Sunday, August 11, 2013

Finding Grant Morrison's Lost Superhero Epic, Zenith

Zenith, by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell
2000AD 1987-1992, Rebellion 2013
A few weeks ago at The Beat, Laura Sneddon wrote a great series of articles covering the legal drama surrounding Rebellion UK's reprinting of the lost Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell 2000AD superhero epic, Zenith. In short, Rebellion feel they have the right to reprint it - and are doing so in a limited edition £100 deluxe hardcover this winter, which has already sold out its limited print run - while Morrison believes the work is his and Yeowell's. (Yeowell appears cool with the Rebellion reprint.) Sneddon's articles - which you can find here - are a fascinating read, going into great detail about the legal issues behind the conflict between Morrison and Rebellion and comprehensively discussing the finer points of UK copyright law and their differences with US copyright law.

I've long been interested in reading Zenith, but haven't been able to. Originally serialized between 1987 and 1992 in the long running UK comics anthology 2000AD, Morrison and Yeowell's Zenith has been out of print since the initial Titan reprint albums produced during the series' initial run. (And I sure as hell wasn't dropping $160 on the hardcover.) Luckily I'm friends with many folks with extensive collections of hard-to-find things, and industry veteran Steve Bunche swooped in and let me read his (very valuable) copies of the Titan albums.

Despite the influx of superstar writers from the British Isles - like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and of course Grant Morrison - who spearheaded the creative surge in American mainstream and superhero comics starting in the mid-1980s, the United Kingdom did not have (and largely still does not have) its own unique tradition of superhero storytelling. There were minor exceptions, such as the wogbogglingly complicated Marvelman, but the main focus of British comics was on (usually sci-fi) anthology magazines like the weekly 2000AD. It was in light of this that Morrison and Yeowell (with Brandon McCarthy) created Zenith. 2000AD's first superhero work, Morrison saw Zenith as an opportunity to forge a new tradition of British superhero storytelling. While it did not ignite an influx of superhero stories, Zenith manages to stand as one of the influential 1980s superhero stories that redefined what superheroes (and superhero comics) were.

The titular Zenith is a superpowered British 19 year old. The last of a short line of superpowered individuals going back to the 1960s (but with its roots in the Second World War), Zenith, rather than being a superhero, chooses instead to be a pop star (not that there's really that much to be a superhero against). With bestselling albums and television interviews, Zenith is far from the heroic ideal. He could care less about saving the day and would rather chat up starlets and get smashed at parties. He is abrasive, whiny, and completely ignoble. He parlays his abilities and stardom into a payday and he has no interest in any greater service to country or humanity.

In Zenith, the tradition of superheroics from the 1960s was snuffed out when the prevailing superteam of the time turned hippy and pacifist and split up after some disappeared (or were assassinated by the CIA). One of them, Peter St. John, the former master mystic Mandala, is now a highly positioned conservative in British Parliament. As the series progresses, he would eventually find his way into the Prime Minister's seat, no small thanks to his powers. There is some overarching mystery as to what happened to Zenith's parents and some bubbling conspiracy theory that goes back to World War 2, but nothing remotely resembling most superhero comics of then or now, no cape on cape fights or attempts at taking over the world (too much work to maintain power, according to one). But that isn't to say that there was no conflict in the book - indeed, there was, one which would come to envelope the entire globe and thousands of parallel universes.

Many of Morrison's superhero works deal with the potential of the genre and of the comics form. At the time he was making this, though, his creative endeavors reflected a certain cynicism - see my comprehensive look at his Dan Dare comic with Rian Hughes from the same period, for instance. As I've noted elsewhere, superpowered beings doing the superhero thing (be it vigilantism or facing off against other superpowered muckety-mucks) is a uniquely American idea and pursuit - in Zenith, Morrison presents an early post-modern examination of the "realities" of superpowers. With St. John's conservatism and his use of powers to attain political power and Zenith's apathy and obsession with celebrity, we get a slightly harder edge from Morrison then we're used to with his superhero work.

But commentary on superpowers is not Morrison's intent with Zenith's four phases. Telling a massive, epic, and completely original superhero story, one unencumbered by preexisting continuity and featuring wholly original characters, is his intent. And in that, it succeeds. As much as I would have enjoyed a tale about the frankly irredeemable Zenith, the book is ultimately about an effort by heroes dragged from every corner of every parallel Earth to save the multiverse. Throughout much of the book, Zenith hardly plays any active role at all; during the climax of one of the phases, he was hilariously off minding his own damn business drinking a soda. So the conflict, as it stretches across the four volumes: an ancient, nearly infinitely powerful Lovecraftian evil (The Lloigor) is infecting the entirety of the multiverse and it must be stopped. There's a lot of expansive, trippy science fiction and horror, and some genuinely funny and unique characters. (I particularly liked Maximan's fractured monologues). This is early Morrison and feels like it, not quite as polished as he would become, naturally. But overall, the story is unique and entertaining.  

Much of 2000AD's art from this period featured cramped black and white art packing as much into the magazine-sized page as possible in large part because of 2000AD's limitations - each chapter is just 6 to 8 pages long, for instance. Too often with 2000AD art, the sci-fi subject matter demands more room to breathe, room usually denied by editors or creators stuffing as much story as possible into each chapter. As enjoyable as Alan Moore's work for the magazine from the same era is, in works like Skizz or Halo Jones the art distractingly cannot live up to the demands of the narrative. But thanks to Morrison's broad pacing of the tale, Yeowell's art throughout Zenith's four phases features clear, bold, and fantastic superhero visual storytelling (although parts of Phase 3 seem a little rushed and hard to follow). And Yeowell and McCarthy's design work is immaculate, focusing on more functional outfits for the various heroes, eschewing tights and capes and other such nonsense. (As much as I love superhero comics warts and all, I just hate superhero outfits. They're just stupid.) Thanks to Yeowell's efforts, the story only feels like a 2000AD work because of the unavoidable six-page chapters.

Zenith stands with such 1980s classics as Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, Marvelman/Miracleman and The Dark Knight Returns as part of the wave of innovative and influential superhero stories that deconstructed, rethought, re-imagined and redefined the very idea of the superhero in its own way. And while it has not penetrated the larger superhero comic culture because of the lack of reprints, and while it is not either creator's strongest work, Morrison and Yeowell's accomplishment is historically significant for this reason; if anything, significant as an enjoyable, completely original and self-contained superhero epic. Hopefully someday it can be reprinted in a fashion agreeable to all parties so that its influence can be recognized by the larger audience it deserves.

1 comment:

  1. ZENITH IS A BLOODY MASTERPIECE> Unfortunately I don't own the Titan reprints but I DO have 70% of the run reprinted in 2000ad Monthly.It's Morrisson's most entertaining work, in my opinion and I just love it. Sod The Invisibles and all that sweary metafictional disappearing-up-it's-arsehole-ery, ZENITH IS WHERE IT'S AT. End of lecture. i'd LOVE that hardcover, though.....