Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When the Nazis Summoned Yog-Sothoth...

Zenith: Phase One (1987/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy:  Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's revisionist, satiric, epic superhero narrative started in the pages of England's 2000 AD comics magazine in 1987. In a way, it brings to a close the first decade of the revisionist superhero epic that began with Alan Moore's Marvelman/Miracleman and V for Vendetta and crested commercially and influentially with Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (1986-87) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986). 

This first 'Phase' introduces us to the British superhero Zenith, a self-absorbed pop star and celebrity with a vast array of super-powers, few of them tapped. He looks like Morrissey in a super-hero suit and acts like Justin Bieber. He's also the world's only practicing super-hero in 1987, all the others having vanished or mysteriously lost their powers decades earlier.

Pretty soon, though, Zenith will actually have to act in some sort of superheroic fashion. The Many-Angled Ones, Lovecraftian alien-gods from outside Earth's space-time, are coming. They tried to manifest themselves on Earth's plane of existence during World War Two. Now, thanks to the on-going efforts of the Nazi Cult of the Black Sun, one of them is back -- and it's inhabiting the body of a Nazi superhuman known as Masterman.

These aren't simply Lovecraftian homages, either. These are Iot Sotok (ie. Yog-Sothoth) and Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep and many others. They seem to be the real deal. And who better to fight super-gods than supermen?

Well, Zenith really only fights when he's forced to. And he will be forced to. Along the way, secrets will be revealed, a nefarious plan by the superhumans of the 1960's alluded to, and alliances made between Zenith and super-telepath Peter St. John. St. John was once the groovy hippy super-hero Mandala. Now he's the buttoned-down Conservative superhero in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Ha! But St. John has his own plans, and none of them involve bowing to hyper-dimensional sadists.

Phase One is the Zenith volume that hews most closely to the relatively serious superheroic revisionism of earlier books, especially Moore and company's Miracleman and V for Vendetta. But Morrison's puckish, punkish sensibilities leak through, especially in the often annoying, non-altruistic character of Zenith. Steve Yeowell's art evolves over the course of the volume, beginning with strong resemblances to Brian Bolland and ending as something more like his mature, more expressionistic style. Highly recommended.

Zenith: Phase Two (1988/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: Phase Two of Zenith takes us on a tour of pre-fab superhero Zenith's past and assorted nefarious but still mysterious plans for the future as hatched by various bodies. A nuclear threat to London by a bored British billionaire is the most normal thing going on here. 

This is really a bridge volume, one that fills in blanks and fleshes out major characters. Conservative super-telepath Peter St. John certainly gets the most development -- he may be terrible, but his first-person thoughts suggest that he isn't super-terrible. Zenith, meanwhile, remains a knob who nonetheless must save everything again, almost despite himself. Steve Yeowell's art, always clean, continues to move towards a new sparseness. Recommended.

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