Colin Smith makes some valid points in his article “He’s Not a Super-Hero, He’s Not Even a Very Naughty Boy: The Case Against Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith”. Zenith isn’t a superhero. That’s the point of the comic and the title character. Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell took the typical tropes of comic book and comic strip superheroes and turned them on their ear. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did the same thing with Watchmen. However, Morrison and Yeowell took a different approach to do so. Watchmen removed superheroes’ masks to reveal the grim, dark underbelly of their world. Zenith kept the masks on, while paying tribute to those tropes and questioning them at the same time.
When researching and writing character studies of various heroes and villains in American Bronze Age comics for TwoMorrows Publishing’s magazine Back Issue, I like to delve into the psychology of a character as if he or she were something more than a fictional person on a page. It’s my way of looking beyond the surface of the comic, and it’s something that has worked for me professionally, editorially, and personally as a writer.
Robert McDowell, better known as Zenith, has no interest in being a superhero. I’d go as far as to say he’s a spoiled brat fortunate enough to have superhuman abilities. He’s like that rich kid you know in college who doesn’t study because he knows he’s inherited power. Yet, one has to wonder how and why he is that way. Zenith – much like the late, great Lord of Misrule, comedian and one of the geniuses behind The Young Ones, Filthy, Rich & Catflap, and Bottom, Rik Mayall – is a product of his time. 1987 was part of a decade rife with materialism and political discontent, with conservatives among United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Robert McDowell reflected those sentiments with his actions and dialogue.
Now, Zenith is a pampered, opportunistic pop star more interested in self-indulgence and living what the also late, also great Prince would call the Pop Life. His creators have described him as a pain in the ass and a coward. He’s no Superman or Spider-Man, though the latter character briefly had moments of egoism at the beginning of his career. Spidey and Supes had parental figures that nurtured them and eventually made them the heroes they are. Robert McDowell does not have anyone like that in his life when we meet him in 2000 A.D. #536, or rather he doesn’t have one he listens to. Eddie MacPhail, Zenith’s manager, is the closest thing Robert has to a father figure through much of the character’s run in the 2000 A.D. comics. However, poor Eddie’s counsel often fell on deaf ears, giving Eddie cause to worry constantly. Granted, one could also see Eddie is preoccupied about his meal ticket and wondering where his next paycheck will come from if Zenith is gone. We see a bit of Eddie’s greed at the end of Phase I of Zenith’s saga when he asks what Zenith will do as a follow-up to saving London from Masterman. (Not to be confused with various comic book characters from American publishers named Master Man.)
While we’re on the subject of Zenith’s parental figures, his relationships with them are complicated to say the least. He was raised by his grandparents. His parents Doctor Beat and White Heat were believed to have been killed by American C.I.A. psychics. DNA from White Heat was used to create a clone named Blaze. The intention of said clone was to breed with Zenith. What could be salvaged from Doctor Beat’s body was turned into the lumbering cyborg called Warhead. There was no time for father-son bonding as Zenith killed Warhead while trying to stop nuclear missiles from striking London. It’s no wonder Robert McDowell is the way he is. Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and even Bruce Wayne, to some extent, had parental figures to give them the upbringing a child needs in his formative years. Robert had this with his grandparents. However, fame is a great seductress, and while she couldn’t keep a hold on Spider-Man, she kept Zenith in her clutches with a strong grip.
I had mentioned Spider-Man had been selfish when he first donned his famous red and blue suit. He learned how wrong he was to be that way, after his uncle dies from a gunshot fired by a thief he could have stopped beforehand. Zenith never learned the lesson of With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. His way of thinking was more along the lines of With Great Power Comes Great Career Opportunities. Zenith always needs to know what’s in it for him if he uses his powers. In fact, he has to be bribed into helping Ruby Fox (A.K.A. Voltage) fight the Nazi Masterman. Ruby promises to reveal what happened to Robert’s superhero parents if he assists her.
Zenith’s mother and father were part of a superhuman group called Cloud 9. They rebelled against the British military who had brought them together, and they became hippies with special abilities. Eventually they were killed, but had they lived, Zenith may be a different type of superpowered being. We see proof of this in Phase III, a tribute to the multiversal crisis and crossovers that came to be a part of American comic books. We and Robert see an alternate version of himself called Vertex who is a selfless hero. On the surface, Zenith seems disgusted, perhaps even envious, by his counterpart. Yet, deep within his psyche, he wishes he had become like the other Robert, which could be the cause of his envy.
Zenith, much like Iron Man, doesn’t seem to play well with others. He’s a loose cannon who pretty much does whatever he wants, especially if it helps him in the end. Most of the other characters who aren’t fans find him to be irritating to say the least. However, deep within themselves, there is most likely a suppressed part of their minds that wishes to act like Zenith. They may envy his way to be as much as he maybe envies his other self.
Okay, his creators and readers can agree Zenith really doesn’t care much about anything beyond his own wants and needs, and it takes bribery to get him to help Ruby Fox (and Siadwel Rhys / Red Dragon later in Phase I). Yet, there is something else behind the fact that he does so. It’s something within everyone at one point in life or another – the inherent need of someone to learn about his or her roots, where they come from. Robert McDowell must know what happened to his parents, another quality he shares with Peter Parker in his early career.
Another trait Zenith seems to share with Marvel’s iconic Wall Crawler is the fact he’s looking to make his deceased parental figures proud, even if Robert may not be willing to admit this due to his egotistical nature. Like the need to learn of one’s roots, this is an inherent need in everyone, be they a fictional character, writer, artist, or you and me. At some point in our lives, we want to know that our loved ones who have passed are watching over us with pride. The same can be said of Zenith.
Due to the many lives lost after a victory against the Lovecraftian creatures who had taken over various worlds in the multiverse in Zenith Phase III, one would think Zenith would be suffering from some form of PTSD or other. (He may very well have, at least internally, in the time between Phases III and IV, as three years have passed when we see Robert in the latter chapter of his saga.) Yet, he seems unphased by the events of III, while focusing on his new single in 1992. Zenith could very well be repressing his feelings about what happened in Phase III. As his manager Eddie points out in Phase IV, Zenith is a terrible liar.
Returning to Zenith’s family, Phase IV reveals he has a son. Robert successfully bred with Blaze. Yet, meeting Zenith Junior was far from a typical “Hello, I’m your daddy.” situation for the superhuman pop star. The child turned out to be Iok Sotot, the creature Zenith and Peter St. John battled in London during Phase I. This leads one to surmise that the McDowell family has more father and son issues than the Skywalker family from Star Wars or the Summers family from X-Men.
Yes, Zenith is an egotistical superhuman in search of fame instead of being a hero like his counterparts in American comic books. However, looking beyond the surface of what his creators say of him can help new and old readers alike understand why he’s the way he is. That’s the fun of revisiting Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith (or any other comic book story and / or character): innately feeding off of whatever life experiences you absorbed since the previous read, you can get a new or different interpretation of what’s written and drawn on the pages.