Tag archive: 2000 AD
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.
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.
With the sad passing of Euro 2008 (and the resultant football famine) some of you may have slipped (wailing and gnashing your teeth) into a slough of despond. If so, then dry your eyes and take heart. I have news that may cheer thee.
After years spent idling on the sidelines (or wandering the football wilderness) a legend of the game is lacing up his boots once more. Toni Polster? Nein. Tony Grealish? Sadly no…but someone even more exciting (if such a thing were possible). Roy Race – the most gifted lefty ever to grace the game – is back in print (courtesy of Titan Books) and riding high on a British comic reprint wave.
The first volume of this improbable (but most welcome) revival – The Best of Roy of the Rovers: The 1980s – has already been released, and even now sits happily on my shelves. To tell us more about the present and future of this noble project I turned to David “My Pal at Titan” Leach (his official handle is “Graphic Novels Editor” or some such). Here follows a brief interview (me in bold).
Can you give us an idea of the process that lead to these reprints being given the green light?
Actually I can’t. The Roy of the Rovers deal was green-lit before my time. I was just handed the entire Roy project on my first day at Titan and told to do my worst.
Was much of the original art available to you or were you relying on scans from the comics themselves?
Unfortunately we have no access to any original artwork, what little survives is in the hands of private collectors. (In fact I found a stack at a local comic mart going for as little as £35 a pop, all drawn by David Sque and I’ve got details if anyone’s interested?)
Instead we’re making use of the Egmont bound comic archive and the incredible collection of Mark Towers, who runs the official Roy of the Rovers website and has one of the only complete collections of Roy in the world.
Oh absolutely, there is certainly a demand for reprints of the ‘classic’ British comics of the 70′s & 80′s. There’s a real nostalgia for the comics of my generation’s youth and I think there’s going to be some very excited Brit comic fans filling their shelves with Titan books in the coming years.
The Commando/Eagle publications seem aimed more at the impulse-buying/novelty gift market. With Roy, however, Titan seems to be catering for both the casual fan (with the “Best of..” publications) as well as the more serious collector/enthusiast (with the chronological volumes). Can you tell us a bit more about the decision to present the reprints in this way?
I think what Titan does well is to understand the market for books. With Roy it was decided that, as a franchise, it could support 3 different titles, each with its own unique style and branding. The Best of, The Archive and The Bumper.
The Archive will showcase Roy’s entire football career in books marked as seasons starting with his debut 1959 season. It’ll have a commentary as well as “making of” features – the book equivalent of a DVD bonus disc. The book will also have a dust jacket and is aimed more at the collector.
The Best of will showcase a couple of season’s worth of action from the 70′s, 80′s & 90′s. Of the three books this will be the most ‘magazine-like’ with a flexi-cover and no new material bar an introduction. For the first book I managed to secure a foreword by Gary Lineker and for the 2nd 80′s book which I’m hoping to call Best of the 1980s: The Rematch! we’ve got Frank Skinner. W.H. Smiths are pushing it as a perfect Father’s Day present.
And I’m hoping that’s exactly the sort of person who buys it. Dads who remember Roy from their youth. I’m amazed at the number of 40 year old men I’ve mentioned Roy to who actually get misty eyed and excited at the prospect of a Roy book and these men aren’t your traditional comic fans. It’s easy to forget that Roy is an institution.
And finally, The Bumper Book of Roy, which will be our Christmas book. It’s going to feature a selection of the best strips, articles, vintage quizzes and stories taken from the Roy and Tiger annuals dated from 1957 – 1972. I like to imagine that come Christmas morning, little boys and their dads are going to be lying on the floor surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper deeply engrossed in their preferred annuals.
Does the popularity of such titles suggest any resurgence in the British “adventure/sport comic” market or are reprints all we are likely to continue seeing for the foreseeable future? (In other words, is there any chance of a new RotR title?)
Not from us, no. Titan acquired the rights to reprint Roy’s entire back catalogue which don’t forget is 39 years long! That’s going to be a lot of books so I’m going to be very busy and very old by the time it’s all over.
Why (do you think) were decent British comic reprints so slow in appearing until comparatively recently? Was it solely a rights issue?
I suppose because no one, apart from Titan, knew that the demand existed. I think Titan lead the way with their reprint books and the wider publishing world is now frantic to join the club. It’s probably the best time in history to be a comics fan, particularly a British comics fan.
But I don’t think it has anything to do with rights issues. Companies who own these old characters are always eager to open them up to new markets and since many of them no longer produce comic strips it’s up to specialist publishers like Titan to approach and make them offers they can’t refuse.
The period covered in the first reprint, The Best of Roy of the Rovers: The 1980s, coincides with the tenure of this blog’s old pal David Sque. Many Roy fans would feel that Sque’s period in charge (of the art) was something of a “Golden Age” for the story. Do you agree, and, if so, why do you think that was the case?
It’s the era everybody remembers and identifies with, and David Sque’s version of Roy is the definitive version – right down to the girly mullet. David’s artwork seems synonymous with Roy. I know it’s what I see when I close my eyes.
This period of Roy’s career was filled with high drama and action on and off the pitch. It was the era of Dallas and Roy mirrored this. His stories weren’t just about football, the reader got involved with his home life, his struggles with running the club, him battling adversity and injury and lets not forget the terrorist car bombing or assassin’s bullet (life was never dull for Roy, except for that dreadful summer when he played cricket!). There was also a continuity to the strip unlike anything ever seen before or since. Roy of the Rovers was a single continuous 39 year long adventure told in football seasons.
Also, I think David’s artwork brought a highly believable reality to the strip. With a regular artist, the reader gets used to his style and it becomes second nature to them – and as a result they can get more involved in the stories, which in my opinion are paramount. If the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how good the artwork is, it’s going to be quickly forgotten. And Roy‘s popularity is down to great artwork and a great script.
Given that Titan have acquired rights to some of the Egmont back catalogue, can we expect any other titles to be reprinted in the near future? Can you give us an idea of the timetable for the various Roy releases?
Next up for Roy in 2008 will be the Bumper Book followed by the first Archive edition.
In 2009, Titan will be unleashing both The Best of Battle and The Best of Action. Followed by Special collected editions of Sgt Easy, Johnny Red and Rat Pack (and that’s not even mentioning classic newspaper strips).
Finally, who shot Roy again? I can’t remember…
I always get this wrong. All know is it was one of the following, they all have an axe to grind with Roy and they’ve all publicly threatened him with violence!
So take your pick from -
Vic Guthrie – disgruntled fellow team mate.
Arthur Logan – furious father of Melchester’s new striker, Kenny Logan.
Elton Blake – angry out of work actor.
Arnie Meckiff – Roy’s wheeler dealer cousin.
Trevor Brinsden – Melchester Rover’s Uber-fan.
For what it’s worth. My money’s on Colonel Peacock in the kitchen with the lead-pipe. But for the full answer you’re just going to have to buy the book and find out yourself!
As highlighted by David (and echoed over on Steve Holland’s terrific Bear Alley) the “Soap Opera” qualities of early/mid 80s RotR are a large part of what makes this period so fondly remembered. Realising that liberal doses of tragedy and failure are just those elements that make sporting happy endings all the sweeter (and more welcome), Roy scribe Tom Tully loaded the 2 year run collected here with shocking twists and turns to beat the band. Melchester Rovers find themselves relegated, the Races’ marriage hits the rocks, and (most dramatically of all) Roy follows J R Ewing’s lead and gets himself shot. Of course, it all ends in David Sque’s distinctive broad smiles, but the road to that cheery conclusion was a compellingly rocky one.
Something often remarked upon (by meself and others), is how the RotR world exists in a twilight zone straddling outright fantasy and “real world” reality. Thus, while all the teams in the league(s) Melchester compete in are entirely fictional (Burndean, Danefield, Walford etc), figures like Alf Ramsey (caretaker Rovers manager after Roy gets shot) and events like the Charles & Diana wedding are frequently referenced and depicted. This tendency toward curious crossovers was to reach its questionable zenith (or nadir?) with the the arrival (in Melchester colours) of Spandau Ballet, Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson.
One of the more (potentially) amusing moments in the Best of volume comes during a league match in which Alf Ramsey is in charge. Rovers win a corner and Ramsey waves Vic “Superbrat” Guthrie up from the back, indicating that he wants him to stand in front of the opposition ‘keeper.
Cut to the ever loquacious Melchester crowd where one fan turns to his neighbour and says (something like), “That’s just what Alf used to ask Jackie Charlton to do when he was managing England”. At this point the neighbour might have (and should have) responded by asking “Who’s Jackie Charlton?!” – provoking the following exchange:
“Y’know, the fella who played all them years for Leeds United”
“Who are Leeds United?”
At that point a look of existential terror would cross the original speaker’s face as the Roy universe collapsed under the weight of incongruity and illogic.
But enough. While you waste your precious time reading these words you could be grabbing your coat, dashing to the nearest bookshop, and purchasing a copy of this fantabulous volume for yourself.
Go. Go now.