Book Club / and Yet Another Completely Inconsistent Pivot

ZenithZenith
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Steve Yeowell

 

The basic premise of Zenith is that Zenith is a superhero who’s basically a cocky little gobshite. Which – coincidentally was also Grant Morrison’s persona back in the day. Long story short Grant Morrison basically made the calculation that the best way to make themself known in the comic book industry was by being an obnoxious prick and desecrating lots of sacred cows (which mostly it seemed involves saying things like “Watchmen is overrated” which is a tradition is keeps up to this very day). Partly I’m guessing this is a stance that originated from the fact that their first choice of career was being in a band. And you know – the whole punk mentality that kinda drifted over everything that for a while there basically meant that if you wanted to get anywhere you needed to cuss off all the other bands who were bigger than you in order to stand out (“I just think that Coldplay is basically music for vegans” or whatever). To be fair to them – this was a strategy that worked. They got lots of publicity. Their star ascended. And they’re now arguably one of the major comic book writers of all time.  

Thing is tho – while I’ll admit that some of their books are definitely in the “very fucking good” category (The FilthAll Star SupermanWe3 etc) I think it’s a bit more of an open question working out when exactly they first perfected their magical formula. Like yeah ok some people rave about Doom Patrol, Animal Man and The Invisibles but there’s something about those books that always just leaves me slightly cold. Like listening to a song that doesn’t have a melody. Or something. I don’t know. 

And of course before all that – there was Zenith. Which – ha! – if you want to be cruel about it – is basically Grant Morrison doing Miracleman. Although framing it like that kinda means that it can’t help but come across as feeling pretty lacking… 

(Not only are both series about what superheroes would look like if they were set in England and all of the incongruities that would result – but strangely both of them achieved mythical status due to the fact that for a long time neither were publicly available unless you had the original back issues). 

First things first: this definitely isn’t Steve Yeowell’s fault. Like I’ll admit it did take me an awful long time to warm up to Steve Yeowell’s artwork. He’s done lots of 2000AD stuff and growing up I always thought that his artwork felt kinda… pencilly? Like it was all just outlines that hadn’t been filled in properly. And compared to the artists that I really loved (like Simon Bisley LOL obviously) Steve Yeowell’s stuff just kinda seemed… anaemic? (no offense Steve!). But you know growing up and learning to appreciate the finer things in life I realise now that the dude is really good at what he does. Yeah his stuff is uncluttered but that’s because he’s so damn precise. He’s like a martial arts master who can knock you to the ground just by using his pinkie. He builds whole worlds with just the right combination of lines. Never using any more than are absolutely necessary. It’s actually kinda beautiful. Like those ancient Chinese artists who make three marks on a page and they’ve drawn a river and a bridge and a bird landing on the shoulder of a couple kissing (you know what I mean right?). 

But erm yeah – having just read Zenith Phase 1 I’ll admit that the writing isn’t as impressive as it probably should be. Like it all starts pretty well and it’s interesting to have a main character who has superhuman powers and only wants to use that to become – a popstar (LOL). And yeah the anticipation is cool because evil Nazi supervillian who’s actually a Lovecraftian monster from beyond our Dimension is always going to be a recipe for a good time (of course). But erm – the final denouement is pretty underwhelming to say the least (Think the first time I read it I may have said “Really? That’s it?” out loud). I mean it’s a bit rich to sell yourself as offering a fresh new take on superheroes and then resolve things with a twist that feels like it was stolen from a Saturday morning cartoon. 

Also erm – having the hero being a Tory MP is… interesting. Especially when you consider how Grant Morrison’s politics have seemed to have gone incredibly more established as they’re got older in a way that basically mirrors Peter St John. 

Never trust a hippy I guess is the lesson here? Or you know – maybe not every legend can live up to itself. 

RAMSEY
Twitter
 

 

I might give this book a whirl even though I was initially put off by it being a knock off of Milligan and McCarthy’s fab Paradox in look and character 

 

I wouldn’t describe it necessarily as a “knock-off”. The initial character designs for zenith were by Brendan McCarthy, artist/co creator of paradax.

Quick £0.02 on zenith from me – book 1 was derivative and not particularly great. Both the writer and artist were finding their feet. Book 2 was a huge improvement, and book 3 was superb. Steve Yeowell’s art really was unique, and beautiful. And the silliness of the whole multiverse of superheroes based on pop stars was great fun. Book 4 was ok, soiled by the backup artist putting funny ski jump noses on everybody, but the surprise twist ending was inspired, it’s stayed with me over the years.

I’ll maybe write a bit more about grant morrison in general another time.

RAMSEY
Twitter
 

 

Brendan McCarthy on one of his usual Twitter rants once tweeted calling Zenith a Paradax knock off, so?

 

Fair do’s. Maybe I’m missing out on not following Mr McCarthy on twitter. Or not 🙂

There is some similarity, I guess, beyond the shoulder pads and jacket. They’re both basically self centred characters. But the style and storytelling are quite different. Paradax wasn’t ever interested in world building, it was much more one-liner cleverness, as I remember. Tank girl before tank girl.

None of which is to say that zenith isn’t derivative. It certainly is. Volume 1 was clearly jumping on the grimdark watchmen/dark knight train, and was all the Les interesting for it. It got better when it started to develop its own character.

RAMSEY
Twitter
 

 

I think we have to appreciate the history.

Once upon a Nineteen Eighties, the only new thought on superheroes was Alan Moore on Marvelman. 

Milligan and McCarthy made the supposition “what if a regular London white working class lad became a superhero?” Their answer was Paradax – a pot smoking, beer downing celebrity gobshite with his own manager. 

With his quiff and snazzy garms, he was the street realism that Moore injected into his own superhero take but it had no interest in the superhero lore and four coloured epic adventures.

Zenith is an amalgamation of that – Paradax’s look and satirical attitude with Moore’s superhero story written by a punk kid with an affinity for ‘homaging’ the work of Michael Moorcock – so much so that I think Morrison in his one-sided feud with the Northampton comics wizard accused Moore of tipping Moorcock off to the Scottish upstart’s cribbing of his work and there was a legal suit lol 

It’s all rumour and gossip I speak but I hear Zenith is actually a decent read despite its controversies lol 

Reading Zenith Phase II and I can hear Julian Casablancas mournfully singing in my head: “Is this it?” 

There’s lots of trimmings and little fancy details – like the idea that the only reason American superhero comic books exist is because America doesn’t have any real superheroes of its own (cute) but basically the whole story boils down to: What if Richard Branson was a supervillain? 

Like – it’s a half-decent idea but the disappointing thing with Zenith is that it doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. I mean – you could obviously make a point about global Capitalism or how much power the super-rich hold or how Corporations are slowly taking over everything but instead the whole thing kinda rests upon Zenith saying: “Actually – you know what? Ruling the world would probably be really boring and difficult.”

Like yeah ok it’s a pretty deft portrait of an egomaniac that has no real considerations for anything else apart from their own short term desires but as a climax for a whole story it just feels pretty flat. Like a joke from a cartoon or something. Good twists usually end up making stories feel deeper and more complex – but with Zenith it feels like the opposite. If the bad guy doesn’t even take their own plans seriously then why should you? 

Having said that – I did like Zenith’s line: “You can’t just let him blow up London! I live there!” (what was I saying about egomaniacs?) 

All in all tho the first two Zenith books (or “Phases” sorry) feel like they take on too many of the qualities of their protagonist – everything is surface and it all feels two-dimensional and superficial. It kinda wants to revel in all sorts of superhero tropes at the same time as it wants to deconstruct them and so in the end just ends up feeling… undernourished. A bit like it’s Richard Branson analog – there’s a sense that it hasn’t really worked out any of the finer details apart from “oh hey – this would be cool.” Or to put it another way – the story doesn’t really feel like it has that much of a point apart from doing superheroes in a bit more of an English kinda way. Kinda like hearing a song you already know but played on different instruments in a different key that ends up making you miss the real thing. Like: maybe instead it should be playing a different song you know?

Not much of a Zenith then. More a plateau. 

Last night I read Zenith Phase III and yeah I’ve got to say – I’m still not really feeling it LOL

My ears pricked up at Dave description of: “a whole multiverse of superheroes based on pop stars” because yeah wow that sounds like a really amazing idea. But maybe because it was written in the late 80s I didn’t actually recognise anyone (?). Was kinda hoping for a superhero version of The Cure and Morrissey and Micheal Jackson but instead it was just – a whole mishmash of different stuff? There’s an Anarchist person. There’s a guy who’s really quick. Some big guy called Ben (lol – Miracleman reference maybe?) and – a bunch of other people. 

My beef with Zenith in general is that it all feels so incredibly bitty. Like I just watched this video that says that the problem with Zack Synder films is that they’re based around moments instead of scenes and I feel like the same problem is there with Zenith. Everything feels too short and under developed. I think that the main issue here is that Zenith is basically a superhero comic book which is a genre that was developed for 28 pages an issue. And at the risk of stating the complete obvious – Zenith is a 2000AD strip. Which means that every installment is only 5 or 6 pages long which yeah – basically means it’s a whole different rhythm. And while I think that works perfectly with certain types of stores (Judge Dredd I’m looking at you) with Zenith it makes everything feel simultaneously much too rushed and far too slow. 

Also – just in terms of knowing the limitations of your medium (and this is no knock on the artistic prowess of Steve Yeowell) but erm – maybe it’s not the best idea to write a story about a whole multiverse of superheroes… when the comic is in black and white? I mean seriously dude – it’s just seems kinda obvious. I mean if there’s anything that defines superheroes it’s their colours. Superman is Blue, Red and Yellow. Batman is Black and Grey and Yellow. Spiderman is Red, Blue and White. Hulk is Green and Purple. Captain America is Red, White and Blue and there’s that guy with the magic wishing ring who also has a distinctive colour palette too. Point being – telling a multi-world superhero story in black and white is as smart as writing a car chase for a radio show. It just… betrays a lack of foresight. And there were lots of bits where I had real trouble working out what was going on (not my fault! LOL)

 And yeah also – at this point Zenith isn’t really satirising or doing anything all that clever with superhero tropes – it’s just revelling in them. And yeah you know maybe that was the point all along but it just feels kinda… disappointing. Especially in the way that it glorifies in the philosophy of “explosions and violence are the answer to everything.” I mean a lot of the best 2000AD strips and stories kinda push back against this idea in lots of nice and interesting ways (Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War literally ends with Dredd nuking an entire city in a way that definitely doesn’t leave you punching your fist into the air). But yeah Zenith’s approach is pretty much – big explosions will save the day (YAWN) 

Oh and also there’s shockingly offense transphobic joke right at the end that I’m surprised hasn’t got Grant Morrison cancelled. And to be honest that was kinda the most interesting moment of the whole book. 

Phase IV is supposed to be good tho right? 

 

Quick bestiary of characters from zenith book 3…

This is “Ben” that you referred to. I doubt it’s a reference back to Miracleman (to Big Ben?) I think the name’s chosen as similar to “Dan” – I always read him as an analogue to Desperate Dan – with the weird addition of a communist-looking hat

Acknowledging that Desperate Dan isn’t actually a pop star, and moving swiftly on…

These two had a sort of Wham/David Bowie thing about them – (Wham circa “Wake me up before you go go” and Bowie circa “Let’s Dance”, i.e. both at the height of commercial mass-appeal, rather than artistic peaks). They tended to have very clean-cut white-teethed smiles, can’t find a picture on google images that shows them smiling…

Here’s Siouxsie Sioux, and Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd (the likeness to Gilmour might be subjective on my part, and informed. by the fact she’s quoting a line from a song on “The Wall”  – “what shall we do now, to fill the empty spaces where we used to talk?”). I read somewhere that Morrison liked to inject song lyrics into his writing. BTW I love the art on this page, Steve Yeowell’s brushy command of negative space is superb

Jimmy Quick (you’ve already posted a pic of him) resembles Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards, and the baggy t-shirt and cycling short look has a kind of electro-synth band look to it, I can’t quote place whether it’s New Order or Erasure now)

An anarchist supergroup Black Flag (named after the US punk band?) with a UK punk/Jonny Rotten lookalike, Run-DMC/US hop-hop lookalike, seen from the back here, and Mantra, who looks a bit like Sinead o’Connor if you squint.)

Oliver Cromwell (like Desperate Dan, he’s not actually a pop star as such…is that the sound of a barrel being scraped somewhere, as I cling to my “they were all pop stars” theory?)

…and there’s a couple of mop-top characters who look like the Happy Mondays who appear for a couple of panels before getting zapped by the Lliogor. Sorry I couldn’t find a pic of them…

There’s my rather scrappy evidence – I rest my case 🙂


Random Musings

– in most cases, the characters who resemble larger, more successful bands (or older more established ones) are possessed by the Lloigor, and end up zapping the upcoming/indie types.

– it was surprising that there wasn’t a Morrissey/Smiths character in there (Yeowell did depict him later in the New Adventures of Hitler)

– other missed opportunities from 80’s music include lookalikes of Elvis Costello, the Flying Pickets, Madness and David Byrne in his big white suit days, which is just crying out for a Steve Yeowell drawing

– the Ollie Cromwell character, a very unsympthetically-portrayed right-wing nut job/religious zealot, ends up being crucial to defeating the big bad. Along with Peter St. John, the series’ resident Tory MP. Both odd choices given the overall countercultural, anti-authority vibe.

– he was absolutely making things up as he went along. Why TF did Book 1 introduce Lovecraft monsters as the baddies? (Disclaimer: I will never ever understand the appeal of HP Lovecraft’s work in any form.) By book 3, whenever anyone gets possessed by a lovecraft monster, they start talking in a strange camp way (“I’m electroman – aren’t I gorgeous!”) – which I can’t help but read as a tacit admission that the whole idea of adding Lovecraft into the mix was a silly idea. I may be bringing my own baggage to bear here

– Lovecraft Schmovecraft!!- yeah, the transphobic joke has aged poorly, and was in poor taste to begin with. Could do much better (he has done a little bit better at LGBTQIA+ representation, arguably, with Danny The Street and Lord Fanny in Invisibles, at a time when it wasn’t so much on the cultural radar).

– on the whole “did Morrison steal from Moore/Moorcock” thing that’s overshadowing this discussion, I went down the rabbit hole a week or so ago, reading Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s stuff, and Laura Sneddon’s responses. I came out without having discovered the truth at the bottom of the well, but I’ve got to say, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Moore seems to be pouring more energy into it out of the two. Moore’s had an undeniably great influence on comics, and he also can over-exaggerate his influence. Having heard all the rumours of theft, it’s probably hard to come to Zenith without looking for it.

Zenith was disposable fluff, full of clever zeitgeist references which have been somewhat lost in the intervening decades. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia buzz of revisiting it. I recognise that nostalgia’s a very personal thing. 
But my goodness, Steve Yeowell’s art here was superb.

Ok, let’s get zenith phase 4 done, then…

The transition to colour didn’t do it any favours (I think this was originally printed in colour? I can’t quite remember now – anyway, big step backwards after the gorgeous monochrome of phase 3). Nor did it help that Steve Yeowell utilised a second artist to help get it done. Something about the draughtsmanship was just slightly off

I can’t quite put my finger on it…

Apart from those minor niggles, though, there’s a lot I enjoyed about this book. The framing narration of Dr Peyne’s diaries as he ages in reverse, with the last few entries written in a childish voice and hand was lovely. There’s some early surrealism that has the feel of his later work on Doom Patrol. And yet another completely inconsistent pivot on what the Lovecraft creatures actually are.

And the surprise ending was excellent. It’s kind of a hackneyed superhero trope that everyone dies halfway through and then it turns out that it was all a dream/parallel reality/macguffin, but something about this one really worked, and the William Blake quote topped it off perfectly. That reveal to Peter St John holding the omnihedron is probably one of the passages in comics that’s stayed with me more than any other.

Ok here’s my take on Zenith Phase IV:

I kinda liked it. 

(Yeah. Shocking I know).  

Of all of the Zenith books it’s the one with the best sense of atmosphere. It starts off with this kinda elegiac tone that feels really beautiful to me. The end of the world has happened. The good guys lost. There’s only one person left alive and he’s reading a book that no one will ever read. (Except of course thanks to the miracle of storytelling – we’re the ones who get to read it). And yeah I don’t know – maybe I’m a easy mark or something but this kinda stuff that presses a lot of my buttons and I just think it’s really cool. You could call it narrative collapse if you want to sound smart about it (seeing the thing that you never really get to see) but then what’s all the best stories are about right? Showing you things you’ve never seen before. 

The other thing that I thought was really cool – the hands for heads people. The Lloigor transforming everyone into these dumb mute creatures that applaud whenever they fly overhead squeezes something inside my brain that feels very satisifying. It’s like a brand new metaphor to describe a whole type of person and it just looks really cool too. Exactly the kind of thing I look for in my comic books. 

I agree with Dave that the twist ending is a good one. The first time I read it was a proper “oh wow” moment. I think it works because it’s almost musical in how it builds and builds and builds up towards this final point. Bigger than Earth. Bigger than the Galaxy. Bigger than the Universe and then – whoops. It’s just a shame that it makes everything that happened before kinda meaningless tho. I don’t know if anyone else has read Sebastian O (also by Morrison and Yeowell) but that book manages the much more difficult trick of pulling off an ending that enhances what you’re read before instead of just making it feel cheap. 

But yeah – I mean having read all four books I’ve gotta say: it’s kinda hard to see what all the fuss is about? I mean shoot if you wanted to buy the whole collection it’ll cost you about £60+ and what do you get? Half-baked superhero adventures that feel like they’ve all been devised on the fly. Yeah ok it’s Grant Morrison and lots of people think that Morrison is the best thing ever but I dunno – there’s better 2000AD stuff out there (I’m Team John Smith – so you know: check out Indigo Prime if you haven’t already and make sure you remember to thank me after).

And yeah all in all Zenith just feels kinda… flat? When people talk about it they make a big deal about how he’s a superhero who doesn’t really care about being a superhero which yeah ok – LOL. But then erm – that’s kinda it you know? Like I think it’s very telling that in all four books Zenith doesn’t really… do anything. Ever. Book 1 he’s mainly just dragging his feet and refusing to get involved. Book 2 he gets beaten up a bit but then that’s kinda it. Book 3 he’s mostly hanging around in the background and in Book 4 he erm… dies? I mean yeah it’s funny to have a superhero who doesn’t care. But apathy is not the best ingredient for a main character seeing how the point of a main character is supposed to be that they do things. Having someone passive who just stands around complaining is good if you’re a fat orange cat who loves lasagne but in Zenith’s case it kinda means that you end up with an empty space where the hero is supposed to be. Which yeah ok is good if you like that sort of thing but it does mean that reading this stuff just kinda feels like a drag. You know?

But just to disagree with Dave a bit – I liked the colour. 🙂 

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