20 September 2009

ZENITH: An Examination, An Appreciation, A Massive Wall Of Text

What follows is a somewhat ham-fisted examination of Zenith, the British superhero comic by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell which is no longer available in print -- it should go without saying that this will feature more spoilers than an '80s carshow.

Everybody knows british comic book writers are better than american comic book writers. Except that it's not true any more, is it? Josh Dysart and Matt Fraction are easily equal to Rob Williams and Mike Carey. Not to speak ill of the latter two -- I enjoy both their work, particularly Williams -- but they have fallen foul of the evolution of the mainstream British comics industry, better known as 2000AD. Nowadays, 2000AD stories -- or “thrills” as we Squaxx dek Thargo” know them -- are written for the trade, same as American comics. Meanwhile American comics are becoming less and less restricted by genre... the differences are evaporating, and so is the quality gap.

But, oh, once upon a time we were glorious. Our empire was strong, then. First we ruled the waves, and then, for a while, we ruled the funny pages. Time was that 2000AD was like Heartbreak Ridge for comics writers, complete with a snarling green Clint Eastwood with an old fashioned rotary telephone dial blue-tacked to his forehead. The relentless weekly grind to provide a real portion of genuine, fully rounded entertainment in just six pages forced the writers to hone their skills to an incredible level. And the broad predilection for drink and drugs in our creative types may of course have helped a little.

The list of writers to have perfected their craft while working for the Galaxy's Greatest Comic speaks for itself: Pat Mills, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, Andy Diggle, Mark Millar (they can't all be diamonds), Si Spurrier, Alan motherfucking *Moore*, baby...

...Oh, and of course there's that Grant Morrison guy.

You know, bald Glaswegian with an affection for the funny pills? Stands astride the modern DC universe like a shamanistic transvestite colossus? That guy.

Of course, it's fashionable to love Morrison's work now; but us Brits are kind of over him, I think. Back in the day though, he was, for a while, my personal favourite. Nowadays, when I look back at those dusty yellowing progs I have more of an appreciation for the quiet skill of John Wagner and Alan Grant, and marvel at how quickly Alan Moore went from a shaggy dog story peddler with a tendency to purple prose to being, well, Alan Moore. But at the time, and for a long time, my favourite story in 2000AD was Zenith.

Let me refresh your memory about Zenith -- it's the story of a multiverse-wide struggle against dark, sadistic gods who want to conquer our plane of existence in order to make it their playground of torture and suffering. In order to manifest in our dimension, they must take possession of a body -- but no human body is strong enough, and so they seek out and possess superhumans; thus our tale is about superheroes fight ing a seemingly hopeless war to save reality from their own former friends and allies who have been turned against them.

Wait, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

But actually, while the superficial similarities are clear, at heart Zenith and Final Crisis are near polar opposites. Where FC, like much of Morrison's modern output, is an impassioned plea for us to embrace the superhuman and strive for perfection in ourselves, Zenith is an absolute rejection of that ideal. The heroes are the characters who are the most flawed, the least interested in heroics and changing the world, and those who seek perfection ultimately become monsters. It's a very cynical piece of writing, and structurally it differs hugely from Morrison's later work too -- the narrative is one of clearly unfolding plot; a clockwork, ordered kind of story logic at work, at least for the first two volumes. One might even say it was Moore-ish (indeed, throw in the fully realised alternative superverse comprised of characters derived from existing, but unusable properties, and you have a pretty strong case for the work being a reaction to Watchmen. The Anti-Watchmen, perhaps). Of course, today Morrison has embraced what I like to think of as comedy logic -- that is to say, the kind of logic normally only employed by comedy, where the emotional reaction is more important than narrative coherence; where it doesn't really matter if the story doesn't make sense, as long as you feel it. There are glimpses of this in the later volumes of Zenith, but Morrison is still fighting them, and hard.

The most obvious difference between this and it's recent counterpart is the characterisation- here it is strong and vibrant. The characters live for us in a way that few of Morrison's ever would again -- at least for me.

Oh, and the art. The art is much, much better in Zenith. Immeasurably better. Jones and Mahnke are talented guys, but Steve Yeowell's work on Zenith is like the Sistene Chapel -- an unparalleled work of astonishing artistry that most, sadly, will never see.

That said, it didn't start out that way. Phase I kicks things off with more ambition than skill, but such ambition; first and foremost with its subject matter -- super heroes? In 2000AD? My prepubescent mind was blown at the very thought. The story itself goes something like this: an evil black magic cult has summoned one of the afore-mentioned dark gods -- the Lovecraftian “Many Angled Ones” -- and allowed it to walk the earth in the long frozen body of an experimental nazi supersoldier named Masterman -- or rather, his twin, since the original Masterman died in a nuclear explosion while battling his British counterpart Maximan (remember that name) -- and only Zenith (unbolded, because I'm talking about the character, not the comic, as if you didn't know) can stop him. Why Zenith, and who is he anyway? Well, he’s the earth’s only active superhuman; the child of two dead members of '60s superteam Cloud 9, the surviving members of which – psychic Peter St John, electrokinetic Ruby Fox and pyrokinetic Siadwell Rhys -- have all supposedly lost their powers, except of course that they haven’t really, and they all rally round to help Zenith save the day.

So far so pedestrian, but as I say, it’s the characterisation that shines -- Zenith is a petulant teenager with no interest in heroics; he just wants to be a pop star, and is making a pretty good go of it. Then there’s Peter St John, arguably the real hero of the series; in the sixties he was Mandala, the ultimate super hippy: friend of the Beatles, peace campaigner and acid head; now he’s a Tory MP, “Thatcher’s right hand man”.

(Think about that for just a moment. It’s 1987; Watchmen’s been out a year, and British comics are gaining an international reputation for being edgy and politically charged, with a distinctly left wing bent. Hell, 2000AD classic Nemesis the Warlock was running right there beside Zenith in the comic at the time, with a story that would see the series' longstanding villain Torquemada- a far future ubernazi with fantastic catchphrases (“Be pure! Be vigilant! BEHAVE!”) -- wind up in 1980s Britain, and immediately fit comfortably into the establishment. And here’s a comic where one of the main heroes is a part of that establishment. There’s something glorious about how subversive that is.)

And then there’s Siadwell Rhys, the Red Dragon. Poor, poor Siadwell. A lovable drunk who used to be the muscle for the team, he provides the heart to the first volume of this epic; his transformation from whisky sodden-buffoon to cool-as-fuck comeback hero is beautifully played, and draws us in to the story fully; by the time he pours his last stashed bottle of whisky down the toilet, puts on his old costume and tells Zenith and Ruby “I’m ready now”, we no longer care about the Many Angled Ones; we just want to see The Red Dragon kick some serious arse.

I remember being completely overcome with shock and grief when Siadwell died before he’d thrown his second punch. Hey, I was 8 years old, I think it’s understandable that I didn’t see it coming.

Of course that makes it all the sweeter when Zenith punches clear through Masterman’s torso, and by the time Peter St John saves the day with a craftily planted post hypnotic suggestion, we’re cheering. Never mind that the villain is an inter-dimensional nazi god that wants to eradicate mankind for the fun of it -- the bastard killed Siadwell.

It’s a great volume on its own, and it’s easy to see why it was so popular. Morrison’s dialogue is charming and funny, the story is action packed and peppered with enticing hints of a larger story to come (one which Morrison has always maintained in interviews, and indeed the foreword to the '80s Titan tpb, was the plan from the start). The art is already good, if a little shaky in parts -- in particular, Yeowell has trouble rendering Zenith himself in a way that doesn’t look ridiculous; forgivable when you consider that he was working from a design by the dementedly brilliant Brendan McCarthy. I think it’s fair to say that more often than not, the only person who can do a McCarthy design justice is McCarthy himself.

Still, good as this volume was, it was only the start.

Yeowell solves the design problem quite simply with Phase II- he ditches the original costume almost completely, apart from the mask and the distinctive “Z” t-shirt. The art for the entire strip is immediately noticeably improved -- no longer the beginner, Yeowell has grown into a fully mature comic strip artist at this point, easily standing beside the other artists working in 2000AD at the time -- which, bear in mind, included Steve Dillon, Simon Bisley and Glenn Fabry. Of course, back then, we didn’t know what was coming, didn’t realise just how much he was hampered by the many slick Americanisms still showing in his work -- we were content to imagine that he could become the next great British superhero artist, following Gibbons and Bolland across the Atlantic. Looking at it now, it’s easy to see why one would think that, but glimpses are already appearing of the later style that would develop -- an angular tendency has started to appear in the face of Doctor Peyne (the man who perfected the supersoldier serum from WWII into the process that would produce Cloud 9), gradually spreading to bend the entire piece to it's will. This could, I suppose, be seen as some kind of ridiculous metaphor for the whole series -- it all starts with Peyne, and by the end of Phase IV the whole of creation has been touched by his actions.

Sadly, Morrison doesn’t hold up his end so well this time out. He said around that time (again, in the foreword to the Titan reprints) that it was a deliberate change of pace from Phase I, and it certainly was that. There is a plot, some hastily thrown together schtick about a bored millionaire hacking into the UK’s nuclear defences and deciding to nuke London for reasons that are never fully clear, but it’s buried beneath a mountain of ill-judged pop culture references (the bomb crazy capitalist is an obvious parody of Richard Branson, and red nose day -- wiki it -- gets frequent mentions), as well as yards of backstory and sundry information that we gradually come to realise is all just set-up for the next volume -- the most intriguing being the reveal of multiple universes in the prologue, which also drops the bombshell that two members of Cloud 9 that we thought were dead are in fact very much alive, and hiding out in these parallel realities -- a fact that turns out to be immaterial to the main plot of this volume. There are some moments that ought to work, but don’t, really -- Morrison attempts to pull the same trick he did with The Red Dragon again, this time with a female CIA agent who has drafted Zenith in to help take on our bargain bin Branson, but he forgets to make us like her first. Zenith ends up a prisoner of Doctor Peyne, who has hitched wagons with the villain of the piece, and uses Zenith as a breeding stud with two comely young clones named Shockwave and Blaze -- the latter of whom, it transpires, is a clone of Zenith’s own mother. The slow-burn pace nearly doesn’t stick -- there’s two full episodes of fighting partway through, leading up to Zenith’s own Darth Vader moment: the discovery that the father he thought was dead is still alive -- just -- as the brain-damaged consciousness of Warhead, a giant robot that provides all of the small amount of action in this volume. The momentum soon dissipates, however, as Zenith calmly talks the mastermind in a woolly jumper out of his nuclear plot.

All traditional logic dictates that the story should be over at this point, at least for this volume, but no -- we’re only three quarters of the way through, and thank goodness; the boring plot out of the way, Morrison and Yeowell finally cut loose in the closing chapters, Yeowell’s angular, expressionistic, speedlines n’ zipatone style that would dominate the next volume is almost fully formed at this point; just in time for Chimera, the shape shifting lost member of Cloud 9 to turn up and lead us out of the story with a bravura performance of cosmic, psychedelic weirdness. Chimera is endlessly curious, and near omniscient; it transforms itself into a universe in the palm of Zenith’s hand. And then it only remains for us to be teased once more with an epilogue that introduces new characters, gives us more talk of alternative realities, and ends with the cruel and tragic death of Billy Whizz, a much beloved character from classic UK kids’ comic The Beano.

You can bet that after all that tease, all those questions, I was desperate for Phase III. So was Morrison; after all, this was were he finally got to write his first crisis.

This is, weirdly, where the wheels start to come off the story, but it's also when the series really starts to shine. Zenith is whisked off to Alternative 23 by another classic character from british children’s comics, Robot Archie; but Archie’s into acid house now, has a smiley face painted onto the front of hise bucket shaped head, and goes around randomly shouting things like "MAD! MENTAL! CRAZY!" all the time. Zenith has been summoned to join an inter-dimensional army of superheroes- including those members of Cloud 9 from Phase II’s prologue- who have joined forces to battle the Many Angled Ones (remember them?), who we now know are called the Lloigor, and are cutting a swathe across the multiverse, killing and torturing whole worlds for fun, as is their wont. As the story progresses into full-on reality hopping, superheroes punching it out crazyness, Morrison finally gets to show us all the MAD MENTAL CRAZY things he's been saving up for us since phase I -- like Acid Archie, natch -- And the complex, twisty turny plot that runs through all four volumes begins to collapse under the weight of the wonders. And yet, it doesn't matter, because Vertex -- Zenith’s nice guy mirror image -- is hilarious, the broken but still fighting socialist hero Big Ben is adorable, punk rock anarchist superteam Black Flag are cool, evangelical Christian superhero Hotspur is scary but cool too -- a heroic Torquemada -- and the babbling, messianic alternative Maximan is like nothing we've ever read before, and this is 2000AD for fuck's sake! And the tiger twins break my heart. Every time, from then till now.

And the art. Oh, the art. Almost photorealistic and yet angular and cartoony -- moody and dark, yet spare and minimalist -- Dave Mazzucchelli meets Bill Sienkiewicz via Klaus Janson, with a healthy spoonful of Eddie Campbell for the base. Boldly expressionist, yet studied and subtle. It's the bestest. Yeowell found a voice, and used it to sing louder and better than anyone. And when he'd finished this song, he went looking for another voice.

Meanwhile, Morrison is telling the story he always wanted to tell us, and finding as he goes that it makes no sense... you see, the conceit is that the Lloigor are going to take possession of the entire multiverse via something called “point zenith”, that will come into being when the realities align themselves into a perfect crystal structure known as the omnihedron. In order to stop them our heroes must destroy two entire universes, both of which have already been lost to the Lloigor; this means going into those realities to plant an entropy inducing bomb. They succeed in this, but at great cost -- the Lloigor fight them every step of the way, and very nearly stop them the second time -- they arrive just too late to stop the brave Tiger Twins sacrificing themselves to ensure that the bomb, which has a malfunctioning timer, goes off.

Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

And then the twist is that in fact, those two realities were the only thing stopping the omnihedron; that our brave superhumans have been unwittingly helping the Many Angled Ones. Which, as I say, makes no sense. Why do the lloigor fight so hard if the good guys are helping them? Why try so hard to stop them? Why don't they just do it themselves? But Morrison doesn't care -- it's his story -- so he pushes it and makes it work anyway, bending the parts to fit. I defy anyone to be asking those questions as you read the book; you won’t be, because the story has you by this point. All you care about is that Peter St John survives, that the duplicitous Maximan is destroyed, that the Lloigor are banished… the details no longer matter. Logic no longer matters, only how the story makes you feel.

Grant Morrison is becoming the writer we know today. It's no Seaguy, but the seeds are sown.

But he’s not there yet. First he must write Phase IV, the volume that finally ties it all up, and delivers on the promise of Chimera.

Morrison all but disowned this volume at the time, but in researching this piece I deiscovered that he has since changed his tune somewhat, and I’m not surprised to hear it -- all the way through Final Crisis, I kept thinking of this book, which chronicles the final days of Doctor Peyne, the last human in a world finally conquered by the Lloigor. They have cursed (or blessed, depending how you look at it) him to age backwards, and as he gradually gets younger, between bouts of randiness and acne he tells us how this terrible state of affairs came to be.

It turns out that those pesky Lloigor are actually Cloud 9 in their fully evolved state -- they live outside of time, you see, so chronology means nothing -- and we watch as Zenith and Peter St John fight them valiantly, but hopelessly -- Zenith is finally killed by his own infant son, born of his mother’s clone, and guess what? It turns out that his son is in fact the very same Many Angled One that fought Zenith in the guise of Masterman in Phase I.

The world is doomed, and dead, and the Lloigor have conquered the universe.

But it turns out that which particular universe this is is rather important. This universe, you see, has a name, and that name is Chimera.

Because Peter St John saw this all coming -- and he did, as well, in a dream back in Phase II -- and took the precaution of trapping Cloud 9 inside Chimera as soon as they started acting all nazi-like.

Of course, as with Phase III, none of this makes any sense -- think about it in any kind of serious way within the context of the overall story, and the plot collapses completely. But again, it’s all in the execution; Yeowell’s art has changed again for this volume, his line suddenly losing it’s hard edge and melting into loose, smooth curves that characterise his current work. He is complemented perfectly by beautiful colours provided by someone credited only as Hart -- I’m ashamed to say I’ve been unable to find out who this is. Whoever they are, they did a lovely job.

The characters, always very much the driving force in this series, take over completely for this final volume. St John is now Prime Minister, using his powers to manipulate parliamentary votes in his favour, and scheming behind the scenes to keep the world how he likes it. Meanwhile, Zenith has changed his outfit again, ditching his leather jacket and quiff for sportswear and a mop-top, and producing music that sounds from the descriptions suspiciously like the Stone Roses. It’s all show, of course, a pose to sell records. Even Peyne himself, the tragic villain, is eminently likeable. His descent into youth, accompanied by deteriorating spelling and decreasing intelligence, is beautifully written and terribly moving.

The story closes with Zenith pondering another image change, and Peter St John avoiding electoral defeat by inducing a heart attack in real life opposition leader John Smith- an eerie moment to read now, since it actually happened two years later -- the people are older, but no-one has learned anything; nothing has really changed. This is the victory, the happy ending: the triumph of conservatism- both literally and figuratively.

And with that, it’s over. Oh, there was a one off story called Zzzenith that ran the year 2000, which revisited the characters in the modern day to find Zenith imitating Robbie Williams and Acid Archie wandering the streets in a trench-coat and false beard, assaulting pop-starlets. But that doesn’t count, because it’s not very good.

The rest though, remains, to my mind, the best thing either creator has ever done. I shan’t deny that nostalgia plays a part in this, it surely does. When I was ten years old, my primary school had a fancy dress day, and I went as Zenith. That should tell you something. But there’s more to it than that; Morrison has been retelling versions of this story with different characters for literally decades now, and it somehow loses something in the telling for me each time. Meanwhile Yeowell has settled into a very retro Brit comics style, almost ligne Claire, and does it very well- but for 150 pages or so, he was magnificent. As an artist myself, the Steve Yeowell who drew Zenith Phase III remains one my primary influences. Nothing else looks like it, and nothing ever will. I urge everyone reading this who hasn’t seen those pages to seek them out -- via legal means, of course -- whatever it takes, they’re worth the effort.

Now, you might think that I’d be sad Morrison hasn’t ever done anything comparable to this (at least in my eyes), but you know what? I’m really not. Because, firstly, I‘ll always have the original progs, the Best Of 2000AD Monthly reprints, and the Titan paperback reprints to look at. They’re safe. And secondly, I like Morrison more now, if not as a writer, then as a person. Zenith is sublime indeed, but it is also cynical, and bitter, and deeply opposed to progress. Every person who tries to make the world better either ends up trying to destroy it, or dies as result of their own weak sentmentality. the best we can hope for, it seems, is to keep the wolves from the door; any hope of change for the better is at best foolhardy and worst downright dangerous. This, of course, is not the Morrison we know and love, and as I said at the beginning, the message of his most recent retelling of this story could not be more diametrically opposed to that way of thinking. Conservatism has been replaced by progressive idealism- and damn right, too.

So for now, I’ll take the echoes where I can find them; Morrison’s Batman is peter St John without the powers or the Machiavellian tendencies, the Super Young Team could be from Alternative 23- Most Excellent Superbat could even be Zenith if you squint just right.

And Morrison’s Superman- All Star or Beyond, it doesn't matter- is Maximan, but without the mental illness, and without the whole “in league with dark gods” thing. Where Maximan was an icon corrupted, Morrison’s Superman is that Icon healed. A harbinger of death reborn as beacon of hope.

So you see, greater deeds may be behind Morrison, and us, but I don’t mind; because it seems that the days ahead are brighter.

And hey, Batman and Robin's a lot of fun!



Blogger Bob Temuka said...

I'm pretty sure 'Hart' is Gina Hart, who did a whole bunch of colouring for 2000ad at that time, but Zenith was the best. Her colouring on that remains some of my favourite of all time. It was, after all, the early nineties, so her colours helped give the story its pop-tastic vibe.

Mind you, it helps that Phase Four is also one of my favourite stories ever. When it was coming out every week, everything was getting worse every episode and hope was slowly and surely drained away until the Lloigor stand triumphant, annihilating space-time with their velocity.

And then it all gets turned around in one page of Peter St John with the greatest paperweight of all time. Lovely. I still remember reading that as I was walking down the street and stopping dead at the genius of it all. Superb stuff.

Nice overview, David. Even if you didn't mention one of my very favourite bits in Zenith - the massive and strangely moving infodump of the second interlude between the first two books. That one panel of Cloud Nine in all their glory haunted me for years, and it was the first time I ever bothered looking up the writer's name, so I could follow his work in the future. That worked out well.

Oh, and I really, really liked Zzzenith. The way Zenith's hatred of getting into fights was turned into a positive attribute was bloody brilliant. Five sentient universes are all about to get into a fight that could wipe out the multiverse? No worries, just let them form a band and release a single that stays at number one forever. Everybody wins!

September 20, 2009 11:27 PM  
Blogger David Wynne said...

Thanks! Gina Hart, eh? I'll have to pull out those old progs again and see what else she did...

The interludes were always great- I missed them out simply because I had so much I wanted to cover.

As for Zzzenith... yeah, I'm glad *someone* liked it. Yeowell's art was nice, but the writing just felt tossed off to me. the only thing I kind of liked was the (very gently implied) sexual tension between Zenith and Peter St John. But to be honest, anything that features a sexual assault played for laughs is pretty much always going to lose my affection- except Preacher, I suppose...

September 21, 2009 10:08 AM  
Blogger Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

This was a great article and I enjoyed reading it! I still have my fingers crossed that Morrison will finally blink and let Rebellion reprint the series in two nice volumes so everybody can see just how darn wonderful this series is. I do think that he's bettered Zenith once or twice (Doom Patrol and We3, certainly, and arguably The Invisibles), but it's still an amazing series, and deserves to be available in a lasting form for new readers.

September 21, 2009 11:33 AM  

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