COMIC REVIEW: Zenith: Phase One

 

From his first appearance in 1987, Zenith would go on to be a huge success for 2000 A.D. and the first example of writer Grant Morrison’s exploration of the superhero. Due many to legal issues, Zenith has been out of print for years but finally this month Rebellion will begin the re-release of the entire saga collected in four hardcover volumes.

Created by Morrison with characters designed by artist Brendan McCarthy, the Zenith strip was published in four story arcs or Phases beginning in 1987 before the conclusion of Phase Four in 1990.

The presentation of this 112 page book is wonderful, collecting Phase One in its entirety including many of the backup strips that fleshed out a little more of the character’s world.

Despite being written in the late eighties it is surprising to see how much relevance Zenith has to comic book culture today.

The Zenith character has more in common with the age of the superhero now in that he is a commodity, a meal ticket and something which people can exploit for profit.

When he isn’t pimping out his new pop record, Zenith is nothing more than a kid who cares only for himself than any higher calling. His powers were not granted to him by any mystical means, but an accident of birth. As with any teenager, who has greatness thrust upon them, it is very easy for him to fall victim to his ego.

The deconstruction of the superhero genre in eighties comic books was primarily focused, in titles such as Marvelman/ Miracleman and Watchmen, on the heroes of bygone eras responding to the present; A society that either didn’t need or had simply forgotten them.

Zenith is about a superhuman that is very much now a part of the present; He has grown up with it and is a strong reflection of its society. Zenith is a classic Generation X stereotype, a shallow and materialistic child living in quite clearly Thatcher’s Britain.

Morrison uses the characters of former heroes like Ruby Fox and Peter St John to show how the old guard have coped in this bleak modern world with varying degrees of success. Interestingly they are actually the most fleshed out characters. Zenith himself is most of the time a secondary character, so self involved that it finally takes the effect of seeing the evil Masterman’s attack on London for him to finally comprehend the seriousness of what is going on.

Phase One is very much a pulp mystery/adventure with an explicit Lovecraftian twist, but this works as a fun way to bring us into the Zenith’s world whilst laying the background behind it. This is evident in the Interlude back up strips, showing how the super humans in the story came to be.

Morrison has admitted in interviews to not having much affection for Phase One, preferring the work he wrote for the character in the later Phases, but this is still a really fun story.

Phase One is really enhanced by the work of artist Steve Yeowell. The art is clear and flows wonderfully as the action charges forth from page to page.

Predominately in black and white, as was 2000 A.D.’s format at the time, it gives the book an almost timeless quality. There are a couple of significant moments when the strip does goes full colour, but it highlights just how good the artwork is when you actually would happily prefer reading the book without colour.

In addition to the story, this hardcover edition includes an extensive gallery of cover artwork, from the 2000 A.D. and the American Quality Comics reprints. There are some gorgeous examples of McCarthy’s excellent character designs which Yeowell brilliantly built the rest of the strip from.

This wonderful reintroduction to a fascinating take on the superhero is also a fantastic look at the early work of one of Comic’s best creators.

Title: Zenith: Phase One

Publisher: Rebellion

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Matt Davis @DecadentGent

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2 comments

  1. I am so happy to see this back in print ! For years I have wanted to share this story (one of my favourite super hero stories ever) but have had the problem of handing people a stack of progs and saying “it’s a few pages in each of these”.
    Now I can give someone a book and say “This will blow you away !”

    Oh, and it’s a shame how early some of the old guard leave the comic, I would have loved to read a lot more of the Red Dragon in action !

    • I have to admit I never read any Zenith myself so I will have to check it out at some point.

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