Complete Zenith: A Review

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cover to Complete ZenithWARNING: Some minor spoilers in the images, but nothing to get too excited about.

Zenith is a comic strip from “my era” of 2000ad. I first started getting 2000ad from Prog 497 (after already purchasing several Titan reprint albums) and Zenith himself arrived in Prog 520.

In some ways it’s a surprise Zenith was a hit in the comic’s pages. Grant Morrison is one of the few British creators in the 80s who didn’t cut his teeth in 2000ad – his break was in DC Thompson’s Starblazer – and it is fair to say he never really “got” the 2000ad house style as was all too apparent in his work on Judge Dredd and the infamous “summer offensive”. What’s more, 2000ad doesn’t do superheroes. Zenith represented 2000ad’s first non-parodic toe dip into those deep waters.

In many respects, Zenith feels more like a Warrior strip than a 2000ad one and has a lot in common with Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain in that it is a very British treatment of a quintessentially American genre. I wouldn’t over emphasise the similarities however, and feed into Alan Moore’s lazy narrative that Morrison is a plagiarist. Indeed, many of the ideas that Morrison plays with in Zenith are ones which he has revisited in his own work many times since, particularly in Final Crisis, Animal Man and his Vertigo trilogy of The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

Despite Morrison moving rapidly onto bigger things, the story arc of Zenith is complete. The full colour Phase IV came out a few years after Phase III, and Morrison even returned for a one-off in 2000. It has however been increasingly hard to get hold of. Titan Books only reprinted the first three phases and ceased their 2000ad line in the early 90s. There was talk of reprinting it in the early noughties, but it quickly emerged that there were legal disputes preventing this from happening.

What are these legal disputes? Essentially, pretty much everything which 2000ad has ever published has been on the basis of work-for-hire: the company owns the rights in perpetuity (there are actually exceptions to this, but for the most part this is where the comic published work which had been initially commissioned by another publisher, notably Toxic!). However, Grant Morrison maintains that he never signed away his rights to Zenith and it would appear that 2000ad cannot prove him wrong in this respect. They could offer him a new contract or just accept he has the rights, but that would open up a legal minefield which could force 2000ad to revisit its ownership of pretty much everything it published in the 80s. As such it would appear they are at an impasse, the big loser being artist Steve Yeowell for whom this probably represents his most critically acclaimed and commercial work.

2000ad Books’ decision to print the entire run in a single volume earlier this year came out of nowhere. It has been limited to a (quickly sold out) print run of 1,000 and it is entirely possible this is the only time it will ever be reprinted. By all accounts, Morrison was not consulted on this and Rebellion have essentially stonewalled him. The theory goes that this is an experiment to see how he reacts. Either he’ll throw his lawyers at them or he’ll let it pass, in which case their case that he waived his rights and they are free to reprint will be that much stronger. It is far too soon to tell who will eventually win this, but in the meantime those of us willing to fork out £100 get a copy of something they have been dreaming of having in their hands for years.

What can I say about the book? I haven’t read the strip for many years and haven’t had a chance to pore through this edition yet, but I can say that it is very, very lovely indeed.

My shelves have been filling up with 2000ad’s “telephone directory” reprints for quite some time now (yes, I know that telephone directories these days are thinner than a weekly Prog; you get my meaning). I adore them, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the reproduction and restoration, especially in the earlier days, is a bit iffy – especially when they are working from degraded copies of the comic rather than from negatives. And some of their choices can be a little odd, such as their decision to not include The Dead Man and America from their Complete Judge Dredd volumes (WHY????? Sigh, it still makes me furious). So I’ll be honest when I say that despite being willing to fork out for this volume I was a little trepidatious.

some of the reprint covers which appear in the Complete ZenithBut it has exceeded my expectations in several respects. This may seem obvious, but when they say “complete”, they mean it. It doesn’t just have all the strips, but it includes all the covers. Not just the 2000ad covers but the covers of the Titan reprints (which themselves were Ryan Hughes design classics) and the Quality and Egmont-Fleetway US reprints. I didn’t even know that Simon Bisley drew covers for the latter, although I have to admit that I’m not entirely blown away by them. It even includes a text story that Mark Millar wrote for an old annual, which if I recall correctly was only tangentially related to Zenith and (like many Mark Millar superhero and 2000ad stories) best forgotten about.

And then there’s the colour. Reprinting 2000ad strips from the late 80s and early 90s can be a bit of a challenge because the comic went from mainly monochrome to full colour in 1990. To keep costs down, book publishers tend to get creative when confronted with things like this by printing half the book in black and white and half in colour, but this can often look awful. On top of this, Phase I of Zenith was during a brief period when 2000ad adopted an odd habit of printing the last page of some of its strips on the back page of the comic itself – often in full colour. Most of the time, the solution to that is to print the page in black and white – and most of the time that means a page which looked gorgeous in the original comic looking muddy and illegible. This has particularly plagued the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog reprints.

Colour transitions in the Complete ZenithNot so with Zenith. That £100 asking price means that, to their credit, they have spared no expense. So on the two chapters in Phase I where this applies you get a wonderful burst of colour. There is a slight issue which I’ve noticed whereby one of the annual stories, an Interlude, appears to have been printed slightly out of sequence so that it appears between Phases III and IV (when, if I recall correctly, it should be between II and III), but this is not disastrous as the story is out of sequence in any case.

Overall, I’m very happy with this and am content with paying the money. I very much expect an unlimited edition to appear in the next few years, but I don’t think those reprints will be either as comprehensive or include the nice touches that this one does.

And what of the ethics of reprinting this despite the legal uncertainty? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I’m fairly radical when it comes to my views on intellectual property. I think there is a good case for making all publications public domain 20 years after their initial publication – and I suspect that such an approach would have concentrated minds in both the Morrison and 2000ad camps. The existence of 2000ad slightly challenges my opposition to corporations being able to jealously guard their intellectual property because it has to be said that if their archives were worth less to them, it is entirely possible it would have ceased to be a viable publication some time ago (that said, I’m not wedded to 20 years and a somewhat longer period than that would probably fix that). I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Yeowell and can’t believe that Morrison didn’t know he was working on a work for hire basis at the time. So yeah, I think they are right to test the waters here.

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