Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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I hadn’t realised the scale of their plans… Millions of worlds, moving towards alignment… The war that never ends… The Omnihedron… Oh, we’re so small… so…

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith – a rare superhero outing for UK science fiction stalwart 2000 AD – must be one of the most requested reprint titles we’ve been asked for over the years. When will it be reprinted and collected? Finally after a lot of behind the scenes problems (which we won’t go into here, it could fill a whole article on its own) the first of a much-anticipated series of reprints arrives, in a nice hardback edition that resembles the quality bande dessinee of the Franco-Belgian comics market. 2000 AD has a proud history of nurturing new comics talent, and in the mid 1980s they were making a point of giving new series and creators more space, with one of those series turning out to be Zenith. Morrison, of course, has been working away for several years by this point (starting with work in Near Myths in the mid 70s, a collaborative comics work which included early Bryan Talbot work and which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which would later become Forbidden Planet), but this was one of his major breaks and proved to be a huge hit with the readers.

We open with a flashback to the closing days of World War Two, but this is an alternate history, the final battles taking place in 1944, not ‘45. The Nazis have developed their ‘ubermensch’, a superpowered being, Masterman, but the British, with the help of German scientists who defected to the Allies, develop their own version, Maximan, and the story begins with these two colossally powerful beings in a fight to the death in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. A fight Maximan is losing to the Nazi creature, who is, it is hinted, more than just a product of science, he is part of a greater scheme involving the ‘Many-Angled Ones’, beings of vast, cold intellect that live among other dimensions and, like Lovecraft’s elder gods, seek to seep into our world, influence and then rule it. But before he can deliver the coup de grace an American bomber, carrying the first operational atomic bomb, delivers its deadly cargo, obliterating the city and both superbeings…

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In the 1980s we meet Zenith, one of the few superpowered beings in the world after an international ban on superbeing research – he is the offspring of parents who were part of Cloud 9, a British superteam of the 1960s, developed using the original wartime research, designed to be heroic, patriotic, unquestioning super-soldiers like Maximan. But this was the 60s and like many young people of the time Cloud 9 rebelled, tuned in, dropped out, refused to wear uniforms, to follow any order they didn’t agree with. By the 80s most are gone, some killed, some vanished mysteriously (including Zenith’s own parents) and the remainder have lost their powers over the years. Zenith is no heroic figure either, using his abilities in a purely selfish manner, a very 1980s creature, out for number one, only interested in himself and his pop career and celebrity status.

Until Ruby Fox enters his life; one of the Cloud 9 survivors, now working as a journalist, seemingly now without her powers. But when a secret society resurrects a stored twin of the Nazi Masterman and he attacks her, she finds in extremis that she can still use her powers (allowing her to direct electricity) to fight him long enough to escape and seek Zenith. The petulant, spoiled 80s brat doesn’t really believe her, much less want to help her, but is persuaded when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents if he does. Together they seek out The Red Dragon, a Welsh member of Cloud 9, but the Red Dragon is now plain Siadwell, and he is constantly pickled, and Mandala, a Cloud 9 survivor with powerful mental abilities, who became a 60s transcendental hippy, but has now gone in the other direction and become a golden boy of Thatcher’s Tory government as MP Peter St John. St John refuses to believe them or help, but events may force him to change his mind, as the new Masterman appears on the streets of London…

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And I won’t go any further on the plot for fear of ruining it – I know a lot of readers will have encountered this story many years ago, but it will still be new to quite a few and I don’t want to spoil it. It is fascinating to look back at this decades on, especially in the light of later work as Morrison moved from fan-favourite at 2000 AD to being an international comics god. Many of the approaches and ideas behind Zenith would be developed and mutated into even more compellingly weird and wonderful shapes for his later work – with that handy beast Hindsight it is particularly interesting to look at Zenith again in light of what Morrison would do with series like the remarkable The Invisibles, for instance.

Not content to simply serve up superheroes even at that early stage in his career, Morrison creates alternate timelines and dimensions, hidden histories, Lovecraftian multi-dimensional beings (who are behind the whole creation of superbeings for their own dark agenda), a serious questioning of accepting authority unquestioningly (see where that dutiful approach got poor Maximan, after all) or taking it as read that the world is at it appears but instead delving behind the curtains of reality to show there is far more (shades of both Lovecraft and Moorcock and more), all ably assisted by Steve Yeowell who crafts some lovely, clear black and white art (although Brendan McCarthy worked on the early designs for the series), rendering a wide variety of scenes, from WWII battlefields to 1980s London to the innards of a hideous dimensional being with equal grace and style.

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In some ways this has remained a timeless tale of a young, hungry writer getting to let loose with some of the ideas that had been fermenting in his brain, getting to stretch himself and his concepts of not just what storytelling could be but what you could so with the comics medium, something Morrison has pretty much continued to do throughout his career, frequently altering, changing, mutating both his approach and what you can do with the paper-based artificial reality of a world of comics, and it is a pure pleasure to see him again here at that early phase of his career, letting loose with those ideas and developing them.

In other ways though there are a number of elements which remain very much of their time, remain very 1980s, from the spoiled, selfish me-me-me generation epitomised by Zenith to some serious digs not just at the age-old British establishment but specifically at Thatcher and her government (one of the returned Many-Angled Ones seeing the former hippy turned right-wing Tory MP Peter St John remarks to him casually oh yes, we have many allies among you, inferring just how far some on the right would go for power). Those elements are still amusing to those of us old enough to remember the era, they probably don’t mean as much to younger readers encountering this for the first time. But those are only minor elements of the tale, and all tales will have some reflection of the era that shaped them, after all.

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But the main story and concepts remain powerful and compelling, and while superbeings behaving badly or the idea of WWII era super-soldiers is not new, Morrison created a very British, cynical, take on superheroes and what it would be like if they actually existed, and fused this superhero and science fiction approach with horror elements to create something remarkable and magnificent (and sometimes some nice humorous observations – such as how do you get from A to B when you fly? Just having the power to fly doesn’t mean you know where you are going in the air, something I’d never thought of about superheroes till Morrison cheekily worked it in, and when you see it you think of course, why didn’t I think of that before??). A fascinating work in its own right, a ‘lost’ classic of Brit comics now finally available again and an essential part of Morrison’s considerable oeuvre that you have to have on your shelves. Welcome home, Zenith.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Grant Morrison at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Last month as well as reporting on the Edinburgh International Book Festival as I do most years I was on stage for some events, the first of which was chairing a talk with superstar Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison. We discussed his earliest work in Near Myths, an anthology which grew out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop (which would become the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet years later) which was well ahead of its time in trying to create a comics form for adult readers and also featured the first appearances of Luther Arkwright by the great Bryan Talbot – in a lovely moment Grant took the opportunity to pay tribute to Bryan’s place in the medium (Bryan was in the audience at the time and was, I think, rather delighted) – it was nice to see this peer to peer respect from one top creator to another. We discussed his Batman and Superman works, his plans for reworking Wonder Woman and the return to Seaguy, before throwing open the second half to questions from the audience, who were eager to ask Grant their own questions (and he was looking forward to the chance to interact with his readers, so we tried to give a good chunk of our hour to the audience Q&A).

I’m not mad at being in front of the camera, I prefer being behind the lens, but it was a fun event and from folks I bumped into over the rest of the Book Festival it seemed to have gone fairly well as they told me they enjoyed it, which was a relief as that was my very first time chairing an event at the Book Fest. I have done plenty of events with authors in my bookselling career of course, but it’s been years since I had to do an on-stage event and doing it with a major name, at the world’s biggest literary festival, well, that’s a hell of a way to get back into the saddle! But it was fun to do it as part of the huge Stripped segment of comics themed events at the Book Festival:

Edinburgh Book Festival: Grant Morrison

Third and final of the reports I penned on the comics related events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Top comics scribe Grant Morrison returned to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for his second visit following his very successful Book Fest gig last year and again it was an absolutely packed late-night audience. Grant seemed pretty happy to be back and was in very good form, obviously delighting in getting the opportunity to talk directly with some of his readers. Much of the discussion centred around Supergods, his very interesting book which combines a short history of the American superhero comics with autobiographical elements from his own life as a reader and a writer (just out in paperback from Cape).

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(Grant Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr, click for larger version)

Grant told us that the book originally started as something quite different, but the publishers liked what he had written on the history side of comics and the personal angle, asked him for more of that and the book we now have started to take shape over many months. A history of comics he had been reading all his life as well as writing for decades, how hard could that be, he said, smiling – no need to do a lot of research, know most of that already… And you can guess what’s coming – the more he expanded on chapters on different periods the more he realised he had to mention (can’t miss that comic, that artist…), entailing more words, more research. In fact he said that the finished book represented roughly half of what he had, after much editing, there could have been a lot more and it could have been a different read, although better or not is hard to say, but it gives you an idea of the amount of work he had to put into it. And bear in mind this work was running parallel with his regular comics writing duties, including, of course, some pretty major flagship DC titles. Asked how he managed to juggle these various competing deadlines he smiled and answered a lot of very late nights.

(forthcoming Happy by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson, published Image Comics)

Discussion ranged from his childhood comics favourites (like Sheldon Cooper The Flash remains one of his all-time favourites, especially some of the great Carmine Infantino work – can’t blame him for that) through working in his own experiences, such as his world-travelling, into his work, the difference between working on creator-owned material (including his new Image title with Darick Robertson, Happy – which, as he explained, means no money up front for the creators until the work is out there and selling) and future projects. One audience member reminded him that last summer at the Book Fest he mentioned he had been trying to figure out a new approach to Wonder Woman, inspired by the inherit sexuality she had when her original creator William Moulton Martson gave her comics life; he was of the opinion that she lost something after that which the character required and he’s confident that he’s found a way to tap into that sexual identity element without being exploitative. Alas, although at the previous Book Fest he said he hoped to have that by next year (now this year), with all his various projects it has slipped back a bit and is likely to be next year now, but he is writing away on it, you’ll be pleased to hear.

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(Grant singing for a very, very long line of appreciative fans)

Having managed to get my copy of Supergods signed last year I decided not to wait in the very long line after the event. Last year it was the best part of an hour for me to get to the front and I was not that far back in the line; Grant mentioned that the line was so long last summer that he ended up signing away until 2am (the talk had finished at 10.30pm!), so I do hope he didn’t have to stay quite as long this time! But he does seem to very much enjoy getting to not just sign the books but getting the chance to chat for a few minutes to each of his readers, which I’m sure they all appreciated. Another good comics event at the Book Festival, and there’s more to come this Friday with Bryan Talbot paying a return visit, this time with his wife and collaborator Mary, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Grant Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

(Grant Morrison in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend, all pics from my Flickr)

This weekend I enjoyed a late evening literary bash at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as Scots superstar comics scribe Grant Morrison took the stage in front of a packed audience, which, I’m delighted to note, had a pretty good gender mix (so much for the oft-repeated but simpyl wrong mantra that comics are only for boys…). In fact later on when I was getting my own copy of his new Supergods book (part history of superheroes, part autobiography, very interesting – out now from our friends at Jonathan Cape) I mentioned to Grant how well his recent signing at our Glasgow store (a location he knows well) had gone (he spent over three hours happily signing for everyone who patiently lined up round the block to see him) and he commented that there too and at other events to promote the new work he’s been really pleased to note how large a proportion of the audience are female.

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It was, as you’d probably expect from one of the more consistently inventive writers in the medium, a pretty interesting talk, with Grant elaborating on some of the themes in Supergods, such as taking the superhero figures that have been the industry mainstay for eight decades as ‘real’. By this he didn’t mean real as in actual superbeings walking (or leaping tall buildings) among us, but that the effect and inspiration such characters can have on readers, that is real. And as Grant continued he brought together one of the arguments he’s proposed before and in the book, that with the convergence of humans with their constantly progressing technology it may only a matter of time until ordinary people in future generations will have ‘superpowers’ and abilities beyond those natural evolution gave us, with a look at one of the possible causes of recent unrest we’ve witnessed in UK cities, pointing out that some youth don’t care about society because they feel no connection to it, abandoned by it and with no future – what of a future where those kids grow up to have these new scientifically enhanced powers? Surely, he argued, the heroes we’ve grown up with, Superman, Batman and the rest, offer up a decent role model of how to behave responsibly with powers and abilities. Perhaps one day when superhuman abilities are commonplace that generation will look for role models and guidance on how to deal with their enhanced abilities and they could do worse than look back to our superheroes.

(cover to Supergods: Our World in the Age of Superheroes by Grant Morrison, published Jonathan Cape)

With DC’s imminent reboot of their universe with fity two new issue ones he was asked about reworking classic characters and why it seemed that Superman seems to be remade fairly frequently while Batman, for all the ups and downs creators have put him through (including Grant himself, of course) still tends to retain his backstory more. Grant put this down to the fact that Superman seems to require more re-imagining than Batman and as a character seemed more open to it as well, while Batman’s more complicated back-story and universe simply serves the character so well that although every generation makes changes, it doesn’t need radical overhauling, it works too well. He was also asked about Wonder Woman; in the book he discusses how the earliest strips of our Amazonian were rife with S&M elements, many of which reflected her creator Marston’s own sexual interests (having had a look at a memo Marston wrote, usually locked in a secure DC vault, Grant’s opinion was that Martson was certainly a bit bizarre on some of his sexual preferences and kinks). And yet it seemed these bondage and sexual elements were clearly an important part of her make-up, he said, noting how quickly Wonder Woman faltered after Marston’s passing, how that took something important out of the equation that makes her work. Asked about how he intended to approach this classic but often very hard to write for character, Grant couldn’t elaborate too much for the obvious reason that it is a work in progress. He did tell the audience that he was fairly confident he had found a way to incorporate those original sexual elements back into the world of Wonder Woman but without being sleazy or exploitative – not an easy trick to pull off, he acknowledged with a smile, but he feels he has a handle on how to approach her and hopefully 2012 will let us all read that result for ourselves.

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It was a great event, taking in iconic characters that have lasted decades (as Grant said, you can’t kill the superheroes, even in the wake of Watchmen in the ‘Dark Ages’ of comics of troubled, screwed up characters, when a lot of folks thought that was game over for the traditional hero, they came back. And they always will, the superhero was designed to take on all assaults and problems, after all), treating the comics universes as real, almost like a virtual universe but made of paper (a theme he elaborates on in Supergods), magic and meta fiction, the influence of Hollywood’s interest in comics (perhaps making too many writers try to show that they can write a Hollywood style script for their comic with one eye to being optioned and maybe being asked to become a screenwriter; part of his response has been to try and devolve more power to the artists again on layouts and design of pages, rather than the writer dictating too much on that, telling his artists to to go back to enjoying using those devices that only comics can do rather than trying to be ‘cinematic’ – play with the perspectives and slicing up of time that only a comic strip can do convincingly), gender and just why we still feel compelled to tell and read tales of superheroes. The talk was pretty good natured throughout, with plenty of humour and the queue for the signing afterwards stretched out the tent and down the walkway; it took me almost an hour to get my own books signed and when I left the end of the line still hadn’t even made it into the signing tent! Undaunted Grant was happily signing away and chatting to each and every reader. Hugely enjoyable talk from one of our best writers. Thanks to the press crew at the Book Fest for being kind enough to sneak me into the talk.

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