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The Absolute Authority, Vol. 2 (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.

In many ways, it was The Authority that established Mark Millar and Frank Quitely as talents to watch in their own rights, rather than through their associations with Grant Morrison. As a concept, the series was launched by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, but the duo picked their own replacements. I have to say, I think they chose rather wisely, even if the series has lost a rather considerable amount of its bite nearly a decade after its initial publication. That said, it’s still a highly entertaining superhero book, and one which had more than its fair share of influence on the mainstream titles over the last ten or so years.

There's a new Authority in town...

Sure, Warren Ellis might have set up the idea of a bunch of superhumans meddling in human affairs, but it was really Millar who let the concept take off, proposing a dynamic liberal super-team that would stand in dynamic contrast to the cautious conservatism of comics. The Avengers and the Justice League seemingly exist to protect vested interests and are divorced from real pain and suffering – leaving real problems in the real world, and tackling fantastic villains. Of course, superhero stories are a fantasy, so that makes sense – but it is fun to play with these big ideas from time-to-time.

It’s very telling that the large amount of controversy that The Authority generated on publication is mostly missing. Excusing a few implicit sexual assaults over the course of the first arc that seem to have been inserted purely to prove Millar meant business, a lot of the violence and gore is no more intense than you’d see in a fairly popular mainstream title these days – for example, Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates (and Jeph Loeb’s Ultimatum even featured a tidal wave hitting New York, and actually featured far more gorn). In fact, in a decade that’s dissected and picked apart mainstream costumed avengers with recognisable names and pop culture status (Bendis and Brubaker’s Daredevil or Millar’s Civil War), doing the same sort of thing in the context of a relatively unknown group of characters doesn’t have the same impact.

Sadly not even this comic...

However, I don’t have the luxury of reading the story when it was first published and when it offered something that isn’t attempted at least once or twice a year by a major publisher. One can sense core ideas about the nature of the superhero genre that might have been radical or threatening at the time, but have become somewhat relaxed and almost casual in the years since.

Being entirely honest, I don’t think these characters could have existed in the DC Universe as it was a decade ago – but, today, they’d fit right in. “We’ve changed things forever, Angie,” Jack remarks. “There’s no going back now.” He wasn’t just talking about the fictional world they saved, but the genre in which the story was set.

When Midnight(er) Falls...

The series spends a considerable amount of time making it clear that these are superheroes, but not conventional superheroes. “I thought superheroes wore their underwear outside their pants and rescued cats from tress, Mr. Hawksmoor,” a reporter states. “I don’t remember any comic books where they massacred their opponents and bullied world leaders into adopting more people-friendly policies.” Similarly, addressing Bill Clinton, Hawkmoor observes, “We’re not some comic book super-team who participate in pointless fights with pointless super-criminals every month to preserve the status quo.”

That sounds like quite a scathing criticism, and Millar isn’t afraid to show his teeth every once in a while. Consider, for example, the villain of his first arc, The Nativity. Jacob Krigstein is a fairly obvious reference to Jack Kirby, the comic book artist who designed a seemingly endless amount of iconic superheroes in the sixties (“these concepts he’s firing at the world are all planet-threatening in scale and no two appear to be the same,” one member of the team remarks, and it almost sounds like a compliment to the King). Hell, in case you don’t get the comparison, the Engineer draws it quite loud and clearly for you, stating Krigstein is “the man who probably would have created all your favourite comic book characters if he hadn’t been snapped up by Eisenhower at the end of the war.”

"Enhanced Interrogation"...

Krigstein is asked to imagine his perfect world. “Can you guess what he came up with? Superheroes. Hundreds of them.” In many ways, it seems like Millar is criticising the way that Kirby’s creations still define and shape modern comic books. The team talk about “a society designed entirely to his specifications”, and it’s hard to argue that the Marvel Universe (at least) isn’t still quite a bit like that – even fifty-odd years after The Fantastic Four debuted. That’s not a knock on Kirby himself, but an honest observation from Millar that perhaps comic books are too trapped and defined by old ideas and concepts.

It’s no coincidence that the Kirby stand-in kidnaps the infantile spirit of the twenty-first century, a child that would allow him to shape the very world as he sees fit. “Tomorrow belongs to us,” he insists, the very voice of conservatism in comic books, with his legions of superheroes he’s prepared to dispatch like cannon fodder in some big comic book knock-down brawl for control of the world. He pits The authority not only against a seemingly endless parade of bland and generic superheroes, but also against “The Americans”, a rather obvious bunch of stand-ins for The Avengers.

The authority face some giant threats...

In contrast to Krigstein’s classic comic book mentality, the Authority are innovators and free-thinkers. They’re the next generation, rather than the product of a World-War-II-era imagination. “As far as Krigstein’s concerned,” the Doctor states, “we’re the competition.” They’re the replacement superheroes, the future of Kirby’s super-people. The Engineer is keen to try new things even in presenting exposition about their opponent, “I’m always trying to think of new ways to update the way we work and this has to be more visually interesting, right?” Like a comic book, eh? Something else that somebody might attempt to update and make more visually interesting?

And so Millar tries to distinguish the Authority from the vast majority of other superheroes – with the Justice League seeming the most obvious point-of-comparison, since the team is populated with counterparts for Batman, Superman and Hawkgirl at least. The first thing Millar attempts, and it was one stifled by editorial, was to insert real-world politics into the title, by having the superheroes actually interfere in genuine global conflict zones. However, even Millar’s very first issue met with controversy and was censored by the powers that be:

From the moment he took over the series at issue 13, Millar had the Authority going after the “real bastards” of the world—dictators and despots around the globe. Their first mission, drawn by new series artist Frank Quitely, was meant to be a coup d’état against Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, successor, protégé and former vice president to infamous human rights abuser Suharto. However, this idea did not go over well with Wildstorm’s parent company, publishing giant DC Comics (in turn a subsidiary of Time Warner). Apparently, although The Authority was published outside the jurisdiction of the Comics Code, and the government and politician being criticized did not represent the United States, DC thought that it would be too “disrespectful” to specifically identify President Habibie or his nation. Therefore the original panels that identified Indonesia’s capital and its president were ordered altered prior to publication to make the target of the Authority’s wrath more generic.

So Indonsia became something a tad more generic: “South East Asia.” It’s strange that the book would go on to feature the team halting the war in Chechnya and expelling the Chinese from Tibet, two geo-political messes that were arguably even more controversial , but perhaps they were allowed because they didn’t directly target a particular politician. Indeed, the entire series struggled with censorship throughout Millar’s tenure, and it’s remarkable that any bite remains in the comic book at all.

No dictatorships were harmed in the production of this comic...

Another notable difference Millar stressed between the Authority and most conventional superhero teams was the “global celebrity” aspect of the group. It’s one of the little quirks that Millar would bring with him to The Ultimates (and, arguably, would then spread to mainstream comic books). Indeed, there are some sequences at the start of the run which call to mind similar moments in The Ultimates, with Jack Hawksmoor going on a PR offensive quite like Tony Stark did.

In fact, Millar hints, much like The Ultimates, the group perhaps came under fire directly because of their celebrity status on their irreverent attitude. “They’re only going to take so much from us before they bite back, you know, Jeroen,”Angie explains at one point. And she’s right. To certain extent, it might be the high-profile decadant nature of the team that attracts their inevitable destruction.

Kicking open the doors for a new wave of superheroes...

However, it should be noted, that Millar continues the team dynamic directly from Ellis. The Authority, despite their nature as rebellious liberals fighting against the establishment, function remarkably well as a team. There’s no heightened melodrama between them, no angst, no shouting matches. Indeed, Millar goes to great lengths in the final arc, Brave New World, to illustrate that such a strong team dynamic doesn’t “just happen” – the team’s G7-sanctioned replacements can’t seem to go a page without descending into petty interpersonal conflicts.

It’s remarkable that the Authority, for a book so dedicated to picking at the superhero concept, seems remarkable optimistic about a bunch of super-people coming together to make the world a better place. Even when the Doctor’s heroin addiction threatens the world, the team really seem less ticked off than the planet itself and the arm-chair commentators, with the character ending up in bed with his harshest critic pretty much straight away.

A new Authority member is street pizza...

Don’t get me wrong – the Authority are effectively a bunch of “super terrorists” here, running around and threatening not only dictatorships but also gleefully toying with world’s largest democracies – because they feel that their opinion is right, or that these democracies are corrupt. As much as they may do good by interfering in conflicts and genocides, the also prove to be incredibly petty and juvenile. There’s one instance where they make Al Gore and George Bush make out together during a Presidential debate.

What right does the team have to any sort of moral high ground? Sure, we can agree on the basics – genocide bad, war bad – but what happens when the team begin to enforce their own morality on grey areas? What happens when the team disagrees with democratically elected leaders, and decide to enforce their own will? Surely that makes them dictators? The principle of a bunch of super-people using the edict of “might makes right” to reshape the world in their image is a terrifying one.

How does he get all that blood out of his jumpsuit?

Of course, I appreciate that it’s clear that while they have good intentions, these are not nice people. They freely torture, murder and kill. Indeed, Midnighter actually tortures a suspect who is willing to confess just out of what he describes as “force of habit” and the same character is implied to sexually assault a captive with a jack-hammer. Millar makes it fairly obvious that the only reason these characters are even considered heroes is because they are put up against individuals who are undeniably more evil than they are.

Still, these aren’t cookie-cutter heroes, they are weapons of mass destruction who have made a judgment call that they are the only people who can make the right decisions and enforce them. We linger on the consequences of the team’s battle in “South East Asia”, with dead bodies (including children) and Frank Quitely is never afraid to show copious amounts of blood. Still, Millar does seem to admire their intent to make the world a better place, if acknowledging their methods leave a lot to be desired.

Taking a jack hammer to conventional superheroes...

And it’s a great credit to Millar that calls himself on it. I have believed that the writer isn’t nearly as cynical and glib as he lets on. For one thing, nobody who like Superman could be that dark and depressing. For another, his more cynical and deconstructive stories often contain quite a few glimmers of light. There are times, even as I trawl through the bloodsoaked pages of violent death after violent death, populated with glib one-liners and smug assholes, that I find myself reminded of just how much Mark Millar genuinely loves superheroes, despite the glee he takes in stretching and bending them just a little bit out of whack.

At the same time, the series does gleefully subvert so many common superhero tropes, like the concept that heroes can demolish entire cities without killing anyone (although this trope does come back into play with the second arc, where the Authority actually evacuate all civilians to alternate Earths before a big brawl). Innocents and children suffer and die. There’s a nice moment at the end of The Nativity where the group realise that this seemingly eternal super-powered brawl isn’t going to get anywhere, and so decide to end Krigstein’s threat through negotiation and compromise.

And he brought some friends...

Anchored in the old conventions of superhero story-telling, Krigstein doesn’t see how talking could resolve this plot thread. “I’ve ended up as one of those enormous, end-of-the-world threats you people have to deal with,” he confesses, almost ashamed. Swift, on the other hand, seems to acknowledge the rather obvious fact that Krigstein is a genius (albeit an evil genius) and this must have some clever ideas. She proposes that instead of trying to conquer the world, he tries to make it a better one. “Let’s just have a meeting with the UN and see if these ideas can be applied somewhere,” she promises.

And, yet, despite their attempts to subvert so many of the clichés associated with superheroes, the Authority are genuinely heroes. One can detect, for instance, a hint of romanticism in the way that Midnighter’s dying words to his lover are, “Save the world so bastards like me don’t have to.”Coming from the team’s go-to guy for cold-blooded torture and violent threats, that’s really quite a statement, acknowledging that he (and by extension the team) are what might be dubbed necessary evils.

Happily ever after?

Indeed, there’s something downright optimistic about Millar’s ending to the series, as the world faces a huge global crisis, and Jack Hawksmoor decides to sit this one out. It seems that he has had a bit of a revelation about what his team is actually trying to do, and has come to a conclusion that he should empower humanity rather than seek to control them. “The only way to save humanity right now is by letting them save themselves for a change.”

So, in the end, humanity save themselves, and a new spirit of global unity is formed. It’s a clever little ending, one that acknowledges that perhaps superheroes are best not interfering with the world’s status quo, because it creates a sense of dependency and in fact reinforces the status quo and a general sense of apathy. It’s revealed that the Authority’s pro-active stance has, for instance, killed voter turnout, and – with super-beings present to save the world, there’s really no pressure on humanity to step up their game and improve themselves. In the end, Apollo and the Midnighter can’t save us: we have to save ourselves. And that is actually a genuinely touching sentiment from the normally far more subtle humanist side of Mark Millar.

Cutting off potential threats at the head...

There are, in fairness, smaller moments that populate the series which hint at this outlook. For example, a moment where the Renegade Doctor uses his powers to become emphatically connected with every living thing, only to realise the horror of what he’s done couldn’t help but remind me of Luthor’s revelation at the end of All-Star Superman. And not just because of Frank Quitely’s pencils. “Kind of hard to stay mad at the world when you empathise with every living creature in existence, isn’t it?” Of course, the moment is immediately subverted. “Yeah,” the Doctor responds, “but you know what? Who cares?” And then the kick his head off. Still, it’s a nice little moment despite the violent cynicism.

In many ways, Millar’s run on The Authority remind me of his frequent collaborator Grant Morrison’s take on the Justice League. Both writers frequently pit their teams against evil counterparts (Millar has “The Americans”and the G7-sanctioned Authority, Morrison had the Hyperclan, the Injustice League and the army superheroes), and both tackle the impotence of the superhero as a concept.

Young Americans...

Morrison, in his first arc, attempted to justify why Superman and his friends couldn’t turn the Sahara green or reverse global warming or stop genocides, with Superman stating that humanity had to do it for themselves. Millar has his team do those very things, but reach the same realisation. Perhaps that’s why that Authority feels like it doesn’t have as much bite as it should – it ultimately covers ground that Morrison covered in the actual Justice League title in 1997.

Of course, none of this is Millar’s fault. As he outlined himself, the title was heavily censored not by Wildstorm, but by DC’s editorial, which left him feeling more than a little ticked off:

To be honest, I’d have serious reservations about working with any company which was under the DC umbrella while they’re under the current administration. The Authority was selling more than Superman by our eighth issue, we’d been all over the international press, we’d received huge critical acclaim and been nominated for a ton of awards. And they still dicked us around. How could you possibly trust them with another series when they could decide, on a whim, to do the same again? I should point out that I bear no ill-feeling towards Wildstorm. They fought our corner from the start and I still have a good relationship with all the people there.

In fact, his final arc on the title was so heavily rewritten that it was a year between the first part and the second. So there’s a sense that Millar didn’t get the chance to push the boat out as much as he might have liked.

It doesn't pack quite the punch it should...

And there’s the fact, as mentioned above, that the comic book industry has changed so much since this was published (largely thanks to this series) that there’s very little you can see here – save the occasional bit of gratuitous sexual violence – that you wouldn’t find today in a fairly mainstream superhero comic. But perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. The fact that this is no longer “the bad boy” of DC’s publishing line does allow us to step back and evaluate it on its own terms.

Even today, the book is a gleeful read, sparkling with a sort of demented enthusiasm and an “almost anything goes” attitude. It’s good comic book storytelling, and it was a very brave title when it was originally published. It’s actually really sad that the one aspect of the title that hasn’t been embraced by mainstream comics is the comfortable and non-sensational manner in which gay relationships are handled.

A lovely couple of satellites...

As under Millar, Apollo and Midnighter are a genuinely sweet couple who love each other, and their relationship develops organically. It doesn’t seem like they are adopting young Jenny Sparks to make a point about gay adoption, but because they’re the only stable couple on the team. It’s not a big deal, which is the way it really should be. Millar gets a lot of flack for his sensationalism, but the pair are just a nice couple in love, and it never feels like their sexuality defines either of them – except to the homophobes they face.

There are also some nice little concepts thrown around which remind me of how smart Millar can be when playing with superhero comics. I especially love “Religimon”, which is a catchy name for an ingenious concept that looks absolutely brilliant – “the world’s first memetically-engineered all-purpose pop god.”It’s a great little idea, one of several peppered throughout the book designed to remind you that you aren’t just reading a big bombastic superhero epic.

The Doctor is in...

There are a few minor problems along the way. I could have done with out the “did he or didn’t he?” way that Apollo’s sexual assault is treated. In fact, I could have done without the sexual assault(s) in general – because they seemed to exist simply to be sensational and to demonstrate that this wasn’t a regular superhero book, and the creative team can get away with just about anything. That said, at least keeping it ambiguous means that Millar doesn’t play up the angst (which would be even more sensationalist, but also decidedly more tasteless). I could have also done with the hillbilly/chicken joke the ends the final arc, which just seems… a little easy, to be honest.

The collection is lovely. Frank Quitely’s style suits the large Absolute format, but that should be no surprise. It’s sad that Quitely couldn’t finish the run (and was replaced for a few issues during it as well), but most of the fill-in artists are also of really high quality. While we might discuss how the writting influenced superhero comics, there’s no denying the impact that Quitely’s cartoon-y pencils and the bright colours had on comic books, demonstrating that there was an alternative “pop”vibe that could be used in place of Bryan Hitch’s (admittedly superb) photo-realism.

Bring a couple more guys and it'll be a fair fight...

It is a damn shame that the Absolute Edition isn’t packed with extras – it’s literally just the published issues and a selection of pin-ups. Is that all that DC could include? I realise including the uncensored pages and script might have been a bit much (even though we all know they’re out there) and it was unlikely that Millar would be especially interested in contributing, but surely they could have included a script or two, or a pitch, or an email conversation – or even an afterword picking apart what Millar did, written by an academic or another writer (maybe Ellis?).

In fairness, the one big thing the collected edition is missing is the fill-in issues written by Tom Peyer and Dustin Nguyen – and not just because I love Nguyen’s art. The four-issue storyline Transfer of Power was written to allow Millar to re-write his Brave New World finale to the series, and follows the government-sanctioned “new and improved” Authority team led by their pro-establishment doppelgängers. While certainly never intended from the outset, it creates a bit more suspense about whether the Authority we know and love is coming back (although, I suppose, we knewthey’d be back in some form) and also builds up their replacements a bit.

World's Finest Couple...

You could argue that the four-issue story was never intended, but – then again – the final arc didn’t exactly emerge looking like Mark Millar intended it to. We could suggest that the issues should have been excluded because they weren’t written by Mark Millar… and that would be fair, but the Absolute does include issue not drawn by Frank Quitely, and I consider the arc tied into Millar’s run enough to merit inclusion. I would have made the book a bit chunkier and, I think, helped the pacing of Brave New World. Still, no use crying over spilled milk.

As you’ve read above, The Authority was a very troubled book under the stewardship of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely, but it was also energetic, well-written and just a little bit cheeky. It’s a really good read on its own, but I think that it has a much stronger standing as the progenitor of a whole line of modern comics. After all, this is the super-team that changed the world.

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

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