Monday, 2 February 2015

Zenith: Phase One & Two

Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell
Zenith: Phase One (1987) Zenith: Phase Two (1988)

I was going to do just the first of these two, but you know how it is once you've started and you can't have just one. Plus I've been fiending for this shit since 1994 when I found myself obliged to make a choice between my large collection of 2000AD comics and regular access to a lady's vagina.

Zenith was Grant Morrison breaking into mainstream comics, or at least breaking into mainstream comics which people read. If you look closely you will notice that it's essentially his take on Brendan McCarthy's Paradax mashed up with Alan Moore's version of Marvelman with a load of Moorcock chucked in for good measure. This isn't a criticism, only an acknowledgement of Zenith wearing its influences on its sleeve, at least for most of Phase One. This is because the methodology of Morrison's writing is, at its most basic, tantamount to that thing you do when expecting a visitor, so you have a quick think about which book will create the strongest impression as your guest arrives, and you turn in your swivel chair to face them with the world's least convincing chuckle.

'Oh hello! You'll have to excuse me - I was just brushing up on my Kierkegaard.'

This is why so much of
Morrison's dialogue, particularly early on in his career, is often so arch and affected and so damn teenage. It's portentous horror movie straplines as conversation.

'Are you Gideon Stargrave?

'As often as possible, but you know how it is these days.'

Possibly the funniest example of this that I've yet seen was an issue of the Thundercats comic in which Morrison was busily getting the Moore-by-numbers thing out of his system with first person narrative captions and traumatic back story as substitute for character.

My name is Liono. I am ten years old, followed by junior Liono being bummed flat by one of the older kittens at Thundercat school or something of that sort, closing with the aspirationally chilling Yeowell zoom-in on tear-stained whiskers, and again My name is Liono. I am ten years old...

This isn't a bad thing, but it's a bit comical if you don't get it right and then go on record stating that you taught Alan Moore everything he knew in an autobiography reading much like that of Spawny Get from Viz comic.

As I shagged my massively titted supermodel girlfriend on that pile of sweets, I suddenly had a great idea for a bold new direction for Batman. So I turned to my famous friend John Andrew, the drummer from Kingmaker, and I said...

Anyway, I was more easily pleased in 1987 when Zenith first turned up in the pages of 2000AD, but it still seemed like a huge, bold statement in comparison with the rest of the comic. Phase One still works for me, but mainly because I remember how great it looked first time around. Here in 2012, I can't help but notice how thin it actually is, but the disparity is not so pronounced as to diminish the pleasure of reading it once again. Phase One barely has a story at all, but gets away with it through having just the right book in its hand as it turns to greet you with studied nonchalance, and a genuinely wonderful sense of timing; plus all the jokes still work, which is sort of the same thing. Surprisingly Yeowell's artwork now looks quite ropey, all those big wide faces with their tiny, piggy eyes, but he makes up for it with deft use of shadow; and by the time we come to Phase Two he's absolutely nailed it. The same goes for the writing, which by Phase Two has built up just enough mythology to make things interesting when it all falls apart; and by Phase Two I'd remembered just what made Zenith so great.

As with a lot of Morrison's work, it's all about surface - much like Zenith himself - and here with surface presenting a thoroughly convincing illusion of depth. It seems telling that our boy now regards Zenith as having been a mere job, just one path trodden on his road to stardom. Zenith, having originated in 2000AD, was Morrison doing the sort of nutty shit he does best with some IPC gorilla stood at his side forcing him to behave, perhaps giving him licks every time a Crowley quote looked like it was turning into one of those dreary, meaningless essays. The Invisibles was, by some definition, Zenith without the restraints which saved it from its own author and thus made it readable.

In just two collected volumes this story goes from something that could almost have been published in one of those horrible eighties fanzines with two seventeen year-old nobodies from Chichester presenting their own extraordinarily po-faced take on the X-Men, to something which is at least as loud and exciting as the first Sex Pistols album. We meet a superhero who is essentially a twat, and another who is probably Michael Heseltine with a heart, and Lovecraft gets raked over with a little more vigour than usual, and Morrison reveals his true genius in explaining exactly why a real Superman couldn't end world hunger, war, or any of that stuff - part fourteen of Phase Two, in case you're interested; and all of this whilst casually waving its arse at Margaret Thatcher. Warts and all, Zenith is still fucking brilliant.

1 comment:

  1. What a great essay; I completely agree with all of that! I was just the right age to appreciate Zenith when it first appeared in 2000 AD and I still have a lot of affection for it. As you point out, it borrowed liberally from elsewhere but to the many readers like me who were unfamiliar with these sources it was a breath of fresh air. And what I think Morrison and Yeowell uniquely brought to the strip was giving it a real sense of time and place. As someone once pointed out, the collection of phase one makes a perfect time capsule for the year 1987. It was also really good fun to read in an episodic form in 2000 AD at the time quickly finishing the six pages and happily wasting far too much of the following week wondering what was going to happen next. There was also lots of daring, (for the time) allusions to sex, violence and bad language which admittedly isn't very big or clever but seemed very exciting at the time. Haven't read it for a while but glad to hear it still stands up well.