Friday, 29 July 2011

GRAPHIC NOVEL: Grant Morrison's lost masterpiece, Zenith (1986)

[NB - This is an excerpt from a work in progress, in which GM occupies a longer sub-chapter, hence the abrupt opening here.]

The son of a socialist agitator and local hero, Grant Morrison was born in 1960, and grew up in Scotland with the mixed blessing that was an American submarine base nearby. For an activist, the nuclear-subs might be proof we were already living in Orwell’s “Airstrip One”, but the young Morrison couldn’t deny himself the pleasures of American culture that were sci-fi comics. In his recent history of the superhero genre (cum manifesto, cum autobiography), Morrison mocks his early imitations – hence the “space-Nazis” of the sub-heading – but his first great work was about just that. For the slow-witted, overly-credulous, or those who think their pets are telling them things, Morrison is always clear to make the distinction between events he chooses to find meaningful, and those we might dismiss or laugh off (as a defence against considering what a coincidence might be telling us, however trivial; that’s to say, what the part of our brain might be telling us, that it seized so readily on some chance configuration of events).

In the early-80s, Morrison revived his adolescent space-Nazis as backstory for an allegory about the cynicism of the age, and the decline of the superhero genre. (If that makes the genre sound overly important, bear in mind Morrison understands it as a mirror of culture-wide fears and fantasies; it’s anything but mere entertainment for him, which means that its decline is in some sense, our decline.) “Zenith” himself was the son of two superheroes who acquired their powers during the Swinging Sixties, following various experiments to channel extra-dimensional beings into their bodies. Come the 80s, a real-life superhero had no higher ambition than to live like a vapid Yuppie, and use his powers (of flight, principally) to further a career in music. While the 1960s stage in Zenith’s backstory was mirrored in the “real-world” by US and Soviet experiments to create super-soldiers, the MK Ultra programme, and a long history of dosing troops with what we now think of as club-drugs (MDMA in WWI, LSD in Vietnam) a further stage was added in Morrison’s speculative history. Again, riffing on the Nazis well-documented mysticism, Morrison imagined the Ubermensch as a project hybridizing magic and science: creating the perfect human as a vessel for yet more powerful “dark gods” from a parallel dimension.

Sadly, Zenith has become one of the great lost artefacts of late-20th century culture: out-of-print for years, like the second series of Twin Peaks, and simply because of legal wranglings. (If I was a little more paranoid, I’d say that’s how the Devil disguises himself these days: hiding inside faceless bureaucracy. Then again, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to say that the Forces of Conformity are literally at work when they tie up art in litigation…)

What makes Morrison most interesting within the incestuous world of science-fiction (comics, novels, and films) is his candour about the procedures, contemporary relevance, and efficacy of ritual possession. Not how fun they are to pilfer, and put on the page for a sheen of mysticism, but how life-changing they can be to put into practice. As a prodigious young writer (employed at 18 by the local paper), Morrison had mastered the thousand tropes of myth, folklore, and science-fiction, but it was in his late-20s - after sketching himself a role-model in Zenith - that he became a practitioner. Call it “chaos magick”, or a fin-de-siecle update of much the same the occult gumbo practiced by Yeats, Bataille, and Breton, under the influence of Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and Swedenborg. Morrison claimed to have broken the fourth wall, and that he and his characters were passing back and forth, possessing each other. But that's another story for another time...

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