15 November 2009

Alan Moore Month: In Defence Of The Killing Joke

My favourite Alan Moore book is the one everyone hates, including him.

I'm talking, of course, about The Killing Joke.

Moore has said that he feels it's lacking in substance, and by and large the critics seem to agree. I don't, though. The piece carries a strong message and has some interesting and well-explored themes. The thing is; those themes, and that message, are present in everything Moore writes, and probably everything he says and does too; as such we, and he, tend to overlook them. We don't think of them as being the core of a Moore comic, because they're always there, in the background. So when they're all that's present, it's easy to think that there's nothing at all. I'd argue, however, that the lack of distraction and dilution makes the piece purer, and the clearest expression of the man's concerns in print; precisely because there was no conscious intent to impart an idea or a message, it becomes the most primal iteration of the message there is.

So, what IS the message? Basically, violence is stupid, and violent conflict can only ever be destructive; that the only workable solution to conflict is communication and compromise. It's a pacifist parable, in the only genre would would think was completely unsuited to it.

It's perfect, and I love it.

As I've said, this idea comes up in all of Moore's works; it's there in Watchmen, it's there in V, it's especially prominent in Tom Strong (my second favourite of Moore's works), but in all of these other concerns end up grabbing the limelight. pacifism is so integral to Moore's worldview that it seems unworthy of special attention; but in the world outside of his magic cave, the idea that violence is an acceptable and effective way of solving problems remains sadly popular. For me, while I'm happy to read his thoughts on the nature of time and reality, (wo)man's ascent to self-made god(ess)hood, his ruminations on the effect fascist rule has on interpersonal relationships, and so on ad infinitum... none of them is as IMPORTANT an issue as pacifism. The central flaw of our culture is that we just won't stop hurting each other. this is something that is worth addressing head on and with our eyes wide open, and The Killing Joke does exactly that.

I know, I know, the generally held opinion is that the story is about the similarities between it's two protagonists. Moore himself has said that the book is about that parallel, and how he feels that isn't a particularly interesting or original observation. He's right, and while that's certainly an element of the piece, it's not what excites about it. Among the things that do excite me are Gordon's refusal to stoop to the Joker's level -- "it has to be by the book" -- by resorting to emotionally cathartic violence, and the fact that Batman concludes the piece by offering the Joker psychiatric help. This moment in particular is something we tend to miss when talking about this book. How many times have we read a Batman story in which ol' big ears will decide that he's going to settle things between him and the Joker "once and for all"? Now, stop me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that pretty much ALWAYS mean that he's "finally" decided going to kill him? This book offers the alternative solution. the BETTER solution.

And yes, okay, it fails. Because it would. Because in a conflict this entrenched, it takes more than a single olive branch to heal the rift (if you'll allow me to mix metaphors like an inexperienced chef). They've come too far, been fighting too long; and let's be honest, Batman himself is already far too commited to violence for this to be a workable solution.

Which is the tragedy, and the point of the story. Violence solves nothing. Punching people solves nothing, and Batman is someone who tries to solve his problems by punching people. So it stands to reason that even at his wisest, even when he gets that little glimmer of inspiration that leads him to a more enlightened solution, he will never, ever solve his biggest, most flamboyant problem. Violence doesn't work, so Batman doesn't work.

Sure, Batman takes the Joker away at the end, to be locked up once more in the institution he got out of so easily (so easily that we don't even need to see the escape itself) at the beginning of the story. Sure, Batman gets to chalk this one up in the "win" column. But we know the truth; the Joker has turned down the only thing that might ever stop him from being who he his; and as long as the Joker walks the earth we know he'll keep escaping, we know he'll keep killing; we know that Batman is a failure. the Joker is the symbol of everything that is wrong with Batman; the one problem he simply cannot solve. The Batman is a creature of violence; born of violence and ultimately undone by it.

Of course, it also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. Brian Bolland is of course one of the greatest draftsmen of the last fifty years, as well as a master storyteller (a more unusual combination than it should be in cartoonists), and this is quite possibly the best sequential work of is career. Again I find myself in the minority camp, as I much prefer the John Higgins colouring on the original edition rather than Bolland's own re-coloured version. Bolland is too reverential to his own line, keeping to a dour grey pallette, only breaking out brighter colours for melodramatic effect (blood and so forth). Higgins is far more adventurous, purples and yellows and greens saturating the page, giving the whole piece a chemical mood. The difference in the two artist's approaches is best summed up on my favourite page, the one where the joke is told. This isn't just my favourite page in the book, this is one of my favourite pages ever. Bolland's storytelling here is sublime; the body language, the carefully chosen camera angles, the lighting which alternately hides and then illuminates the Joker's face, the way the tips of the joker's fingers protrude ever-so-slightly over the border in panel 5 (I think it's panel 5? I don't have the book to hand)... all of it is brilliant. In the original, Higgins' colouring compliments Bolland's performance beautifully, the gaudy carnival lights in the background placing us in a vaudeville setting; in Bolland's recoloured version, the lights are plain, the piece washed out, literally drained of colour; and in the process, some of it's life. It's like listening to your favourite song by your favourite band but with the rhythm track removed. Sure, the guitars and the vocals are still fantastic, the lyrics still move you, the musicianship is still worthy of adulation... but it sounds a damn sight better with the whole band.

Anyway, I think I've wandered away from my point. Which was: The Killing Joke is very, very good; it is, in fact, a damn sight better than we generally give it credit for. Let's stop calling this the lesser Moore work, please. Take it as it is, and judge it for what it is; one of the greatest, most definitive Batman stories ever told, the one that cuts to the heart of the tragedy; the one work by Alan Moore that most clearly expresses the core theme of his ouvre, and the greatest work of Brian Bolland's career. That's not bad, not bad at all.

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17 October 2009

A Report From A Con You Probably Haven't Heard Of, Yankee


A Con Report From A Young Turk Attempting To Storm The Castle

I love comic cons. Always have. As a young nerdlet I attended UKCAC (the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention) every year from '91 to '96, and at least once after that -- I forget how many more years it ran. I considered it an almost religious experience, a chance to pay tribute to my gods, and bask in their divine glow. I queued up to stammer at a remarkable number of my heroes, at a very tender age. I even entered the costume contest a few times -- my Hellboy was particularly good, if I say so myself. I've always enjoyed going around the various small press stalls, finding hidden gems and under-appreciated geniuses (geneii?)... I remember buying the first issue of Kane directly from Paul Grist at UKCAC one year, and I've made a point of seeking him out and buying something from him at every con I've attended since.

Nowadays, here in the UK we have two major comics specific events (although there are a few smaller things bubbling under, and the twice annual London MCM Expo, which draws in far more people but for some reason doesn't get the same focus from the comics industry), the Bristol Comic Con, which I can't attend because it takes place the weekend of my fiancee's birthday (I mean, Jesus, I love that woman -- I'm not going to make her go to a comic con on her birthday!); and the Birmingham International Comics Show- now rebranded as the British International Comics Show- which happens in the first week of October every year.

Birmingham's a bit of an odd con, to be honest. The fan/pro ratio (if by pro you include every exhibitor) feels like it's nigh on 1:1, which should tell you something about the difference between UK cons and their American counterparts. This leads to a wonderfully informal atmosphere, but it can be a bit disconcerting if, like me, you've never quite got over your fanboy reflex -- you know, the one that leaves you quivering and stuttering like an idiot as soon as you realise you're in the presence of someone who's work you enjoy.

This year's con was particularly surreal for me, since it was my first time on the other side of the table (at this con, at least -- I've exhibited at the even smaller UK Web And Mini Comix Thing a couple of times).

I thought maybe you might be interested in hearing what it's like to be a fanboy masquerading as a pro at a con. Hopefully, I'm right about that, because that's exactly what this here massive smear of writing is. I shall try not to let it turn into a straight up list of name drops and plugs for my friends; I'd advise you not to hold out too much hope for that though.

You know what the worst thing about exhibiting at a comic con is? You don't get to go to any panels. Which means I missed Bryan Talbot launching Grandville, Howard Chaykin being interviewed about his career, Geek Syndicate's 70 Years Of Marvel panel with Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, Andy Diggle and Paul Cornell (although I at least got to listen to that one afterwards via the geek Syndicate podcast ), and, er, the cosplay contest. Okay, I'll admit I'm not heartbroken about that last one. But on the other hand, I got to stand next to Chaykin in a queue for luke-warm fish and chips at the surprisingly unpleasant launch party. So there's that.

No. I didn't talk to him. I couldn't; for some reason the organisers felt that it would be appropriate to have a DJ playing god-awful top 40 RnB at ear-splitting volume all night. Because, you know, us comics fans just love the R&B apparently.

Here's the depressing little secret of what it's like to be a *cough* pro *cough* at a comic con: I spent two days sitting behind a table trying to sell my comics to people who didn't want to buy them, because they rather understandably wanted to save their money for Grandville. Luckily, I found myself sandwiched between the writers Ian Sharman and Chris Lynch (both of whom produce work you should definitely check out -- You'll find Ian's work here and Chris's here ) who helped put me at my ease with a rousing barbershop rendition of Color Me Badd's classic 80's hit I Want To Sex You Up, allbeit with the lyrics amended to I Want To Fuck A Goat. Well, maybe it was just Ian singing those words. Anyway, as I'm sure you can imagine, this wasn't an uncomfortable experience at all, and I wasn't in the slightest bit disturbed or frightened each time over the course of the weekend that Chris would begin humming the melody. Not at all, no.

Ian, by the way, is a bit of a renaissance man; he pretty much runs studio cum indy publisher Orang Utan Comics, as well as writing a pretty large chunk of the output. He's also a professional letterer (many of you will soon be reading his lettering work in the Top Shelf published AX), and an incredible inker. And he now owes me a double Laphroig on ice for the plug.

Oh, and in the interest of balance, Chris managed to impress me greatly by taking a random idea that came up in conversation on the saturday morning -- just after the singalong- and proceeding to craft a complete script from it in his notebook over the course of the weekend. That's creativity in action, folks.

Anyway, I have to say that while the experience was far more fun than sitting in one place for two days sounds, it also went by kind of fast. the daytimes quickly blurred together into one long weird smudge, a seemingly endless parade of upper halves of people appearing before me, picking up my comics, looking through them, and in most cases putting them down again and moving on; but in a few cases buying one, and in one rather memorable instance saying "Huh. Bit shit," and moving on... (I like to think that the next thing she did was fall down the stairs and break her neck. what, bitter, me? Noooooo.) Naturally, in such circumstances, the people who go out of their way to stop and chat are much appreciated, and I'm pleased to say a surprising number of people did. I can link you to three of them -- Scott from Comic Book Outsiders, Stace from Small Press Big Mouth and Jared from OK Comics all stopped by and brightened things up -- but most were simply straight up fans of the medium, pleased to be seeing a comic they hadn't heard of before, which gave me a real warm glow- even when they didn't buy a comic. I swear, social skills aren't our strong point as a subculture, but our genuine and unembarrassed love for this artform is a beautiful thing to behold. The teenage boys dressed like Tank Girl, the girls who wanted advice on how to make their own comic, Sam the cosplayer who played the most popular Superman I've ever seen (and who impressively suppressed his desire to kill me for not liking Starman)- every one of them made it fun to be behind that table, when it could so easily have been a terrible chore. If nothing else they drowned out the endless repeat eighties hair-rock a cappella karaoke performance taking place directly to my right...

As the weekend progressed, I found myself experimenting with different ways to encourage custom. Singing attracts attention, but not necesarily the right kind; while waiting to catch someone's eye and then performing a theatrical hand flourish towrds your wares actually seems to repel people. Surprisingly, the most effective technique turned out to be waiting untill a potential customer is within earshot and then simply saying, in a friendly but not loud or pushy manner, "these comics are really good." It worked every time. And now I have told you my secret and must kill you.

Unsurprisingly, it's the not-strictly-con-related stuff that sticks out in my memory. For example, chatting with PJ Holden in the street outside the hotel on the Sunday morning when I should have already been setting up at the con- that was a pretty massive thing for me, as I'm a big fat fanboy when it comes to mr Holden's work (and also the fucking hilarious podcast he co-presents, Sunnyside Comics ); his old-school 2000AD style and inventive but always clear and easy storytelling just sing to me. My annual visit to Paul Grist's table to pay tribute, tug my forelock, and back away respectfully was as important to me as it always is. Having a beer with Paul Cornell while Ian gushed about his Captain Britain run was fun and surreal. Sharing tales of heavy metal gigs and comparing moshpit scars with the Bearded Skull guys was a fun way to start the Saturday evening, and having a good long catch up and drinking session with my mate Tom and his brother was an excellent way to finish it. Putting faces to the names and avatars of the various podcasters and bloggers that I've chatted with online over the last few years was nice; apparently wearing a bloody great badge with your name on it makes that easier to do... it's not exactly the transition into some secret world of glamour and coolness that I think many comics fans imagine, crossing that con-table divide; it's more like starting work at a new place; being the new boy in some big institution. Some people will be friendly and welcoming, some will be standoffish and snobby; most will be cautiously affable, sizing you up to see how long you're going to last, and whether you're going to be trouble for them or their friends- or if you're going to be someone they want to work alongside. As you can probably imagine, this is both exciting and scary; my way of coping was to drink lots and lots and lots of whisky. Hey, you've got to have a system.

The thing that surprised me the most about the con was the sketching. Now, I'm told that it has been standard practice for years at American cons for pros to sell sketches -- but this was the first time I've seen it at a UK con; traditionally, artists have always done free sketches for all comers over here. Apparently over the last year there has been a spontaneous concensus decision amongst British creators that this is just silly, and a huge loss of income, which seems fair enough. Anyway, the thing about it that surprised is that EVERYONE was doing it, not just the "big names"; as well as Ian and Chris, I was also sitting with a couple of artists, MWM's Stu.Art (who I have decided I do not like because he is just too bloody good) and the rather lovely Simon Wyatt ( who is also bloody good but in a very different style from mine so it's ok), who does work for both Orang Utan and the increasingly popular Insomnia publications -- and both of them spent the entire con hunched over the table drawing, producing an impressive number of sketches which they then sold for a fiver apiece. Obviously, I will be doing this myself at the next con I go to. Frankly, if I'd thought to bring a larger sketchbook, I'd have been doing it at this one.

And well, that's it, that's the whole sorry tale. I'll finish up with a word of advice to anyone planning on attending a con anywhere: book an extra night at your hotel. Everyone I spoke too was travelling home on the Sunday night, and every single one of them looked positively forlorn as they made their tired, broken way to the train station or car park, laden down with unsold comics and table paraphenalia; meanwhile I took myself off to KFC for a boneless barbecue banquet box and then retired to my hotel room, where I was asleep by nine, so shattered was I from the weekend's shenanigans. Sure, it cost me a little more, but boy was it worth it.

I slept like a baby, too.


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!


12 September 2009

Data Sheet: David Wynne

NAME: David Wynne.
BIRTHPLACE: South East London (King's College Hospital, specifically).
AMBITIONS: To get paid to sit around at home drawing science fiction comics. As opposed to now where I get paid to sit around at work drawing science fiction comics. Well, technically that's not what they pay me for...
TURN-ONS: Comics, politics, whisky and guitars.
TURNOFFS: Glenn Beck.
GREAT COMICS: I love things like Tom Strong, The Spirit, Nemesis The Warlock and Black Summer- work that doesn't claim to be anything more than escapist entertainment, but the ability and passion of the creators is such that their ideas and personality are carried in the work anyway, and they end up saying something important without even really trying. Such works are often brash and unsubtle, and if the creators are particularly politicised (see the latter two of my examples), the may even be accused of "preachy"-ness. But you know, I'm a Rage Against The Machine fan. I like that sort of thing.
FAMILY LIFE: I live with the most intelligent, courageous and beautiful woman ever to walk this earth. You're damn right to be jealous.
FAVORITE FOOD: I want to say something impressively obscure or adventurous- but the real answer is probably "caaaaake".
WHAT I LIKE IN COMICS: Absolutely bloody everything about the form itself. The mechanics of it make my brain bubble in glorious ways. You draw a picture, and then another one, and then another one, and if you need to explain something that you can't put in the picture, well then you just write it in there... and pretty soon you have a thing, a work of art, that communicates directly with people in a more involving way than any other method I know. I love comics.
WHAT I DISLIKE IN COMICS: On a day to day basis, I find the way that a large section of the people who are apparently devoted to the medium simply cannot recognise and respect that the people who make these things are real live human beings, and not their personal comics making servants.
But on a broader level, what really gets my goat is the way the anglophone comics industry seems almost hard-wired to try and destroy itself. Ever since we moved out of newspapers it's been one long march toward a shrinking, isolated market and pop culture obscurity.
Which is why I make webcomics.
FAVORITE CREATORS: Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Mike Mignola, Warren Ellis, Barry Windsor Smith, Moebius, Paul Grist, Alan Grant, Greg Rucka, Jason Aaron, Sean Phillips, Henry Flint, Brian Bolland, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Pat Mills, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb... I could do this all day.
IDEAL EVENING: Good company, good food, a little whisky and no work the next day.

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