Saturday, 17 July 2010

He's Not A Super-Hero, He's Not Even A Very Naughty Boy: The Case Against Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell's "Zenith"


1. "Well, I Hope You're Taking His Name Off The Memorial"

He's a bad one, that Zenith, and we can be sure about that badness because the people who know assure us that it's true. His writer Grant Morrison, for example, defined him as " ... basically just a pain in the ass." ("Speakeasy" 76), and his artist Steve Yeowell has him down as "... a bigoted, swollenheaded, loud-mouthed, materialistic, opportunistic coward, who's quite prepared to let others do the work and take the risks, then share the credit afterwards." (Zenith: Book 5) And if the opinions of Zenith's creators should somehow not be enough to sway the jury on this matter, then perhaps we might add to the evidence the words of Timothy Callahan, the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years", who describes Zenith, among other things, as "selfish and often cowardly" too. (CBR:1/21/09)

All of which, where the opinion of such expert witnesses is concerned, would seem to carry more than simply a considerable weight regarding the issue of Zenith's personality and actions. After all, who are we going to listen to on this matter? The man who invented Zenith? The artist who took Brendan McCarthy's basic designs for the character and created an entire multiverse for Zenith? The critic who has worked to keep the value and importance of the character in the comicbook-reading public's mind?

Case closed then, surely? That Zenith? He's no good. And we know he's a bad'un because the folks who know have told us so.


2. "Listen, Just Who Do You Think You Are?"

I. The whole point and purpose of Zenith, of course, was that he wasn't a super-hero, and that he never would be. Oh, he might dress like a superhero, but that was just part of the gimmick by which Robert Neil Cassady McDowell surfed through his late adolescence playing the part of an Eighties pop star. And though he possessed a brace of super-powers too, such as flight and a measure of super-strength, they were no more a marker of a super-heroic destiny than the possession of all four limbs and average height predetermines a career in the police force. As Grant Morrison said in 1987, the year of Zenith's first appearance;

"I mean, you don't ask Daley Thompson to go out and fight crime, and he's a superb athlete." (*1)

Indeed, Zenith's complete and utter disinterest in the business of super-heroics was constantly used to poke fun at the conventions of the genre, as well as at the very idea of the super-hero itself. His narrative purpose was to look so much like a superman that both his fellow comic-book characters and the readers themselves would at least half-expect him to follow the traditions of self-sacrifice and derring do, though the-once Robert McDowell himself always had quite other ideas. Bank robbers and invading extra-dimensional entities were of no immediate interest to him at all compared with his concerns of mass-markets and mass consumption, of surface with no apparent substance, of status-furtherance and wealth-stimulation. For Zenith was more than quite content to live his life as a handsome, wealthy, shaggable and famous pop star. If a career advisor had ever quizzed the young Zenith on what he intended to do with his future, it's incredibly doubtful that the answer would've sincerely included the words "service", "sacrifice" or "voluntary".

(*2) To those of you too shamelessly young to know, Daley Thompson was the Olympic Gold Medal winner in the Decathalon in both 1980 and 1984. I stood next to him once for a second at King Cross Station in London and in that moment I knew that I would not have picked a fight with him for the world.


II. And that's part of what Grant Morrison wanted Zenith to express, of course, namely "...the Eighties obsession of style over content", although why the decade which bred The Smiths, R.E.M. and U2 as well as the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman should always be characterised by the latter tribe is beyond me. Yet in making Zenith a teenager who didn't want to be a superman, but who did want to be the most superficial and glitzy of chart stars, Morrison created a character which the average four-colour comic fans found it hard to engage with without a considerable degree of obscurating prejudice being kicked up in the process. For what could be more counter-intuitive to the already skewed logic of a super-hero fan than to come face-to-face with a character who not only refused to track down muggers, but who rather wanted to shamelessly mime sing-a-long-a-papness chart hits on "Top Of The Pops"?

All of which is, I'd argue, part of the problem with how Zenith is often judged as a character.
For in essence, most of the criticisms of him as a person only carry any weight if applied to a genuine, be-spandexed superhero, rather than the almost-ordinary, 17 to 21 year-old Robert Neal Cassady McDowell. And it's not just young Zenith who inevitably suffers when compared to Superman and the vast majority of his virtuous brethren. You and I, for example, may not have super-powers, but most of us have the basic physical qualifications to become a member of the police-force, or a Guardian Angel, or even a St John's volunteer. Why should Zenith be judged as "selfish" and "opportunistic" for not being a heroically self-sacrificing superhero, or even acting according to the narrow dictates of one, when most of us aren't engaged in the fight against crime either?
And why exactly is it wrong for Zenith to be a pop singer, a drifting guest on morning chat-shows, a regular at the flesh-pots of London's night-life? Who exactly is Zenith harming by doing so? Who has been brainwashed by him, frog-marched to his concerts, forced to hand over their pocket money, compelled to wear his t-shirts and beaten until they scream at his P.A.s? (*2)

*2 - Of course, the people of Earth-Zenith have good reason to be glad that Zenith so enjoys the more transient and populist pleasures in life. All the other superhumans there have either had higher ambitions, or been the victim of other's higher ambitions, and have ended up doing some incredibly dubious things, to say the absolute least. There are far, far, far worse things than the ambition to make it as a crap pop star.


III. Ah, I hear you say, Mr Morrison and Mr Yeowell and Mr Callahan aren't criticising Zenith for not being a super-hero. They're disparaging him for rudeness, selfishness, cowardice and a host of associated sins.

Yet I'm absolutely sure that Zenith, the once Robert McDowell, is no more rude and selfish, cowardly and sinful than the overwhelming majority of 19 year old men. And if that's so, then there must be something about the combination of not-superhero and puerile-pop star that makes us all see "contemptible" when we ought to see "understandable", and "despicable" when we might more fairly perceive "everyday" and even - whisper it - on occasion "laudable".

IV. There's a terrible puritanism that lurks at the heart of the popular concept of the super-hero, and at times it seems almost indivisible from any understanding of the Protestant Work Ethic. Sacrifice is good, fun is bad. Obedience is the mark of the worthy, indulgence is the devil's stain. The mask, the cape, the platitude and the sacrificing heart is less admirable than mandatory, while private life and private happiness are despicable anti-social cancers threatening us all.

And yet underneath all that alienating refusal by Zenith to become a super-hero, and all his embracing of the shallow and disgusting business of wealth and fun, is a single truth that so many folks seem to miss. (I certainly did.) Zenith is an extremely young man, in a culture and a business effectively hell-bent on offering him every substantial psychological reinforcer to stay so. Which means that he's often effectively just a boy, for heaven's sake, while even his creators seem to be judging him as we would ordinarily judge a fully mature and adult man.

And he is just a boy, and if on reflection too many of us think that we'd have done that much better than Zenith at 19, or even 21, with all the opportunity he had within his grasp, then quite frankly I'd suggest we all think again. Firstly, because it's hard not to be an idiot at 19 even without fame and fortune coming around to play most every moment of the day, and secondly, and most importantly, because another read of "Zenith" will show us that while at times he might have been a "pain in the ass", the other more serious criticisms of him are almost entirely without foundation, and at the very most barely supported by the evidence at all. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that the young Zenith was often a far more decent and pleasant bloke than I ever was, or, indeed, even Grant Morrison might on occasion have been, by the evidence of his own admission;

"Back in the eighties, when I was doing Zenith, the persona I had then was Morrisey: he slags everybody off, he's really clever: all that Oscar Wilde stuff. So I kept saying cruel things about everybody in comics. No one else had ever done that before and it made me famous: but it was a horrible way to get famous." ("Writers On Comic Scriptwriting", Mark Salisbury)

And so, yes, I worry that we judge Zenith in a way that we wouldn't always want ourselves to be judged, especially where our 19 year selves are concerned.


3. "Have You Finished Or Is There A Sequel?"

I. Let's consider the very worst of the charges against Zenith made by Mr Yeowell and Mr Callahan, namely the accusation of "cowardice", which I contend would never stand up in a court of law unless the prosecution was uncommonly brilliant, the defence utterly inept, and the jury already biased against our man. For though Zenith regularly refused to throw himself in the fray as a superhero is expected to, there's always a good reason for him not doing so, and the best way to show this to be true is simply to ask oneself "What would I do in the same situation?". For if we can imagine making a similar decision to Zenith in the quandaries he's placed in, then perhaps he wasn't as feckless and gutless a character as he's so often claimed to be, or we're worse people than we might want to admit.

II. In "Zenith: Book One" (*3), for example, when Zenith refuses to help Ruby fight the Nazi superman Masterman -
"I mean, what d'you think I am? Some kind of boxer or something? Why should I get my head kicked in for you?" - he immediately reveals himself to be a comic book reader's version of a heretic. For the damsel in distress has sought his aid, the fascist Ubermensch is closing in, and the crusade for justice calls. But the red cross of the Crusade of course obscured as it inspired, and so does the ideology of the superhero, for in fact Zenith was quite right to refuse his help, and for a string of good reasons. Firstly, Ruby can offer him absolutely no proof of Masterman's existence, approach, power or intentions. Secondly, Ruby has lied to the world about her super-powers being lost for more than a decade, and she's been of no help to Zenith in helping train him with his, so why should he believe her and her improbable tale? Thirdly, Zenith is right to point out that he lacks even the training to be a boxer, let alone a superhero. (If Ruby's story is true, Zenith has no more hope in using his powers to face down the fearsome Masterman than I would have in using my two good arms in taking on Mike Tyson in his prime.) Fourthly, while Ruby is trying to hi-jack Zenith's life with her demands, he actually does have a life and responsibilities of his own. Because we are supposed to despise the business of pop, we're supposed to see the fact that Zenith has "the Jonathan Ross Special and the photo-session for the Face" as contemptible matters which should be abandoned when the evidence-less call to action comes, when in fact those appointments are the very stuff of his livelihood, and, indeed, the livelihood of many others too.


And of course, we're supposed to see Zenith as "selfish" when he only accedes to helping Ruby when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents. (Mr Callahan certainly sees it that way.) Yet surely it's the only rational reason for sacrificing his time and his career opportunities that Ruby has given him? And doesn't it rather speak well of Zenith that this supposedly shallow and uncaring young man is actually willing to drop his commitments and the opportunities they offer him in order to find out more about his lost parents?

Only in comic books could the above be seen as evidence that Zenith is anything other than an ordinary and sensible and caring bloke, with a typical measure of moral decency, for he's surely behaving in a quite rational and defensible fashion.

*3 - I'm mostly referring to Zenith's adventures as they're named in the reprint Titan volumes. "Book 6", therefore, refers to the never re-printed Phase IV.


III.
On page 12 of Mr Callahan's "Grant Morrison: The Early Years", Zenith is described as "a self-centred character from the beginning, (who) whines and even cries to his agent Eddie for help when he's in the bowels of Iok Sokot". And Mr Callahan is quite right to point out that all the qualities that he lists - the whining and the selfishness and the crying out for help to a show-biz agent - are untypical of a superhero, and therefore, by implication, likely to be seen as unworthy of one too. But his point also illustrates how distorting the very concept of the superhero is, for its influence can lead to quite distinct qualities such as "whining" and the crying out for help by a young man on the brink of being murdered being conflated. For while moaning on is in no way a heroic quality, pleading for assistance while in fear for one's life is in no way an unheroic one either. But the superhero typically does neither, and so in comparison both seem unworthy.

And yet, taken for what it is, Zenith's cry of "Eddie .... Get me out of this Eddie..." is touching and endearing rather than weak and pathetic. Though in reality his aged, greying and somewhat camp manager could probably no more help him remove the top of a tomato sauce bottle than fight off the hyper-human Masterman, Zenith's reaching out to him, to the only significant male role model in his life, tells us a great deal about Robert McDowell and about the truth of his existence as a 19 year-old boy. It certainly reminds us that he's no teeth-gritting, to-the-death superhero, and that he's no less a person for all of that.

But if we forget and start to judge Zenith as a type of a hero rather than as an individual character, the whining and the selfishness and the crying out all get mixed together and something quite unfairly reprehensible emerges from the brew.

IV. The single most apparently conclusive evidence of Zenith's supposed cowardice, of his tendency to "...to let others do the work and take the risks, then share the credit afterwards.", as Mr Yeowell puts it, occurs in Book Five, where it appears that our young pop star runs away from the final battle with the reality-threatening Lloigor. In fact, he even appears to damn himself with his own testimony, declaring to the super-heroes returning from Earth-230 that "I've been here all the time." And he's absolutely shameless about the whole business too, making no attempt to explain away and excuse his absence from armageddon. In fact, he's just plain rude, necking down what might be a can of beer and sneering at the fatal sacrifice of his other-worldy, and far more obviously virtuous, counterpart Vertex.

"Me, sacrifice myself? You must be joking. Must've been Vertex. Sounds like the sort of stupid thing he'd do."

That would seem to close the case on Zenith and his character, or it would if we were avoiding thinking about things. But as the reader of Zenith's adventures has seen over and over again in Books 4 and 5, and as will be seen again in Book 6/Phase IV, what characters say and what they actually feel and do are quite different things. Big Ben, for example, describes himself over and over as a worthless failure, but if anyone has the right to the epithet "heart of a lion" it's him, while Maximan himself lies through his teeth for most of the story before being revealed as the very worst of the very worst. So, despite his own apparent willingness to declare himself a stay-at-home coward, could it be that Zenith didn't honestly reveal himself to be the scum of the Earth, to be the worst thing a superhero can be, namely the cape who was too scared for the Crisis?

V: The truth of the matter is that we have no idea where Zenith was during the final showdown with Maximan, and since we don't know where he was, we can't say why he was doing whatever he was either. It is, of course, quite possible that he really did display the most appalling cowardice and hid away on Earth-23. (After all, Zenith has several times displayed a tendency to argue for the option of running away when faced with overwhelming odds, though I'd argue that when, as in Book 6, the fully mature Lloigor close the trap on him and St John, running away is actually a far more sensible option than useless resistance.) And we do know that Grant Morrison himself had by the time of Phase III decided that Zenith should be portrayed as something quite other than a hero, or even other than a decent human being;

"He becomes more of a jerk as it goes on ... Originally the idea was that we would do this superhero who started out as a real prat and he gradually learned through experience. But I thought, naw, I can't be bothered with this, so he's just become more unpleasant, more arrogant, as the series goes on." ("Cut", February 1989)

But it is strange that we're simply not shown any evidence of Zenith suddenly developing such an extreme of cowardice and such an absolutely aggressive disregard for the feelings of others, for as I hope to show, his supposed rudeness in the past always had an explanation and a purpose. And on reflection, there are other signs that Zenith hasn't perhaps been as shamelessly cowardly as it might first appear. When he afterwards tells St John, for example, that "...We saved the universe, then.", the elder superhuman strangely doesn't contradict him: perhaps St John doesn't know that Zenith hid away, or perhaps he's willing to accept that Zenith did at least travel in the task-forces sent to Earth-666 and Earth-230, and so has earned some share of the praise for the apparent fall of the Lloigor. But it does seem odd that Zenith would so publically claim cowardice before so many of the other superhumans before declaring the opposite to St John.

Yet the truth is that Morrison's decision to not use thought-balloons or narrative captions in "Zenith" leaves the whole business up to the reader. Perhaps the young man really has revealed his true colours as a shameless modern-day Flashman, or perhaps, and this is my favourite explanation, he'd gone for a leak or a beer and missed the snap decision of the surviving superhumans to travel to Earth-23. ("Typical. Just typical." I could imagine him saying, just as Vertex did immediately before dying, watching them all disappear and knowing he'll be damned for missing the fight, ) Under those circumstances, I couldn't imagine Zenith admitting to the likes of the contemptuous Archer that he'd screwed up, but had wanted to help, or at least, hadn't wanted to be seen as having run away.


VI. Perhaps we might take a moment to consider that worst case scenario for the pro-Zenith advocate. What if he did hide away in shameful terror after the fight against Mr Lion, Mr Unicorn and the Black Sun? Is it possible to put a good spin on that, given that his fellow superhumans, and even the non-super-powered heroes, were giving their lives in the fight against Maximan at the same time?

Well, I do believe it is, and I also believe that the following is the key to establishing how the rules we carry around with us guiding our expectations of how superhumans behave actually obscure our comprehension of perfectly understandable and forgivable human behaviour.

For, firstly, we'd already seen evidence of a considerable amount of cowardice among the superheroes sent to fight on Earth 666, where not a single one of the survivors were willing to volunteer for the suicidal responsibility of setting off the doomsday weapon. If Zenith was a coward, he's very much not alone in his fearfulness. Secondly, and most importantly, Zenith is not a superhero. This simply can't be over-emphasised enough. He arrived in the midst of the army to fight the Lloigor on a whim, to escape the drudgery and desperation of a collapsing career as a pop star. Prior to Phase III, he'd been involved in a total of two - yes, just two - superhuman punch-ups. In the first, against Maximan, he was soundly beaten and almost killed. In the second, against the cyborg that had apparently been his father, he'd been compelled to murder what was left of his immediate family. He'd had no training, no psychological support, no period of readiness, no time to develop the essential team loyalties that drive and bind women and men at war: he was pretty much as naive and innocent as most of you and I were at that age, if we were lucky. And in that state, he'd undergone the utter horror of the assault on Earth-666, the desperate running away from murderous Superman-level killers down darkened underground tracks, the slaughter of comrades-in-arms, and then the disgraceful argument about who was going to volunteer to die along with that Earth. And then Zenith had taken part in a second pitched battle, on Earth-230. If he wasn't scarred, indeed traumatised, by that sequence of events, then I'd be amazed.


For super-heroes in the abstract may be perfectly able to shuffle between apocalyptic worlds and face down demons with the powers of gods without blinking, following duty and honour and purpose without reference to the limitations of ordinary human psychological perseverance, but recognisably 19 year old boys rarely can. Not even in the absurd world of comic books can it be utterly obscured that horrors of the degree suffered by Zenith have inevitably unpleasant psychological consequences. And that's true even where pampered 19 year old pop stars are concerned, and especially true for 19 year old boys who've killed their own fathers not so long ago.

If Zenith had been so scared that he'd opted out of the last of the three battles of that superhuman war, I wouldn't be so quick to judge him, I really wouldn't. If he was a superhero operating within the context of a standard superhero story, I'd still feel that he had every right to have found himself unable to fight on, and his post-battle bravado would read as the understandable avoidance of a scarred and perhaps self-deceiving young man. But given that he's not a superhero, but a 19 year old boy already bearing up incredibly under unbelievable trauma, then I'd not be in the slightest bit surprised at his fear and his avoidance, and I'd be admiring of what he'd done, and hopeful that he would get some help when he returned home.

There's no court in the land would convict Zenith on a charge of cowardice, even if there was some strange law which allowed individuals to be judged on their behaviour at the end of the world. For he was nothing but an untrained, naive boy at war. If he was scared, he was scared for damn good reasons, and "scared" is a different word to "coward" with a quite different meaning too.


4. Do You Practise Being A Pain In The Neck?

I. It can be hard to like, let alone love, Zenith given that he can be terribly snotty to those around him. But, again, I've yet to read of a single example of Zenith being apparently rude to another character which wasn't at the very least quite understandable. For example, when he meets the army of superheroes called together by Maximan for the first time in Book IV, he does indeed express himself in terms of an utter disdain, but there are obvious reasons for that. For one thing, he knows nothing of the seriousness of why they're all there, as 93 Mantra realises, nor does he have the slightest inkling of how powerful and important some of these people are. Consequently, his mocking response to the "pervy skintight suits" is exactly what most 19 year blokes would have. Only a superhero fan could see a room filled with tens of ridiculous looking costumed individuals and not feel a mixture of amazement, contempt and disgust. We know the Steel Claw and Leopard are noble and brave individuals, because we've read our superhero tales, but how could Zenith possibly know that? They're so out of his frame of reference that the only rational response for a lad of his age and culture is to scoff. I suspect that even you and I would do something of the same today at first if by some unlikely trick of circumstance we chanced upon such a scene. It would take the most stoic of middle-class hearts to feel that Zenith had let the side down, and himself too, by not showing common decency to these unimpressive oddballs.

II. Similarly, Zenith is certainly cruelly dismissive of Big Ben in Book Four, and the reader feels outraged because we know Ben has undergone unimaginable horrors in his battle against the Lloigor and is suffering depression, and probably Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, because of the bleakness of it all. Yet, all Zenith knows of this is that he's been allocated to Ben's leadership during the invasion of the fearsome Earth-666, and Ben's mournful and Marvin-like introductory remarks - "I'm suppose I'm charge of you lot" - can hardly have inspired an already uneasy Zenith. And yet Zenith and Ben do forge a touching relationship, though a lad of Zenith's age and background in 1989 could hardly be expected to be 21st century touchy-feely-sensitive about mental illness and the self-doubt it brings. Consider the panel below, where Zenith's words only appear scathing until the reader notices the young man's sympathetic expression and the hand he's placed on Ben's shoulder.

And when Zenith is at last convinced of the seriousness of the situation he and the other superhumans are in, the wisecracks end and he buckles down to getting things done in an appropriate fashion. So, he's subdued and reliable where both Ben and St John are concerned during the discovery of Streamline's betrayal, and he shuts up with the wisecracks and serves as a foot-soldier during the scenes we have of the invasion of Earth-23.

III. In fact, Zenith's behaviour is only inexplicably rude, and easily condemned, if he's being read, again, as a standard-issue superhero, which, of course, again, he's not. If he's understood to be a young man still belatedly ankle-deep in adolescence, then his actions are usually utterly understandable and only occasionally in the slightest bit condemnable. In truth, I find it impossible to see Zenith as anything worse than a slightly, and I do mean "slightly", arrogant and occasionally opionated young man, for surely Robert McDowell as was can't be defined as a bad lad, or even an slightly troublesome one. He doesn't hurt anyone, and he doesn't care enough to want to hurt anyone. He's a bright and charismatic lad with a challenging history and an unwanted legacy. He can be rude, but there's always a context for it, and he can be full of himself, but then, for a 21 year old pop star, we've remarkably little evidence that he's even particularly rude to cabbies who insult his latest records. And if he's scared at times, and runs away, well, so perhaps might you and I have done under those overwhelming circumstances. And perhaps we're so used to seeing some comic books through the codes of superheroes that we miss the point that this is a young man, not a superhero, and, you know what, I reckon he did pretty well, all things considered.

Unless he actually is a superhero, of course, in which case he's a bounder and a bollockhead and he should be drummed out of the Justice League of the Avengers by the first light of dawn tomorrow.


5. "And Where D'You Think You're Going?"

Ladies and gentlemen of the infoblogospherenet, before passing judgement on this Zenith, I'd like to ask you to take three things into consideration, to please remember that;
  • Zenith is not a superhero, and therefore shouldn't be judged as if he were, any more than you ought to be judged for not being a noble vigilante;
  • Zenith is a young man who has gone through a very considerable amount of trauma while living his life in the infantalising goldfish bowl of celebrity;
  • none of us can be sure, I suspect, that in similar circumstances to this young man, we would behave in any substantially better way;
The fate of this young man's future reputation is in your good hands.


If you haven't already got them, the various volumes of "Zenith" are sadly and frustratingly currently out-of-print due to a long-running dispute between Grant Morrison and Rebellion Press. With a little digging, the Titan volumes, original issues of 2000AD and the reprints can be found, so good luck. It's splendid work, and Phase III may well be my favourite "superhero war" of all.
Thank you to anyone who's gotten down to this point. And I hope to see you soon, when I'll try to have another point for you to get down to.


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10 comments:

  1. Very nice analysis of a character that is often taken for a joke.

    For me, I've always wondered if the climax of the series was Morrison showing the readers the inverse of his inversion (Zenith displays what we think of as actual heroism only to be 'eaten' by the Lloigor(?))just to tease, before revealing that there had, in fact, been no such change of character (Zenith was, like in the panel above, never there).

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  2. Hello Josh - you're right about the playfullness of Morrison's writing in "Zenith", particularly as the series continues, as shown in the example you mention from the climax to Phase IV. And I suspect that what you're saying is right, in that standing and facing down the bad guys has a very bad - indeed the very worst - result for the Zenith in that parallel dimension.

    It's strange and fascinating to look back over Mr Morrison's development as a writer across the four Phases of Zenith. Amongst so many other factors, the degree to which he uses his work to stimulate debate among his readers skyrockets between 1987 and 1992. And of course that's one of the main reaons why his work is so popular now. If Zenith was a revolt against a perception of the Eighties as all surface and no depth, Morrison's superhero work is both surface and depth. You get your superhero punch-ups & you get the options to fill up learned articles far beyond my capacity to write too with allusion and speculation. I wonder if too many other writers fail to realise that by doing so, Morrison is giving us that considerable measure of extra value to keep the floppies alive, engaging his readers in a challenging and enjoyable conversation month on month. The fun of that is the best defence against waiting for the trades that I know.

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  3. Hello Colin,

    Long time reader, love the blog very much. Apologies for the lack of contribution before now, but you so often discuss topics with which I am unfamiliar (which is wonderful) that I feel a bit out of my depth in commenting. But with Zenith though... even though you very convincingly put forward the case for the it not deserving to really be called such, Zenith is one of my favorite superhero comics of all time.

    Having been an young child during the run's initial serialization, I of course came to the series late, and it was a very, very strange experience doing so after being familiar with Mr. Morrison's later work. It was quite funny to discover there was this whole undiscovered epic out there from the 80's.

    It's also rather funny to compare and contrast what Mr. Morrison was doing here with adding real-world elements to his characters' motivations, but still maintaining that superhero through-line. Zenith may be a very human character, but the comic itself still works with the superhero styles and tropes well enough that it is a wonderful action adventure story. And I'd totally agree that Phase III's interdimensional superhero war is one of the best ever done, even just in it's scope and imagination alone!

    I'm also very glad that Morrison never dropped into some the... darker trends that were around at the time concerning bringing human problems to the superhero world. Zenith could have been quite a good deal bleaker than it was, and at times it really teased at being such! I mean, that's why the ending is still one of my favorite of all time!

    I'd like to say that was some sort of response to those darker trends of the eighties, but I really don't think it was. I kind of just think that's just how Morrison writes. Or is. Or something.

    He seems to always have been very much a realist, but also still a romantic and an optimist. And it shows. Especially in Zenith.

    Thanks again for the excellent blog, Colin, especially the more... esoteric entries like the ones on the Legion and John Forte. Fascinating stuff, that. Weird as all hell, but fascinating nonetheless ;)

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  4. Hello Terrence – thanks very much for the kind words. I’m really pleased that you’ve found some things on the site that were worth you popping over & reading, and I’m glad in particular than those John Forte pieces were of some worth to you. (I’ve become, as you’ll know, rather fond of his work.)

    I was in my twenties when Zenith came out, and it still feels to me as if it’s an undiscovered epic from the period even though I know it so well. There’s something about the fact that it draws off so much of the UK’s tradition of comics despite being, as you correctly say, a superhero story that gives it something of the air of a lost evolutionary path, a possible model for a superhero tradition which was summoned up and yet also died with Zenith. The war against Maximan, for example, is far, far more frightening in my opinion than any crossover-crisis involving Thanos or the Anti-Monitor, and it’s something I’d like to write about at some time in the future. What makes that war so very frightening? (To be continued …)

    I share your relief that Morrison didn’t pull in those grim’n’gritty tropes which, in my opinion, functioned so poorly in some of the US comics of the period. And the truth is that the conflicts he did discuss were far more challenging to the reader than the knee-jerk use of … some very dubious situations which, for all of their supposed adult nature, often seemed to be exploitative. Watching the young heroes of the alternative earths face up to their mortality and their feelings for each other in Phase III, for example, moved me far more than a rape scene here and a torture scene there.

    I think you hit the nail on the head suggesting that Morrison is far more of a realist than he’s often portrayed, and part of that realism lies in the fact that his work contains, for example, optimism and pessimism operating at the same time, just as it might seem to do in everyday life. He’s not trying to be anything other than Grant Morrison, he doesn’t have to prove to be clever or meaningful, dark or intense. And so he can have Green Arrow and the Atom kill Darkseid in a perfect superhero standoff and yet retain the joy of the superhero conflict even as he’s describing a very gruesome end indeed. It’s odd to think that there are still folks who don’t see him as the most important writer we’ve had since Alan Moore, it really is. There's no-one else who can run, as you say, super-hero stories & more out-there pieces together in the same narrative & make the experience so rewarding.

    I hope your day is a good one!

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  5. Given our current climate of deliberately manufactured celebrity Zenith does actually come off rather well even in terms of a shallow pop starlet, as he's putting effort into seeking even C-list status back in the days of pre-viral marketing and reality shows rather than just showing up for an audition, though it's worth noting that even in his 'rudeness' he and his adventures don't wander far from the Hero's Journey archetype.
    I also seem to recall Morrison saying that Zenith was an amalgam of Superman and Rick "roll" Astley and meant the latter as derogatory - but I actually find it hard to muster much antipathy towards Rick given how pop culture has since infantalised while Rick went on to eke out a living making inoffensive MOR songs and grew up. With Zenith, it's equally hard to dislike him for following the path he's on.

    You're quite correct that the reader has little right to presume any kind of 'superheroism' on Zenith's part - if anything, quite the opposite given that this was mid-80s 2000ad and anti-establishment punk credentials were long established. If it had been set in DC or Marvel's shared universes then expectations of heroism would have been both justifiable and sensible if only because you'd just bought a superhero comic set in a superhero world of superhero logic and superhero physics and featuring superheroes as the cast. I've read superhero comics that try to be about 'superheroes not being superheroes' and even leaving aside that as a concept it's a tough one to make work, the success rate seems to be very low. It'd be like making a tv series about Superman and not having Superman in it, just having him mope about making doe eyes and hanging around his home town as Clark Kent while everyone else did the legwork.

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  6. Hello Mr B - I think you're quite right to mention the hero's journey, which Zenith is certainly following in the first 4 Titan collections, and may even be doing so in the 5th, since all heroes have their moment where they turn away from the good fight, as he appears to do so there. But it's a hero's journey rather than a superhero's one that's going on, and I was indeed struggling to express just that point; how odd it was that a character who has actually been incredibly brave for a 19 year old boy should end up with this terrible reputation.

    On your excellent point about superhero universes & Superman: by extension, that's why Zenith Phase III is SO scary, isn’t it, because the characters falling over left right and centre aren't traditional superheroes. While the mainstream superhero book forces us to perceive many of the characters placed into its narrative to according to superheroic stereotype, Zenith permits us to perceive human beings, and so they count for more. As you say, it’s SO much harder to have a superhero behaving in a non-stereotypically superhuman way in a standard-issue Marvel/DCU universe, and you've made me think once more about how Zenith would have ended up in a more traditional environment for costumed characters.

    As I’m learning more about as I write this, actually, working on a piece on “Secret Six: Unhinged”, a book by a writer who has found a way to at least very substantially resist the logic of the superhero narrative.

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  7. I'm a fan of Simone's Secret Six as it happens. I like that she often shows us that even the most reprehensible of characters - if not capable of redemption - are capable of love and thus by extension know goodness. Then they go and stab someone in the eye and you're reminded you're going to have to do a little bit of work with this one. I've always found outright villains with no single redeeming virtue to be very boring.

    I do recall being saddened by the deaths of the cannon fodder in Zenith, as I never really looked upon them as superheroes given they were clearly the Leopard of Lime Street, Steel Claw, Robot Archie and Billy the Cat - superheroes on the surface, certainly, but carried off in their native strips in that usual British way of having characters kicked in the balls over and over in some grimy council estate or backstreet drawn by Mike Western. When they were bumped off, I never believed for a moment they were coming back or there was going to be a last-minute escape explained in later chapters - so all the more surprising that Zenith goes ahead and explains his own trapdoor escape once the hullabaloo dies down.

    Although... the way you've phrased your piece, it's fun to think of a Vertex/Zenith switcheroo. It might explain his music getting better, if nothing else.

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  8. I agree entirely with you about Ms Simone's scripts, Mr B. I'm in the middle of a couple of short pieces on the Six and there are times when I suddenly realise that the most appalling character has somehow been rendered a three-dimensional human being that I can feel genuine empathy for. That's why I always think it's worth really studying her writing, even if I always have that worrying sense that I'm missing 99.9% of what's going on in it.

    I will say that, however, I've always had a suspicion that it was Zenith who died there and Vertex who survived, assuming the more fun role, but sadly have never been able to rustle up the SLIGHTEST evidence whatsoever. Well, except that "Typical, just typical" doesn't sound very Vertex, does it, and both figures could have been on that Earth before one of them died. But then I'd have to be able to explain how come Vertex had a "Zenith" top for later, and unless he had "instant-tailor" powers, that's my bolt shot.

    On your point that the analogues for the likes of Billy The Cat were obviously not coming back; heartbreaking, wasn't it, just heartbreaking. That's how you have a crisis on quite alot of Earths ...

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  9. A little late to the party but hey ho, I was nosing through your categories and found this.

    I see Zenith as a subversion of that idea that people can find themselves in diversity - cometh the hour cometh the man. It certainly something people like to think they'd be able to do in a crisis but until it happens you just don't know how you'd react - some people will leap in and save the day (although the death of a few "have a go heroes" probably makes people a little more wary these days), some will stand around stunned and some will run for the hills. A friend of mine once told me a story about my brother in rather a sneering tone: a fight broke out and my brother, almost at the brink of tears asked everyone to stop fighting. It sounded like perfectly sensible behaviour but my friend (although not for much longer) clearly saw it as weak-kneed cowardice. That kind of idea can lead you into some very awkward places.

    Zenith came along in my late teens when I was suffering disillusionment with my fellow man. It was round about this time my Headmaster took us for RE and spent an awful long time banging on about how if the Germans had invaded we British would not have stood for their shabby schemes like killing the Jews, I was so gob-smacked by this (which seemed like it had come from the lips of Captain Mainwaring) that I spoke up and things got a little frosty, because I was by extension accusing the British people of cowardice (when I was just pointing out it was clearly more complex than that). I told my Dad who was a Deputy Head at another school and he reckoned he could pick a couple of lads from each year who you could give a gun to and pack off to be deathcamp guards the following day, no need for indoctrination there.

    So if you randomly dished out superpowers to people you are going to get some who wouldn't be that enthusiastic to get in a fight - in fact the more dangerous ones are those who'd jump in with no training and cause one Hell of a mess.

    In all that context it made sense to me that some people don't rise to the occasion. He may have had superpowers but Zenith wasn't a hero, not many of us are.

    Of course, when you look at his powers you realise he wouldn't have stood a chance in a one-on-one confrontation with a Lloigor, which is what we see happen at the end. These are hyperdimensional entities who exist outside of time, being able to fly and resist a degree of damage (and do a few other tricks with fire and the like) are about as much use as me trying to kill Cthulhu with a Cornetto. Picking up a gun and heading off to fight other people is scary enough, but going up against a monstrosity like Iok Sotot is just pointless. No wonder Zenith goes to pieces when he scoops him and Mandala but and drags them out of their own dimension - surely the only reason Peter St. John keeps it together is because he not only has the skills to defeat the beast but in essence at that point he knows he has already won (ditto for the very end too). Of course, Zenith doesn't appear to know there is nothing that he could do but when faced with that kind of menace I think most of us would want to go and hide under the duvet.

    We can also look at in the context of the cross-genre the story is in - it is a superhero title but it is also solidly placed within the Cthulhu Mythos and the latter pretty much revolves around people confronted by mind-wasting monstrosities and crumbling before the enormity of the task. When faced with such a task most superheroes might prefer to knock off so they can have a pint or spend some time with their loved ones before the reality raping starts.

    So Zenith's less than gung-ho attitude forces us to reflect on just how brave we would be in such a situation (either fatally brave or sensibly brave), where your standard super-heroics would gung-ho their way past such a point sweeping us along in blissful ignorance.

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  10. Hello Emperor, and thank you for taking a look at the odd old page. It's always really appreciated when a good egg such as yourself does so. It's like buried treasure, actually; a piece of work done months and months ago and then a comment appears. It's a really heartening business.

    I was trying to make exactly the point you do, though I fear you make it in a much clearer fashion. Zenith really is just a ordinary lad. In fact, and contrary to the horror of most of them who write about him, he's a remarkably inoffensive and harmless young man. As I wrote, the fact that he's handsome and a pop star counts against where fandom is concerned, but fandom is made up to a large degree of folks who regard themselves as "alternative" and who may not think of themselves as being handsome. And comics fandom is also in large part made up of "nice" folks, people who were bullied rather than bullies, and they regard somebody as harmless as Zenith as a bad lad because he's a little bit leery. But by any rational calculation, and any experience of the real world, Zenith is, as I argued, rather than a nice lad; what he says and what he does is rather different. He's a good chap, for his age and considering what he's done. What's more, if he were any more self-conscious, any more determined and self-possessed, he'd have followed the rest of his kind into Lovecraftian-godhood. It's actually a damn good idea he's more concerned with hit records than big issues.

    And, yes, you're quite right; for a typical person, he's actually both able and brave. Most of us, including myself, would struggle to achieve what he did even with his gifts. The problem with the hero role is that it's a role we cherish because we can't fulfil it. And yet Zenith gets it in the neck for better than most of us would be! Madness! Fandom madness!

    Psychological experiments by the likes Milgram and Zimbardo, for all their problems, would agree with your Dad's opinion, tand indeed considerably inflate the percentage of those we might expect to happily take part in atrocities. What so much of the whinging about Zenith missed is not how easy it is to be a hero, but how compelling it is to be a villain and think you're a hero. At least Zenith knew his limits and never worried himself to pretend to be what he wasn't. Bless him. There's no gun-ho bblissful ignorance in Zenith, and more power to his elbow.

    And, of course, to yours too, Mr E.

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