He’s a bad one, that Zenith, and we can be sure about that badness because the people who know assure us that it’s true. His writer Grant Morrison, for example, defined him as ”basically just a pain in the ass” (Speakeasy 76). And his artist Steve Yeowell has him down as ”a bigoted, swollenheaded, loud-mouthed, materialistic, opportunistic coward, who’s quite prepared to let others do the work and take the risks, then share the credit afterwards” (Zenith: Book Five). And if the opinions of Zenith’s creators should somehow not be enough to sway the jury on this matter, then perhaps we might add to the evidence the words of Timothy Callahan, the writer of Grant Morrison: The Early Years, who describes Zenith, among other things, as ”selfish and often cowardly” too (CBR, 21 Jan 2009).
1. “Well, I Hope You’re Taking His Name Off The Memorial”
All of which, where the opinion of such expert witnesses is concerned, would seem to carry more than simply a considerable weight regarding the issue of Zenith’s personality and actions. After all, who are we going to listen to on this matter? The man who invented Zenith? The artist who took Brendan McCarthy’s basic designs for the character and created an entire multiverse for Zenith? The critic who has worked to keep the value and importance of the character in the comic book-reading public’s mind?
Case closed then, surely? That Zenith? He’s no good. And we know he’s a bad’un because the folks who know have told us so.
2. “Listen, Just Who Do You Think You Are?”
The whole point and purpose of Zenith, of course, was that he wasn’t a super-hero, and that he never would be. Oh, he might dress like a super-hero, but that was just part of the gimmick by which Robert Neil Cassady McDowell surfed through his late adolescence playing the part of an Eighties pop star. And though he possessed a brace of super-powers too, such as flight and a measure of super-strength, they were no more a marker of a super-heroic destiny than the possession of all four limbs and average height predetermines a career in the police force. As Grant Morrison said in 1987, the year of Zenith’s first appearance:
I mean, you don’t ask Daley Thompson to go out and fight crime, and he’s a superb athlete.
(To those of you too shamelessly young to know, Daley Thompson was the Olympic Gold Medal winner in the Decathalon in both 1980 and 1984. I stood next to him once for a second at King Cross Station in London, and in that moment I knew that I would not have picked a fight with him for the world. )
Indeed, Zenith’s complete and utter disinterest in the business of super-heroics was constantly used to poke fun at the conventions of the genre, as well as at the very idea of the super-hero itself. His narrative purpose was to look so much like a superman that both his fellow comic-book characters and the readers themselves would at least half-expect him to follow the traditions of self-sacrifice and derring do, though the-once Robert McDowell himself always had quite other ideas. Bank robbers and invading extra-dimensional entities were of no immediate interest to him at all compared with his concerns of mass-markets and mass consumption, of surface with no apparent substance, of status-furtherance and wealth-stimulation. For Zenith was more than quite content to live his life as a handsome, wealthy, shaggable and famous pop star. If a career advisor had ever quizzed the young Zenith on what he intended to do with his future, it’s incredibly doubtful that the answer would’ve sincerely included the words “service”, “sacrifice,” or “voluntary.”
And that’s part of what Grant Morrison wanted Zenith to express, of course, namely ”the Eighties obsession of style over content” (although why the decade which bred The Smiths, R.E.M., and U2 as well as the likes of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman should always be characterised by the latter tribe is beyond me). Yet in making Zenith a teenager who didn’t want to be a superman but who did want to be the most superficial and glitzy of chart stars, Morrison created a character which the average four-colour comic fans found it hard to engage with without a considerable degree of obscurating prejudice being kicked up in the process. For what could be more counter-intuitive to the already skewed logic of a super-hero fan than to come face-to-face with a character who not only refused to track down muggers, but who rather wanted to shamelessly mime sing-a-long-a-papness chart hits on “Top of the Pops?”
All of which is, I’d argue, part of the problem with how Zenith is often judged as a character. For in essence, most of the criticisms of him as a person only carry any weight if applied to a genuine, be-spandexed super-hero, rather than the almost-ordinary, 17 to 21 year-old Robert Neal Cassady McDowell. And it’s not just young Zenith who inevitably suffers when compared to Superman and the vast majority of his virtuous brethren. You and I, for example, may not have super-powers, but most of us have the basic physical qualifications to become a member of the police-force, or a Guardian Angel, or even a St. John’s volunteer. Why should Zenith be judged as “selfish” and “opportunistic” for not being a heroically self-sacrificing super-hero, or even acting according to the narrow dictates of one, when most of us aren’t engaged in the fight against crime either?
And why exactly is it wrong for Zenith to be a pop singer, a drifting guest on morning chat-shows, a regular at the flesh-pots of London’s night-life? Who exactly is Zenith harming by doing so? Who has been brainwashed by him, frog-marched to his concerts, forced to hand over their pocket money, compelled to wear his t-shirts and beaten until they scream at his P.A.s?
(Of course, the people of Earth-Zenith have good reason to be glad that Zenith so enjoys the more transient and populist pleasures in life. All the other superhumans there have either had higher ambitions, or been the victim of other’s higher ambitions, and have ended up doing some incredibly dubious things, to say the absolute least. There are far, far, far worse things than the ambition to make it as a crap pop star.)
Ah, I hear you say, Mr. Morrison and Mr. Yeowell and Mr. Callahan aren’t criticising Zenith for not being a super-hero. They’re disparaging him for rudeness, selfishness, cowardice and a host of associated sins.
Yet I’m absolutely sure that Zenith, the once Robert McDowell, is no more rude and selfish, cowardly and sinful than the overwhelming majority of 19-year-old men. And if that’s so, then there must be something about the combination of not-super-hero and puerile-pop star that makes us all see “contemptible” when we ought to see “understandable,” and “despicable” when we might more fairly perceive “everyday” and even — whisper it — on occasion “laudable.”
There’s a terrible puritanism that lurks at the heart of the popular concept of the super-hero, and at times it seems almost indivisible from any understanding of the Protestant Work Ethic. Sacrifice is good, fun is bad. Obedience is the mark of the worthy, indulgence is the devil’s stain. The mask, the cape, the platitude and the sacrificing heart is less admirable than mandatory, while private life and private happiness are despicable anti-social cancers threatening us all.
And yet underneath all that alienating refusal by Zenith to become a super-hero, and all his embracing of the shallow and disgusting business of wealth and fun, is a single truth that so many folks seem to miss. (I certainly did.) Zenith is an extremely young man, in a culture and a business effectively hell-bent on offering him every substantial psychological reinforcer to stay so. Which means that he’s often effectively just a boy, for heaven’s sake, while even his creators seem to be judging him as we would ordinarily judge a fully mature and adult man.
And he is just a boy, and if on reflection too many of us think that we’d have done that much better than Zenith at 19, or even 21, with all the opportunity he had within his grasp, then quite frankly I’d suggest we all think again. Firstly, because it’s hard not to be an idiot at 19 even without fame and fortune coming around to play most every moment of the day, and secondly, and most importantly, because another read of “Zenith” will show us that while at times he might have been a ”pain in the ass,” the other more serious criticisms of him are almost entirely without foundation, and at the very most barely supported by the evidence at all. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that the young Zenith was often a far more decent and pleasant bloke than I everwas, or, indeed, even Grant Morrison might on occasion have been, by the evidence of his own admission:
Back in the eighties, when I was doing Zenith, the persona I had then was Morrisey: he slags everybody off, he’s really clever, all that Oscar Wilde stuff. So I kept saying cruel things about everybody in comics. No one else had ever done that before and it made me famous, but it was a horrible way to get famous. (Writers on Comic Scriptwriting, Mark Salisbury)
And so, yes, I worry that we judge Zenith in a way that we wouldn’t always want ourselves to be judged, especially where our 19-year-old selves are concerned.
Let’s consider the very worst of the charges against Zenith made by Mr. Yeowell and Mr. Callahan, namely the accusation of “cowardice,” which I contend would never stand up in a court of law unless the prosecution was uncommonly brilliant, the defence utterly inept, and the jury already biased against our man. For though Zenith regularly refused to throw himself in the fray as a super-hero is expected to, there’s always a good reason for him not doing so, and the best way to show this to be true is simply to ask oneself, “What would I do in the same situation?” For if we can imagine making a similar decision to Zenith in the quandaries he’s placed in, then perhaps he wasn’t as feckless and gutless a character as he’s so often claimed to be, or we’re worse people than we might want to admit.
In Zenith: Book One (I’m mostly referring to Zenith’s adventures as they’re named in the reprint Titan volumes. Book Six, therefore, refers to the never reprinted Phase Four.), for example, when Zenith refuses to help Ruby fight the Nazi superman Masterman – “I mean, what d’you think I am? Some kind of boxer or something? Why should I get my head kicked in for you?” – he immediately reveals himself to be a comic-book reader’s version of a heretic. For the damsel in distress has sought his aid, the fascist Ubermensch is closing in, and the crusade for justice calls.
But the red cross of the Crusade of course obscured as it inspired, and so does the ideology of the super-hero, for in fact Zenith was quite right to refuse his help, and for a string of good reasons. Firstly, Ruby can offer him absolutely no proof of Masterman’s existence, approach, power, or intentions. Secondly, Ruby has lied to the world about her super-powers being lost for more than a decade, and she’s been of no help to Zenith in helping train him with his, so why should he believe her and her improbable tale? Thirdly, Zenith is right to point out that he lacks even the training to be a boxer, let alone a super-hero. (If Ruby’s story is true, Zenith has no more hope in using his powers to face down the fearsome Masterman than I would have in using my two good arms in taking on Mike Tyson in his prime.) Fourthly, while Ruby is trying to hijack Zenith’s life with her demands, he actually does have a life and responsibilities of his own. Because we are supposed to despise the business of pop, we’re supposed to see the fact that Zenith has ”the Jonathan Ross Special and the photo-session for the Face” as contemptible matters which should be abandoned when the evidence-less call to action comes, when in fact those appointments are the very stuff of his livelihood — and indeed, the livelihood of many others too.
And of course, we’re supposed to see Zenith as “selfish” when he only accedes to helping Ruby when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents. (Mr. Callahan certainly sees it that way.) Yet surely it’s the only rational reason for sacrificing his time and his career opportunities that Ruby has given him? And doesn’t it rather speak well of Zenith that this supposedly shallow and uncaring young man is actually willing to drop his commitments and the opportunities they offer him in order to find out more about hislost parents?
Only in comic books could the above be seen as evidence that Zenith is anything other than an ordinary and sensible and caring bloke, with a typical measure of moral decency, for he’s surely behaving in a quite rational and defensible fashion.
On page 12 of Mr. Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years, Zenith is described as ”a self-centred character from the beginning, [who] whines and even cries to his agent Eddie for help when he’s in the bowels of Iok Sokot.” And Mr. Callahan is quite right to point out that all the qualities that he lists — the whining and the selfishness and the crying out for help to a show-biz agent — are untypical of a super-hero, and therefore, by implication, likely to be seen as unworthy of one too. But his point also illustrates how distorting the very concept of the super-hero is, for its influence can lead to quite distinct qualities such as “whining” and the crying out for help by a young man on the brink of being murdered being conflated. For while moaning on is in no way a heroic quality, pleading for assistance while in fear for one’s life is in no way an unheroic one either. But the super-hero typically does neither, and so in comparison both seem unworthy.
And yet, taken for what it is, Zenith’s cry of ”Eddie…. Get me out of this Eddie…” is touching and endearing rather than weak and pathetic. Though in reality his aged, greying, and somewhat camp manager could probably no more help him remove the top of a tomato sauce bottle than fight off the hyper-human Masterman, Zenith’s reaching out to him, to the only significant male role model in his life, tells us a great deal about Robert McDowell and about the truth of his existence as a 19-year-old boy. It certainly reminds us that he’s no teeth-gritting, to-the-death super-hero, and that he’s no less a person for all of that.
But if we forget and start to judge Zenith as a type of a hero rather than as an individual character, the whining and the selfishness and the crying out all get mixed together and something quite unfairly reprehensible emerges from the brew.
The single most apparently conclusive evidence of Zenith’s supposed cowardice, of his tendency to ”to let others do the work and take the risks, then share the credit afterwards,” as Mr. Yeowell puts it, occurs in Book Five, where it appears that our young pop star runs away from the final battle with the reality-threatening Lloigor. In fact, he even appears to damn himself with his own testimony, declaring to the super-heroes returning from Earth-230 that ”I’ve been here all the time.” And he’s absolutely shameless about the whole business too, making no attempt to explain away and excuse his absence from armageddon. In fact, he’s just plain rude, necking down what might be a can of beer and sneering at the fatal sacrifice of his otherworldly, and far more obviously virtuous, counterpart Vertex.
That would seem to close the case on Zenith and his character, or it would if we were avoiding thinking about things. But as the reader of Zenith’s adventures has seen over and over again in Book Four and Book Five, and as will be seen again in Book Six / Phase Four, what characters say and what they actually feel and do are quite different things. Big Ben, for example, describes himself over and over as a worthless failure, but if anyone has the right to the epithet “heart of a lion” it’s him, while Maximan himself lies through his teeth for most of the story before being revealed as the very worst of the very worst. So despite his own apparent willingness to declare himself a stay-at-home coward, could it be that Zenith didn’t honestly reveal himself to be the scum of the Earth, to be the worst thing a super-hero can be, namely the cape who was too scared for the Crisis?
The truth of the matter is that we have no idea where Zenith was during the final showdown with Maximan, and since we don’t know where he was, we can’t say why he was doing whatever he was either. It is, of course, quite possible that he really did display the most appalling cowardice and hid away on Earth-23. (After all, Zenith has several times displayed a tendency to argue for the option of running away when faced with overwhelming odds, though I’d argue that when, as in Book Six, the fully mature Lloigor close the trap on him and St. John, running away is actually a far more sensible option than useless resistance.) And we do know that Grant Morrison himself had by the time of Phase Three decided that Zenith should be portrayed as something quite other than a hero, or even other than a decent human being:
He becomes more of a jerk as it goes on… Originally the idea was that we would do this superhero who started out as a real prat and he gradually learned through experience. But I thought, naw, I can’t be bothered with this, so he’s just become more unpleasant, more arrogant, as the series goes on. (Cut, February 1989)
But it is strange that we’re simply not shown any evidence of Zenith suddenly developing such an extreme of cowardice and such an absolutely aggressive disregard for the feelings of others, for as I hope to show, his supposed rudeness in the past always had an explanation and a purpose. And on reflection, there are other signs that Zenith hasn’t perhaps been as shamelessly cowardly as it might first appear. When he afterwards tells St. John, for example, that ” saved the universe, then,” the elder superhuman strangely doesn’t contradict him. Perhaps St. John doesn’t know that Zenith hid away, or perhaps he’s willing to accept that Zenith did at least travel in the task-forces sent to Earth-666 and Earth-230, and so has earned some share of the praise for the apparent fall of the Lloigor. But it does seem odd that Zenith would so publically claim cowardice before so many of the other superhumans before declaring the opposite to St. John.
Yet the truth is that Morrison’s decision to not use thought balloons or narrative captions in Zenith leaves the whole business up to the reader. Perhaps the young man really has revealed his true colours as a shameless modern-day Flashman, or perhaps — and this is my favorite explanation — he’d gone for a leak or a beer and missed the snap decision of the surviving superhumans to travel to Earth-23. (“Typical. Just typical.” I could imagine him saying, just as Vertex did immediately before dying, watching them all disappear and knowing he’ll be damned for missing the fight.) Under those circumstances, I couldn’t imagine Zenith admitting to the likes of the contemptuous Archer that he’d screwed up, but had wanted to help, or at least, hadn’t wanted to be seen as having run away.
Perhaps we might take a moment to consider that worst case scenario for the pro-Zenith advocate. What if he did hide away in shameful terror after the fight against Mr. Lion, Mr. Unicorn, and the Black Sun? Is it possible to put a good spin on that, given that his fellow superhumans, and even the non-super-powered heroes, were giving their lives in the fight against Maximan at the same time?
Well, I do believe it is, and I also believe that the following is the key to establishing how the rules we carry around with us guiding our expectations of how superhumans behave actually obscure our comprehension of perfectly understandable and forgivable human behavior.
For firstly, we’d already seen evidence of a considerable amount of cowardice among the super-heroes sent to fight on Earth 666, where not a single one of the survivors were willing to volunteer for the suicidal responsibility of setting off the doomsday weapon. If Zenith was a coward, he’s very much not alone in his fearfulness.
Secondly, and most importantly, Zenith is not a super-hero. This simply can’t be over-emphasized. He arrived in the midst of the army to fight the Lloigor on a whim, to escape the drudgery and desperation of a collapsing career as a pop star. Prior to Phase Three, he’d been involved in a total of two — yes, just two — superhuman punch-ups. In the first, against Maximan, he was soundly beaten and almost killed. In the second, against the cyborg that had apparently been his father, he’d been compelled to murder what was left of his immediate family. He’d had no training, no psychological support, no period of readiness, no time to develop the essential team loyalties that drive and bind women and men at war: he was pretty much as naive and innocent as most of you and I were at that age, if we were lucky. And in that state, he’d undergone the utter horror of the assault on Earth-666, the desperate running away from murderous Superman-level killers down darkened underground tracks, the slaughter of comrades-in-arms, and then the disgraceful argument about who was going to volunteer to die along with that Earth. And then Zenith had taken part in a second pitched battle, on Earth-230. If he wasn’t scarred, indeed traumatised, by thatsequence of events, then I’d be amazed.
For super-heroes in the abstract may be perfectly able to shuffle between apocalyptic worlds and face down demons with the powers of gods without blinking, following duty and honour and purpose without reference to the limitations of ordinary human psychological perseverance, but recognisably 19-year-old boys rarely can. Not even in the absurd world of comic books can it be utterly obscured that horrors of the degree suffered by Zenith have inevitably unpleasant psychological consequences. And that’s true even where pampered 19-year-old pop stars are concerned, and especially true for 19-year-old boys who’ve killed their own fathers not so long ago.
If Zenith had been so scared that he’d opted out of the last of the three battles of that superhuman war, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge him, I really wouldn’t. If he was a super-hero operating within the context of a standard super-hero story, I’d still feel that he had every right to have found himself unable to fight on, and his post-battle bravado would read as the understandable avoidance of a scarred and perhaps self-deceiving young man. But given that he’s not a super-hero, but a 19-year-old boy already bearing up incredibly under unbelievable trauma, then I’d not be in the slightest bit surprised at his fear and his avoidance, and I’d be admiring of what he’d done, and hopeful that he would get some help when he returned home.
There’s no court in the land would convict Zenith on a charge of cowardice, even if there was some strange law which allowed individuals to be judged on their behaviour at the end of the world. For he was nothing but an untrained, naive boy at war. If he was scared, he was scared for damn good reasons, and “scared” is a different word to “coward” with a quite different meaning too.
4. Do You Practise Being A Pain In The Neck?
It can be hard to like, let alone love, Zenith, given that he can be terribly snotty to those around him. But again, I’ve yet to read of a single example of Zenith being apparently rude to another character which wasn’t at the very least quite understandable. For example, when he meets the army of super-heroes called together by Maximan for the first time in Book Four, he does indeed express himself in terms of an utter disdain, but there are obvious reasons for that. For one thing, he knows nothing of the seriousness of why they’re all there, as 93 Mantra realizes, nor does he have the slightest inkling of how powerful and important some of these people are. Consequently, his mocking response to the ”pervy skintight suits” is exactly what most 19-year blokes would have. Only a super-hero fan could see a room filled with tens of ridiculous looking costumed individuals and not feel a mixture of amazement, contempt and disgust. We know the Steel Claw and Leopard are noble and brave individuals, because we’ve read our super-hero tales, but how could Zenith possibly know that? They’re so out of his frame of reference that the only rational response for a lad of his age and culture is to scoff. I suspect that even you and I would do something of the same today at first if by some unlikely trick of circumstance we chanced upon such a scene. It would take the most stoic of middle-class hearts to feel that Zenith had let the side down, and himself too, by not showing common decency to these unimpressive oddballs.
Similarly, Zenith is certainly cruelly dismissive of Big Ben in Book Four, and the reader feels outraged because we know Ben has undergone unimaginable horrors in his battle against the Lloigor and is suffering depression, and probably Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, because of the bleakness of it all. Yet all Zenith knows of this is that he’s been allocated to Ben’s leadership during the invasion of the fearsome Earth-666, and Ben’s mournful and Marvin-like introductory remarks – ”I’m suppose I’m charge of you lot” — can hardly have inspired an already uneasy Zenith. And yet Zenith and Ben do forge a touching relationship, though a lad of Zenith’s age and background in 1989 could hardly be expected to be 21st century touchy-feely-sensitive about mental illness and the self-doubt it brings. Consider the panel below, where Zenith’s words only appear scathing until the reader notices the young man’s sympathetic expression and the hand he’s placed on Ben’s shoulder.
And when Zenith is at last convinced of the seriousness of the situation he and the other superhumans are in, the wisecracks end and he buckles down to getting things done in an appropriate fashion. So, he’s subdued and reliable where both Ben and St. John are concerned during the discovery of Streamline’s betrayal, and he shuts up with the wisecracks and serves as a foot-soldier during the scenes we have of the invasion of Earth-23.
In fact, Zenith’s behaviour is only inexplicably rude, and easily condemned, if he’s being read, again, as a standard-issue super-hero, which, of course, again, he’s not. If he’s understood to be a young man still belatedly ankle-deep in adolescence, then his actions are usually utterly understandable and only occasionally in the slightest bit condemnable. In truth, I find it impossible to see Zenith as anything worse than a slightly (and I do mean “slightly”) arrogant and occasionally opionated young man, for surely Robert McDowell as was can’t be defined as a bad lad, or even an slightly troublesome one. He doesn’t hurt anyone, and he doesn’t care enough to want to hurt anyone. He’s a bright and charismatic lad with a challenging history and an unwanted legacy. He can be rude, but there’s always a context for it, and he can be full of himself — but then, for a 21-year-old pop star, we’ve remarkably little evidence that he’s even particularly rude to cabbies who insult his latest records. And if he’s scared at times and runs away, well, so perhaps might you and I have done under those overwhelming circumstances. And perhaps we’re so used to seeing some comic books through the codes of super-heroes that we miss the point that this is a young man, not a super-hero, and, you know what, I reckon he did pretty well, all things considered.
Unless he actually is a super-hero, of course, in which case he’s a bounder and a bollockhead and he should be drummed out of the Justice League of the Avengers by the first light of dawn tomorrow.
5. “And Where D’You Think You’re Going?”
Ladies and gentlemen of the infoblogospherenet, before passing judgement on this Zenith, I’d like to ask you to take three things into consideration, to please remember that:
- Zenith is not a super-hero, and therefore shouldn’t be judged as if he were, any more than you ought to be judged for not being a noble vigilante;
- Zenith is a young man who has gone through a very considerable amount of trauma while living his life in the infantalising goldfish bowl of celebrity; and
- none of us can be sure, I suspect, that in similar circumstances to this young man, we would behave in any substantially better way.
The fate of this young man’s future reputation is in your good hands.
This article was originally published on my blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. If you haven’t already got them, the various volumes of Zenith are sadly and frustratingly out-of-print due to a long-running dispute between Grant Morrison and Rebellion Press. With a little digging, the Titan volumes, original issues of 2000AD, and the reprints can be found, so good luck. It’s splendid work, and Phase Three may well be my favorite “super-hero war” of all. Thank you to anyone who’s gotten down to this point.