Friday, July 27, 2007

Reprint This! 6. Zenith

UPDATE: Zenith has been reprinted in a limited-edition omnibus volume by Rebellion, and in a planned follow-up series of four hardcover volumes to be released in 2014-15. Go, buy 'em all!

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected two dozen titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One missing gem is ZENITH by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. Zenith is a young pop singer and Earth's only active superhuman. His superpowered parents had died and the rest of their peers from the 1960s had either lost their powers or vanished. But when a Nazi super-soldier from the last days of the war, thought killed when the Allies dropped the first atom bomb on Berlin, resurfaces, it's evident that the past doesn't intend to stay buried...

Zenith was the first major series by Grant Morrison, who would later go on to create many highly-regarded, creator-owned series, most notably The Invisibles, and take over the scripting chores for many of DC and Marvel's top trademark properties.

As an action story, Zenith's just about unbeatable. Morrison's been known to throw so many ideas at the page in recent years that his work is sometimes hard to follow, but Zenith keeps its incredibly interesting plot moving at breakneck speed without losing the audience.

But it's Zenith himself, even more than the plot, that is the most compelling part of the story. Morrison often captures character very well, but rarely does he do it as well as here. Zenith is a spoiled asshole, a quick-witted master of putdowns who's never known loss or failure. And on the one hand, it's great fun watching him get away with the things he says, but on the other, it's even more satisfying when he gets on the receiving end of things, especially some loss that nobody should have to suffer. I also adore the way he will insult every single character in the series right to their face except for Peter St. John, to whom Zenith is deferential and polite, except when St. John isn't around. But since St. John's a telepath, they both know what Zenith really thinks. What a brat!

Steve Yeowell, a master of pacing and shade who rarely receives the praise he deserves, brings a lot to the work, and gives Zenith a flippant attitude and body language, obnoxious but compelling. Yeowell's stark use of solid inks and odd angles in the third storyline, sort of a British "Crisis on Infinite Earths" which features scores of retired comic characters from previous decades, makes the grim imagery look strange and alien. Many fans dislike the coloring, by Gina Hart, in the fourth series, but personally, I quite like it.

Grant Morrison had been selling short scripts to IPC, Quality and D.C. Thomson for most of the 1980s before getting a long series commission from 2000 AD. Zenith, which eventually chalked up close to 100 episodes over a six-year run, bears some surface similarity to Alan Moore's Marvelman (about which, more another time), but both represent some of the best and most honest writing about superheroes in the genre. Titan issued long out-of-print collections which presented the first three storylines of the four book cycle and some of the extra episodes, and looked forward to a big reprint series in 2001. They got as far as printing the new edition of "Phase One" before Morrison sued them, claiming that he, and not 2000 AD, owned the character, and they had no right to license it.

Morrison and Rebellion have sadly been at legal loggerheads for several years about ownership of the character, preventing Morrison from writing new episodes and, critically. preventing anybody from reprinting the existing ones. The dispute is thought to be at a complete impasse, although neither party will go on the record about it, and a formal court challenge has yet to arise. My personal, uninformed, take, is that the publisher can't risk the legal loss, because the negative precedent would encourage the writers and artists, or their families, of pretty much every British comic prior to about 1995 to take the same stance, and so it's simpler to just leave Zenith (and The Journal of Luke Kirby, about which its writer, Alan McKenzie, has made a similar argument) in the drawer. As is often the case in situations like this, the real losers are the readers, because a shelf full of Zenith books and a new story each year would be the greatest thing possible. We'd like to see Zenith again, so how about it, Grant and Rebellion? Y'all have a sitdown once Oxford dries out from the flooding and work it out, guys!

(Originally posted July 27, 2007, 05:05 at hipsterdad's livejournal.)

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