Let’s start with just a little bit of background on the book. Being a relatively young comic reviewer, I had not heard of this book, but I certainly had heard of the author! Grant Morrison has developed quite a reputation for himself at DC Comics (All-Star Superman, Final Crisis), Marvel (New X-Men), and creator-owned comics (The Invisibles). Zenith was originally published in serialized format beginning in 1987 as Morrison’s first ongoing series. 2000 AD, a British science fiction magazine, was the original publisher. Since 2000 AD is a British publication it’s worth noting that this was during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s political career.
Before meeting our primary characters in the book we are treated to something of a backstory as Britain develops a superhuman, Maximan, to fight against the German superhuman, Masterman, in the second World War. When the tide of their battle turns against Maximan an atomic bomb is dropped on Berlin, where they were fighting, ending the war and killing both Master and Maxi men.
With the origin of super-heroics having been established we then cut to 1984 to establish our ongoing threat: Masterman…or rather his twin.
Following this brief aside, Morrison admirably captures the essence of the time, prominently featuring society’s shift away from the hippie phase of the ’70s, and embracing ’80s rock and roll. This is done in both Brendan McCarthy’s shoulder-pad-heavy costume design and Steve Yeowell’s psychedelic ongoing art. Zenith himself is a fairly successful pop music star, and Yeowell did an excellent job of accentuating the moderate hesitation of the character as he is pulled into the role of a hero. With music being such a tremendous part of the cultural framework at that time it seems completely natural for the book to focus on a pop star.
In 1984 Zenith is seen by the public as the only active superhuman, but rather than helping society with his powers he comes across as a incredibly self-indulgent, using his powers to fly from one party to the next before flying through the roof of his own kitchen the next morning. If you’re looking for a character to sympathize with this isn’t your guy, but he is a lot of fun in this first outing.
We also get to meet Ruby Fox, a former member of Cloud 9 (a superhero team from the 60s that has dissolved). Despite going on record several times claiming that she has lost her superpowers, when she is confronted in her house by Masterman she manages to hold her own and get away to recruit Zenith to aid her in fighting Masterman and the alien race that is possessing him, giving him his abilities. It’s at this point that Eddie, Zenith’s agent, gives us our first glimpse at the larger idea being presented in Phase One. “Maybe you shouldn’t just reject the idea…think of what it would do for your career”
This is really the crux of the story, utilizing the goodwill generated by the free-loving 70s phase as a means for personal, professional gain. It’s hard for me to think about this story without drawing comparisons to Steve Jobs at Apple. Throughout the final confrontation Zenith is joined by Peter St. John (AKA Mandala), a “super-hippie” turned scrupulous politician and former member of Cloud 9. Mandala’s abilities are primarily telepathic in nature.
As the “final boss” of a villain approaches Steve Yeowell’s art shows us the intense dichotomy of Zenith’s fearful hesitance, and Mandala’s calm collectedness. Zenith’s motive seems to be at least somewhat morally founded, and he has all but dismissed Eddie’s comments about what it could do for his career. Meanwhile, Mandala is completely confident in entering the battle, and when he strikes he knows precisely what he is doing. His role in the final battle told me that he was there not for moral reasons at all, but purely because he knew the impact his involvement would have on his political career. It certainly asks the reader to think about some interesting questions regarding the importance of motive behind good works. Namely, how significant is the motive behind doing good works? Is it enough to simply have the good done, or is a deeper moral motive important?
In retrospect Morrison has stated that he sees Zenith’s Phase One story as the weakest, simply because its message is relatively transparent. Certainly an understandable self-criticism, even just from the few lines that I’ve shared in this review, but relative to most superhero books there’s plenty of genuine intrigue and interesting character flaws and development to keep readers interested.
On the artistic side of things, Steve Yeowell brings forward some really remarkable work. The astonishing thing to me is just how high of a caliber the artwork is given the time period that it was published in. Relative to modern comic artwork the level of polish is respectable, but from my exposure to comics from the 80s and 90s this is downright amazing! Not only are the action scenes easy to follow and crisp in intent, but the creature and character designs are absolutely astonishing. Particularly the primary aliens look akin to the work we have seen J.H. Williams producing for Sandman: Overture. There is an undeniable H.P. Lovecraft motif to these characters that really shines through, and the main heroes stand out very sharp against the swirling mass of teeth, eyes, and goo.
It’s understandable that this no longer stands as a pinnacle of Morrison’s work in the field, but it does serve two very valuable purposes. First, it was an incredibly valuable indicator of what Morrison was capable of as a comic writer in his early years. And secondly, although the social motives of the book might be a bit obvious it nevertheless does an excellent job at capturing the essence of the era, providing a valuable view at the concerns and personalities of society at that time.