(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in August 2019)
It would probably entertain Alan Moore no end that my next article after one about his Swamp Thing would be one about a piece work from Moore’s nemesis, Scottish comic scribe Grant Morrison. There’s no love lost between the two, with Moore accusing Morrison on numerous occasions of outright plagiarism.
“As to his conversation, (Grant) was quite forthcoming in his praise for my work, telling me how much inspiration it had provided and adding that it was his ambition “to be a comic-writer, like you”. Looking back from my present position, it strikes me that I may have only imagined that there was a comma in that last statement, but at the time I took it at face value.” – Alan Moore.
I’ve no idea how genuine the feud is – or how much is perpetuated by the comics press – but I’ve never been backwards in coming forwards expressing my great love for both the dour Northamptonian and the prolific Glaswegian. Both are prone to similar flaws – an occasional tendency towards pretention and overly florid language – but the two of them have created pieces I consider to be masterworks of the medium.
Moore has Swamp Thing, Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Morrison has his genius reinvention of JLA (Justice League of America), All-Star Superman, the mind-fuck that was The Invisibles and his first strip for 2000 AD, Zenith. And this being Ginger Nuts of Horror, we’ve a theme to stick to. We’re getting there, honestly.
Issue (“Prog”) #536 of 2000 AD in August of 1987 saw the first episode of Zenith. It was the first superhero strip in 2000 AD (I’m not counting Dash Decent) written by new talent Grant Morrison and drawn by relative newcomer Steve Yeowell.
After a climactic battle between an Allied and German superhero in Berlin, 1945 – cut short by that alternative histories first use of the atomic bomb - we travel forward in time 40 years to meet our titular character. The last active superhero – the rest having vanished or retired – is Zenith, an egotistical popstar who uses his powers only for publicity and self-gain. He’s a selfish self-obsessed jerk, more interested in dating super-models than super-heroics, more concerned with downing cocktails in a single gulp than leaping tall buildings with a single bound.
Along with Peter St. John – once known to the world as Mandala, psychedelic guru turned Conservative MP, Ruby Fox (Voltage) and drunken recluse Siadwell Rhys (Red Dragon) Zenith is dragged back into a battle that started in World War 2, all of them forced to confront the German supervillain Masterman – The WWII Super Nazi seemingly returned from the dead.
I’d only just become introduced to the Cthulhu Mythos back in 1987, eagerly devouring anything I could find by H.P. Lovecraft, and, once I’d read all that, anything I could find by his protégé August Derleth.
And, in Zenith, what seemed like a simple enough superhero story at the time ended up being anything but. The Nazis had created Masterman, but the real purpose of their secret superhero project was to produce host bodies strong enough to hold the spirits of the Lloigor, or “The Many-Angled Ones”. Masterman was their success, a physical form strong hold enough to hold the spirit of Iok Sotot, Eater of Souls.
The Lloigor, a race in the Cthulhu Mythos, were created by August Derleth and Mark Schorer in the 1932 short story “The Lair of the Star Spawn”, although the Lloigor in Zenith more closely resemble the ones from Colin Wilson’s later 1969 tale “The Return of the Lloigor”, powerful disembodied vortices of psychic energy.
It’s when Zenith and his companions believe they’ve defeated Masterman when they’re confronted with the reality and true horror of their foe.
Yeowell is at his absolute best – and in his element - when portraying this final conflict, as Zenith and Mandala fight Iok Sotot from within the sanity-defying confines of his many-angled non-Euclidean form.
The eighties was a time when Lovecraft’s creations seemed to be intruding more and more into popular culture – 1987 even saw an episode of The Real Ghostbusters called “The Collect Call of Cathulhu” – but it was mind-blowing to find reference to the Mythos in what appeared to be, on the surface, a fairly conventional superhero tale.
Here was a superhero story where the enemy were more than mere spandex-clad villainous musclemen – here the foe was beyond human understanding, an eldritch horror from a different plane of reality, one of a race immortal formless creatures that sees humanity – even its few remaining super-humans– as insignificant insects.
Screw Galactus – the Lloigor were the true planet eaters. Whereas Alan Moore was elegantly crossing the worlds of horror with super-heroics in Swamp Thing over with Vertigo/DC, Morrison was doing the same in a weekly comic aimed primarily at teens.
Phase 2 of the Zenith storyline would – apart from the introduction of a new character, Chimera, who would be pivotal in the final chapter – mostly shy away from the Elder God aspect, concentrating more on Zenith and the history of the superheroes. However, we’d plunge headlong back into nihilism and cosmic existential horror for the final two parts.
Chapters (or “Phases”) III and IV of the story upped the horror aspect considerably as the many-angled ones made their final play to conquer the universe.
Phase 3 was a riff on the common Marvel/DC trope of the summer crossover – that, in the eighties, typically involved multiple heroes and alternate Earths. Morrison would introduce a vast roster of copyright-skirting characters based on British superheroes from the past, all teaming up to fight the Lloigor.
The Lloigor were busy with their plans, taking over a multitude of realities and killing – or possessing – our heroes in a variety of thoroughly unpleasant ways. This made for grim reading, especially in a kid’s comic. Characters were messily executed, tortured and thoroughly tormented.
For one thing – and I’m not simply referring to Yeowell’s stark colouring – phases III and IV are both really, really dark. In both tales the heroes lose, and just keep on losing. With the stakes raised considerably – they’re not just fighting to save the Earth, but the Universe – it makes for bleak reading. The Lloigor know they’ve already won, and all we can do is read as our heroes go through the motions of trying – and failing – to stop them.
When Moore accuses Morrison of plagiarism, it’s clear to see why with certain elements of this in Zenith Phase 4. The framing device of the sole survivor narrator is stolen wholeheartedly from Moore’s Miracleman. Indeed they share the whole concept of placing a superhero in a contemporary England that we recognise, but it’s best not to look too closely at that.
That said, though – the ending of Phase 4 is genius and still one of my favourite moments in comic history. It’s a rug-pull, but it’s been so well signposted throughout the entirety of the story that it doesn’t feel like a cheat. If you don’t know it, I urge you to find out what that ending is for yourself. Since Morrison and Fleetway finally sorted out all the lengthy legal wrangles regarding its release, all four of Zenith’s phases are available to buy in both physical and electronic format.
Zenith eventually ended with Phase IV in Prog 806 of 2000 AD in 1992, never to return bar the odd guest appearance or one-off.
Except for Phase 2 which is mostly involved with Zenith’s troubled origins, he’s mostly just a portal through which we view the world he belongs to. Despite his super-powers, he’s far from heroic – he only gets involved when he has absolutely no other choice, and the sole moment in the entire saga where he appears to do something entirely selflessly, it turns out that it’s a case of mistaken identity. It seems like an odd choice to have a lead character who completely fails to grow or learn – he starts the saga as a spoilt brat and ends the saga much the same – but,it’s similarly interesting in that it’s the villains who evolve in Zenith.
In Phase 1, the Lloigor are slow to play their hand, unsure of our reality and the extent of their abilities. In Phase 3, their plans begin proper but they’re still effectively taking the roles of villains, pantomimic and over-blown. Phase 4 properly demonstrates the true horror of the Lloigor, mind.
In the final phase, the Many-angled ones are fully evolved, casually embracing their true cosmic nature. Mankind is no longer a threat, and they’ve already won. Some of the scenes in Phase 4 are truly terrifying, such is the complete absence of any humanity remaining in them. Some of Zenith’s old allies have gone to join the Lloigor, and quickly shed any trace of mortality like a snake shedding skin. We – and the matter of the universe itself – are just playthings, so much pliable matter to rend and shape. The true horror – which we’ve been building up to, all along – is that Zenith is lost in a battle he can’t win with his fists or wits.
He’s humanities last hope, and he is – in every sense of the word - hopeless.
Zenith Phases 1-4 written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Steve Yeowell
For an entertaining read about Alan Moore’s rivalry with Grant Morrison, I can thoroughly recommend https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview
To read about the “I still can’t quite believe that it ever existed” official HP Lovecraft/Ghostbusters “The Collect Call of Cathulhu”, this Ghostbusters site has a detailed explanation at https://ghostbusters.fandom.com/wiki/The_Collect_Call_of_Cathulhu
A blog post about Zenith from my distant past can be found via the following link https://foldsfive.blogspot.com/2011/04/im-nineteen-i-can-fly-i-can-flatten.html
The following is a list of all the superheroes who appeared in the densely populated Phase 3 of Zenith – sometimes under their own name, sometimes under a copyright-safe pseudonym.