Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When the Sun Rose Black Over the Last City

Zenith: Phase Three (1989/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: And now the 1989 show, in which Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell take the piss out of every Crisis and Secret War and Company-wide Crossover Event ever seen in the mainstream superhero comics of DC and Marvel. 

Phase Three is at once almost howlingly funny in its take on crossovers -- for the most part, all the heroes from different realities spend most of their time confused about what they're doing, who they're fighting, and who they're fighting with. And artist Steve Yeowell abets the foggy satire of super-hero armageddons with his sketchiest, sparsest, most evocative and suggestive artwork yet.

The Many-Angled Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Lloigor, have launched a major assault on all the alternative realities of Earth. Only a mighty army of superheroes can stop them! Super-jerk Zenith and super-conservative Peter St. John get drafted for the battle because of course they do. But nothing is really as it seems, and by the end of things, the true enemies of the universe will stand revealed. Or will they? Yes, they will. Maybe.

Morrison and Yeowell do a tremendous job here of juggling meta-commentary, satire, and abject horror. The Lloigor are truly horrible, and they're depicted in ways that almost certainly intentionally recall Kid Miracleman's devastation of London in Alan Moore's Miracleman. But they're also horribly comical and, frankly, not that bright. It all holds together as a satiric epic of horror right up to the bombastic climax, the terrible revelation, and the sudden reversal.

Throughout, Zenith remains his familiar unpleasant self, contrasting the various heroes who take this sort of thing seriously, or who've experienced actual tragedy. A certain number of minor characters are either old British comics characters or homages to same, but knowing who they are isn't integral to enjoying the book. Highly recommended.

Zenith: Phase Four (1990, 1992, 2000/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: And so, after the revelations in Zenith: Phase Three about the origins of the Many-Angled Ones and their plans for Earth, we come to the end. 

Can telepathic Conservative super-knob Peter St. John and self-absorbed super-pop-star Zenith save the world from a host of nigh-omnipotent alien gods? Or will the Sun turn black and all of creation fall?

Narrated for large stretches by the aging British creator of the British superhero program, Zenith: Phase Four alternates between dystopian horror and flashes of satire as embodied in the eponymous Zenith. Peter St. John has his own plans for humanity, but they apparently don't involve killing everybody. Not so the Many-Angled Ones, Lovecraft's Great Old Ones. Neither so the rest of Earth's super-heroes, who have a plan of their own that doesn't involve the survival of non-super-heroic humanity.

The result is a superhero comic book that trades in cosmic horror and bits of absurd humour on the way to its denouement. There's still enough mystery left at the end to fuel a Phase Five, but that doesn't seem to be in the offing. A coda from the year 2000, eight years after Phase Four ended, is a rare mis-step from writer Grant Morrison, a sour piece that can be ignored given its meta-commentary on the series as a whole. 

But otherwise, Phase Four is a triumph of revisionist superheroics and weird visionary horror. There's a damned city at the end of things that's quite a triumph of horrific imaginings. And there's Zenith, too self-absorbed to rule the world, and Peter St. John, whose plans remain mysterious right up to the end. And as the creator of the superheroes muses, superheroes in the real world -- or any idealized concept -- becomes horrors almost beyond imagining. Most of the time. Highly recommended.

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