Phase Aciiiieeeeeed!!!

October 26th, 2008

So, it’s cool panel month and weirdly enough, because we are twins and have teh BRAINPOWERZ, Zom and I reached exactly the same conclusion regarding the panel we’d focus on next. And then we duked it out PSIKICK-BOLT style for who would get to do it.

Needless to say, I won.

Imagine Daniel-san’s special crane move – the one that finshes off that bruiser prick at the end of Karate Kid (but HAPPENING TO YOUR MIND) – and you’ve got the gist of what I mean right there. No contest.

A staple of Morrison’s early writing involves a gang of hard looking heroes arriving at the last minute to save their mate’s arses from the fire. One half of the Doom Patrol are always beaming in from Danny the Street to rescue the others, just before they bend over for a good hard soul-fucking courtesy of the Men From Nowhere. The JLA stories are full of ‘Shit it’s Superman and Batman, arms folded, to the mutharin’ badass rescue!’ moments. And then there’s Zenith. I’ve never counted all the ‘Get your hands off that man!’ final panels in Zenith, but I reckon there’s at least 3 or 4 of them distributed generously across each of the phases. But there’s one Panel in particular that distils this narrative device more keenly than any other. The one that still makes me want to applaud EVERY TIME I SEE IT….

Firstly, though, a little context. Those of you unfamiliar with Zenith (and woe unto you) may not be aware that the strip which ran, on and off, for about 5 years in the galaxy’s greatest comic, 2000AD, really represents Morrison’s first ‘high profile’ professional work. It’s quite likely it was the sheer verve, imagination and tight-as-you-like plotting (yes, he could plot tightly once) of Zenith that saw Morrison headhunted by DC in the late 80s. There really was nothing like it. Okay, well, that’s not strictly true. On the surface, with its reenvisioning of DC Thompson characters, it could perhaps be mistaken for the same kind of formal exercise embarked upon by Alan Moore in Watchmen, where the great beardy one set about pulling to pieces all the old Charlton Favourites. But that understanding would soon be revealed as bullshit – a superficial reading at best. No, although Zenith dumped its titular hero into a recognizably *realistic* Thatcherite Britain and provided relatable – human – motivations for its cast, it was still essentially just an out and out, glorious superhero romp, played out in front of a backdrop of Bros records, Lovecraftian horror, Grant’s first stirrings in the direction of Chaos Magic and the burgeoning scronching warblings of a very special music scene that came to define the aural landscape for the rest of the millennium and doesn’t really look like it will ever go away.


And I suppose I’d better give you guys some sense of where the panel we’ll be blasting into your PCs today occurs in the plot, because, unlike the image of V in Zom’s piece, to fully understand what’s so interesting about this image depends on having some idea of what’s actually going on, and, as I recognized above, there’s probably loads of you out there who only have a glancing knowledge of what Zenith’s about, whereas every fucker’s read V or seen the movie.

So, yeah, Zenith, if you really want to get down to brass tacks, tells the story of a pop star-cum-superhero (a cross between Morrisey, Luke Goss and a cipher for all things chart-topping and SAW), who, across 5 volumes or phases, is begrudgingly drawn into a multiverse spanning conflict between the superheroes of his and a bunch of other realities, and the aforementioned HP Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. For a modern analogue, imagine pouty Posh Beckham, but with super-strength, having her press conference invaded by the King of all Tears and you begin to get some idea of the atmosphere surrounding the protagonist. This weird tension meant that Zenith was not only scary, but also bloody funny. In the final analysis, the guy was an absolute prick, and, despite being hugely powerful, generally only succeeded in saving the day by accident, or simply managed to soak up the kudos for the victories of his fellow supers over the forces of evil simply by being there at the time (or not – as in one infamous example… But I’m not going there. It’s too good. You have to read it). The point is, the supporting cast were, especially as the book progressed, almost just as important to the action, and nowhere was the presence of this teeming gaggle of caped crusaders felt more powerfully than in the reality hopping phase 3. This chapter was Morrison’s reimagined Crises on Infinite Earths. It saw the heroes of a gazillion parallel worlds attempting to put a spanner in the works of Lloigor possessed supertypes before they become landlords of the entire supercontext. It was one massive group shot after another – armies of updated-for-the-80s DC Thompson characters huddled in a frightened little corner of forever, or embattled in some grisly CTHRGN-warped theme park of death, up against a bunch of smirking, sadistic Many-angled Ones dressed up in the spandex and skin of their friends. It was a holocaust, basically. Loads of people died horrendously violently. Even Kids and Dogs.


Imagine you’re just some tweeny with a jet-pack and girlfriend who can talk to cars, or some such bullshit superpower, and you’re surrounded by the Justice League of Reality 9. Superman and Wonder Woman, eyes sparking with red electricity and malice as they explain to you how they are going to wrench every bone out of its socket and flay your nervous system before they eat your soul.

Imagine that happening.

And that’s what makes it so SHIT HOT when you hear a tiny *plink* behind you, there’s a blinding flash of light and a murmuring which becomes the roar of something that was last seen on Earth 69,000,000 years ago bellowing above a raver’s E’d up dance floor chant, you turn around, AND THIS HAPPENS INSTEAD.

This is what it’s about, you fucks. This is what’s happening. This is why I still read Grant Morrison’s comics today. Because for every boring-ass Submit, Vinanarama or NXM (which was in equal parts good and bad), there’s the seething imaginist behind it all who saw fit to teleport a drug addled robot superhero, RIDING A FUCKING DINOSAUR no less, into a wannabe death scene to chow down on a bunch of deranged JLA analogues, whilst confusing the whole thing with the eternal Raindance M25 event on perpetual repeat in his hard-drive. Awesome. Just awesome. At this stage in the action we know and love Acid Archie (insane, tin-pot robo acid casualty – probably the best and most enduring of Morrison’s revised Thompsoners) well – he’s a regular feature in the strip – and we might even be getting used to and beginning to come to expect this last minute, cavalrous money shot from Mr. Mozzagund, but the image is still a total surprise nevertheless. Sure, by this point we’ve seen the dinosaurs battling it out in the arenas of alternate whatever in Phase 2, but only briefly, and we could be forgiven for having forgotten about them by now. However that’s not really the point. The meat of it is this: things have gotten really bad – everyone’s on the run and the Lloigor are a hair’s breadth away from imposing their weird, rigidly tentacangled order on everything and everyone – and the stark black and whites of Steve Yeowell‘s gorgeously rendered multiverse have never looked starker… And that just makes it so much sweeter when the final splash page of the latest grim instalment opens out like a tab of windowpane acid latching onto a serotonin receptor and detonates an odd couple, more common to the strips surrounding our story within the multi-faceted confines of 2000AD’s covers, inside the narrative. Archie and the T-Rex’s sudden appearance is like an invasion from somewhere else – from Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth, or maybe they’ve just been on some weird jaunt through a black hole (complete with road works) with Nemesis. I’m sure Archie would get on pretty well with some of the ABC warriors – another thorn in ol’ Hammerstein‘s side. The loopy tin-man, with his over-sized speech bubble, anarchist ‘A’ and his aggressively audacious mode of transport, represents an injection of fun, wonder and Kaos, another story altogether, into the bleak events of Phase 3 – and we know the goodies have arrived. This is the age of Ecstasy, Mr. Cthulhu, and your obsession with control and psychic police states are out of date. Welcome to the phuture.

Like the image of V billowing about in his cape, Archie and pal cannot and should not be divorced from their broader cultural context. While I would never really go so far as to describe Zenith as a political piece, it nevertheless was always riffing on the currents of the Zeitgeist – it was unabashedly of its time. And that, to a large extent, is what this image is all about. It’s the quintessential Zenith panel in many ways – not simply because it neatly encapsulates everything that’s exciting about the comic, but also because it revels in its of-the-momentness (this is a strip about a pop-singer, for God’s sake). And even though its referencing a Scene that has long since transmogrified into something else – something much more pedestrian and palatable for the chattering classes – like all great pop it manages to transcend the hour in which it emerged and reverberates eternally in some day-glo, platonic, Sgt Pepper-style forever-zone in the sky. In short, it is Acid House, and everyone had better get ready to jack. Because in the end that’s what Zenith’s really about. The tension between the taught ink-blots of Yeowell’s brush (there’s no gradation in shade at all, really) and the clean whites of the page define the hard, deterministic reality of the Lloigor and conservative Britain, with the wonderful super-people, the kids turning london’s orbital into a drug-soaked theme park every weekend, vieing for space – for a temporary autonomous zone carved out of an outlying possible world. Of course Acid was just a glimmer in DJ Pierre‘s eye when Zenith began, but I think the comic really found its voice, its place – its fuel – from Shoom and the rest when they first opened their doors. Overnight, everything went Balearic. Suddenly, with Phase 3, the superheroes emerged with Clint Boon purdey haircuts, as cyber-punks (or just plain punks), hip-hoppers and, in Archie’s case, the sort of kid you met in some ghastly flyer-bedecked hovel in a million coastal towns across the UK, only dressed in special, graffiti scrawled, armour.

There’s a poetry in the run up to the image in question. The panels in the page preceding Archie’s triumphant arrival detail his voice as it slowly comes into focus across the Einstein-Rosen bridge: the device the superheroes use to traverse alternate universes. It begins with a blurred burbling, a distant thrumming that puts one in mind of the noise of bass-sounds resonating deep within a nightclub, outside of which kids are queueing with their whistles and their stash tucked into their socks. And then the page turns, they’re inside, and the monster acid-line booms like a T-Rex charging into view. I’d be nodding along with you about the stretching of metaphors and all that shit if I didn’t know how obsessed Grant Morrison is with the spirit of whatever age he’s writing in….and if that dinosaur wasn’t smothered in flowers and smiley faces. No mate, you’re wrong, that there monster is a huge, lumbering representative of the mindless animal groove. The screams the Lloigor make upon coming into contact with its jaws are the frightened rantings of Daily Mail columnists trying to come to terms with the first enormous youth culture since punk rock, but this one is bigger, badder and much more genuinely unpredictable than the rest. It has no mission statement, and whatever politics it enjoys can only be found in the egalitarian, anarchic confines of a sweaty, 808 smothered big top. It is, in short, a beast – aimless, as far removed (at that point anyway) from any kind of top down hierarchy – ideologically, personally or otherwise – as it can be. It’s just pure id. It just wants to have fun. See it there, astride the UK, it’s tail flapping about in Lands End, it’s snorting maw chomping down on John o’ Groats. Archie is perhaps best understood as a prime specimen of stuffy old Britishness (being, as he is, the upgraded version of an old news-strip hero) defaced and reprogrammed with a new agenda, more aligned to the times in which he’s operating, and isn’t that just a further metaphor for our green and pleasant land at the time – drab London Town waking up to a dream of fluorescent beats, fractal posters and whirling, kaleidoscopic dancing and sampling culture? He’s a robot, yeah? He can jack like nobody’s business. Robotics? Pfah! The guy invented that shit. Fully articulated, he can throw more shapes than a Rubik’s Twist. Set him down in a field and watch him go – automaton: nothing but the dance. The Raver straddling the rhythm. And this is the panel that really sells him – really sells it. It’s all there, encoded. The primeval, anti-narrative of the tropics of old rediscovered and remixed – the pulsating post-modernity of the mixtape – versus tentacled-bearded, structuralist bores like Cthulhu (or at least the Cthulhu in Zenith who, *yawn*, wants to take over everything)… I know who I’m rooting for.

Ultimately, perhaps, this is the image that defines the 2000AD of the 80’s outer reaches. The comic was always of its time – when it came Punk, it came Punk and when it came Tories forever and ever it came DREDD, and it was always a satirical book – its writer’s were always concerned with the here and now, unlike Marvel and DC’s who only ever appeared to unconsciously intuit the moment in which they worked. And with Zenith this apotheosis, this fusing of comic books with the current, re-emerged, fully formed. Aaaages ago I was considering a series of posts entitled The Sartorial Superhero that would attempt to explain the links between the fashions and the culture at large with the clothes in which the superhero was dressed. There would have been much talk of wrestler’s outfits and disco-heroics, which I’m sure would’ve been very interesting, but eventually the project struck me as too vast and grand for an ill-informed Poodle like me to take on. I put the idea aside grudgingly, until I realised that the only reason I wanted to embark upon it was so I could talk about Zenith. Really, that’s all it was. I wanted to talk about the convergence of the aforementioned forces of culture and cool in Phases 1 through to 5, and imagine my joy when, lazy cock that I am, I realised I could boil it all down to JUST ONE PAGE. Fantastic. But the truly fantastic thing about it is – I really can. Never before had superhero comics so confidently and self-awarely referenced the stylistic mores and street culture of the society within which they were embedded. Zenith, and the Acid Archie image in particular, make a bold case for the superhero as ambassadors of the novel – the ‘Pretty Things’ of which Bowie sang – rewriting the world and overthrowing the totalitarian, nosey and sexually repressed Gods of Old. With dinosaurs. And, again, in the form of a comic. I mean, honestly, do you think the musical revolutions of our time want to be remembered in anything so stuffy as a book ? The rave culture I know would balk at the idea. Archie arrived on the scene at exactly the right time. This is pure Pop Art.


Other panel reviews:
Judge Dredd in one panel
V for Vendetta: page 20, panel 3

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