Why should I get my head kicked in for you?: A 2000 AD Birthday Post
Borag Thungg. In honour of 2000 AD's 35th anniversary, I'm hereby reprinting a piece I wrote for SFX a while back about my own favourite series: Zenith.1 Here it be…
May 13, 1989. A beach, on Alternative Earth 666. Lying face-down in murky waters (with trousers round his ankles and broken toys strewn poignantly about him) is a young boy. And not just any young boy. Though he’s never explicitly named, the visual clues lead fans of vintage comics to conclude that this, shockingly, is none other than “General Jumbo” – the titular hero of The Beano's long-running tale of a child and his remote-controlled toy army. The unfortunate victim of (we’re forced to imagine) an unspeakable violation by trans-dimensional demonic super-beings. What’s going on? How did we get here? It’s a long story…
A long story that has its beginnings in the summer of 1987. Thatcher's Tories had just won their third consecutive general election; The Firm's StarTrekkin’ was setting the charts alight; and Grant Morrison (a young Scottish writer who would, over the next 20 years, become one of the most influential names in comics) had been tasked with creating Zenith – 2000 AD's first foray into the (previously-shunned) world of superheroes.
Hard as it may now be to believe (in an age in which superheroes have been endlessly reinvented and "re-imagined"), but there was a time when revisionist superhero tales felt bold, refreshing and novel. By 1987 the comics world was rapidly reacting to the game-changing influence of Alan Moore’s seminal work on Marvelman (a.k.a Miracleman), Captain Britain and Watchmen (not to mention Frank Miller’s turn on The Dark Knight Returns), and it was into this potent flux of new creativity that Zenith was born.
Though it would owe a considerable (and acknowledged) debt to the pioneering work of Moore, Morrison intended Zenith as a conscious rejection of the kind of grim and gritty, "tormented superhero" narrative then very much in vogue. This was to be a strip firmly anchored to its time and place. One that would, in Morrison's words, "reflect the eighties' obsession with style over content", fronted by a character who would embody his "worst, most venal traits".
To help capture the shallow, avaricious mood of late-'80s yuppie Britain, Morrison turned first to the inimitable Brendan McCarthy: an artist/designer whose exuberant and wholly-distinctive work occasionally graced the pages of 2000 AD. McCarthy would go on to design several key characters, before standing aside to let (the brilliant) Steve Yeowell take sole charge of Zenith's art duties. Though his involvement may have been short-lived, the originality of his designs (which owed more to contemporary couture than traditional superhero aesthetics) lent the strip precisely the right flavour. More significantly still, Zenith himself (Morrison's deliciously vain and self-centred protagonist) was actually modelled on a figure close to McCarthy’s heart: "Zenith was essentially based on my own superhero, Paradax, from a few years earlier – all that media-brat, superstar stuff. It felt a bit weird designing something so derivative of my own work."
Whatever his roots may have been, Zenith (a.k.a. Robert McDowell) proved the perfect (cynical and sneering) anchor for an epic narrative that would, over four "Phases" and five years, touch base with everything from Nazi-engineered superhumans, to cosmic (Lovecraftian) horror, to apocalyptic inter-dimensional warfare and beyond. With a more traditional hero at its centre, these grandiose elements might have risked overwhelming the story, seeing it stray into, what Morrison has called, the "pompous and concept albumy" territory of other revisionist comics. Zenith (the strip), however, neatly avoided the pitfalls of taking itself too seriously, largely because Zenith (the character) took absolutely nothing seriously. So who exactly was he?
When first we meet him (Prog 537, 2000 AD) Zenith is flying (and crashing) drunkenly through the window of his London apartment. He’s 19-years-old, a successful pop star, utterly vacuous, and (we're told) the "world’s only active superhuman". As the story slowly unfolds we learn that he’s the son of Dr. Beat and White Heat – two (presumed dead) members of a 1960s' superhuman team called "Cloud 9″. In the Zenith universe (a slightly askew version of our own reality), the origin of all superhuman powers dates back to a serum secretly developed by the Nazis, which they used to create a super-soldier called "Masterman".
Britain reacted to the Masterman threat by using the same serum (given to them by Nazi defectors) to create a patriotic superhuman of their own: Maximan. As a result of Maximan's intervention (oh, and the nuking of Berlin by the American air-force!), the allies won the war (with Maximan and Masterman both perishing in said nuclear conflagration). The superhuman experiment did not, however, end there. In post-war Britain, a Dr. Michael Peyne labours, with official sanction, to artificially create a superhuman team called "Task Force UK". Intended as patriotic defenders of the British establishment (in the Maximan mould) they soon reject the duties imposed upon them and re-brand themselves as the aforementioned "Cloud 9″: hippy-ish, superhuman radicals.
Cut to the mid/late-'80s. Cloud 9 is no more – its members either dead, missing, (apparently) powerless, or (in the case of Tory MP Peter St. John) diverted into politics. Zenith survives as the sole progeny of a superhuman couple, and such is the state of play and status quo when the story opens. It soon gets much more complicated. The originators of the superhuman serum were not, we learn, Nazi scientists but, rather, “The Lloigor” (name borrowed from Lovecraft): formless, trans-dimensional, demonic beings who wish to create and possess superhuman "vessels", thus becoming incarnate on our physical plain. Over the next four "Phases" they do just that (aided by their earthly disciples, the "Cult of the Black Sun"), and the conflict between them, and Earth’s surviving superhumans, forms the basic core of the Zenith drama (with dozens of twists and turns spinning the narrative in unexpected directions along the way).
Said drama reaches its crescendo in the epic (twenty-five episode) "Phase Three", which depicts a catastrophic inter-dimensional war between the Lloigor and superhumans from a host of alternative worlds. Since the sprawling conflict called for a massive ensemble cast of superhumans, Morrison opted to expand on similar work Alan Moore had done in Captain Britain and revive legions of heroes from Britain's rich comic past. Series artist Steve Yeowell explains: "That was always part of Grant's grand plan. The third series was going to be our equivalent of [D.C.'s] Crisis on Infinite Earths. He wanted to use all these old British comics characters but obviously, for copyright reasons, we couldn’t use, say, D.C. Thompson material directly. So we had to come up with our own alternatives".
The delicious pleasures offered by Phase Three are both train-spottery and perverse. Train-spottery, because Yeowell's art rewards close, nerdy examination – as one tries to figure out precisely who dim figures briefly glimpsed in the background might represent. Perverse, because most of these figures (versions of beloved childhood icons) invariably die horribly at the hands of the merciless Lloigor. Look there's Lion's jolly muscle-man Typhoon Tracy…sprawled dead in rubble. Oh, and over there I see, yes, Valiant's Steel Claw…having his arm ripped from its socket. And isn't that Tanya, from Jackpot's "Amazing Three"…getting her head punched clean off? On and on the slaughter goes (with the poor, aforementioned, General Jumbo being yet another casualty).
While all this gleeful and murderous fun might strike readers as somewhat gratuitous, it actually serves to (neatly) address issue of heroism, altruism and self-interest at the core of the Zenith story. The revived old-school heroes are, almost without exception, selfless and well-meaning. Bumbling, jolly and full of old-fashioned pep and vigour. They want to stop the Lloigor because, well, that’s just what heroes do: beat the bad guys. Unfortunately, the bad guys, in this case, are monstrously evil, god-like entities who wipe out whole worlds without a second thought. In the face of such a foe their quaint and naive assumptions about a good ol' fair fight are brutally exposed. And they die. In their droves.
The real winners, and survivors, in 1980s Britain are (Morrison shows us) those driven by pure self-interest and cynicism. The key figures, over the whole four phases, are, after all, Zenith and Peter St. John – self-centred "heroes" who thrive and prosper while others fail and perish. St. John (who turned his back on his '60s counter-cultural roots and embraced Tory politics) makes his motivations explicit at the end of Phase One, telling a former Cloud 9 colleague that he only helped defeat Masterman's reborn twin "to pick up votes in the election". He duly wins a seat (despite opposition protests that his battle with Masterman was "a shameful piece of Tory propaganda"), gets offered a position as Defence Secretary by Thatcher, before ultimately becoming Prime-Minister himself.
Not only that, but he does so by influencing Commons debates through telepathy and by acting as a covert Tory assassin: seemingly agreeing to dispose of Ted Heath (at Thatcher's request!) while most likely having an active hand in the fatal heart-attack of Labour leader John Smith (an act that swept St. John's Tories back to power). As an eerie side-note, I should mention that this happened in Phase Four's finale – on 24th October, 1992 – eighteen months before the real John Smith died…of a heart-attack.
Zenith, like St.John, survives to the end – seeing his pop career flourish as he cynically reinvents himself with the times. So what kind of "hero" does he, in the final analysis, turn out to be? Throughout all four Phases he has to be cajoled, bribed and badgered into taking part in traditional (world-saving) heroic activities. "I’m not a fighter! There must be another way to deal with this", he bawls early on, while reacting to a call to arms with, "Why should I get my head kicked in for you?". When faced with a devastated survivor of Alternative-666, a world utterly ruined by the Lloigor, he offers these words of "comfort": "Oh stop moaning!".
The ultimate Zenith moment arrives at the climax of Phase Three. The surviving heroes reconvene at base, build a memorial to fallen fellows, and solemnly share their thoughts – convinced that Zenith has sacrificed himself to save the universe from Lloigor domination. "Strange how it was Zenith who came through in the end", says one. "He died a hero", says another. Moments later, Zenith pops through the door, a can of beer in hand, and says: "What? Me sacrifice myself? You must be joking?". The realisation then dawns that the character who so heroically gave his life was "Vertex" – an alternative (friendly and pleasant) "Zenith" from another world ("I've been here all the time", chortles Zenith). A horrified hero hilariously sums up the outrage of all by wailing, "Well I hope [we're] taking his name off the memorial!".
Yet for all his '80s shallowness and self-obsession, Zenith does, bizarrely, stand as a quasi-hero for uncertain times, in one regard. Unlike most of the key players (St. John, Cloud 9, the Nazis, Dr. Peyne, the Lloigor etc), he pursues no ideology. He couldn't care less about changing, reshaping or reordering the world. If he stands for anything it's for hedonism and individuality (crass though his versions of them may be). He's harmless and inoffensive as a superhuman precisely because he doesn't care. He kicks back and (mostly) watches as zealots battle it out for the future of the universe. In a world riven and divided by ideologies that almost, nearly, sort of…makes him a hero.
Little extra bits…
The "Galaxy’s Greatest Comic" has hosted its share of fine illustration over the years, but Steve Yeowell's beautifully spare art on Zenith remains a notable high-water mark. As Zenith progressed, Yeowell (who’d previously worked with Morrison on Zoids for Marvel UK) began to experiment with "a lot of much looser techniques". Influenced by Scottish artist Ian Kennedy – who had, Yeowell says, "a way of reducing everything down to solid blocks of black and white" – he used Zenith to perfect a "pared-down, simplified, chiaroscuro look". A look that delicately emphasised fragility and anxiety over conventional superheroic muscularity and confidence.
Name that (slaughtered) hero
Phase Three's brutal wipeout of both much-loved and mega-obscure British comic characters of yore is a nerd's wet dream (or nightmare). Spotted among the living and the dead are "Big Ben" from "Caucusville" (i.e Desperate Dan/Cactusville), "Jimmy Quick" (The Beano's, Billy the Whizz), an Acid House-obsessed Robot Archie from Lion, "Tiger Tom" and "Tammy" (Beano's Billy the Cat and Katie), Sally's Cat Girl, Tri-Man from Smash, Buster's Leopard from Lime Street, "Prince Mamba" (Hotspur's, King Cobra) and many more. There’s even a four-legged fatality with "Bobbie" (The Dandy's, Black Bob) being upsettingly dashed against a wall by a nasty Lloigor.
- Piece originally appeared in SFX #203. [back]
February 22, 2012