ZUKAHNAUT: THE FIRST DAY
The following is a companion piece for the first two and a half chapters of ZUKAHNAUT. Be warned; if you haven’t read that far yet there are spoilers.
ZUKAHNAUT starts on the eve of the most important day of an old man’s life. An eighty-seven-year-old alien with a monstrous appearance and a child’s mentality, Zukah has been living a secretive and lonely existence in the hearts of run-down ghettos for over half a century. He had a life before he came to Earth. It ended badly. Now he wastes his days lost in fevered imagination and drunken stupor, actively escaping from who he is and what he’s doing with his life now.
This is the evening where he’s jolted out of his usual daydreams by the ringing of a phone.
Answering a phone is one thing Zukah has never done in his fifty-plus years on Earth, something that he has seen done in the countless movies and television programs that provided him with his only real knowledge of the outside world. The ringing phone is a lifeboat, come to the shore of the island where he has lived just in sight of the mainland for the better part of his life. When he answers the phone it’s to speak with a real live human being, one-on-one, in an actual conversation; his first human contact in recent memory. He handles it poorly, but the mere idea that he has just spoken to a real person shakes him. Returning to his pretend adventure with a stuffed bear seems suddenly hollow. It’s now that he first finds himself confronted by the Leprechaun. The little green man cuts him to the core with his scathing assessment of poor Zukah’s life, goading him out of his fantasies and dragging him kicking and screaming into the cold, dark realization that he had been hiding from all of those years.
I’m going to die alone and forgotten, he knows . There’s only one way to save himself: to go to the world, because the world will not come to you. The only things worth having in life are the things you seek — Few good things ever come to your door of their own accord. Criminals, salesmen, bill collectors and neighbours wanting favours are about all you can reasonably expect.
The sun rises that morning and Zukah notices. He puts on his best clothes (which isn’t saying too much, considering how hard it is for a fellow of his size to find anything decent), complete with a shirt that boldly announces him to the world in big block letters. He walks in the open and feels the sun warm his skin. He sings with the joy of fresh air in his lungs. When he comes upon the smell of humans cooking he tamps down the squirming unease in his belly and convinces himself that it’s nothing but hunger and lets that belief lead him into the midst of real live human beings.
They react badly to him. Seeing Zukah appear suddenly in their midst with drool on his lips, a ravenous look in his eyes and a greeting that consisted only of “Meat,” one probably cannot judge them too harshly for that. What happens next may or may not have been viewed through the prism of Zukah’s warped view of reality. Did every man, woman, child and dog present really pull out a gun and start blasting away at him? Doubtful. Were his clothes really reduced to tatters by a hail of lead, or was this merely the reader watching Zukah’s self-esteem being stripped away to show the ratty clothing as it had always been?
The important thing is that this was how it all seemed to Zukah. Whether it was bullets, food, or insults being launched at him Zukah perseveres long enough to attempt an explanation until one of the terrified humans squeezed the trigger of his rifle. This final gunshot, at least, is real beyond any doubt. The blood it spills yanks Zukah further into reality, and plainly comes as a shock. He reacts badly in turn. The ensuing tantrum drives off the very people he had hoped to mingle with and be accepted by.
Please come back, he wants to scream after them when he realizes what he’s done. It’s too late. Quickly he rewrites history to suit himself: “All I wanted was some BBQ!” He says this one out loud to make it more tangible, more official, than the truth in the back of his mind. He eats the abandoned food. He eats until he feels like a bloated pig. This feeling will remain with him throughout the rest of the day, especially noticeable when he must remove his shirt for Daphne to treat his shoulder. ZUKAHNAUT is a comic told primarily through the eyes of a narrator whose faculties are often unreliable, and never is it more apparent than when his own appearance seems to shift between panels or pages depending on the situation he finds himself in and the mindset it inspires within him.
The end of the BBQ tantrum is the real moment of truth. It sees Zukah left more vulnerable than he’s felt in a very long time. He’s reached out to the world (albeit clumsily) and he’s been rejected… but not before being pulled further out of his cozy little make-believe reality than he’s really equipped to deal with yet. At this point he’d be willing to do anything – be anyone — if it meant acceptance.
And then along comes Darius Douglas. A man so good-hearted, welcoming and charitable that it takes Zukah a while to decide whether or not he’s just a figment of Zukah’s own imagination.
Zukah’s favourite superhero is Namor the Sub-Mariner, and when Darius mentions that he knows where to get a trident Zukah cannot resist seeking it. To him, owning a trident is like finding the key to cool. And so he leaves Darius and tries to barter for the fantastical weapon with what he has (which is nowhere near enough).
Misunderstanding the shopkeeper’s motivations behind refusing his custom, Zukah writes a cheque. He has no idea how to do this – he just knows it’s a thing that people do to settle debts when they have no cash. What’s more, he makes the cheque out to Batman because he has decided during the course of the conversation that the shopkeeper is Batman is disguise because – and this will come up later as well – Batman has to be somewhere. By Zukah’s logic if Batman cannot be seen in a room there is a 100% chance that someone in that room might be Batman. This theory is based on Zukah having been tricked by several episodes of Batman The Animated Series and vowing to never let his Bat-guard down again.
When his cheque doesn’t work, Zukah sees only one option – the old “working off the debt” storyline. According to television, this one works every time. While working he sees a cute girl walk into the store, and since he’s in a TV situation he sees her as a TV character would: an irresistible beauty who he must now woo. He stumbles through transparent attempt after attempt, his lacking social skills never more obvious, until he ends up getting himself ejected from the shop. Cast out and alone again he slumps out of town, defeated…
…Until as before, along comes Darius Douglas at the perfect time. With a tale so epic and full of adventure that it makes Zukah’s entire day seem pedestrian and embarrassing in comparison, Darius gives Zukah back his determination to stay out in the world rather than skulk back to his dark shut-in life. “That’s it,” he resolves. “I am gluing myself to this guy.”
And so through Darius Zukah meets Daphne, a person every bit as good as her brother who mends his wounds. He’s doted on by Nanma, Darius and Daphne’s grandmother, who calls him “dear” and makes him clothing that fits and is clean. He’s introduced to the police and – at Darius’ side – he’s regarded as one of the good guys. He fights monsters and triumphs by Darius’ side, just like a real life hero. He feels great! Best day ever! Zukah can hardly believe that it hasn’t been all in his head (has it?) (does he care?)!
Then things start getting rocky. High on happiness and presented with alcohol, Zukah decides to get plastered so he can push this good feeling even further. He and his new friends will all get drunk and congratulate themselves (but mostly him) on stepping up to be the heroes of the day! The thing is, Darius and Daphne aren’t content with one bit of heroism. They understand that the world doesn’t stop just because you’ve accomplished something, and they’re secure enough in who they are that they don’t need every little achievement to be endlessly dwelled on and praised and celebrated. They have an appointment to go and help someone else.
Zukah can’t handle that. He’s done something today! This has been a huge day for him! He wants to bask in it and he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. They fight. Daphne, who is struggling with depression herself in the wake of losing her clinic and her mother, sees what’s really going on in Zukah’s eyes and his voice. She convinces Darius to stay with Zukah while she goes to their appointment alone.
Zukah is elated – he’s getting what he wants and now everything is going to be just perfect. By the time Daphne gets back he’ll have convinced Darius that he’s really a stand-up guy and Darius be wondering how he ever got along without Zukah. All Zukah has to do now is seem cool.
When Hrothgar insults him by drinking his beer, Zukah is certain that he’ll lose Darius’ respect if he doesn’t step up. So he does… but Zukah being Zukah, he goes way too far overboard… The ensuing confrontation ends with the entire bar burning down while Zukah and Darius’ fates remain unclear.
And that was day one.
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