Held in publishing limbo by a legal wrangle too complex to summarise (instead, give tinyurl.com/ZenithExplained a read) iconic ‘superbrat’ Zenith returned to a world in a manner as contentious as the infamously self-centre character himself – a limited hardback collecting all of the original 1987-90 run, plus 1992’s Phase IV and 2000’s zzzenith.com from classic anthology comic 2000 AD, now going for between £200 and £450 on eBay.
Grant Morrison’s first ongoing piece as a comic writer after bits and bobs for 2000 AD and Marvel UK, Zenith was co-created with artist Steve Yeowell, with character designs from pop-art king Brendan McCarthy whose own work on the brash superhero strip Paradox was the only viable alternative to the Alan Moore school of handwringing “Superman has a melonoma” storytelling seen in the sublime Marvelman and then Watchmen.
Telling the story of Page 3-bedding teen titan Zenith, a self-absorbed super-celebrity, and the ongoing mystery of the world’s first super-team Cloud 9 – including Zenith’s parents – who all disappeared, died or lost their powers at the end of the Sixties, this superhero epic so effortlessly slides into the whole narrative of British comics, between Alan Moore’s formidable earlier superhero work and Morrison’s own later efforts, that it’s a valuable piece of British comic history in its own right.
Starting as a straight satire wedded to the fast-paced 2000 AD style, the first two Phases pale before the thoroughly Morrisonian Phase III. The most elaborate piece of the bunch, Phase III is a majestic multiverse-spanning crossover as classic British comic characters or their thinly disguised parodies group together to take down nightmarish Lovecraftian monstrosities armed with geometry in order to avert a coming catastrophe (see Final Crisis, Seven Soldiers Of Victory or The Invisibles).
As much inspired by Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ cosmological take on Captain Britain as Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which seems to be the primary reference point for Phases I and II – the latter even has an amiable tycoon (albeit based on Richard Branson) with a plot to destroy the world to build a better tomorrow. It’s also Morrison’s first large-scale rummage through the archives to celebrate without mockery the weirdness and silliness of old comics, something he’d return to with growing acclaim in Animal Man, Seven Soldiers Of Victory and Batman Inc.
Let’s not overlook the clean lines and economical detail of Steve Yeowell in Zenith’s success, so much detail and hidden meaning could have easily overwhelmed a lesser artist, turning this carefully constructed epic into a Where’s Wally? book of obscure ideas and publishing errata.
A fantastic artefact, then, and one that underpins almost every Grant Morrison project to follow it. Yes, other people’s ideas are scattered throughout, but no art is created in a vacuum. Morrison’s genius has never been in getting them in the script, but in making them so much fun that it hurts.