Grant Morrison, Watchmen, and the Art of the Polemic

In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.

—Jean-Luc Godard

A few years ago I stopped reading monthly comic books.  It wasn’t an ideological decision—just a reader’s.  Most of the comics I loved read much better in complete story arcs, so I happily transitioned from monthlies to trades and never looked back.

Well, almost never.  This past week has been a real challenge.  If you keep up with events in the comics industry, the odds are you’ve already heard that Grant Morrison’s fourth issue of Multiversity—“Pax Americana”—has become one of the most talked-about comics of the year.  I’ve stayed away from all the reviews, but from the headlines and tweets it seems pretty clear that the story, which involves the superheroes originally published by Charlton, invokes the memory of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.  If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Morrison has written a memorable riff on that book.

Morrison’s first published comics work dates back to the late ‘70s, but his career really caught fire during the summer of 1987 when he began writing Zenith. The series, drawn by Steve Yeowell after initial character designs by Brendan McCarthy, was a superhero story for the times and the first superhero ever published in the pages of the legendary British anthology, 2000 AD.  It was also Morrison’s first sustained, ongoing series and it distilled much of what he wanted to say about comics and superheroes.  In many ways, it fit into the revisionist tradition, but Morrison’s approach was not to ground the story in the harshness of realism, but rather to revel in the superficialities and absurdity of the Postmodern world.

Zenith remains one of Morrison’s most fun stories to read.  Not only is it briskly paced, at least in its first two phases, but it also bears the mark of a young writer still dripping with the sneer of punk, the sting of rejection, and the need to prove himself.  The title character, Zenith, possesses great power—primarily flight and strength—but he doesn’t feel particularly guilty about it.  He wasn’t the last surviving member of his race, and while his parents may have disappeared when he was a child, they certainly weren’t gunned down in an alley before his eyes.  Zenith made no graveside vows, and he shouldered no burden of responsibility to go along with his great power.  Instead, he did what most any other young man of the MTV generation with special powers might’ve done—he became a rock star.

Morrison infuses the series with many cultural allusions and bits of reality, but it’s not the same brand of realism seen in other superhero comics of the era.[1] Morrison’s is a different breed of power fantasy.  Zenith isn’t the 98-pound-weakling-turned-muscleman; he’s the power fantasy of a world dominated by materialistic superficialities—money, fame, and style—all of which must have seemed as out of reach to a kid from Glasgow as leaping tall buildings in a single bound must have seemed to two young Clevelanders during the Great Depression.

Morrison’s whole approach—reveling in the superficial—was counterintuitive for a medium where “quality” and “earnestness” seemed to go hand in hand, but Morrison gave Zenith many of the punkish attitudes and values he identified with as an outsider.  Zenith was a young, sweetly narcissistic man in a world dominated by older people, both the “hippys” devoted to the values of the late ‘60s and the “yuppies” who sold out their values for money and status, keeping calm and carrying on under the oppressive specter of Thatcherism.  Zenith had little use for either.  Like the brash young Morrison, Zenith was determined to trip through the hyper-serious threats and plots with all the gravitas of a TV commercial jingle.

As a British superhero series with a modern sensibility, comparisons to Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain were perhaps inevitable.  Moore himself dismissed Morrison’s early work (presumably Zenith) as derivative.  However, tonally, Zenith couldn’t be more different.  Whereas Marvelman featured emotional sincerity, Zenith was glib.  Informed that he had slept with a young woman cloned from his own mother, Zenith’s response isn’t to gouge out his eyes like Oedipus.  Instead, he just says, with an expression of bewilderment, that it’s “disgusting.”

But that isn’t to say that there’s not a lot about Alan Moore in Zenith It’s simply that what Morrison is doing isn’t derivative—it’s polemical. Coming in the wake of not only Marvelman and Captain Britain but also of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Morrison seems determined to remove the darkness, the pessimism, and the violence of what had come to symbolize revisionist comics.  In fact, a closer look at Phase One and Two of Zenith suggests that even more than Marvelman and Captain Britain, what’s really on Morrison’s mind is Watchmen.

While most in the comics community—myself included—revere Watchmen, Morrison has always taken a critical eye to it.  More recently, his rejection of it is tempered with some curious fascination, but when I interviewed him for the release of Supergods, he still couldn’t help but chip away at the legendary book’s reputation:  “I had a bunch of problems with the way that Watchmen is presented as the exemplar of the best that we can do.  It’s certainly set an example of technical excellence, but I had some fundamental problems with the notion of Watchmen’s basic story.”[2] As a result, throughout Zenith, Morrison frequently tweaks Watchmen, much like a mischievous teenager holding a magnet next to a watch just to see if the hands will spin out of control.

Both Zenith and Watchmen focus on a contemporary world where superheroes were once active but are all either dead, missing, or retired, save for the second-generation hero, Zenith.  The superheroes in Zenith were last active in the late ‘60s as part of a team called Cloud 9.  After one of the retired members, Ruby Fox, is attacked, she recruits Zenith and the two of them attempt to warn another former Cloud 9 member, Peter St. John, of the danger.  As the three of them sit down over tea, one half expects to see Ruby open a can of beans like Rorschach and say, “Someone is killing masks.”  Morrison even titles Phase One, “Tygers,” and uses the William Blake poem, featured prominently in Watchmen #5, as a plot device.[3]

Throughout Phase One, all of this seems designed simply to re-contextualize Watchmen—deliberately invoking it and then deflating it of its self-importance.  However, in Phase Two, the parallels are more pointed, particularly with the presentation of the villain.  For his Ozymandias figure, Morrison creates the villainous Scott Wallace, a thinly disguised version of Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records.  Morrison opts for this hip (hip for the business world, at least) tycoon with long hair and a beard.  Wallace is concerned about environmental issues and corruption, so, of course, he’s decided to commandeer some nuclear missiles and destroy London.  This notion of a smart and powerful industrialist who sets out to commit mass murder for the good of humanity is, of course, straight out of Watchmen.

However, the point is not to repeat a good idea, but rather, from Morrison’s perspective, to critique a bad one.  As he writes in Supergods, “Ultimately, in order for Watchmen’s plot to ring true, we were required to entertain the belief that the world’s smartest man would do the world’s stupidest thing after thinking about it all his life.”[4] That’s exactly what Morrison wants to remind his readers of here.  He entitles the chapter where Zenith confronts Wallace, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” using the ancient Egyptian reference to once again stick it to Watchmen’s Ozymandias.[5] When Zenith starts questioning Wallace on his plans for the future, the glib and lightweight pop star is able to trip up the mad genius in his shortsighted plans, asking him questions about how he would cope with such complex issues as poverty.  Zenith goes on to clarify that these messy problems are the reason that superheroes never try to take over the world.[6]

Zenith, with its flippant, good-natured tone, its contemporary feel, its cultural allusions—both high and low, its autobiographical elements, and its critique of modern movements in superhero comics (and of Alan Moore in particular), emerges as a major work, and it sent a clear message that its author had officially arrived.

Thinking back to Zenith, Watchmen, and the recent headlines surrounding “Pax Americana,” I’m really curious to see if Morrison’s perspective on Watchmen has changed over the years.  Of course, that would mean either going back to reading monthlies or waiting another year to read the story.  Something tells me Zenith wouldn’t wait.

[1] The allusions come fast and furious in Zenith and cover everything from Adam Ant to Deitrich Eckart, from Shakespeare to Jean Paul Gaultier, from theoretical physics to theology.

[2] Carpenter, Greg.  “We Can Be Heroes:  Talking Supergods with Grant Morrison.” PopMatters 28 July 2011. p. 2.  Web.

[3] Morrison took special exception to the formalism in Watchmen, and the issue featuring the Blake poem, “Fearful Symmetry,” is by far the most self-consciously formal of all the chapters in Watchmen.

[4] Morrison, Grant.  Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.  New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011. p. 205.  Print.

[5] The legend of the “riddle” belongs to Greek mythology, but the creature itself is also closely connected to Egyptian culture, much like Ozymandias.

[6] Perhaps another dig, considering that this was something Moore was actually doing in Olympus, his final Miracleman arc.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Greg, yet another entertaining and insightful article. How do you keep it up week after week?

    Aside from the focus on the eternal Morrison and Moore arguments in and out of comics (I’m sure you’ve read Julian’s well researched three part article from a year or two ago) what stuck out the most for me is your transition from monthly comics to collections. I find this interesting because it’s something I’ve chosen to do nearly two years ago and the experience has been mostly positive. It’s not only impacted the way I read comics but also the way I think and feel about comics. I’m more detached from the month to month goings-on than I ever was but I’ve found a delightful pleasure in being completely ignorant to what’s going on in certain derivative superhero comics. Sure, I miss things from time to time (like the release of Zenith Phase One in hardcover – how did that happen without my knowledge?) but overall it’s been worth it.

    I like that you’ve stated it in your article because I haven’t seen much discussion by the blogosphere or comic news sites about this kind of comic book readership or the decision to let go of monthlies all together. I’ve talked about it myself on a few end-of-year blog posts (I started blogging shortly before making the transition to collections) but nothing focusing on that subject alone.

    I’d love to have a larger discussion with your on the pros and cons of making that transition. I know that waiting for Morrison’s next comic to arrive in collected format is one of the difficulties of trade-waiting but a lot of comics simply work better in that format and so it’s often worth the wait. If you’re interested you can visit my blog, Shared Universe Reviews, for information on how to contact me.

  2. Azevedo says:

    Just like you and Mario, I stopped reading monthlies as well, but The Multiversity is an exception. All the issues are one-shots, so I don’t really think I have to wait for a trade to experience it properly. As usual, very good article!

  3. Mario and Azevedo, thanks for the comments. It sounds like we should form a club. :)

    Oddly enough, it was Morrison’s work that led me to ditch the monthlies. I found myself keeping individual issues by my bedside until I had 3 or 4 stored up. The story arcs were so carefully plotted that drifting in and out every 30 days felt pointless. I never knew what was going on. But read in succession, all the pieces began to reverberate.

    • Azevedo says:

      I hope DC won’t read our comments, otherwise Morrison will have to give some serious explanation. He also made me ditch the monthlies, because I felt I was unable to appreciate his Action Comics run as a monthly medium. I had to re-read old issues each month, read reviews online that pointed to older issues I had forgotten about. I have to re-read the Action Comics trades at some point, since I’m sure I only (if at all) got the gist of his run.

  4. Mario Lebel says:

    That’s basically what happened to me as well. I felt that the comics really worth reading, those telling more complex stories, didn’t work well in 20 pages doses. The problem wasn’t with the comics themselves but rather with me. I couldn’t keep all the details in my head long enough to pick up all the threads by the following month.

    Comics that I could easily follow from month to month didn’t really amount to much beyond bright coloured action in easily digestible packages.

  5. This makes me respect Zenith more. On a fairly recent reread after a long time it seemed to not be as good as I remembered. You’ve revealed another level. I sold my copies of Watchmen years ago, admittedly too cheaply, because why I loved the artistry of the book the ending is just so stupid. Forget that it’s taken from The Outer Limits even — it’s the kind of twist that got old in sci-fi even then. If you don’t have good ending, it’s hard to have a great work. Moore seems to succeed with the smaller stories but on the big ones end with a thud (The American Gothic story in Swamp Thing being another example of this.) with the exception of his Captain Britain work. But as you point out it’s not just the ending but that this is the plan of the smartest man in the world. That means that the whole driving force for the story is dumb. I would also say that The Killing Joke is similarly flawed in its theme. Morrison often escapes me but he is at least using themes inspired by other readings kind of like Kirby did.

  6. ...N Iks says:

    Hey Greg,

    An excellent article on two of the great works and their relationship to one another. I admit, I’m yet to read ‘Zenith’, but your insight here has put into perspective what really seems to be the substrate that all of Morrison’s works have grown from; which is anti-Moore in a way.

    What I find most interesting is that ‘Watchmen’ must of had a pretty profound affect on Morrison for him to respond to it with something like ‘Zenith’. Though, I’m sure there were other factors involved for someone so young at the time, but, the fact remains, the response is there. And what a response it is.

    Look forward to more.


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