Blank Generation

A look at Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith

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European comics tend to be focused on stories serialized in about 8-10 pages in magazines such as 2000 AD, Warrior, or Heavy Metal, mostly in black and white. It’s a similar set up to that featured in the manga industry without the insane demands that are placed upon mangaka. The format can be somewhat tough many authors to adapt too. At this point they would have clawed their way through tons of short comics (in the case of 2000 AD these short comics are its Future Shocks features which are short twist based Sci-Fi stories), and are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world of trying to make a long form series told in short pages. Despite the fact some of the formatting can lead to awkward storytelling, this is a seen as as a stepping stone in British comics almost every major British comic book author having worked on one series, and the format has given us some classics. For example the first 2/3 of both Alan Moores Miracleman and V for Vendetta were released in this format in Warrior magazine, and 2000 ADs most famous work Judge Dredd has reached an iconic status in the comic book industry.

One benefit that was granted to these authors despite the storytelling drawback was the lax attitude towards content. These stories were rife with violence and sexuality at a time when this content was boundary pushing and not played out. These comics were able to play with the tropes and context of many genres through a different light. It was punk debauchery mixed with heady science fiction equal parts titillating and thought provoking.

That brings us to the comic which we will talk about today Grant Morrison’s Zenith released in the late 1980s to the early 1990s at a time in which Morrison was just on the cusp of breaking out into the American comic book scene. In the passage of time it was published Morrison would begin working at DC and publish Animal Man and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Zenith’s concept is an interesting one, and the thought process behind it is most comparable to the idea behind something like Boogiepop phantom. It’s a comic which was meant as a deliberate fusion between high art and loose comedy with the two main sources cited by Morrison being Watchmen and Strange Days, a lesser known work by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy before the former broke out into American comics with his vertigo series Shade the Changing Man. It combines the superhero revisionism and alternate history concepts of Watchmen with Strange Days focus on British popular culture and fuses them into a single story beginning with a nuclear bombing of Berlin in an alternate history World War II before cutting to the present of the 1980s introducing us to our protagonist and slowly filling in the history of the world in bits and pieces over the course of 4 different books titled phases.

Phase 1 for the most part serves to detail the history of the world which is a part where Zenith truly shines. Morrison sets up a world in which superheroes of every era reflected their generation, with the first two the British Maximan and the Nazi Masterman being WWII soldiers, while the 1960s had Cloud 9 a group of supersoldiers who quit in protest of Vietnam and became hippie countercultural icons. Finally, there is Zenith who represents the 80s era of british pop, where punk had passed and the mindset was as Chris Ott described it, was simply to have extravagant fun. The first generation died in the Nuclear Blast in Berlin, while the second is mostly out of the picture at the start with the exception of two characters, Ruby Fox who works for a magazine, and Peter St. John a former hippie turned conservative politician.

The main thrust of phase one involves a clone of Masterman being rediscovered and becoming a host, for a Lovecraftian old one here referred to as a “many angled one” and later as a “llogier”, he attacks Ruby Fox who recruits Zenith and a fight ensues. It’s a story that for the most part works as a fun character study of both Zenith and Peter St. John. Zenith comes off as completely self absorbed, and dickish. He is the ultimate idea of a self absorbed superhuman, someone who feels more duty his hedonistic lifestyle and pop career than to any idea to save people. He only joins with Ruby Fox because she promises information on Zeniths dead parents. He is a dick but like the characters in Panty and Stocking he is relatable in a way. Its hard for the audience to really despise Zenith because for all his egotism he never really does anything to bad, he is at the most uncaring about the fate of the world. He serves as a pretty great contrast to Peter St. John who by far is the standout of the series. St. John is a great anti-hero someone who is incredibly devious and unafraid to murder to achieve his goals but who also does seem to give a shit about the world and what’s best for people. If Zenith is inactive St. John is active in all senses of the world. He is someone who is always planning ahead and the fights involving him emphasis his focus on telekinetic strategy. These fights feel almost like out of a shonen battle manga were the focus is on using powers strategically rather than a classic superhero brawl. St. John for all intents and purposes drives the story much more than Zenith.

For the most part outside of some of the battles involving St. John, Phase I is somewhat of a slog to go through at times. Its hard to judge the comics quality at times because the format in which I was reading it was so different than how it was released. For me what came across as a quick introduction of the character Siadwel (an alcoholic imbued with fire powers) who then is killed off for cheap affect would not have come across as such if the chapters were spaced months not minutes apart. In the format I read (that of a trade paperback) it felt predictable as in the course of three chapters Zenith goes from being careless about Siadwels life, to then caring about him, and finally after his death becoming so fueled by rage that he starts to give a shit and fight Masterman (this is all supposed to occur over the course of like an afternoon so it makes just about as little sense in the diegesis of the work as it does outside of it.)

Phase 2 fairs slightly better up to scrutiny as it takes a backseat from the overarching plot involving the Many Angled Ones and instead focuses on backstory and worldbuilding. It introduces for the first time into the plot Thomas Peyne who created the second generation superhumans and is convinced of them as the next step in the evolution of humanity. The main thrust of the plot involves a Richard Branson-esque billionaire preparing to blow up the world and take control using Zeniths child which he bred through the usage of two cloned superhumans, with the help of Thomas Peyne. Zenith is once again cajoled into helping solve this threat by a shadowmen a government psychic designed to fight superhumans. This shadowmen (or rather shadowomen) is quickly killed off though leaving Zenith to quickly stop giving a shit about saving the world so he can fuck the clone superhumans, that is until his life is threatened. Zenith though at the behest of St. John does end up saving the world in by far one of the comics most memorable and probably funniest scenes. Rather than through a fight or quick force Zenith simply walks into the room of the billionaire and points out all the flaws in his plans. It’s a bit of deconstructionism that works of multiple levels. It points out the holes in the work of many supervillains but its portrayal of a billionaire madman intent on saving the world pokes fun at Ozymandias from Watchmen. It portrays the billionaire who wants to save the world with a crazy scheme as not an intelligent calculated figure but as a pathetic, and eccentric man who obviously did not think the plan through. Finally the faith that Peyne puts in superheroes being the next step in evolution is undercut by Zeniths existence as he proves that superhumans are just as petty as humans.

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It also serves as set up to the next two phases of Zenith by introducing the concept of a multiverse to Zenith and a plot by the Many Angled Ones to take over the universe during an even called the alignment.

Phase III is by far the part of the work where I think Zenith truly shines as it sets itself up as a rip roaring multiverse crossover adventure featuring loads of 60-70s British superheroes including the Steel Claw, Hotspur, a parallel universe version of Zenith called Vertex who unlike Zenith, a pastiche of a classic British superhero character called Robot Archie here styled as “Acid Archie” who comes off as a groovy C3-P0, and the anarchist superhero group Black Flag, dressed up like members of various underground music subcultures. They are brought together by an alternate universe version of Maximan to prevent the Many Angled Ones from achieving their goal of controlling the Multiverse.

Eventually it is revealed that Maximan is secretly working for the Many Angled Ones and the heroes have to defeat the villains while St. John and Black Flag psychic face off against Maximan. Of all the parts of Zenith this one feels like the one Morrison had the most fun writing. Seeing him play all these British superheroes against each other essentially fighting Lovecraftian Deities is insanely fun and several moments are incredibly memorable. Acid Archies arrival with a dinosaur to rescue the day is a great moment for such an endearing character, the sacrifice of Vertex in which people mistake him for Zenith is a great send off to his character and seals him as a noble equivalent to Zenith, and of course the classic moment in any superhero crossover when all seems to be lost only for the superheroes to show up in the last moment is as badass as always.

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Phase 4 takes itself in a very different direction, almost being a long form version of a Future Shocks story. Through the eyes of Thomas Peyne who is slowly becoming younger we are told the story of the end of the world. How it came to be under the control of the remaining cloud 9 members besides Peter St. John. It contains numerous reveals and twists some of which work and some that don’t. For example Ruby Fox who in the first phase was portrayed as content to be a magazine editor without using her powers is here portrayed as dead set on world domination and the elimination of the human race AND apparently held these views in the 1960s. That is such a weird turn for that character its absolutely fucking insane to think about. On the other hand the final twist is absolutely genius. Morrison picks up a loose plot thread about a being created by the cloud 9 experiments turned into a crystal and fashions it into a stunning reveal. See the whole time we are lead to believe that the world of Zenith has essentially ended and has been taken over by the Cloud 9 members who have ascended to become Many Angled Ones themselves. It is then revealed though this is all a fiction and Peter St. John has trapped them in the crystal with Thomas Peyne, essentially letting them live out their fantasy within their own little world.

screenshot-168The series ends with Peter St. John becoming Prime Minister through killing off the Labour party leader and Zenith ending the series having learned essentially nothing ready for the next party and for a switch in career. He didn’t grow as a person all that much but there is a certain beauty to seeing the character turn out all right in the end and it underlines the main theme of Zenith, that of looking at generational conflict and pointing out that it is all pretty much bullshit. Cloud 9 turned out to be just as corrupt and evil as they come despite all their hippie ideals and even their nicest member St. John sold out and became a conniving politician who murders people. Zenith is portrayed as no nicer the epitome of the soulless culture of the 80s all intent on enjoying life to its fullest without trying to help anyone. While that is the main message other ideas about generations our explored such as with Thomas Peyne who through the course of Phase 4 is shown to regret what, his metaphorical children Cloud 9 has done to the world, and how he becomes less and less concerned with what has happened as his body and mind becomes younger and younger. It’s even more interesting that the main villains of the plot the Many Angled Ones our portrayed as timeless essentially showing us that the many issues that face each generation inevitably face almost all generations.

My experience with Zenith left me feeling a lot like Zenith feeled at the end of my story, that I on some level went through some shit but wasn’t changed all that much. It felt fun and tense but never special. It’s a work that I feel is best enjoyed from the perspective of a Morrison fan looking at his history or as a fan of 2000 AD rather than as a pinnacle of Morrisons work.

Anyway its been a while since I posted so its nice to get back in the swing of things. Here’s to another year of shitty writings on media I enjoy.

Further Reading

Suggested for Mature Readers did a great series on Zenith here

Chriss Ott on the 1980s Pop music scene

Grant Morrisons book on superheroes/autobio

Father of Steel

A look at Supermans reboot.

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I remember ages ago reading a quote about Superman concerning 1986 John Bryne penned reboot “Man of Steel” that stated one of the ideas was to move Superman away from being a father figure to more of an older brother.  At the time it must have been a fitting change given that Superman’s father figure persona was probably not the most appealing to the comic book audience of the 80s just getting a taste of the darkness that was seeping into comics. DKR’s portrayal of Superman as a pawn of the American government was easily seen as everything wrong and outdated with the character and by proxy the parents of comic book readers. He was the stereotypical American hero of the Greatest Generation. He fought for workers’ rights in the great depression as a heroic populist, joined the war effort in both the comic and in real life both fighting the Axis forces in the comics and advertising war bonds to American citizens. Then after the war he settled down into a sort of 50s values father figure but blown to epic proportions. He had his superdog Krypto, his niece Supergirl, a surrogate son with Jimmy Olsen, and his nagging girlfriend that he constantly feared commitment to Lois Lane.

Grant Morrison in his book Supergods theorized that the appeal of the 1950s Superman stories was that Superman was in a constant battle of personal stakes and issues. Every weird gimmick and trick would tie back into Superman’s and his extended group’s fragile psychosis. It was a reflection of the time given that without a common higher goal to fight (at least for white American males) there was no real threat but your inner self (or some nebulous communist menace). It was a 50s tv show filtered through the eyes of pre-psychedelic psychoanalysis and childhood imagination.

When the New 52 came around they strived with the Action Comics run to return superman to his 1930s social crusader statues as a hero of the people taking on corrupt businessman at first. And that too reflected the times with the movement of Occupy Wall Street gathering steam and protesting the economic inequality. At least for Morrison’s run this worked, as time went on the Superman comics kind of lost their way and culminated recently in the death of New 52 Superman. Replacing him is the 1986 post-crisis Superman surviving his worlds destruction, but with a twist. Now he’s a father raising a young son with Lois Lane.

It’s a return to Superman’s pre-80s statues as a father figure and it underlines DC Rebirths emphasis on returning the universe to its more classic roots. Rather than the conflicted New 52 Superman, Rebirths Superman is the perfect role model for his son. While at first this may seem like a step back to the 50s Superman it’s really not. 50s Superman was for all his power a rather uncertain and emotionally fucked up man reflecting his status as a surrogate for all the fears and desires of the stereotypical 50s father. This is Superman as not the flawed, insecure father of the 50s but as really the perfect parent standing for everything right in the world.

It’s a return to Superman as an ideal, though not in the usual way. He is no longer an untouchable godlike ideal that we strive for but rather an ideal father and family man. It’s a more human Superman but one that still manages to be conflicted. It touches him into reality without making him the tortured someone callous man he was in the New 52. It achieves making Superman more “human” (something that DC has been trying to achieve) without ruining what makes him special*. He’s the Man of Tomorrow, but he is still trying to raise a kid like everyone else to the best of his ability.

*For the record it has been achieved before, Max Landis Superman: American Alien is among the best comic books of the past few years and its entirely based around a more human Superman.