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|
|Page 1: Introducing Maximan|
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.|
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.|
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 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.|
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.|
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: "...now if you'll excuse me, I have to destroy the world."
|Siadwel gets serious|
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.|
|Masterman is killed but worse is to come.|
Then Iok Sotot finds them.
|Inside Iok Sotot|
|He might be a Tory, but he's a bit of a badass too.|
|Iok Sotot dies.|
|Zenith celebrates with his agent, Eddie.|
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.