How photogenic we all were
Rereading zzzzenith.com by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell.
There should have been a Zenith Phase V. There was a plan behind the Plan, Peter St John’s agenda for humanity for which he manipulated and murdered his way into 10 Downing Street. Phase IV ended on a cliffhanger. The natural plot for the final phase, with all other superhumans eliminated, is St John vs Zenith. The man who’s edged towards the traditional model of the world-ruling supervillain versus our protagonist, who by selfish default has always been on the side of personal freedom. There’s room for conflict. And while St John has always been the smart one, exploring his powers and thinking six moves ahead, we were told throughout that nobody could match Zenith for raw power.
The only problem is that there’s no way Zenith could be arsed. A wonderfully British idiom, that. To not be arsed is to not want to shift off one’s arse. It’s an exhausted, apathetic version of not being fucked. Why would Zenith fight St John? He knows he’d be out-thought. He knows that St John won’t harm him personally, that he probably has an exalted seat in any new order. And he doesn’t particularly care for humanity. He knows he isn’t of it. Grant Morrison is a great writer of character. He’s true to character, and that means his characters do things that aren’t expected and the writer runs to catch up. Boy, in The Invisibles, is the best example; she didn’t believe in their cause, and all the cathartic roleplay and headfucking laid on her couldn’t make her believe it. She walks away and leaves her friends to their idiot secret war. Zenith’s refused to be a hero since the first moment he was introduced. Why would he start now?
So there was never a Phase V. But it’s a curious paradox of 2000AD that while it offers low pay and no hope of ownership it actually respects, on one level, creators’ rights. You create and write and draw your own guys, and if you stop then they stop. They accept that Halo Jones was popular because of Moore and Gibson and don’t order a continuation from other creators. So if there was ever going to be a Phase V then it was going to be the work of Morrison and Yeowell. Probably for commercial reasons as much as anything else – that low pay – it never happened. What happened instead, eight years after the conclusion of Phase IV, was zzzzenith.com.
Eight pages long, a curious blend of mismanaged satire and savage self-loathing, there’s evidence in zzzzenith.com of the Phase V that could have been. Peter St John’s line about his plans to rule the world ring true, and at least give us half a motive for his actions behind the scenes. Zenith as reality TV star also seems eminently plausible; that’s what he always was, really, but we hadn’t reached the apex of empty celebrity back in the 80s so he had to be a pop star. And the new look, the thickening of the face, the submerging of the cheekbones, the horrible little soul patch, are accurate to the extent that the 00s Zenith reminds me of a image-conscious friend I had in the early 90s and the look he had when I last encountered him a couple of years ago.
But what Grant doesn’t have anymore is that Zenith flow. He knows it; he’s been quoted somewhere reading back over his early issues and marvelling at how much he used to pack in without it ever seeming forced, the natural dialogue- and action-driven swing of the storytelling rarely faltering. Cool character cameos, always a strength, were slipped in so organically it’s surprising to actually count Domino’s lines and realise that he barely appeared, so vividly did he live on the page. Contrast that with the lack of subtlety that Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s cool cameo is telegraphed in New X-Men. Both approaches have their attractions and I do like Morrison’s expository mode, but the lack of self-consciousness in Zenith got lost somewhere in between Doom Patrol and Animal Man and it’s never come back.
In its place we have comics that know they’re comics and revel in it, their stars delivering stiff lines of knowing dialogue with one eye winking through the fourth wall. Eminently quotable and great to read, shiny and brittle, the difference is like the switch from analogue to digital, from warmth to precision. Zenith doesn’t seem quite himself, his bewildered naivety replaced by jaded cynicism. For all his creator’s recent dismissal of comics’ struggle for ownership rights, there’s a sense of contempt for these characters that feels like it stems from that lack of control and ownership. They’re manipulated like the writer’s puppets, nakedly telling us their motivations and concerns rather than showing us through their actions.
There isn’t really any story being told. We begin with three panels of Britney naked, post-assault, which are worth keeping in mind next time Grant criticises Alan Moore for using rape as a plot device. “Hey Grant, forget the rape in the origin of Crazy Jane, and the rape in the origin of Lord Fanny, and the threatened rape of Ellen Baker; how about that time you decided to play rape for laughs?” It doesn’t even look like Britney though she is naked, the scene thoroughly sexualised. Zenith tells us about his new reality career through the fourth wall, and we fly off to see his agent in a sourly funny brief appearance, one more bit of continuity. It wouldn’t really be Zenith without the ritual opening chat with Eddie. Peter St John is revealed as the power behind Blair’s throne, then it’s off to the Millennium Dome and a Chimera crisis that does nothing but prefigure the infant universe with the name from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics from Seven Soldiers and All-Star Superman. A gay joke, a rocket attack, and some Robot Archie sex attack laughs presumably added as Morrison’s heartfelt tribute to the original cover art of Appetite For Destruction, and it’s all over.
Like many former Grant Morrison fans, I’m over him. There’s a nice piece by David Brothers about the writer’s conflicting public personas here, but while I admit that interviews with him irritate me it’s the decline in the writing that finished our relationship. I became disillusioned around the end of the Invisibles, whimper that it was, and though New X-Men eventually came good – those last three arcs are matchless – there was too much mundane leading up to it. Seven Soldiers was a multiple disappointment and everything that’s come after, his doomed attempt to beat his former friend and protegé at his own game, is just exhaustingly ordinary. For me there’s a bitterness in his work now, an anger at his failure to be either Alan Moore or Mark Millar or Timothy Leary or whoever else he was going to be. Being DC’s big-name writer isn’t much of an accolade compared to Kick-Ass or The Walking Dead. And though this comic was created coming off the Invisibles/JLA runs which were a creative highpoint, it’s steeped in bitterness.
So why does Zzzenith.com exist? It doesn’t deliver any particularly effective satire, which is what it’s trying to do on the surface. It doesn’t make any point which couldn’t be made without these characters. It has good lines, though: “The 80s? Mad Nazis, evil gods and Kajagoogoo. End of story.” “You hear all this stuff about the quality of hospice care these days, but… Eddie died screaming like a set of burst bagpipes.” “I wouldn’t get into a fight again if they paid me the weight of the sun in gold. There were times back then when I was sure we were all going to die of sheer stupidity.” “You’re dying a madman’s death, constable, unless you face facts!” “…Funny you never married, Pete.” “Mmm. Funny you never married.”
It comes back to that missing Phase V, the lack of conclusion to Zenith and St John’s arc. Maybe that gay joke is the key; perhaps the two characters who flirt in the Millennium Dome should have ended up together, a power couple ruling the world for their own amusement. There are worse endings.
zzzzenith.com by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell appeared in 2000AD prog 2001. It has not been reprinted. Download it here.