Tag Archives: grant morrison

Complete Zenith: A Review

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.

Taking sides in the Grant Morrison / Alan Moore cosmic feud

20121128-001951.jpgSooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.

We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.

Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.

Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.

To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.

But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.

And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).

I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.

It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.

Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.

J is for Judda

The Judda are one of my favourite, woefully underused villains. In fact, discounting Fargo clone Judge Kraken, the Judda have only appeared in one story, Oz (progs 545–570, 1987-1988).

Apparently timed to coincide with Australia’s bicentary, Oz functioned as both a continuation of the Chopper storyline and an opportunity for Wagner and Grant to write a story based on some rather distinctive designs of some rather extreme looking judges by Brendan McCarthy. These were to become the Judda.

The original plan was for art duties for the story to be split between McCarthy and Cam Kennedy, the fan-favourite artist who had redesigned Chopper for the previous Midnight Surfer storyline. In the event, Kennedy could not do this – his slots were hurriedly filled by a number of artists resulting in some problems with both quality and continuity – and Brendan McCarthy ended up only drawing a handful of episodes.

The Judda sub-plot revolved around the discovery that Morton Judd, the scientist behind the cloning programme which was responsible for the creation of Joe and Rico Dredd, was still alive. In hiding since his failed attempt to overthrow the justice department, Judd had used stolen genetic material from the cloning programme to create his own army of Judda – warriors brought up to believe in a warped version of the judicial system, mingled with a personality cult revolving around Judd himself. With Judd seemingly about to launch an attack on the city, Dredd is sent to “Oz” (Australia) to hunt him down.

Needless to say, Dredd succeeds, blowing up both Judd and his secret base inside Ayers Rock (the story was written before the campaign to call the rock Uluru had gained much traction).

Morton Judd appears in one other story, Origins (progs 1505-1519 and 1529-1535, 2006-2007). Ostensibly a continuity cleaning up exercise, Origins came about in part due to the continuity glitches which Oz had established. In fact, however, Judd appears mostly in the background, with the bulk of the story focused on Fargo himself and the fall of President Booth.

Notwithstanding the fact that Judd dies at the end of Oz, it is surprising that we have not seen the Judda since and that Kraken was the only captured Judda to have not been exterminated. But given the times characters have been brought back and overused, I suppose I should be careful what I wish for.

Highlights include:

  • Oz (progs 545–570, 1987-1988)
  • Origins (progs 1505-1519 and 1529-1535, 2006-2007)

J is also for…

Judge Judy Janus

Another member of Psi-Division who, while Anderson was off exploring herself around the galaxy, briefly had her own spin-off series after appearing in Inferno (progs 842 – 853, 1993), written by Grant Morrison.

Strikingly bald, the character has not appeared since 1997.

Judge-Sergeant Joyce

An Irish judge who polices Murphyville, Garth Ennis’s satirical vision of Ireland in the future. He first appears in Emerald Isle (progs 727-734, 1991).

While Emerald Isle is an enjoyable enough story, it pretty much sums up the problem with Garth Ennis’s run on the Dredd strip, and indeed Garth Ennis’s weakest work elsewhere. Ennis has a tendency to fill his stories with Guinness-drinking Irish stereotypes (see also Hellblazer, Preacher, Hitman, Dicks). Occasionally the material transcends this; far too often that’s pretty much all it amounts too. Ostensibly self-deprecating (Ennis is from Northern Ireland), all too often it comes across as a crutch in his work.

Wagner and Grant’s weakest Dredd strips are little more than two note gags. Ennis rarely reached that level of sophistication throughout his run on Dredd. This is a great shame as he is a highly regarded with a whole string of hits to his name.

A Beginner’s Guide To Comics: A Response

I had originally written this as a comment to Andrew Hickey’s Beginner’s Guide to Comics, but I thought I would add it here instead. First go away and read his article and then come back to this:

Andrew’s is a good list which I would broadly agree with. Jaka’s Story was one of those strips which was being hailed during the “Pow! Comics Grow Up!” period of the late 80s. I’d like my older self to give it a read – I certainly remember the ending being very powerful. But as he recognises there is that Dave Sim “ick” factor which stops me from rushing.

All-Star Superman is good but I wouldn’t put it above Morrison’s Invisibles or (more controversially) Doom Patrol. It is however, much shorter than those two.

I re-read Sandman earlier this year. It was actually stronger than I remember, although that was partly due to the fact that I was one of those people who read the monthly comic and thus got alienated by Gaiman during The Kindly Ones when he stopped writing a periodical and switched to novel writing. Reading it as a whole it stands up; as a series of (less than) monthly episodes it really didn’t.

One of the big problems with enticing people into comics is that sometimes they can be quite inaccessible from a visual impairment point of view. I won’t bother trying From Hell on my girlfriend not because of the subject matter but because I’m pretty sure she’d find it impossible to read because of Eddie Campbell’s scratchy lettering.

Alice in Sunderland is a book I suspect I will go back and reread every couple of years for years to come. It is such a rich, dense book. As a meditation about what it means to be English (and in particular Northern English) it is fantastic. It SHOULD be taught in schools in my view. One Bad Rat is currently high on my reread pile.

As for things Andrew missed…

The best non-superhero Alan Moore things would have to be V for Vendetta, Halo Jones and (controversially) Skizz. The latter is ET done properly, even if the South African bashing is a little dated.

For the Buffy fans out there, you should give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run a go. It is his best comics work in my view.

I read Mike Carey’s Lucifer in quick succession last year and loved it. As a meditation on the nature of free will it is required reading (for all those libertarian bloggers out there especially – and I’m not taking the piss there). His Unwritten is also shaping up well. There is a lot of Vertigo stuff which started in the early noughties which I missed completely for the simple reason that I had had enough of tiresome Sandman spin-offs.

Overall, 2000AD is a tricky thing to recommend. Dredd is almost certainly an acquired taste and I do appreciate that a lot of the 80s stuff has dated somewhat. I tend to find the “funny” stuff more difficult to justify than the “serious” stuff despite initially being attracted by the former. This is a shame because Wagner deserves much greater recognition than he gets. Far from being a simple fascist cop, the characterisation of Dredd is incredibly rich and yet understated in Wagner’s hands. One gets the impression it has become semi-autobiographical.

Of the relatively self-contained 2000AD stuff I would recommend Nikolai Dante, Caballistics, Inc. and Leviathan.

Finally, I would throw in Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and You Are Here and Evan Dorkins Dork! (an acquired taste but brilliant nonetheless).

Nine wishes for 2009 #5: Comics I care about

Yoink! These nine wishes for 2009 were meant to be done and dusted by 31 December. Nevertheless, I shall plough on…

I’m a geek, to paraphrase Nick Clegg, by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing (the latter is all too true – my dad made me watch Alien when I was 8 FFS! He would also blare out War of the Worlds at 11pm. My earliest memories were reading science fiction and horror mags on my parents’ bed and the excitement surrounding Star Wars and Close Encounters – really was there any hope for me?).

So it comes as no surprise that, despite being in my mid-thirties, I have an unusually large comic collection (the only geek I know who doesn’t read comics is Will Howells. Bad Will! No biscuit!). But I have this problem: they aren’t exciting me like they used to.

My first comics were the Beano (but not the Dandy – rubbish!) and the eighties Eagle. From there it was but a short step to 2000AD during its bog paper, black and white glory days and with the eighties UK comics brain drain in full swing, moving onto US comics was all but inevitable. Highlights have included: too many Judge Dredd stories to mention, but in particular Block Mania, Chopper’s escape to Oz and the revelation of the identity of The Dead Man; Nemesis the Warlock; Halo Jones (I could mention loads of Alan Moore stuff, but this is the one that inspired me the most, oddly); Grant Morrison’s greatest hits (Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles); The Sandman; Preacher; The Adventures of Luthor Arkwright. More recently, Nikolai Dante has had its moments. Morrison’s run on X-Men was good and Joss Whedon’s follow up was great too. I whizzed through Mike Carey’s Lucifer last year after, wrongly, assuming for years that it was just another worthless Sandman spin-off (Vertigo have only themselves to blame for that assumption, but that’s another story).

But the sort of buzz I felt during the late eighties and nineties isn’t there any more. Don’t misunderstand me, I recognise that to an extent I am merely a little jaded and that is unavoidable. And there is still good stuff out there. Buffy Season Eight, while patchy, is generally strong. 2000AD has been consistent (but not amazing) for a good decade now going through a very bad period before. You can’t switch brilliance on like a tap but I don’t think 2000AD can be accused of doing anything to piss on their chips.

I think my dilemma is threefold. Firstly, the demise of Comics International. To be clear (last year I bemoaned the state of the magazine and got ticked off by Burt for my trouble), it does appear to be a going concern and at least one of the problems for its erratic publishing schedule over the past couple of years has been the editor’s ill health, but it is a far cry from the rigorous monthly schedule that Dez Skinn managed to work to for 15 years. I hope that if they do get it back up and running, they go back to basics. When it was launched, CI was a free newsheet printed on newsprint which offered news, reviews, and pretty much nothing else. I don’t miss anything else; I do miss that basic service. It is a bit of an embarrassing thing to admit as somone who likes to think of himself as generally web-savvy, but I can’t get my head around using the web as a news source for my comics. Something does not compute. Nothing feels as natural as a few pages of news I can pore over on the tube home from the shops (I depend on Empire for similar reasons).

Secondly, I find it really hard to get into the indie-scene these days. Even though I’ve never actually lived in the East Midlands, I occasionally used to go to Page 45 for some of their special events. In particular, they ran a great open day in 1996. Ostensibly a day to promote Dave Sim‘s latest UK tour (I continued to collect Cerebus up until it ended even though I basically gave up reading it during the last few years as he seemed to get increasingly bonkers – needless to say I don’t share his views), they invited lots of other independent comic creators as well. Since the queue to get stuff signed by Sim and Gerhard was so long, you ended up going around and talking to all the creators. I ended up buying stuff from pretty much everyone, discovering a passion for, among others, Kane, Sleaze Castle and Dix (the cartoonist on the brilliant Roll Up! Roll Up! which ran in the Guardian a few years ago before they criminally cancelled it. Thanks to the magic of teh internets you can now own a collected edition – buy it now!). But as you’ll have seen by following those links, those particular wells of creative talent have either mutated (Jack Staff is good, but nothing like as good as Kane) or dried up entirely.

Are Page 45 still organising such open days? If they are, I never read about them even when CI was coming out regularly. Back in London these days, the closest to Page 45 is Gosh! – they often do signings, but don’t seem to use them as an opportunity to do something more ambitious. Maybe in 2009, this might change.

My third problem though seems much more intractable. I’ve always tended to read DC more than Marvel. This is simply because DC used 2000AD as a recruitment brochure in the eighties and took a lot of the fanbase with them. Slowly I got sucked in, loving Keith Giffen’s take on the Justice League and the post-John Byrne Superman (an era which effectively ended with the death and rebirth storyline). Having stayed away for a few years, I ended up picking up 52 and some of the other Infinite Crisis spinoffs and tie-ins.

Now, 52 was a well executed and enjoyable series – a year in the life told in real time. The problem is, it was such a success that they immediately issued a sequel – Countdown – which in turn was a prequel of Final Crisis – which in turn was a sequel to Infinite Crisis (and sort of a sequel to Seven Soldiers of Victory) – which in turn was a sequal to the Crisis on Infinite Earths (and that’s just the simplified version). The idea that the Infinite Crisis had created 52 alternate universes (after the Crisis of Infinite Earths destroyed the “infinite” alternates and merged them into one, the revamped eighties DC universe), is essentially lame, lazy and, as you will have seen by reading this paragraph, incredibly confusing. Add to this the “is he? isn’t he?” death of Batman at the end of last year, and an alternate timeline in the latest weekly series Trinity, and you have a terribly stodgy mess. The problem with all these tie-ins, cross-overs and spin-offs is that it utterly alienates the casual reader. DC seems to have decided that their future lies in giving the hardcore dizzyingly complex onanistic wank. I’ve put up with it for a year longer than I should have done and expect to more or less drop all my DC titles later this year.

Marvel also seem to be going out of their way to alienate readers by producing company-wide meta-narrative after company-wide meta-narrative even if by all acounts they are doing it much better. But again, how do you get on board? Browsing through trade paperbacks in Borders and the specialist shops, I haven’t the foggiest where to start with, say, Civil War.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is rooted in the fact that both of these companies have discovered that they have such large back catalogues now that the casual reader has plenty to churn through before running out and wanting to look at the latest stuff. Want to get into Batman? Most “top ten” lists include Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Long Halloween and Arkham Asylum. Most of the Marvel films are mining stories from the sixties which you can read in their Masterworks series of books. So even if they did make the new stuff more accessible, I suspect they would get very little out of it in terms of improved sales.

As someone who is more than a casual reader but much less than the hardcore, this is a problem. Are there really so few of us out there though? I just think it is a real shame that as comics finally enter the mainstream, they seem to be having such a creative lull. And while there is undoubtedly good stuff out there to be found, finding it seems to be becoming harder and harder. Anyone got any suggestions?