Before The Filth, before All-Star Superman, even before Doom Patrol, the was only Zenith.
Zenith was the world’s first “Superbrat” – a vain, self-obsessed, egotistical pop singer whose only interests are girls, partying, and where he is in the music charts. Yet as the world’s only superhero, he doesn’t realise that he is at the very centre of a dark conspiracy that could wipe out the entire universe.
This series was created back in 1987, well before the highly acclaimed writer Grant Morrison brought his talents to the DC Universe and to the Batman comics which he truly made his own. Zenith has long been considered one of the ‘Holy Grails’ for comic book readers being that it’s like reading the origin story of Grant Morrison and where he started with 2000 AD to where he has come today with DC Comics and his place in the pantheon of legendary writers. Let’s dig in and take a look at one of the earliest works of a writer who is now synonymous with Batman.
Just to colour in the background of how important this book is in the career of Grant Morrison, Zenith was the book that caught the eye of DC Comics, who at the time asked him to pitch for them. They ended up accepting his proposals for Animal Man who at the time was a character from DC’s past; also one of his first runs with the company was a 48-page Batman one shot that became Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Morrison was one of the “British Invasion” writers to come out of Britain at the time following other eventual legendary writers like the pre-eminent Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan and Jamie Delano. Once Morrison reached DC, his career skyrocketed, and it’s all thanks to the attention Zenith garnered for him.
This was my first time ever having read Zenith but I’ve been a huge fan of Morrison’s work for some time. There is one thing that really rings true throughout this book; you can really see the similarities from Zenith to his other works and how this early book helped fuel the fires for later stories and characters. The one thing that stood out is how much Zenith reminds me of a character that Morrison really made his own in the Batman franchise; Damian Wayne. Yes, Zenith cares more about music and partying and Damian clearly never cared much for either of that but just the way that their personalities are so driven by their own goals and how self centered they are, it really seemed like Morrison drew from that character when creating Damian’s personality.
Beyond that, there’s also the other dimensional evil beings that we would later also see in his book The Invisibles, the deconstruction of the super hero that he would visit later on in Animal Man, and the misfit attitudes that he brought to Doom Patrol. The teen rebellion of Kill Your Boyfriend or his satire of 1980s British politics in St. Swithin’s Day, you can really see how Zenith connects to all of his other work.
The story focuses on Zenith, the self absorbed celebrity super human and the story of the worlds first super team, Cloud 9. Zenith is connected to the team because two of its members were his parents. The story jumps between the 1960’s, 1980’s and World War II and includes how the super human phenomenon came about during the war and then immediately how humanity became paranoid about what they had created and how best to move forward.
Morrison blends satire effortlessly in his story with real world events spun with how events could turn with the use of super human forces. The use of satire fits in perfectly with 2000 AD’s style, as well the 80’s pop style of Zenith. There are a lot of references made throughout to the Beatles and it has a very British tilt in the way the story is told, which is absolutely fantastic. The storytelling is crisp, funny, and very well done. The villains are both menacing and have a slight historical connection, albeit a slim one, but they do pose a worldwide threat that would need the skills of a super human such as Zenith to defeat them. The villains really seem much like something inspired by H.P Lovecraft in their design.
Morrison even includes a nice little easter egg referencing the classic William Blake poem The Tyger, making it important to the story later on in how the reference is used. Much like his other works, Morrison writes action set pieces effortlessly, and even in this early work, it reminds us why the Glasgow native is one of the best at his craft. Morrison and his style rings true and even almost 30 years later, the story doesn’t seem to have lost any steam, much like Alan Moore and his work on The Watchmen or other classic stories of the time.
On the other side of this classic book is the artwork of Steve Yeowell who at the time was also headhunted by American comic companies to join their ranks for his work on Zenith. Yeowell would eventually contribute his work to such books as Batman, The Fantastic Four, The Invisibles, JSA and Starman. Yeowell has also worked on Judge Dredd, Thundercats and Future Shocks. Yeowell’s style is very suited for the superhero genre with his clean lines and his economical use of detail; the story he had to work with here could have easily overwhelmed a lesser artist, but Yeowell’s work is strong and a complement to Morrison’s writing. He seems to fully embrace the 1980’s pop style in his work on Zenith’s style and the world he envelops himself in. Surprisingly, while I’m hit or miss with how much I like black and white comics in larger scenes where significant events are happening, Yeowell manages quite well in keeping the scene together and including detail. Action scenes are well done and the black and white nature of the book is by no means a detriment. Yeowell and Morrsion combined makes for a powerful combination.
Zenith is a fantastic artifact for any comic book collection, and one that features the beginnings of many ideas that have permeated Grant Morrison’s work throughout the years. There are other writers ideas here and there as well within but it is the way that Morrison works with those ideas that truly sets this work apart as something you truly must own, not only for the nostalgia but for the fact that it’s an excellent story with great themes and ideas running throughout. This is a fantastic piece of work that strikes a great balance between super heroes in the real world, and those wild ideas that are needed to make good comic books great.