|I've reviewed a few of the recent Rebellion reprints of old '2000 AD' material here at the Nameless Zine, but everything thus far has centered around characters with which I've had a background, even if the strips themselves were new to me. However, Zenith is a new character for me. I knew of him but had never read any of his strips until this one. 'Phase One' proved to be a rather interesting read.
These comics, which were first published in '2000 AD' in 1987 and 1988, constitute this odd superhero's beginnings. I found it hard to determine, from a quarter of a century of hindsight, whether he's more of a British superhero or a Generation X superhero. I'd always thought he was the former but I'm now leaning towards the latter. Let's see if 'Phase Two' changes things up on that front.
The other huge surprise for me was to find that this is really a Lovecraftian superhero story, as I was expecting something a lot more down to earth, albeit just as satirical about the times in which it was written and the culture and politics that made up its environment. The bad guys are the Great Old Ones, trying to find a way into our dimension to wreak their usual sort of havoc and artist Steve Yeowell provides a few neat full page illustrations, some in color, that play well to my mythos mindset.
Writer Grant Morrison eases into the piece, not letting us in on the origin story for a little while. Initially it's framed as a traditional superhero piece that begins in the rubble of Berlin in World War II with clean-cut British superhero, Maximan, up against Nazi supervillain, Masterman. Both are wiped out by an atomic bomb dropped on their heads, but then we leap forward in time to the 1980s to see Masterman's twin return as the physical conduit for an elder god. The Order of the Black Sun conducts the ritual of the Nine Angles and into Masterman's frozen body comes Iok Sotot, Eater of Souls, a clear take on Yog Sothoth.
What we quickly find is that not only is Maximan gone, but most of the superheroes of the day, endowed with powers as children through the use of an experimental drug and known collectively as Cloud 9, aren't in a position to stand against Masterman. Most of them, such as Spook, Lux and Dr Beat, are long gone too, and those still around, like Voltage, Red Dragon and Mandala, have apparently lost their powers after near fatal illnesses to become vaguely regular folk. Only Zenith is still active as a superhero, but he's the youngest of the bunch, the son of two of the Cloud 9 kids, and he's a complete brat, as befits his day job as a successful pop star. He may still be active, but he's effectively useless in this fight.
Who will stand against Masterman when he crosses the Channel? Ruby Fox used to be Voltage but she can't manipulate electrical fields any more. Siadwel Rhys, the former Red Dragon, can't do much of anything, given that he's a drunken fixture in a Welsh pub. Hilariously, Mandala, a former psychedelic countercultural shaman, is now Peter St John, a Conservative MP, again without powers. So will it be Zenith, a self-obsessed new wave coward, who steps up? It is his strip, after all, so we presume so, but we do wonder for a while how that might ever be viable.
I liked a lot of how this story built. We're given a teaser in World War II, then brought rapidly into the present, only to have to gradually learn about the decades in between; who the Cloud 9 folk were and what happened to them. We also meet the 'hero' of the day, Zenith, and wonder why the strip is named after him. There's the expected pop culture references and sociopolitical commentary, but thus far it's mostly just a story, mixing up its post-'Watchmen' and 'Dark Knight Returns' superheroes with Lovecraftian cosmic horror and a little old school pulp adventure to frame it all.
The biggest catch is that it's short, containing the 'Zenith' strips from only 17 issues of '2000 AD.' It makes it a quick read, conjuring up interest in the characters and the setting but leaving us before we really get our teeth fully into what's actually going on. I haven't read 'Phase Two' yet, but it would seem that readers should have it ready to go as soon as they finish up this one.
The other flaws are varied but minor.
Most obviously, the material is firmly stuck in the UK of the eighties, which works for me because I lived through it and remember it well but it may not be anywhere near as accessible to younger or foreign audiences. Of course, nobody in the UK ever connected Maximan's name with feminine hygiene products but it'll raise giggles with American audiences today. Also, while the American golden and silver age superheroes, the ones now storming their way into massively successful Hollywood blockbusters, had connections to their times too, they're generally a lot more universal in nature and their artists cared a lot less about framing their adventures within sociopolitical statements. They're less stuck in their time.
Less forgiveable is the odd way in which Steve Yeowell seems more capable when drawing male faces than female ones. I felt throughout that Ruby Fox, a strong female superhero, had the least character because nothing ever showed in her features. She's too blank throughout, unlike Siadwel Rhys, Peter St John or Robert McDowell aka Zenith. Even lesser male characters seem to get more personality in their features than Fox. I wonder why.
On the positive side, the quality of the production is strong. Unlike the reprints of early 'Judge Dredd' material, where the print can suffer from fading or blurring, this is slickly put together with good printing on good paper in a good hardback volume that would happily survive with a much thicker page count. Extras include not only the usual set of reproductions of color covers but also some of the design work used to build the characters, complete with their inspirations.
These inspirations are sometimes obvious, such as Lux being a clear take on Jim Morrison and others making sense to comics fans, such as a note on Mandala's look as 'Doc Strange Goes Paisley.' Others aren't noted so it's up to us to realize that the look of Dr Beat, overt hipster, is also rooted in Cesare from 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari', right down to the trio of lines on his gloves.
All in all, 'Phase One' is an interesting volume for fans of eighties British comics in a quality edition. It's just a shame that I didn't have 'Phase Two' immediately ready to go after it. ~~ Hal C F Astell