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Zenith: Phase Two
by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell
2000AD, $25.00, 112pp
Published December 2014

I can't say that I was knocked out by the first phase of 'Zenith' but I enjoyed it and wanted to follow up immediately with the second. However I found myself rather disappointed by Phase Two, for a few reasons.

It's less of a continuation and more of a sequel, for a start, setting up a new story in the same universe rather than providing us with the next episode in the one we already had, as much as it does provide some more background to who Zenith is and what he'll be able to do. The new story is emphatically underwhelming and insubstantial, to the degree that I put it aside after reading it and deliberately left it a few weeks before writing my review; I found that I'd forgotten almost everything that happened and had to revisit it afresh. I think the biggest problem is that the characters simply can't be bothered, which might be appropriate for a yarn firmly rooted in comment on Generation X but doesn't hold much interest for us today.

It also leads us to wonder how committed Grant Morrison, the writer, was to the story. Looking back at 'Zenith', he's stated that he was likes Phase One the least, but perhaps more because of its reliance on its influences than because of any inherent lack of quality. He praises Phase Three specifically, calling it 'one of the greatest superhero crossover events ever'. I have no idea what he thinks of Phase Two today, because he doesn't seem to have commented on it, at least that I could find through a Generation X-inspired modicum of research. Ignoring it could be read as a comment all of its own, which I can understand.

Ostensibly, Zenith is tasked with saving London, which is being threatened by a mundane businessman of a megalomaniac, clearly based on Sir Richard Branson for no apparent reason than to turn a media celebrity into a generic James Bond villain. I'd suggest that it was Virgin on the ridiculous but puns are clearly beneath me. He's hijacked a submarine and has its sixteen nuclear missiles aimed at London, but it prompts an unusually apathetic response, one that feels more suited to the hopelessness of the Cold War than the era that arrived in its wake that did feature much depression but also much hope.

With so little interest in the supervillain idea, not least on the part of its perpetrator, I found myself far more interested in the back story of where Zenith came from. We meet both his parents here, albeit not in the way we might have expected, and what we find is certainly imaginative and enlightening. I have to say that Morrison clearly didn't feel limited in where he took this strip, so his more outrageous leaps tend to be the most enjoyable sections, such as the dinosaur fights in an alternate dimension. By comparison, the routine villainy is more than a little conventional.

If Phase Two doesn't work very well as a self contained story, it might work better as a lead in to Phase Three, certainly if we trust Morrison's comments. From what I can see, it looks more wildly interesting and ambitious than this, with Morrison apparently engaged again to unleash his imagination by mashing up past characters from British comics into the new Zenith universe. With two books produced thus far in quality hardback, I'm sure we'll soon see that volume and I can find out if my guess is good.

If most of this felt inferior to the first phase, some things were a little better. I had problems with Steve Yeowell's odd inability to consistently draw female faces with anywhere near the same depth of character that he drew male ones, but this book shows no such bias. Sure, Phaedra Cale, CIA Agent, in her horribly drawn checked suit, is too overtly manly, but various other female characters were drawn in parity with their male counterparts.

The book itself is very similar to its predecessor, with the same quality of production and with the same enjoyable extras at the end, but also with the same lack of page count. I do now see why they didn't bundle the first two phases into one book, as they really don't sit too well together, but with only four phases to cover, splitting them all up seems like going too far, especially when the whole thing is hardbound and glossy. Each volume of the collected 'Judge Dredd' stories in large format paperback will be of a larger page count than all four of the eventual Zenith books put together, yet it costs less than one. That seems like an oddly inconsistent situation and one that readers are hardly going to miss. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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