2000AD has been a platform for some of the top talent in the comic book industry, and a home to some of the most interesting characters and ingenious stories published by any company. The Zenith series by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell rightly deserves its place amongst their best. Combining superheroes, Generation X culture, Lovecraftian mythology, conspiracy therories and cynicism, it was a perfect recipe for success.
The story begins with a newsreel-style flashback to World War II. The Nazis have developed a super-soldier called Masterman who appears to be unstoppable. But the Allies have managed to create their own super-soldier to combat this Axis threat, and it looks like the day may be saved by the British Maximan. Except it isn’t. Maximan takes a merciless beating, and the only salvation comes from the Americans dropping a nuclear bomb on Berlin.
The story jumps to the ’80s and it turns out that Masterman was only one of a pair of twins. The other has been kept in suspended animation, and the cult of the Black Sun is about to thaw him out to use his body as a vessel for an ancient evil called Iok Sotot, Eater of Worlds and one of the Many Angled Ones. Superhumans are the only beings capable of containing their form, and they need more.
After Maximan, the British program to create superhumans didn’t stop. A small number of potential superheroes were born, but as the years passed and their powers grew things started going badly and they rebelled. Some died in accidents, some went missing and some lost their powers entirely. But two of them had a child: Robert McDowell, better known to the world as Zenith, the world’s only superhero.
Seventeen years old, irresponsible, sarcastic and hungry for media attention, Zenith doesn’t matter if he’s releasing singles into the music charts or opening supermarkets, he’s only in it for the fame and fortune. When Ruby Fox, one of the former heroes from the super-team Cloud 9, approaches him for help in battling Masterman he ignores her. But when she blackmails him with information about his parents and tells him that her former teammates aren’t as powerless as the public believes, he grudgingly agrees to help her.
One former teammate, a counter-culture guru named Mandala, has become a right-wing politician and won’t help. Another, Red Dragon, used to be a powerhouse but is now a washed-up alcoholic and has no desire to fight. With Zenith himself being an untried, untested and highly reluctant hero, can he stand up to the forces of darkness that threaten to tear the world apart?
Zenith first came out in 1987 and it shows, with references to Thatcher’s Britain all over the place and a sarcastic teenage central character who’s shallow and materialistic. The plotline draws heavily from that time, as well as from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft to create something that’s a little different from the “realistic” takes on superheroes that had become popular since Watchmen. While it may not have the same legendary status, it’s still one of the best stories of the time and it still hold up today.
Steve Yeowell’s artwork is crisp and clear, and there’s a seamless progression in how it flows. It’s like watching a movie play out, and as usual the black and white 2000AD format of the time makes it look even better. This may be one of Grant Morrison’s earliest works but it’s also one of his best, with dialogue that sounds natural and a storyline which makes the fantastic seem believable.
Contained in this 112 page edition you’ll also find a comprehensive cover gallery of both 2000AD and Quality Comics images, along with Brendan McCarthy’s extensive original character designs. The last time this came out it was a limited edition, and copies were sold out within hours. If you missed out on this before, then now’s the ideal time to get yourself a copy.
At the heart of it, Zenith – Phase One is still one of the finest comic books you’re ever going to read and it’s good to see it back in print again.