way that Shannon is clearly being pulled in multiple directions. Without saying too much, it’s unclear whether we should take Shannon’s word on her role and her peace any more than the Zoja should have. She talks about moving forward, abut coming back to life, but she pendulums precariously over the line between not being held down and running from reality. The determination of how literally to take her words and her story determine whether Shannon’s final philosophy is an atheist accountability or a dispassionate death-metal zen. And particularly in the world that this collection releases into, perhaps notably different than the one it was written in, I’m fascinated by the degree to which it’s fair to say that Shannon’s answer is an abdication or a fulfillment of responsibility.
It really does feel like a double sized finale, like the first issue received, could have benefited the book, probably more than the extra introduction we received. The book does not necessarily go where you expect, and it can be both frustrating and beautiful. All the same, the fact that it elicits such powerful thought, largely unbidden I might add, is a testament to the connection that forms between the reader and the land of the Zoja.
As much as the personal and philosophical weight of Zojaqan makes it a fantastic read, there’s no denying the primacy of the art. Nathan Gooden draws the heck out of this book, creating a gorgeous world in an art style that demands to be described as sensuous. The mix of the soft and the sharp in Gooden’s art is striking and it all has a realistic and organic curl to it.
Human or Zoja, Gooden proves adept at conveying emotion through both expression and body language. The strange variety of Zoja faces and bodies have a remarkable ability to capture a character in a glance, conveying critical information about how the Zoja stand in relation to their peers and their goddess. This is such a benefit, all the more so for the limited space that the book has to establish relationships. The strain on Shannon is also a particular strength of Gooden’s, with her physical and mental exhaustion reading clearly throughout the series.
Many series could be happy with those strengths, but its impossible to talk about Zojaqan without mentioning the world and creatures that Gooden creates. Especially in the first issue, the world of the Zoja is staggeringly beautiful, with winding, considered landscapes brought to life by Vittorio Astone’s evocative pastel palettes. That beauty is offset by the brilliant horror of the world’s predators. Gooden offers a wide sampling of evolutionary options for the Brutal Tide. From the gaping maw of their earliest ancestor to the many-eyed, beaked incarnation at their lowest point, to the many, sinister pharyngeal jaws of the Tide alpha, each design is fascinating and unsettling. The Ageless is perhaps Gooden and Astone’s most striking creation, taking full advantage of the lush colors of the world to create something that feels distinctly alien and frightening.
The art is almost universally strong, however, if there is any fault to be laid at Gooden’s feet, it’s simply that there are some layouts that aren’t perfectly clear and some of those are exacerbated by the deeper binding of the trade. In at least one or two cases it’s actually hard to interpret the page, an oversight that is very understandable but still surprising in light of the sheer efficacy of Gooden’s work.
Zojaqan is not like most series out there. Its goals, its art, its conclusions are all different and strangely beautiful. The series is a little overstuffed in both content and intention, but it demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of Kelly and Lanzing’s gestalt approach to serialized narrative. For a story that seeks to dissect racism, parenthood, death, and organized religion, Zojaqan balances its plates remarkably well and provides one of the best survival adventure stories I’ve seen in comics in a long while. A challenging and slightly rushed ending complicates Zojaqan but cannot break it, letting the title leave you thinking, wondering, and even pondering. This comic is confidently beautiful in writing, art, and lettering and if you love the questions of society in a great zombie story or a tempered dose of sword and sorcery you’ll do well in Zojaqan.
Zojaqan: The Complete Series is currently available from Vault Comics.