|The Zenith saga is perhaps my favourite superhero narrative of all time. That's above Watchmen, above Dark Knight. Zenith the character is cowardly, arrogant and generally useless -- "super" without the "hero" -- but the story is unflaggingly glorious. |
Witty in its immediate, now naively-1980s cultural references (Network 7, Anne Diamond), developing into a rich and rewarding intertextuality by part III as Morrison creates a whole DCU Crisis out of forgotten British comic books (Dan Dare, Billy the Cat).
Gorgeously drawn by Steve Yeowell, whose style evolves from careful detail to bold, splashy expressionism, with each frame, at his peak, worth studying and cherishing.
Breathless in its episodic drama, explosive splash pages and relentless cliffhangers, yet unfolding into a deep, complex canvas of parallel-world history and grand designs.
THIS -- IS -- ZENITH
...until Phase IV.
Phase IV appeared in 1992, after a long gap (Phase III closed in Spring 1990). Perhaps Morrison was by now more interested in his DC projects and was only wrapping up this British story out of duty; for whatever reason, the spark and the energy has been dampened. There's a sense of rush and dashing-off.
On a simple level, that this Phase was only 14 episodes, after the mammoth 26-part "War In Heaven" of Phase III, was a shock in itself; I remember at the time thinking hang on...it's going to end soon, then? around episode 13, seeing conclusions and finales in the near future and realising with disappointment that this was a modest last offering, a bookend, a postscript... almost an afterthought.
I've given instances of the art from this Phase, compared to the earlier three, on another thread. Yeowell seems to take his cue from Morrison and produce the minumum necessary -- the design is still sound, the composition strong, but the detail has been abandoned and we're left with just bold, sketched lines filled in with flat colour. Contrasted with his earlier black and white, this is crude stuff. He's incapable of producing really bad art, and there's still a clean, neat appeal about this, but it's lost any depth or care. Yeowell's frames used to absolutely stun you: here they do the job, and sometimes just barely.
This Phase had to tie off threads that had begun as hints in the first Phase and been picked up teasingly in successive chapters of the saga. In episode 9 of the first story, Siadwel "Red Dragon" Rhys first mentions the "plan", a project involving the other superhumans who had been Task Force UK before rebelling into Cloud 9. David "Lux" Cambridge and Penny "Spook" Moon were involved in the Plan; Peter "Mandala" StJohn and Siadwel objected. "I just couldn't believe they'd do that... we tried to convince the others to stop and think. They just went over our heads anyway and set the plan in motion."
This grand narrative or conspiracy theory could of course have been left hanging if Zenith Phase I had been the beginning and end of it all. The first story arc was a satisfying team-up, a Magnificent Seven tale about the Nazi metahuman Masterman being reanimated through a Dark God, also known as a Lloigor or Many-Angled One, named Iok Sotot. It wrapped up neatly enough with evil defeated; but the nagging backstory surfaced again in Phase II. In a flashback Interlude, we hear that Zenith's parents White Heat and Dr Beat were murdered (by CIA "Shadowmen", we later discover) in 68, while the next year Spook fell into a mirror and Lux disintegrated. The runt of the litter, Chimera, "a storm of shapes", was imprisoned for safekeeping.
Meanwhile in an alternative Sydney designed by Alan Parker, Lux and Spook are looking remarkably healthy -- even if Lux now looks like David Stewart instead of Jim Morrison -- as they warn Ruby "Voltage" Fox about a mysterious, forthcoming Alignment. The plan, clearly, is still an ongoing project, to be set in motion when this apocalypse has passed. "Evolution takes no prisoners," David tells Ruby. "The masters of the earth become simply monsters, condemned to extinction. Think about that and the plan we made in 1968. If we survive the Alignment, 1990's going to be a red letter day in the diary of evolution."
In Phase II Episode 6, Penny Moon appears to Peter StJohn following his (as we realise much later) prescient dream about a black sun concealing monstrous beings who, horrifically, he seems to recognise. Penny, fittingly for someone who fell into a looking-glass, disappears like a Cheshire Cat after another warning.
Peter: It was you I saw at Siadwel's funeral. That must have made you happy. One less of us to oppose the grand plan.
Penny: Very soon now, we're all going to be drawn into the war that never ends. Was it when you fought Iok Sotot with Zenith? Was that when you first heard about the Omnihedron?
In Episode 10, Dr Michael Peyne, the scientist father-figure behind the metahuman generation, gives Zenith a haunting history lesson. Again, the plan, its rationale and its related threats resurface to the present day before being forgotten among more pressing matters of nuclear warheads and a Richard Branson-style megalomaniac.
Peyne: There was a growing fear that we had created our own evolutionary successors. Of course, that's exactly what I wanted, but my hands were tied at the time. I needn't have worried. Cloud 9 had plans of their own. Those plans, which involved your birth, caused a split within the group that never healed.
The final episode of Phase II, which has seen Zenith fighting his dad in the form of a Warhead robot and mating with clones of his mother, opens up the past again as Chimera escapes, taking on the form of Morrissey, Monroe and a host of icons before vanishing again into a glass, pyramidal paperweight.
The epilogue takes us out of this world again, to another parallel where the renegade superhumans are seeing far further than Zenith ever tries to. Penny and David are organising again, initiating Ruby; they're joined now by the remains of another rebel group called Black Flag -- Mantra, Domino and DJ Chill -- who have been fighting the Lloigor on other alternatives. At the very end of Phase II, Jimmy Quick zooms in from yet another parallel world -- and at the start of Phase III, we see the Lloigor-occupied nightmare he's escaped from.
Phase III is the "War In Heaven", but the plan is still motivating the ex-Cloud 9 superhumans. Officially, the story is that an alternate Maximan has rounded up heroes from the many worlds to stop the Lloigor from taking advantage of the Alignment, a particular pattern of those worlds also called the Omnihedron. To stop the Lloigor ascending to power, the assembled superhumans have to destroy key worlds in the configuration and stop the Omnihedron from forming. Unfortunately, Maximan turns out to be one of the Lloigor and the strategic explosion of alternate earths was intented to facilitate the Dark Gods' rise "to Godhead...to Point Zenith" (episode 24) at the time of the alignment.
But in the background, the smaller-scale plan is still taking shape. Episode 6 sees the next stage in Ruby Fox's initiation as Spook and Lux, glowing beings of light, transform her into one of their kind.
David: None of us ever realised just how powerful we were, Ruby. We spent too much time thinking like humans, limiting ourselves to the human perspective. The universe is potter's clay in our hands.
The Epilogue to Phase III should be a happy ending again - the multiverse has been saved by the metahumans acting in concert, with Ruby and David joining Peter StJohn to stop Maximan's ascent. But there's one frame, just before the end, where StJohn muses "What now? What now indeed?" and we're faced with the stern-faced remnants of Black Flag and Cloud 9, glaring out of the page with dark purpose: the Alignment has been survived, and the plan is next.
The next prologue shows the world gone to hell, in a rare late instance of Yeowell doing a sterling art-job for Zenith: the black sun of StJohn's dream is hanging over a ruined London, and Ruby Fox appears to Michael Peyne as a smooth, pale humanoid -- though we now realise this is just a palatable disguise for her true form, a great tendrilled spider. "I wished for a world uncontaminated by the greed and brutality of man," Peyne reflects in voiceover. "I wished for a world that was the perfect playground of superhuman minds. And, see! It has come to pass."
The story that follows, then, is in part a flashback to the last days of normal life on earth. Phase IV proper, psychedelically garish, opens with a news story about Spook and Lux, now calling their team the Horus Foundation and spouting Hyperclan rhetoric. "We're proposing superhuman solutions to human problems. Our manifesto...offers humanity a chance to drag itself up out of the evolutionary mud. The real new age starts here."
This rings a bell even for Zenith, despite his stubborn superficiality: "It's got something to do with the plan, hasn't it? That's what old Siadwel Rhys was on about before he got killed."
StJohn is musing over the pyramid that contains Chimera, and readers who remember him implanting a psychic trigger in Phase I's Masterman -- a trigger that only became obvious with hindsight, leading to a "ah, that's what it was" and a frantic flicking back through the episodes -- should perhaps be looking out for a similar trick here.
The metahumans who were once Task Force UK and Cloud 9 confer for the last time before going to war, and here the plan from Phase I becomes almost explicit. "It's time to start playing God games," urges David. "Why do you have to be so opposed to the plan?" Penny adds. David Cambridge is unmoved: "Why not just call it the Final Solution? I'm all for ascending to paradise, David, but I'm not entirely convinced that we have the right to kick away the ladder behind us."
Ruby turns the Chimera pyramid to dust.
We rejoin Peyne, growing younger (the Lloigor's gift for his help) and see the spider-creatures walking the ruined London, though Yeowell's art here has become bright and simple: a kid's picture book of horror, without the necessary effect. The US brings out the Shadowmen again, but while they caught Zenith's parents off-guard in 1968, this new breed is prepared; only Domino, who was starting to dispute the plan, goes down, while David finishes off both him and the agents. The scene is a knickerbocker gory of pinks, turquoise and bright yellow, again too dayglo-crude to be properly nightmarish -- but the prose retains some power, with David's commentary taking on a 9/11 resonance.
"The first pictures to come in from Washington were shocking. Most people, myself included, seemed to feel that they were watching a film, that these scenes of devastation were special effects. The human mind was pushed to the limit of its capacity to comprehend rapid change. It was fascinating to watch. And horrifying, of course."
Unfortunately, the accompanying illo -- a canary-yellow backdrop of flames, with scribbled silhouettes in the foreground -- just hurts the eyes rather than searing the mind or turning the stomach.
The plan is now in place -- "as of today, we are assuming guardianship of this planet" -- and StJohn is left stranded, with only Zenith and the candy-pink Robot Archie, neither of whom even half-understand the scale of events or the history behind it, to stop his former friends, lovers and comrades. Archie loses his tin head after a couple of mindless one-liners even Arnold would throw out -- "hey, Spook! here's that chair you order!" and Zenith's role is reduced to making dumb comments about dodgy Ecstasy and Czech cartoons. He was always an arrogant sod, but in Phases I and II he showed quick skills and a kind of cynical courage. Here he's just a slob. By rights he should have been killed off far earlier, given that he never grasps what's going on and has entirely gone to seed as a metahuman; you get the sense that Morrison has grown to absolutely despise him.
When the eponymous hero has no other job in the script but to play the stupid sidekick -- when the sidekick, a pink robot, is more heroic than the title character -- when the only guy left to root for is St John, a middle-aged, white-haired guy who now happens to be the Conservative Prime Minister -- you struggle to remain at all involved in the plot.
The big battle is about psychic combat, which means Yeowell draws ice cream swirls filling roughly-sketched rooms and -- a terrible sign of lost confidence and ability -- starts adding speed lines wobbling around his figures' limbs to show their movement. The manga-style whooshes of air in Phase II have become space-filling scrawls against pale blue backgrounds: not just an utter lack of imagination and effort, but a climactic superhuman combat depicted as lazy scribble and colouring that ignores all logic and aesthetics. Every interior here has canary-yellow walls -- that's every room we see in London, circa Phase IV -- matched with sky-blue carpet. Bad enough, but Yeowell forgets even that horrendous scheme and fills in frames with sickly mauve just for variation. When we revisit the "black sun" dream from Phase II again -- reprinted exactly as it was in the earlier episode -- it's a sorry revelation exactly how good the artwork was back then, and how blatantly, how dramatically it's declined since.
Peyne is abandoned by his "protection", the clones of Zenith's mother (Shockwave and Blaze) as they join their own kind, the Horus Foundation, and hand over Zenith's toddler child to David Cambridge. The telepathic exchanges in a new language, excluding Peyne as a wreck of the old world, are neatly described as wasp-buzzing in his head, and Peyne's memoirs have a genuinely literate, mournful quality: "nothing can describe how it feels when one's heart dies." The background walls here, of course, are canary-yellow, and the superhumans are all dressed in primary colours, which rather empties their revelation of any dark potency. "We even fought the Lloigor without realising just what they were...it was us, you see. It was us all along. We are, we were, we will be, the Lloigor."
The prose, looked at in sober black and white, is actually no less powerful than earlier Phases, and the twist that pulls the floor out from everything we've previously believed, tossing "good" and "bad" in the air, would have the right chill -- if the background wasn't constantly glaring out in that same canary-yellow, if the characters' faces were depicted with several degrees' more subtlety, if the costumes were muted instead of the first choices from a kid's paintbox. Even ignoring the wrong kind of horrors that the art holds, each episode feels so short (5 pages, six frames per page) that there's a slapdash, cartoonish air about the plotting. Each week, a new brief scene, with increasingly bland, expository dialogue.
Zenith: Everything. The whole world's like this. Well, that's that then I suppose... You're talking about the plan you all used to go on about, aren't you? Maybe it's time you told me what the plan was.
The fact is that the plan has already been made perfectly clear without yet another flashback to the 60s, this time in multicoloured psychedelia-plus (pink walls with swirls), but here it's explained once more, echoing what we knew or guessed from previous Phases: Siadwel and David resisting the project to "cleanse the planet...wrench the earth off its axis, destroying ninety percent of terrestrial life in the process."
Again, it's a fascinating idea that the heroes we were rooting for from the start -- we were right behind Ruby in her first appearance as a mere fashion mag editor faced with a Nazi superman, and the Cloud 9 graduates like David and Penny seemed like charismatic idols on the right side of the war during Phase III -- turn out to have been plotting against humankind since the 1960s, before the story of Zenith himself even began. The notion that the superheroes-become-villains didn't even need to do anything so crude as change the world's alignment, because they realised they were Dark Gods all along, is a further intriguing point that's skipped over in one frame: and there are other underlying questions that unsettle much earlier episodes. Does the existence of Chimera, with his multiple angles and faces, hint at what the more personable, attractive heroes were on the inside, right since their birth? Why did Masterman need a ritual to be activated by the Lloigor as a host body, if the British metahumans were Lloigor on a fundamental level from their creation onwards? Perhaps these links and loose threads are left to the reader.
Again we see the images from StJohn's dream, showing how far in advance Morrison planned this finale, and of course he recognises the creatures incubating in the sun because they're his old colleagues, reborn as Dark Gods. A shame each episode now involves so many full-page splashes, making it even more like a picture book and even more skimpy as a weekly installment. The physical fight between Zenith, StJohn and the new villains is much like Yeowell's work on The Invisibles, with broadly-drawn insectoids zooming across each frame and the combat shown in big, widescreen gestures rather than the clear, clinical precision of a Frank Miller. The far smaller-scale fight at the end of Phase I, though, seemed to mean a lot more, because it took place in a real London with screaming citizens, not a blank, deserted expanse that looks like a videogame arena. It's hard to care too much when everyone else is dead, when two thirds of the heroes are monsters, one's too stupid to deserve victory and the other, again, is the Tory PM in army fatigues. The world's ended. All that's left are a few figures in thick marker pen, coloured with the first felt-tips that came to hand (turquoise, canary-yellow). Zenith faces off against the Lloigor alone, with StJohn impaled on Maximan's statue... and as expected, it's a neon scrawl. It's all too ugly, too obvious. We're in the middle of nowhere, in a blank space of smoke and fire. We don't care anymore because there's nobody worth caring about. Zenith apparently defeats the Dark Gods -- far less interesting or charismatic now they look like shop window dummies -- with a blast of (what?) blaze or psychic power, or raw energy. His toddler son, a blank-faced GAP kid, floats before him then expands to become Iok Sotot, the same old toothy maw we saw in Phase I. It's over in two more frames... the whole thing. The title character's downfall is an absurd anticlimax, the most brainless final combat you can imagine. A gigantic mouth that can only eat -- a stupid hero who doesn't know or care what's going on unless it affects him personally, whose powers amount to dumb blasting. This is the death of Zenith at the hands of his son, fathered from clones of his mother. Surely we should feel something; surely it should be a more nuanced moment than a desperate burst of energy, then a big Sarlacc gob, then a skeleton in costume.
The Dark Gods abandon Earth and soar upwards, and we wonder in another interesting moment, with Peyne, how he can continue to narrate this story if there's no world left with him in it... and then the big reveal. Archie's alive. John Smith is dead -- of a heart attack, which would kill the real-life politician not long afterward. Zenith has moved on from singing the Smiths to Suede's "Insatiable One". It goes on. The last frame is unfortunately an ugly art-offering, a sorry way to end it.
Actually... maybe on closer inspection Zenith Phase IV isn't too bad.