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The Absolute Authority, Vol. 1 (Review)

With Wildstorm being officially folded into the relaunched DCU (the “DCnU”), I thought I might take a look at some of the more successful and popular Wildstorm titles that the company produced. In particular, The Authority, the superhero saga that spun out of Stormwatch – a series that is getting its own post-relaunch book written by Paul Cornell, easily one of my more anticipated titles.

It’s really hard to grasp how much of a revolution Warren Ellis’ run on The Authority was, in hindsight. Sure, the writer had been playing with the idea of a more “real world” superhero team (at least in political and philosophical terms) since his original run on Stormwatch, but it was with The Authority that Ellis and Hitch managed to effectively lay out the design of superhero comics in the twenty-first century. It’s no coincidence that both halves of the creative team behind The Ultimates cut their teeth on the title (albeit at different times).

Was I the only one thinking of Gene Hunt everytime I read the word "superbastards"? "You are surrounded by armed superbastards!"

In fairness, The Authority does read as more of an expression of Ellis’ philosophical observations on the nature of superheroes than a genuinely revolutionary text. Colin Smith, a far wiser commentator than myself, observed that there’s quite a bit of nostalgia at play here, of the kind it’s rather easy to ignore when you get caught up in the hype surrounding the run:

Given that the antagonists don’t threaten, and the heroes can’t be beaten, “The Authority” is wonderfully free of jeopardy. All the traditions of modern popcorn entertainment, so nefariously encoded in Robert McKee’s “Story”, all the expectations of three plot reversals and fates more terrible than the expected terrible fates, are out of the window here. There’s never any doubt that the Authority will win. In fact, a rule of thumb is that even any secondary character given a speaking role of just a few words will survive without harm too. Only strangers, marked by no individual characteristics, suffer, or the faceless ranks of the protagonist armies. We never need worry who’ll live, because we certainly know who’ll never die right from the off.

(the entire article is well worth a read)

For there’s quite a bit of The Authority that is unashamedly old-school comic book, rejecting the type of behaviour and philosophy that became too common place in the nineties. There’s no Wolverine here, sitting at the back of briefings making snide comments. There’s no awkward love triangle threatening to get in the way of missions. There’s no jealousy, no rivalry and no petty feuds.

Packs a whallop...

The Doctor, the team’s resident newbie, has to magic away Apollo to another dimension, when the single-minded Superman was propelling towards an unbreakable force field. The Doctor does his tough guy routine as convincingly as possible when he goes to collect Apollo, warning his teammate, “I could have let you go splat.” He braces himself, as if expecting a grudge or a confrontation. Instead, Apollo is grinning from ear to ear, like the big friendly guy he is.

There’s no woe and relatively little angst. Even the book’s seemingly viewpoint character, the Engineer, can be heard to proclaim “I love this!” as she straps herself in and prepares to confront “god.” Sure, with great power comes great responsibility, but these aren’t heroes so caught up in their own internal monologues that they can’t appreciate the wonder and majesty of the opportunities that these adventures afford them. Midnighter even breaks character as the mandated “stoic one” on the team to discuss the incredible nature of the Carrier that houses the team. “I love my life,” Apollo remarks. And you get the sense that he really does.

Tree of life, eh?

In fact, there is something decidedly “comic book” about all this. This is a celebration of superheroes, as written by Warren Ellis. For a man who many would argue holds superheroes in very low esteem, his final arc (Outer Dark) provides a rather wonderful riff on the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Galactus Trilogy (with the scouts of the strange ship even referred to as “heralds” of their host). Both stories feature massive cosmic threats who claim the world as their own with little regard for the people on it, and there are other similar touches throughout. It’s hard not to argue that Outer Dark represents something of an updating of the classic story for a new age. Somewhat fitting that Ellis would write The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, then?

More than that though, Ellis revels in the use of classic comic book storytelling tools. There’s alternate dimensions and long villainous monologues that serve as exposition. Hell, Midnighter is introduced speaking about himself and Apollo in the third person, surely a callback to the more hammy style of classic comic book dialogue? While we’re on the subject of the villains, you could even go so far as to argue that this is Ellis portraying the defence of the superhero genre against many of its predecessors.

A deconstructor fleet...

After all, the villains of the first two stories can’t help but feel like earlier pulpier characters. There’s the sinister “yellow peril” aspect of the first villain, which calls to mind those old and dated stories. The invasion in the second arc isn’t even disguised imperialism – it’s very direct, with the invaders all wearing a British uniform. This evokes the old colonial adventures, of rugged men taming strange and alien lands. Undoubtedly the superheroes look like poor savages to these fleets of technologically-advanced footsoldiers. And yet, those days of pulp literature like that have long past. They are gone. The superheroes withstand the rather direct assault from these two former archetypes, and they endure.

Finally, Ellis pits the team against what he repeatedly describes as “god.” It’s telling that the story introduces the team in action as a “pantheon”, and I think Ellis is suggesting that these heroes have replaced the classical gods as the modern mythology. After all, the creature is returning to find that it has been replaced. That its retirement home has been usurped and is populated by superheroes. It’s a very interesting idea, and Ellis clearly has great fun writing it. Again, the heroes triumph, proving their right to remain in the place of the gods. The Authorityfeels very much like a defense of the superheroes as measured against their cultural and mythological predecessor. And, Ellis argues, they always come out on top.

There is no higher Authority...

The reason, of course, is the fact that the heroes have a much greater opportunity to make an impact. Gomorrah has literally been locked away from the world, and its psychotic leader is still fixating on retaliation for something that happened quite some time ago. Albion is “an imperialist society in stagnation.” In fact, with its blending of steam punk with classic imperialism, Ellis is perhaps making some observations. “Do you understand, Yngvi, that our technological innovations have crawled almost to a halt, these last fifty years?” Regis asks, though he could as easily be Ellis discussing the dangers of the genre stagnating. “We are a dying civilisation.” These are civilisations and ideas that are too stuck in their old ways, and too unwilling to change. If they don’t change, they die, and it’s hard not see Ellis’ point remaining relevent to the medium of comic books as a whole.

These stories and heroes need to be dynamic, and I think Ellis would concede that – a long time ago – they truly were. So he sets up The Authority with a mission statement. They don’t phrase their obligations in reactive terms like “defend” or “protect” or “preserve.” Instead, they use more proactive words like “change.” As the Doctor’s predecessor advises him, “It became your job, as it was mine and all of ours, to change the world. Because magic is nothing but change.” When Jenny Sparks witnesses the invasion force from another world, her first thoughts aren’t hatred or fear. “I still dreamed of getting on equal terms with Albion,” she recalls, “bringing their technology here. The world we could have made.” It’s a far cry from the idea of “to protect and serve”, and Ellis deserves credit for doing it.

Oh, God!

The Authority gets a lot of flack for being “darker and edgier” and “ultra-violent” and all that sort of nonsense, and I have to admit I’m a bit taken by surprise. Perhaps it’s a sign of how dark mainstream comics have become, but I found that the extreme and wanton acts of violence were generally the exception rather than the rule. After Jenny electrocutes a bunch of invaders from another realm in the Thames (“and you’re only getting what you deserve,” she comments), she finds herself being stared at by a team in shock at her actions (“quit looking at me and start mopping up”), establishing that this really isn’t the norm.

Even the series’ most infamous act of violence, the sinking of an alternate Italy, wiping out its entire population of alien royalty, could probably be seen by Ellis as something of an affectionate throwback to the simplistic black-and-white morality of old comic book superheroes. Batman would never kill a human, but the rule was flexible when it came to robots or aliens. If the Flash landed in an alternate timeline, he’d race to “fix” whatever went wrong, even if it meant rewriting billions of lives – an act acceptable because they aren’t from “his world.”To suggest that the team’s actions here only punished the wicked is downright ridiculous, and requires a suspension bridge of disbelief. However, that suspension of disbelief is no greater than the idea that the Hulk has never killed an innocent person on any one of his rampages, or that none of Superman’s epic smashing-through-skyscraper battles have never ended with a single civilian casualty.

Doctor, Doctor!

In fairness to Ellis, he actually makes that act a lot more complex than most detractors would suggest. In many ways, the Engineer and, to a lesser extent, the Doctor serve as our entry-point characters to this universe. Both are carrying the weight of a legacy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with giants. And the Engineer is initially reluctant to take action that results in serious casualties, and is initially unsure of herself on the team. However, within the next few chapters, she comes to appreciate the power that she holds and seems quite at ease mercilessly gunning down enemies (and the horses they ride on). Yet it’s the Engineer that grasps the horror of what the team are doing, and singlehandedly paves the way for the moral ambiguity of Mark Millar’s Authority.

“We just did something really frightening,” she remarks after the destruction of Italy. “We changed a world. We came in and changed them to the way we thought they should be.”That’s a lot of power to place in the hands of an unelected body (something Millar sort of skirts around by suggesting that democracy doesn’t exist in his stories). We should be frightened of the temptation that power holds, just like the Engineer is. We should be awed by its application, like Jenny’s teammates are when she flash-fries an entire enemy army. Ellis suggests that we should be a little frightened. How do these characters deal with the sort of power they hold?

Giant steps are what you take...

Of course, a lot of Ellis’ run is really just talk. And I mean that in the nicest way. He sets out the ideas, and themes, without pushing them too far. His team promise “change”, but they still define themselves by the threats that they face. Even when editorial forced Millar to change the geographic locale of the opening scenes of his run, it still felt far more politically potent, and far more outrageously uncomfortable than Ellis’ run. Ellis throws the bold ideas out there, and explores the idea of pitting his team against various stagnant constructs trying to push humanity backwards (god, after all, plans on “un-terraforming” or “monsterforming” the world back to some pre-historic status quo). Millar just takes the football he has been passed and runs with it, pushing the team out of a defensive position and into an offensive one.

Still, these are good comics. And it’s hard to overstate how influential they were. I mean, the panel layouts and designs were revolutionary when first published. Now you can see those types of designs absolutely everywhere. It’s like the way that the Sex Pistols have become sort of an affectionate piece of music nostalgia, rather than the very embodiment of punk rebellion – although I doubt you’ll see Ellis doing adverts for a butter substitute anytime soon. Still, it looks stunning, and these are really entertaining stories.

Leagues ahead of the competition?

Perhaps that’s all they need to be, to be honest. We could spend all day discussing the implications of Ellis’ philosophy, or the two dozen ingenious science ideas he works smoothly into his dialogue, but we might end up missing the fact that these are really just big and bombastic superhero stories with some amazing art and with a wonderfully skilled writer at the helm. Who could honestly ask for more?

Read our reviews of DC’s Absolute editions of the Authority:

2 Responses

  1. Could you go a little more in depth on the cast members here? I’ve read the story and I realize these characters aren’t too complex, but regardless I’d love to hear your opinions on them.

    • Fair point. The review was written four years ago, when I think I hadn’t quite got my long-form style down. I might hope to revisit some of those down the line. (I was thinking about revisiting some of my reviews of Frank Miller stuff, because I feel my reviews were a little… rough around the edges.)

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