October 22, 2014

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Zenith: Phase 1

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Steve Yeowell
Published by 2000 AD

While best known for publishing Judge Dredd, the long-running British comics anthology 2000 AD frequently publishes stories within different continuities. Zenith is one of these offerings, and it's also the first long-form comics work of Grant Morrison, better known as the writer behind the amazing modern relaunch of the Doom Patrol. (And some other stuff. This reviewer only knows about the Doom Patrol.)

The titular superhero is the offspring of two other superheroes, members of the government-bred team Cloud 9, which was itself created in the moments after World War II in order to protect Britain from rogue Nazi supermen. (Its previous safeguard, a superhuman named Maximan, was blown up along with his Nazi equivalent by an American atomic bomb. As one does.) Cloud 9, however, came of age in the swinging sixties, and the ones who don't disappear become hippies and malcontents, eventually losing their powers along with their ideals. The second-generation Zenith is himself a Billy Idol-esque rock star who uses his powers as mere stage pyrotechnics. But when Britain is again threatened by crypto-Nazis performing the Ritual of the Nine Angles (Grant Morrison, everybody!), will Zenith have the strength to put aside his fame and get the remaining members of Cloud 9 back together for one last fight?

As the story goes on, readers learn that just as Germany hasn't lost its Nazis, the surviving Cloud 9ers haven't lost their powers. The team includes Peter St. John, a mystic turned Tory politician, an alcoholic Welshman known as the Red Dragon, and mild-mannered journalist Ruby Fox as Voltage. Together with Zenith, this very British superhero squad takes on Lovecraftian monstrosities, and if the final act is a bit of a deus ex machina, it can mostly be forgiven. The art is of a standard superhero style, occasionally panning out to a splash page (some of which are in color), but mostly arranged in a typical grid. It's a fun comic, even if the Morrison-isms only come out in dribs and drabs. (Though this reviewer did notice the description of a failed Cloud 9 test baby in the form of a living whirlwind that "rose up in a storm of shapes, speaking in tongues, and simply would not die.")

The real question is, does this hold up? Yes and no. While the story is weird and fast-paced, it's also quite dated, both in the references to eighties culture and in the general style of storytelling. It is clear even without being told that this is a story by a new writer, one obviously influenced by the deconstructionist work of then-revolutionaries Frank Miller and Alan Moore. One gets the feeling that this probably wouldn't have been reprinted (in a deluxe hardcover, no less!) if it hadn't been for Morrison's current cachet.

If you're a diehard Morrison fankid, you'll want this in your collection. Same if you're a huge fan of 2000 AD. But if you're new to either, start elsewhere. Zenith is a history lesson in the early years of both Morrison and deconstructionist comics in general, and can be appreciated as a comic in its own right, but there is weirder and stronger stuff out there by Morrison.