Saturday, April 30, 2011

"I'm nineteen, I can fly, I can flatten ballbearings between my fingers and I'm practically invulnerable to damage. What can possibly go wrong?"

Now I've happily confessed to my status as Uber-geek, life is a lot simpler. Now I've come out of the closet (albeit a closet decorated with Doctor Who and Walking Dead posters, as it were) and I'm not living a lie, life is grand. And to this end, I'm going to speak at some length about comics again. More specifically to proclaim that it is high time that history gave a more prominent position to one of the greatest comic reads I've ever had. A title that, despite being arguably some of the popular writers best work he's ever done, time has sadly forgotten.

Oh, I love Arkham Asylum. And The Dark Knight Returns. And V For Vendetta. And absolutely adored Watchmen. Animal Man, Preacher and all those aforementioned fine titles hold proud places on the Graphic novel section of my bookshelf as examples of how comics didn't have to be aimed at kids and could tell complex adult stories as well as anything else you'd fine in Waterstones (providing you avoid the ridiculous-that-it-even-exists-and-growing-terrifyingly-larger-on-a-daily-basis Supernatural Romance section).

But much as I'd love to have this epic sitting on my bookshelf, I can't. Not unless I was willing to pay several hundred pounds for the few volumes that were ever printed, the remainder of which are unlikely to ever see the light of day due to various copyright issues that now, simply down to the age of the story and lack of sales it would see if it ever DID see the light of day, will more than likely never be resolved.

Now bear with me here. I was never a Dandy or Beano reader as a child but instead started with a UK comic called Starlord. Here was I, a 7 year old ridiculously excited about science fiction having just seen Star Wars the year before in 1977, clutching excitedly at the first copy of this comic. And to my young eyes, this stuff was brilliant. Tales of mutated Bounty Hunters with great science-fiction gadgets, a team of Robot Disaster workers (like a kind of mech-Thunderbirds),  and much more than my tiny brain could comprehend. Great stories and great artwork - and a great free gift on the front of most of the covers.

(Embarrassingly, I kept most of the copies of it in pristine condition, even as a child. As I grew into adult life, I thought these might be worth a fair few bob. Until I walked into a Birmingham comic shop in my twenties and found them all for sale, still pristine, all with free gifts still stuck on the cover, for the princely sum of what you'd have paid for them at the time. Twelve pence each.)

Starlord died a death less than half a year after it came out, but was swallowed up by its older sister title 2000ad, that you've more than likely heard of. The best stories from Starlord got moved across as well, and I found myself introduced to a whole new raft of characters. Judge Dredd blew me away as a child - being so young I wasn't used to the concept of anti-heroes. A good guy?  Who kills people?  Astonishing.

Anyway, I'm seriously digressing now with that little meander through Memory Lane. To cut to the chase, in  August of 1987 a new story started in 2000ad - Zenith. It wasn't unusual for new stories to start, finish and never be seen again - the rolling format of the comic meant that much of the content changed on a regular basis. The only constant in the comic was Judge Dredd, at times having more than one story running at a time.

Even then, Zenith struck me as different. I wasn't to know that both the writer and the artist (Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell respectively) would go on to became hugely famous in the comic industry, but the story struck a chord with me.

What was it about? Superheroes. Nothing new there, but what was unusual was that these superheroes were British. I know it had been done before (Captain Britain springs to mind) but this was the first time that I'd heard about it. Superman swooping through the skies of Metropolis may be all well and good, but to see superhumans flying over recognisable landmarks in London? For my young mind, incredible.

In the world of Zenith, the first superhumans (The Nazi Masterman and the English Maximan) were created through the research efforts of loyal and defecting Nazi scientists. Their first confrontation (and indeed, the Second World War) is concluded when the first atomic bomb is dropped, not on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but on Berlin.

Later British military research into super humans in the 1960s engineers the first Super-team. This group, known as Cloud 9, rebel and either become hippies, psychedelic fashion icons or end up going into hiding or retreating into civilian life. The hero of the piece Zenith, real name Robert McDowell, is the son of two members of Cloud 9 - the first naturally born superhero.

Now we come to the next thing that drew me to the tale, in that Zenith is no selfless American style comic hero. In fact in all honesty Zenith is a self-centred publicity-seeking arrogant prick - probably one of the most dislikable central characters in comic history. He's a pop star and is more concerned with being famous than the responsibilities that should come with the ownership of his frankly immense latent gifts. A definite product of Thatchers eighties. ("Morrissey with super-powers" is a description that pops up again and again).

In the first Story Arc (or "Phase" as they were known) Zenith finds himself being drawn back into a battle that seemingly ended in World War 2 and having to recruit the former washed out or reluctant members of Cloud 9 to this cause. Masterman has returned (death, of course being only a minor inconvenience for comic characters) and threatens all of mankind - in fact, the whole of reality. Don't you just hate it when Super villains do that?

And so to the other reason for me loving this series so much. I'd only just started reading (and loving) the works of H.P. Lovecraft (who now I find despite some brilliant ideas to be an absolutely appalling read - my brain can now only process so many adjectives) so the fact that Zenith suddenly threw in all kinds of crazy shit linking it to the Cthulhu Mythos was probably one of the first examples of a crossover that I'd ever come across. The superheroes only existed in the first place because of some dark Nazi pact - an arrangement with the Lloigor ("The Many Angled ones") to simply make bodies physically strong enough to house an Elder Gods consciousness.

Multiple phases followed, each better than the last. The standout one, and the largest, was Phase III ("War In Heaven"). American comics tend to do storylines involving hundreds of characters every Summer or so, but Phase III - which involved every superhuman from every single alternative earth who ever existed trying to prevent the Lloigor from wiping them all out - was the first time I'd seen it in a British comic. Grant Morrison dragged pretty much every character from British comic history out for a spin (Check out The Phase III Score Card), albeit in a gritty black-and-white Steve Yeowell style. Billy Whizz is disintegrated in the first part, and Archie the Robot is reinvented as a rave-loving Acid-loving lunatic ("Aciieeeeeeed!")

The last series (sorry, "Phase") finished in 2000 by which time Zenith had had his day. He was a definite product of his time, and it's probably for the best that his story finished where it did. The comics were reprinted briefly (although Phase IV never saw print in graphic novel format) but are now no longer available, with copies swapping hands for several hundred pounds on ebay.

Of course if you were desperate to read any of this, then I imagine some kind hearted souls may have collected them in a comic book reader (.cbr) format and placed them somewhere on the internet, perhaps as a torrent, but I couldn't possibly say. Or condone said behaviour.

Zenith was genuinely the first comic I was excited about reading the next part of. With Phase III especially, where I had no absolutely no idea where the story was going.

A great read and if you love anything about comics, one you deserve to seek out.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you said. Brilliant stuff.
    When I worked in a comic shop for a few years, there was barely a week that went by when someone didn't ask for the release date of the Zenith Graphic novels. There is talk of a warehouse somewhere (real or fictional), with piles and piles of Zenith graphic novels. A Zenith mountain if you will. I always dreamed of mounting a rescue mission so that I can spread the word about this amazing story.

    I actually think that part of the problem getting these stories out lies with the man Morrison himself. This is wht I've heard.

    Right I'm going to sack off my chores and get out my back issues. Big Dave need another read as well.


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