Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Zenith Phase Three

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Zenith Phase Three (Rebellion, 2015).

There's a bit very early on in the third, longest, and very best of the Zenith adventures which lets readers know what they're in for, and which might - with the right cultural background - be one of the all-time best cliffhangers in comics. Grant Morrison has always been really amazing with cliffhangers, but he set the bar really high when Zenith, his spoiled brat of a pop star with super powers, opens the door of his apartment and Robot Archie, the star of a long-running but mostly-forgotten clunky old kids' adventure, is standing in front of him bellowing "ACIEEED," which was the catchphrase of a hit dance song of the day that has also mostly been forgotten.

So in 1989, you had this twenty year-old robot everybody forgot about shouting along to a dance song earworm by D-Mob that everybody reading the comic couldn't get out of their head, and readers of the far-flung future of 2015 are now seeing a forty-five year-old robot mostly known to the world from his appearance in this particular comic, shouting along to a "you had to be there" one-hit wonder, and yet it's strangely still compelling and ridiculous. Even not knowing the pop cultural touchpoints, you can see that there's a contamination of Things That Should Not Be standing at Zenith's door. It could have perhaps been the Robot from Lost in Space singing "I'm Too Sexy" and we'd recognize it a little better, but hate it for its garishness. Robot Archie, instead, points the way toward the secret history of comics that unfolds over the next 140 pages, a glorious epic that swallows the narrative and leaves Zenith a supporting player in his own story.

"Phase Three," also known as "War in Heaven," originally appeared in 26 episodes across nine months of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD in 1989-90, and has newly been released in a lovely hardback edition for the first time. It's an incredibly fun story which draws its inspiration from DC Comics' ongoing use of parallel universes and superheroes from other timelines all working together to beat some impossible threat. That's what happens here, with long-forgotten characters from older kids' comics all banded together for the first time to save the Multiverse. Some of them have been tweaked a little - "Big Ben" is a moody, Soviet version of the cowboy Desperate Dan - and some, like The Steel Claw, The Leopard of Lime Street, Electroman and Electrogirl, came straight from the 1960s intact. The result was thousands of readers raising their eyebrows in surprise, learning that once upon a time, there were indeed superhero comics in England.

At the same time this was running, Morrison was actually working in American superhero books for the first time, writing Animal Man for DC and exploring many of the same themes, as Animal Man ran across forgotten characters like Sunshine Superman and the Green Team from long-discarded and "unimportant" old comics. It's downright criminal that "War in Heaven" has been out of print for so long, because the similarities between the stories are really amazing. Animal Man has been dissected and praised for such a long time, and for readers to finally get to play compare and contrast with how Morrison approached the concepts for each publisher from nice bookshelf editions is long overdue.

It's a heck of a fun story, with so many superheroes - most of them are not named, and a heck of a lot of 'em get killed off, so there's not a lot of point in slowing down and trying to figure out who's who - at work against impossible odds, and Zenith, smugly thinking this all looks like a convention for pervs and leather fetishists, not taking things seriously until the body count rises. The story is admittedly dated somewhat by the grisly narrative and fates for some of the characters. It's one of many (many) superhero stories to take inspiration from earlier works by Frank Miller and Alan Moore that depict the "realistic" take on what would happen if super-strong people actually punched each other.

The story's illustrated by Steve Yeowell with buckets and buckets of black ink. Many years later, I'd be among many who complained about the sparse inking of Yeowell's The Red Seas. That's probably because we were spoiled by these incredibly dense pages, with so much excitement going on, deep shadows and detailed linework. It's just a huge pleasure to look at the angular, sometimes abstract work in this comic, and not just because you want to play the incredibly silly and fun game of identifying all the characters. The collection's also got a one-off tale featuring one of Zenith's co-stars, Peter St. John, that's illustrated by Jim McCarthy.

Over the last couple of years in 2000 AD, they've been resurrecting some of their old properties like Ulysses Sweet and Orlok for new adventures and making them semi-regulars in the comic. The nicest compliment that I can pay "War in Heaven" is that it's impossible to read this and not ask where in the hell the publisher's put the Blue Wizard and Oakman series that damn well should have appeared by now instead of Yet Another Rogue Trooper spinoff. Happily recommended.

A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

No comments: