Published within the pages of Britain’s premier comics magazine 2000 AD starting in 1987, Zenith was the brain child of writer Grant Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell with character designs by Brendan McCarthy. Thanks to the copyright for the book being in questionable hands, it seemed as if Zenith would go the way of a similar “lost work” of comics, Miracleman, and remain in limbo. However, the book is now being re-released in a series of four deluxe hardcovers by the publisher Rebellion in a manner that isn’t entirely dissimilar to what ended up happening once Miracleman was acquired by Marvel Comics.
With the pressure of being another recovered lost work for a critically acclaimed creative team and coming so soon after the reprinting of Miracleman had gotten underway, Zenith has a lot stacked against it going into a modern reading. Now having read the hardcover of Zenith: Phase I cover to cover, I feel like I can succinctly describe the book in one word: derivative.
That’s a word with some pretty negative connotations to it so I feel the need to clarify that Zenith is definitely not a bad comic book by any stretch of the imagination. It just so happens to bear the mark of Grant Morrison’s influences than a reader might hope considering that Morrison would go on to produce such interesting and uniquely original comics like The Invisibles or his extremely meta run on Animal Man. A part of me was disappointed to see this after having expected to some extent to see Morrison springing forth from the ether fully formed and leaving a trail of mescaline behind him. Even more surprising, I didn’t expect his book to read so much like a riff on Alan Moore’s body of work.
Detractors of Morrison and especially Alan Moore himself often parrot the view point that Grant Morrison has made a career out of “copying” ideas that the Watchmen author had done before. It’s a stance that I strongly disagree with but, if Zenith had been the only thing of Morrison’s I had ever read, I would have to concede the point. The story of an unlikable superhero type, the titular Zenith, teaming up with a generation of previously retired superheroes to combat an old foe that is hunting them down one by one reads as Morrison having taken a shine to the concept that was the impetus for Watchmen. Heck, when Morrison and Yeowell portray the now overweight character formerly known as the Red Dragon squeezing back into his costume it is mighty difficult not to see shades of Moore and Gibbons’ Nite Owl. And a later reference to William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” in a story comparing superhumans to the figure from the poem recalls both Watchmen and Miracleman.
All that said, there’s nothing malicious about the way Morrison borrows these ideas. It doesn’t read like him trying to pass these concepts off as his own but him realizing their potential and wanting to use them for his own purposes. He was using the pieces Moore used in his superhero deconstructions to craft what feels like a more traditional superhero story, possibly in reaction to Morrison’s dissatisfaction with their portrayal of the genre. Granted, it’s a traditional superhero story that also happens to include elements of cosmic horror. The references to Carcosa and the Many-Angled-Ones lift from Robert W. Chambers and H.P. Lovecraft, respectively. Yeowell’s art shines in his rendition of the horrifying masses of teeth and eyes that at the Many-Angled-Ones along with the scenes of Zenith doing battle with them.
Hiding that cosmic horror under a more traditional superhero narrative and thus easier to swallow makes the book feel sort of like a dry-run for The Invisibles, also by Morrison and Yeowell. The first chapter of Zenith to be published in 2000 AD featured British and Nazi superhuman doing battle in WWII establishes a clear tone that is then immediately subverted by the presence of vindictive beings from a higher dimension of existence looking to crush people’s symbols of good (something that should be familiar to Action Comics or Multiversity readers). That’s the first sign of some higher ambitions.When we move from that Golden Age opening to what was at that time the modern age with only vague references to psychedelics of the Silver Age in the ‘60s being made, the book becomes more political. It’s the sort of material critical of politicians in general and Margaret Thatcher in particular that was common among British comics for what seemed like the entirety of the ‘80s. Former psychedelic superhero turned Conservative politician Peter St. John immediately makes himself one of the most interesting characters due to the dichotomy of his past and future selves as it is hinted that the revelation of the existence of the Many-Angled-Ones and their effect on the universe may have been responsible for the drastic shift in his personality.
The character of Zenith himself shows a lot of promise as a superhero that considers himself a pop star first and a hero hopefully never. The way Yeowell draws him, all Morrissey hair and smug smirks, keeps him from appearing even vaguely heroic until the final act calls for him to finally step up to the plate. He reads a lot like a less heroic, distaff counterpart of Marvel’s Dazzler. Morrison paints a vivid picture of an entitled nineteen-year-old kid with more power than he could use that’s just reaching for something to occupy his time. Compared to the amoral Nexus, the massive god complex in Miracleman, and the intense morality of Zot; Zenith stands out for his reluctance and cowardice even as he comprehends that right thing that he should be doing. Imagine if Spider-Man had never learned his lesson after letting that criminal get away with all that money. He would have probably grown up to be a lot like Zenith.Time moves quickly in comics so it’s no surprise that by 1987, young upstarts like Grant Morrison were already publishing their reaction to the works of Alan Moore (in this case, right as Watchmen was concluding and before he had even wrapped up his Miracleman saga). And in the case of Morrison, he appeared to be weaponizing a lot of Moore’s tropes and concepts in order to defend the superhero genre from deconstruction. Zenith still has its dark and upsetting moments filled with characters that remain staunchly anti-heroic but, at least in Phase I, it is still resolutely the story of a superhero saving the world from evil which is something you didn’t see a whole lot of in these small-press superheroes of the ‘80s that I have had the pleasure of covering.
This installment brings this series of articles to a close. If there is an arc that I’ve noticed in the development of superhero comics in the small press it is that it is a story in two parts. You have the early works of Nexus and Miracleman pushing the genre to its limits in an attempt to break it before finding a way to reconstruct it into something that still shares that superhero DNA. As these depictions of superheroes and the genre gained popularity they became the mainstream. Alan Moore writes his Swamp Thing, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, and Watchmen after beginning Miracleman but before finishing it. His use of the retcon narrative and recontextualizing of the sillier aspects of the genre to be something more serious or upsetting was something that really took hold in comic book readers’ consciousness. And you have Frank Miller creating The Dark Knight Returns that really probed the darker psychology of Batman.
By 1986, the landscape of superhero comics in the mainstream completely changed to reflect the success of the ideas born from the small-press. So the small-press creators had no choice but to respond to it. Scott McCloud scaled down Zot! to make it something quiet, emotional, and intensely personal. And as I just discussed in this article, Morrison used Zenith as an opportunity to snatch some great, now popular ideas from writers like Moore to create a piece that exists within the superhero genre rather than commenting on or deconstructing it. It’s a fascinating chain of influences and aspirations that were all bouncing off of each other for a really important decade for comics.