The second phase of Zenith leverages a quintessentially British and remarkably calculated villain to give a deeper look into the importance of super heroes on the larger political landscape of the world as presented by Grant Morrison. However, the six-page per issue format of 2000 AD forced writer Grant Morrison to rush certain scenes that could have used more time and space to breathe. He certainly hadn’t mastered the art of story economy that is so evident in his later work.
The story opens with Ruby Fox visiting with two other 1960s-era superheroes in an alternate universe Sydney, Australia. This first issue does little for the overall story aside from setting up phase three with a recall at the very end of the book. After that first six-page story we jump back to Zenith in 1988 London and are immediately thrown into action as Zenith is ambushed by a robot in his penthouse. This scene provide some of Steve Yeowell’s best artwork, showcasing now only clean lines, but also a decent visual representation of the space of Zenith’s penthouse, again, a significant feat, particularly given the limited number of pages per issue.
Alongside this scene we are introduced to the villains of the story for the first time, with the primary antagonist, Scott Wallace, wearing a comically false nose. This introduces us to him as not only remarkably British, but also community-minded. This part of the story takes place on February 5, 1988, the same day as the very first Red Nose Day (a British holiday and telethon to support the charity organization “Comic Relief”). His partner, Dr. Michael Peyne quips about Zenith having his mother’s eyes, and then about them having her eyes as the panel shows a closeup of a pair of eyeballs sitting in a jar, hinting at the greater connections between our antagonists and Zenith himself.
Zenith, being the self-serving douchebag that he is, still requires a call to action beyond a killer robot appearing in his penthouse. Enter CIA agent Phaedra Cale, dangling the promise of information about Zenith’s parents if he will come along. Of course, rather than immediately providing Zenith with the answers to his questions she drags him along on a mission. As she explains the dual threat of Wallace and Peyne to Zenith (which prompts a nice bit of meta humor regarding Peyne’s name sounding like a Bond villain), Wallace keeps himself on schedule with his own plans by hijacking a nuclear submarine and targeting London, setting a clock for Zenith’s intervention without him even being aware of it.
When the four of them finally all meet we really get a much better idea of Scott Wallace’s character and the brilliance of his villainy. If you’ve ever wondered why villains have to be so overly dramatic, and considered how devilishly fantastic it would be to have a calculated villain with a clear cut plan and sense of purpose you’ll absolutely love Wallace. It’s best summed up in one panel where he says, “Why? I’m not doing anything wrong, am I? Not really. I’m just sick of the way the world’s going and I think I could do a better job, build a better world, that’s all.” The flippant attitude and casual wardrobe are really what make him special. It’s not that he sees himself as a God among men, he just wants to fix the systematic problems that exist and coldly believes that the best way to do that is to blow up London. He also quickly eliminates Phaedra, not in any particular spite, but simply realizing that she is no longer of any use to them.
Dr. Peyne, on the other hand, is revealed as the scientific creator of Britain’s post-WWII superheroes, and it is through him that we learn more about Zenith’s parents, and also the subplot attempt to kill Zenith when his powers are at their weakest.
The climax of the book is presented through a simple dialogue between Zenith and Scott Wallace, where Zenith’s apathy plays nicely as a motivational factor in dissuading Wallace from his plan to bomb London.
Initially when I finished reading this book I was fairly unimpressed. I found the climax to be amusing, but lackluster, and the characters to be oddly flat relative to much of Morrison’s other work. However, as I reflect on the story and all the moving pieces I am dumbfounded that I did not appreciate it at first. Morrison has crafted a world where superheroes not only exist, but have their own unique motivations and deterrents. The supporting characters, particularly the villains, may not be as bombastic or splashy as I was expecting, but there’s definitely a brilliance to the calculated and non-theatric villains in this story.