Monday, 8 December 2014

Zenith: Phase 1 (2000AD #535–550)

"See?  What did I tell you?  Never trust a hippy." - Zenith

I've been waiting a long time for this collection.  Around this time last year (2013) I was browsing Amazon for gifts I'd like for Christmas and discovered that Phase's 1 to 3 had all been given release dates finally after a long time in rights hell.  "Joy" I think to myself, "those will make perfect gifts for moi" then I noticed the dates attached were 2014 for Phases 1 and 2 and 2015 for Phase 3 *sad trombone*.  But a year passed, and Phase One finally found it's way into my eager hands as a birthday gift pretty much a week after it's release.  And it was well worth the wait.  Actually I could have read it anytime, I own all the 2000AD progs with Zenith Phases 1, 2 and 3 in them but I am a lazy fuck and actually accessing them would require totally rearranging half my bedroom.  Anyway, it's nice to have it in a swish hardcover that keeps the pages the same size as the original which as I pointed out in my look at DR and Quinch really makes the art pop in a way the reduced sized reprints seem to lack somehow.

So what exactly is Zenith?  Well it's a 1987, "post Marvelman" superhero story played relatively straight which found itself a home in 2000AD, a UK anthology comic not noted for playing host to superheroes.  When you discover that the author was Grant Morrison (it was his first on-going series for a major publication) it becomes more understandable.  Of all the famous and prolific British comicbook writers, he's the only one who really embraces the concept of the superhero without the layers of irony, parody, spite and anger that motivate other UK writers who dabble in the superheroic genre. 
The boy himself, Robert "Zenith" McDowell
Zenith is the name of the superhero, and he is very much the product of aspects of late 80's Britain that mark him as quite different from other superheroes of the time.  He's a young man, a yuppie, a plastic pop star who sings disposable pop tunes and uses his powers to impress girls rather than fight crime.  Where the superheroes of Watchmen were screwed up and those found in Marshall Law, perverse, murderous and hypocritical, Zenith is quite happy with his life thank you very much and when something more inconvinient than recovering from a hangover intrudes on his life, he doesn't so much jump at the call than get reluctantly dragged along in the wake of events.
Page 1: Introducing Maximan
Of course, the writing is only half of a comic.  The art, in this case by Steve Yeowell is brilliant.  Clean, crisp, sparse in a good way, full of energy yet also effective in quieter moments as well.  One of the things I have always loved about the UK anthology comic format is how different artists were from each other.  You could never mistake say John Ridgeway material for Carlos Ezquerra's for instance. Steve Yeowell's Zenith work is like western comics done Japanese manga style and really stood out even at the time, which was towards the tail end of 2000AD's most fertile period for breaking new artists and writers.  What's also noticable I find when reading collections of 2000AD material is just how pacy and full of incident they are, they are like the anti-Brian Michael Bendis comic.  This is of course because they are compilations of six to eight page chapters meaning you get three times as many cliffhanger moments than US comics and Zenith has some pretty cracking ones.

The first chapter is set during World War 2, the introductory page is a chirpy newsreel showing a British superhero who is superstrong and impervious to bullets.  He is called Maximan and has been designed to take out the German equivalent, Masterman. The next page shows Maximan badly beaten after a fight with Masterman in the middle of Berlin.  As Masterman prepares to finish him off, saying it's the time of the "Many-Angled Ones" the AMericans drop and atomic bomb on them.

Masterman about to get an atom bomb to the face.
The action then moves to Berlin in 1987 where a man and a woman go into a secret building where Masterman is being held in suspended animation and say they plan to wake him up.  At the same time in London, an ex-superhero Ruby Fox is being interviewed on breakfast TV about a new book covering the superteam "Cloud 9" she was part of in the sixties and does she think it's unfair towards them. She says it is and goes on to say:

Ruby: "We were young.  The victims of an experimental drug which had given us extraordinary abilities.  None of us new just how we were supposed to behave.  Really it shouldn't have come as any surprise that we were on a collision course with disaster."

The next day Zenith comes crashing through the skylight of his agents office, who is watching Ruby and Zenith's appearance on video.  Zenith has been at a party the previous night and is somewhat hungover. His agent asks if he can do a promotional appearance on a certain day by Zenith says it falls at the lowest point of his "biogram" and won't be able to fly, so no. On the video when the interviewer asks him how he feels about the books portrayal of his parents "Dr.Beat" and "White Light" he brushes it off saying he got bored by the books contents page.  His agent fusses that he worries about what all the partying is doing to Zenith.

Zenith: "I'm 19, I can fly, I can flatten ball bearings between my fingers and I'm practically invulnerable. I mean let's face it, what can possibly go wrong?"
Iok Sotot is summoned.
Back with the two Germans, they initiate a ritual to summon one of the Many-Angled Ones and a creature with many mouths and eyes appears. The woman pushes the reluctant man out of the safety of the summoning circle and the pressure from the eldritch being causes him to explode.  This sacrifice completes the ritual and the Many-Angled One takes control of Masterman.  He tells her his name is Iok Sotot - The Eater of Souls - and he is to prepare the way for the coming of the others.  First thing he plans to do is visit London.

The action cuts to Ruby Fox, suddenly suffering a terrible migraine.  She thinks on how the BBC asked her to present a programme on Cloud 9 and how she felt about losing her powers, which she lied about.  Later Masterman comes crashing through the door into he flat.

Masterman: "Your name is Ruby Fox.  Twenty years ago you called yourself Voltage and you could manipulate electrical fields.  Now you're a magazine editor.  Now you can't do anything. But perhaps you could still be used as breeding stock, eh?"
Ruby gives Masterman a shock.
She says that she can't have children, that being sterile was a side effect of their powers (setting up a mystery in regards to Zenith's parentage).  Masterman says he'll just have to hurt her then.  But she reaches into the power supply and manages to electrocute Masterman hard enough to allow her to leap out of the window and fly away.  She goes to Zenith to ask him to help her, but he is more interested in shooting a video.  When she shorts out the electrics in the equipment nearby he decides to listen to her.

She tells him that in 1923, Adolf Hitler was initiated into The Order Of The Black Sun.  When he gained power her was put in touch with certain entities - The Many-Angled Ones - who could only manifest in superhuman bodies like Masterman (with Maximan being created by defecting German scientists). Although the first Masterman was killed in the Berlin atom bomb strike, a second Masterman was also created and it's this one that is running amok now. Zenith still refuses to help, so Ruby plays her trump card saying she will tell him what really happened to his parents.  They then go and seek out the one of the final two superpowered people from Cloud 9 who is still about, a Peter "Mandala" St.John.

Ruby: "More than any of us he represented a whole generation of people who peace and love could change the world.  And now... now he's Mrs. Thatcher's golden boy."
According to GMozz, Peter was the breakout character of the strip.
Peter introduces himself to them, but when the situation with Masterman is explained to him he dismisses it as "preposterous".  He accuses Ruby of trying to set up some kind of "pathetic" Cloud 9 reunion and walks out on her and Zenith saying he has an election to fight.  Ruby and Zenith decide to find the final surviving member of Cloud 9 Siadwel "Red Dragon" Rhys, who has fire based powers. As she and Zenith fly off to see him, Iok Sotot leaves Masterman's body and contemplates the whole of Earth "ripe with souls" and begins to drool.  Ruby and Zenith arrive at a Welsh pub and inside find the out of shape and drunk Siadwel.

Zenith: "This is the guy who used to be able to turn solid rock into lava just by thinking hard at it! The sixties most powerful superhuman! And all he's fit for now is soaking up whiskey like blotting paper and burning the toast!"
A gone to seed Siadwel.
Siadwel says his powers are long gone, but a frustrated Zenith won't take him at his word and grabs him and flies him high in the air before dropping him.  Siadwel plummets for a short distance then suddenly flies to safety.  Next Zenith smashes his whiskey bottles, and in a rage Siadwel yells he lost his powers while simultaneously lighting up on fire.  When he realises they have come back, Zenith says there is work to do.

Zenith and Ruby spend the next week retraining Siadwel to be able to use his powers effectively.  When they are ready to leave he pours the last of his whiskey down the toilet and puts on his old costume.   Meanwhile Peter St.John goes into his office and finds his secretary dead and Masterman waiting for him.  Masterman tells him to play along with the Cult Of The Black Sun and great things will come his way.

Masterman: "Not that your planet has any future, but there might be a place for you in the new world we plan to create. That's why I'm letting you live.  Say 'Thank you Masterman'"

Peter: "Thank you.. Masterman."

Masterman: " if you'll excuse me, I have to destroy the world."

Siadwel gets serious
Back in Wales, Zenith tells Ruby he could lose his powers anyday now as the are linked to his biorythmns, but that "today is my good day".  Vexed, Ruby decides to take the train to London while Zenith and Siadwel fly.  On the way Siadwel mentions a mysterious plan all the members of Cloud 9 had apart from him and Peter, but doesn't elaborate what it was.

Masterman begins to destroy London, but Ruby takes him on.  Then Siadwel and Zenith arrive and Siadwel hits Masterman very hard when it looks like he is about to kill Ruby.  Before he can hit him a second time, Masterman fries Siadwel down to a skeleton with his eye-beams.  Zenith steps up and they trade blows, Masterman hits Zenith hard enough to bounce him off Big Ben.  He beats Zenith down but before he can kill him, Peter arrives.
Siadwel dies rather anti-climactically.
Peter's powers are telepathic and he messes with Masterman's perception, while Masterman is confused, Zenith hits him hard enough that his fist goes right through him.  This only kills the container though, now they have to deal with Iok Sotot who sucks them into it's dimension. Peter mentally scans the being, setting up plot points for future arcs as he does so:

Masterman is killed but worse is to come.
Peter: "I hadn't realised the scale of their plans...millions of worlds moving towards alignment...the war that never ends... the omnihedron..."

Then Iok Sotot finds them.

Inside Iok Sotot
It tells them that it will spend a thousand years feasting on their souls.  Peter says that when Masterman confronted him in his office he took the opportunity to plant a powerful post-hypnotic suggestion in his brain which will result in seizures and death when he activates it using the words "Tyger! Tyger!" 
He might be a Tory, but he's a bit of a badass too.
This causes Iok Sotot to go into a death spasm and it spits out Zenith and Peter.
Iok Sotot dies.
The story concludes with Ruby, Peter and Zenith at Siadwel's funeral.  Peter says he only fought Masterman to gain votes, while Ruby says to Zenith that she'll tell him about his parents when she gets back from holiday.  Once back in London, Peter is offered and accepts the post of Secretary of State for Defence, Zenith attends a party celebrating the latest hits chart performance which was boosted by his heroism against Masterman, while the final loose end of the woman who summoned Iok Sotot is dealt with by the Cult of the Black Sun who blow her up for mishandling the Masterman affair.
Zenith celebrates with his agent, Eddie.
That finishes the first Zenith arc, although this collection includes a short flashback to Maximan before he was killed, a story describing the creation and history of Cloud 9  (narrated by their creator who omniously finishes by saying he needs to start again, with Zenith) and a collection of covers in full colour from the original 2000AD run and the Quality comics reprints, which are a nice bonus.

Zenith Phase One is an excellent story.  It's almost swaggeringly confident in it's execution, hard to believe it was Morrison's first major, widely read work.  It was deliberately grounded in the Britain of 1987, making reading it for me, tremendously nostalgic, although younger readers shouldn't be too lost by the pop cultural references of the time.  The mixture of superhero and H.P. Lovecraft inspired horror is pulled off very well and future plotlines are skillfully set in place without you ever feeling you're missing something.  Morrison has been quite frank about it being a step towards getting his hands on American superhero properties, but he doesn't half-arse it, and continued to write Zenith even when he had landed those prestigious DC writing gigs.  It should go without saying that Morrison was given the perfect artist for the job although it's noticable that Yeowell's work is much more effective and striking in black and white than in the coloured pages of the storyline.  It was a collection that was a long time coming out, but is well worth getting your hands on if you enjoy Grant Morrison's work.


  1. I never understand why people do deals with those extra-dimensional abominations. It's as illogical as doing a deal with the Devil. Mind you, if they hadn't dealt with the Many-Angled Ones to create people like Zenith and Mandala then Zenith and Mandala wouldn't have been able to eventually defeat the Many-Angled Ones, so... it all worked out in the end?

  2. I think it's the promise of power. People get greedy for power and beings like the Many-Angled Ones take advantage of that. Never mind you have a high chance of being splattered to bits when you outlive your usefulness, people always think they can bend Lovecraftian abominations to their will.

    This time though, you're right, they were hoist on their own petard. Still I know plans are laid here for Zenith Phase 3, I'm looking forward to picking up Phase 2 around Xmas though, I can't remember much about that one except it deals with Zenith's parents...

  3. i don't usually like grant morrisons stuff, too confusing! but this looks pretty cool :)

  4. It's definitely a series I can whole-heartedly recommend to non-Morrison fans. Compared to stuff like Doom Patrol and The Invisibles it's very straightforward and easy to follow.