Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Challenge Of The Super-Friends: Why Warren Ellis & Bryan Hitch's "The Authority" Is One Of The Sweetest Comic Books Of The Modern Era


1. "Oh! You Pretty Things"


For a comic book characterised, according to Wikipedia, by its "... intense graphic violence ..", and designed to be marked by an "... attention to nasty little details, its appalling bad attitude, and the utter carnage the cast are capable of when working together ... ", according to the original series proposal by Warren Ellis (*1), the Authority can read from the perspective of 2010 like a rather sweet and fundamentally traditional superhero book. In truth, I can't help feeling that in some ways "The Authority" is closer in spirit to the likes of E. Nelson Bridwell's "Super-Friends" than it is Brian Bendis's "Siege", and that Mr Ellis's statements such as how his loathing for the superhero genre "...comes out in me as pure, bloody hatred ... " somewhat obscure the truth. (*2) For all its satire, for all the occasional ferocity in some of the fight scenes, for all its non-traditional lifestyle choices, and for all the undeniable scenes of mass murder and wholesale property damage, this is, yes, a profoundly conservative take following the model of an early-Sixties superhero comic book.

And by "profoundly conservative", I do mean closer in spirit and execution to the form and content of the work of Broome and Fox and very-early-1960's Lee than any of the contemporary and dissenting creators usually yoked to The Authority when comparisons are proffered.

Now, it may be that a week spent studying John Forte's work on the Legion Of Superheroes has in some way altered my perceptions, corrupted me with sexless, peaceful innocence, and left me seeing nothing but the beauty of the prom, the good clean fun of the gridiron, and the moral necessity of placing the morning newspaper in the letter box rather than throwing it on the lawn. But I don't think that's so. Rather, I really do believe that "The Authority" is as much the last true heir of the Silver Age as it is one of the radical daddies of the modern-era's obsession with widescreen brutality.

*1 http://wildstormresource.wetpaint.com/page/The+Authority+Proposal+by+Warren+Ellis
*2 from "Writers On Comics Scriptwriting" by Mark Salisbury, (Titan Books, 1999)


2. "Violence. Violence. It's The Only Thing That Will Make You See Sense
"

But such is "The Authority"'s association with violence that the issue has to be dealt with first before the occasionally unrecognised sweetness of the book can be engaged with. And, compared even to the most mainstream of books from the Big Two in 2010, there's little of the famed "hyper-violence" commonly associated with "The Authority" on show when re-reading the book today. Jack Hawksmoor literally knocks off an opponent's head with a very swift right hook at 1:22:2, dismembers an alien by leaping right through it at 8:15:4, and there's some alien tentacle-penetration of innocent Japanese citizens on the streets of Tokyo at 10:6/7, but that's about it where the less-typical extremes of force are concerned. And in a mainstream characterised by gods being torn literally in half and Teen Titans high on heroin attacking drug addicts with dead cats (*3), "The Authority" in truth looks rather middle-of-the-road and restrained from the perspective of today.

Yes, Jenny Sparks does indeed electrocute large number of super-powered assassins, and the Authority do indeed commit appalling atrocities on Sliding Albion. But these murders aren't shown in any prurient fashion, and the justification for the acts of terror is at least as good as any presented by the Western Democracies in defence of their 1 000 bomber raids of World War II. (*4) So, though we're told that Gamorra's superhuman clones are being electrocuted, the panel itself only shows a traditionally comic-book energy energy blast hitting some bad-guys. And the complete annihilation of Italy on an alternative earth is seen firstly from orbit, and then as a large panel mainly occupied by a tidal wave. There's none of the kind of graphic horror that even an EC thriller of the early '50's might have indulged in. Even the death of Kaizen Gamorra occurs off-screen; we do get to see the Carrier ripping through the city towards him, but his final end is left to our imagination. If this is excessive violence, then it's remarkably thin on the ground visually, if not in fact. And if these actions are all so morally unacceptable, then the question needs to be asked "What else could be done?". If it were Mr Ellis's intention to portray The Authority as Fascist brutes operating completely beyond the pale, then he ought to have provided scenarios in which other feasible options to "our" superhumans murdering "their" superhumans, and "their" people, were obvious and feasible. As it stands, unless you're with the folks who see the A-Bomb attacks on Japan and the bomber raids on Germany as war crimes themselves, The Authority seem pretty much to be on the side of the angels. (*5) Brutes, mass-murderers, and vigilantes on a global scale, but strangely appropriate in their responses considering the threats they were facing down.

In fact, if we're being honest about the degree of the so-called violence over the twelve issues that make up the Ennis/Hitch run, a quick re-visit to 7.19.3/4 will put any excessively Whitehousian concerns at rest. For there, as the Engineer slaughters large number of alternative-Earth cavalry, you can note how none of the horses are shown being hurt in any noticeable, let alone gruesome, fashion whatever. In fact, this might as well be, where the shooting of horses are concerned, a mid-Sixties, pre-Jonah Hex comic-book Western, where horses get hit, and horses fall over, but horses are never shown shattering limbs and feeling pain in those moments between bullet-penetration and brain-death. (And, in fact, Mr Hitch even avoids showing the terrible force of a charging horse tumbling over here.) And though the fate of these cavalry horses is hardly kind, the reader is spared their mutilation, murder and disposal. This principle of unexpected restraint tends to hold true for all of the Ennis/Hitch issues, and though it's obviously expected that the reader grasps the "collateral damage" the Authority are wracking up, the overwhelming majority of it goes quite unseen.

Yes, the Authority are an arrogant gang of super-human terrorists, redeemed in some small part by the fact that their enemies are so much worse than they are. Yes, they operate according to their own whim and conscience, and yes, they kill a great deal of people. But we don't see most of it, and of that we do see, well; it isn't so different from that on display in the latter-day X-Men, and it's a great deal less morally worrying than recent runs of "Daredevil" and "Justice League; Cry For Justice". In the best traditions of Bomber Harris, the Authority only strike back when war is declared and the end is, or has been, nigh. It's hardly unproblematic, this habit of wiping out millions in the name of survival, but it's presented in such a way as Jenny Sparks and her men have at least a case for the horrors they've been hauled in the direction of perpetrating.

So, the Authority only attack when innocents are slaughtered in great numbers, their opponents are always possessed of such power that nobody else can resist them, and most of the violence they are compelled under terrible pressure to unleash goes unseen by the reader. This isn't the cess-pit of blood and bowels it's been so often sold as, and the truth is surely that the most obvious moral to be drawn from The Authority is not that superhumans would behave without conscience, but rather that a necessary war of self-defence by superhumans attacked by superhumans would be a very bloody business aindeed. That's not a challenge to the values of the superhero genre, it's just a comment on the degree of realism common to cape'n'costume adventures where the consequences of violence are concerned.

Coming a decade and more after Scott McCloud's "Destroy!", in which two supermen destroy an entire city before the victorious protagonist, knee-deep in rubble, declares that it's good how nobody had been hurt, "The Authority" is hardly a radical statement even where super-heroes are concerned. It's exceptionally well-executed fun, but it's neither innovative or revolutionary, and I can't believe that it was ever intended as such. It's in truth a very traditional statement of defiance against the absurdities of the superhero genre, tweaked just a touch, with a splendid tongue in its splendid cheek, for the late 1990's.

* 3 - I know, I know, everybody's referring to that, and I've done so myself, but I think the terrible truth of Speedy the one-armed cat-hammerer really needs to be kept in the forefront of the mind. Otherwise, we'll all simply assume that it was an absurd joke or even that it never happened.

*4 - Neither point in that sentence defends the Authority's acts; they're not intended to. Here I'm just pointing out that their atrocities are neither thrust in our faces or too different from essential components of our National myths concerning the last Moral War.
*5 - I'm not suggesting that such a stance is incorrect. I'm just saying that that seems to me to be the real moral parallel between the Authority and real-world events.


3. " ... The Sounds Of A
Switchblade And A Motorbike .. "

But if the scale of the violence, and the presentation of some small portion of it, can be pushed away for the while, the remainder of The Authority is charmingly conservative, if not conventional, fare. It now reads as if Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch had decided to serve up some fiercely traditional and two-dimensional fare sweetened with a few dollops of large-scale mayhem and artistic dynamism, as if the joke was less on the superhero as such and more on the deeply stuck-in-the-mud mainstream consumer of the genre. Consider the villainous Kaizen Gamorra, a blatant Fu Manchu/Ming The Merciless knock-off for whom the term "two-dimensional" would be vastly overstating the case. "But now ...now, HAHAHA, Stormwatch no longer exists. There is no one on this planet who can place shackles on my anger." he declares as part of a three page soliloquy which, for all its endearing play-it-to-the-gallery exuberance, only succeeds in making the early portrayals of Victor Von Doom seem Shakespearean by comparison. It's thin gruel, this business of villains in The Authority. Having the alien warlord Regis heralding the invasion of our planet by an alternative Earth by declaring that "There's a German word I'm fond of. Lebensraum" does show he grasps a concept which many GCSE History students can use with some precision, but beyond that he's completely without a character which couldn't be summed up with a hearty "gggrrrrr". He's a brute, a rapist, an imperialist, a genocidalist, he probably feeds children their own fingers after sawing them off himself, and without anaesthetic too, but he's nothing more, or less, than a very bad boy indeed. And the final great challenge for the Authority after Gamorra and Regis is, tellingly, God's brain travelling in a pyramid-shaped spacecraft, a concept as potentially exciting as Galactus was back in, oh, 1966, Indeed, it's a concept pretty much the same as Galactus except that Ellis's take on the type doesn't talk, or have a herald that talks, or, sadly, possess any purple shorts with a big "G" on his belt-bubble. Ellis's God says nothing at all, which is certainly a metaphorically interesting concept, but pretty uninvolving in a superhero comic, and succeeds in the unlikely business of presenting an antagonist for The Authority that's even less interesting than Gamorra and Regis. As a statement of how ridiculous the anthropomorphic tendency is in superhero-land, this God's an interesting concept, but as a villain, he's only as scary as any really big rock with lots of violent worms in it can be.

But that's all perfectly acceptable, and actually perfectly charming, when taken at face value. This isn't a comic book that's trying to achieve psychological realism, or any cod-approximation of it, not certainly where the villains are concerned. This is a comic-book comic-book. And if the key super-villains of The Authority are without menace because they're of such familiar types and without any involving character, then so too are their henchmen - and they are all men - similarly unengaging. Oh, they're certainly bad guys, and we know this because they all look the same and they all kill people. Indeed, it's the fact that every single one of the antagonists fighting on the various fields of war look the same - clones, cavalrymen, tentacles - that helps to take the Authority clean out of 1999 back to 1960. These opponents of the true and the just aren't real people with individual natures, they're bioreactored clones, all dressed in black, all set in fiendishness, or they're identical horsemen from a perverse Britain. The biggest threat these identical enemies can pose is in their numbers, and we know, as we'll discuss later, that sheer numbers won't hold back The Authority. As far as threats go, they're no threat at all. They're just off-the-assembly-line copies of generic, thinly-constructed, all-purpose opponents, which, as we'll discuss later on, helps to lower the sense of jeopardy even when the punch-ups get a touch explicit and intense.

Nothing can stop The Authority, and we know that because we're never told that anyone who stands against the Authority is of any importance at all; if these enemies were of consequence and dangerous, they'd exist as more than the broadest and tinniest of stereotypes. And so, these huge confrontations against apparently overwhelming odds are actually rather comforting. Good is good, and bad is hardly there on the page at all. It's as if the Justice League were back fighting old toothless Kanjar Ro, long ago in the days when insect eyes and a little wand qualified as markers of evil.


4. ".. Now Hurry Up, He's Scratching At Your Throat .. "

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.

This lack of jeopardy is so untypical in a post-1968 superhero book that it's at first quite confusing. Where are the torture scenes, the separation, the angst? Why, when Apollo falls from the Carrier far above Earth, isn't there some plot confection that pretends that he not might find his solar-powered abilities rekindled on the way down? (Apollo's so apparently confident, and The Midnighter so in love with him, that there's never any doubt he'll survive. We know Mr Ellis wouldn't do such a bad thing to the Authority's Superman, because nowhere else in his scripts is Mr Ellis that cruel. Whedon is cruel, Claremont and Bendis too, but not Mr Ellis. He's untypically, for a superhero writer of the modern era, disinterested in upsetting his audience in The Authority for the emotional sake of it.) And when Apollo is flying at full pelt towards an invisible force field, impact against which will squash him flat, there's no pretense that he may really be squashed against that immovable object; there's no cross-cutting of panels between worried comrades and nonchalant hero until a last minute, quite unbelievable, save arrives. In fact, Apollo is removed quite undramatically to safely by being magiked into a " .. broken universe ... (where) travelling over a hundred miles an hour gets converted into music", without the reader even seeing him closing in on the city and its forcefield.

Indeed, Mr Ellis must have a fierce aversion to permitting his superheroes to suffer the emasculation typical to most acts 2 and 3 of the typical capes'n'costume narrative. The Authority always have a plan, or at least they have a very solid defence while they hold the line and wait for a very big idea to occur. They never loose control. They're never separated, picked off, turned against each other, or even any more hurt than exhausted. Wherever they are is the safest environment that can be imagined, the members of supervillain armies notwithstanding. And even when Jenny Sparks dies, after the very simple matter of electrifying God's brain, she does so without a great deal of telling foreshadowing or indeed any blood or suffering. Not even death's too dangerous in "The Authority", if you're on the right side, and, look!, isn't that Ms Sparks returned immediately to life as a baby, ready to save the 21st century as she did the 20th?

Aaahhh. Isn't she lovely? No, seriously. Isn't she?


5. " ... Sailors Fighting On The Dancefloor ... "

With the exception of the first year or so of Grant Morrison's re-invention of the Justice League in 1997, I can think of no other comic which was so free of character conflict as "The Authority". Since the first appearance of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, a fair dose of at least serious irritation between superhero team-members has been the rule; the Thing swipes at the Torch, Hawkeye cusses Cap, Green Arrow loathes Hawkman, Wolverine hates Cyclops, and so on, and on. But nobody even niggles each other to any great degree in "The Authority". Everyone takes orders without questioning the right of Jenny Sparks to tell them what to do, after The Midnighter has a passing rant against her to Apollo in the very first issue. Yes, everyone works together without questioning their fellows, or being any more than passingly irritated by them. And the only dissenting voices, with the exception of a mild exasperation at the Doctor's habit of tuning out and dropping out too, are those of the old moaning lovers, the Midnighter and Apollo, who mostly whinge and carp at each other because it stops them having to worry about anything else.


In fact, "The Authority" is almost a personality-free zone. These are, give or take the odd swear word and expression of physcial desire, standard-model heroes. They're brave, they fight hard, and they make jokes in the face of the return of an unforgiving God. (See above.) Beyond that, there's very little at all going on to seperate one from the other. We learn, for example, little about each character's past as they relate to matters-at-hand. (The Engineer seems to develop the most, embracing her mechanical nature, but it's a restrained step forward for a superhero genre obsessed with devil-fractured marriages and the like.) There is, of course, a default position where The Authority make references to aspects of the '90's counter-culture which might pass as markers of individual difference, but that's not the same as "character". The Doctor takes drugs, yes, but you couldn't picture him as a three-dimensional character without an awful lot of work. Even compared to fiercely one-note figures such as the Batman, most of The Authority seem thin as characters and therefore intially somewhat unimportant as superheroes. (I doubt too many thousands would ever feel motivated to buy into a Swift monthly, or even an Engineer mini-series.) But most surprising of all, for a group composed of such symbols of the '90's counter-culture as a psychedelic explorer, a cyborg, a fags'n'beer anti-establishment curmudgeon, a George'n'Mildred gay couple, and a super-psycho-geographer, the team don't argue at all over principle or speculation. Have you ever seen any two folks interested in, for example, cutting-edge psychedelics or human-cyborg evolution, sit down for three minutes without some point of difference, affable or otherwise, breaking out? Yet these folks in The Authority are strangely uenthusiastic about their interests and beliefs, as if they agree on everything already, which is a profoundly odd stance for a bunch of anti-authoritarian individualists to take. They're the least radical radicals I've ever seen, the world's most compliant, peaceful, do-as-you're told dissidents in history.

And this is again a return to the Silver Age, pegged between the character uniformity of Gardener Fox's Justice League and Stan Lee's "kooky-quartet" Avengers. The foot-soldiers of the Authority are so uncomplicated and accepting of each other that they never seem in danger of falling out and so they entice the reader into never worrying about their fate. As long as The Authority stick together, the message seems to be "everything will be fine", and for them, it is. (Hawksmoor telling The Midnighter and Apollo to ".. get a room .. " when the couple are hugging each other is the closest we get to banter, let alone conflict. And for banter, it's awfully fond and accepting.) It's exceptionally relaxing, and something of a relief and a retreat from the soap-opera high-notes of just about every other superhero team book in the past decade or more, to be watching the adventures of a cast of characters far more similiar in their construction to Hamilton's Legion Of Super-Heroes than to Claremont's X-Men.


6. "Coo, Coo, I Just Want You"

It may not take much to create a convincing superhero love affair, but simple dishes are notorious for being the most difficult to cook successfully. But Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch presented the love-affair between the Midnighter and Apollo in such a fundamentally touching and straight-forward fashion that I never doubted they were lovers, and that indeed they'd always stay so. In fact, I've been rather surprised to learn, while researching this piece, the "fact" that the two of them were effectively outed in "The Authority" # 8: were they ever "in"? Admittedly, I hadn't read "Stormwatch" while reading the first few years of The Authority, so perhaps I'd missed some degree of obscuration there. But from Chapter One of "The Circle", it appeared to be so straight-forward a business that I never thought twice about it, beyond being relieved that this wasn't going to be a love-affair defined by doubt and trauma. Moving on from the tantrums and indulgences that mark the perpetually-adolescence trysts which even now constitute the quorum of superhero affairs, The Midnighter and Apollo were securely placed in a take on an early-middle age marriage. Their relationship's tensions weren't those of the teenager trying to decide between Betty and Veronica, Gwendolyn or Mary-Jane, of the repressed and dissatisfied half-child trying to have their cake and, yes, eat it too. Our gay Batman and our gay Superman were a couple: they struggle to remember the intensity of their feelings amidst the everyday crisis of the four-colour world, they express the normal claustrophobia of a relationship where home and work are the same place through bickering - "Shut Up. You whine like an old woman." - and they're taken by sudden, awkward declarations of absolute commitment when the worst seems about to happen - "You'll die./"I wouldn't dare." It's all absolutely recognisable and rather deeply affecting.


And in taking a step backwards towards those Silver Age relationships where fidelity and honesty were assumed as givens rather than perceived as impediments to drama, Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch created the most fundamentally decent and admirable romantic relationship in superhero comics. Sue Storm and Reed Richards may seem to be constantly fracturing, splitting and reuniting, Peter Parker may conspire with the Devil to end his marriage, and Superman may - apparently - abandon his wife for a year to, er, walk across America, but The Midnighter and Apollo, being grown-ups, simply bicker and fuss over each other as grown-ups do.

This is a sweet, sweet comic book. It may not be the sweetness that some of our Grand-Parents might recognise and support, but it is sweet. And we could still do with as great deal more of that in the universes of the Big Two. After all, there's a fair bit of sweetness out here in the real world too, alongside all that undeniable tragedy and despair. The world of Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch's "The Authority" is actually a world I can happily wander around in my imagination when I can't sleep, secure that it's not so dark a place that I'll trip a few nightmares for when I do slide into slumber. Its horrors are no more hideous than those of most other superhero titles, only "The Authority" never hides the scale of the losses in the fight against really-really bad people. Still, its pleasures are recognisable ones. I may have to admit that I've no idea how the members of The Justice League and The Avengers sit down together, so many and tortuous are the disputes that have divided them in the past. But The Authority? Well, they're as close to grown-ups as you can get when you've got the spandex brigade on patrol, at least where the basic human social skills of getting on and working together are concerned, despite the overall lack of informing detail for most of the team's members.

And so, by subtracting the emotional hullabaloo that passes for character sophistication these days, the lovers and comrades of The Authority strangely become more believable rather than less.

Simple dishes, you see; the hardest to cook properly.

7. "It's Just A Test, A Game For Us To Play"

My favourite radicals are the ones who're so firmly rooted in a clearly defined vision of the past that they're hardly radical at all; they're shocking because they extrapolate from what's known rather than indulging entirely in "what-ifs" and "if-we-all-think-nicelys". It's endearing to find dreamers and doers who've bothered to do their homework rather than rushing full-pelt in the direction of some ill-defined utopia without the slightest sense of the failings and achievements of all the radicals who've come before. And "The Authority" is so full of the tropes of the Silver Age superhero that it's almost a historical textbook on what we used to read; it only looked radical because it's creators had actually looked backwards before stepping forwards, for the modern superhero comic often seems to have slipped the moorings of its roots so long ago that it's forgotten that it had any in the first place. Yet the characters in The Authority were mostly recognisable spins on the basic stoic superhero type, while there were also familiar-feeling and yet uniquely spectacular superhero and supervillian bases,, there was technology at hand which a child of any age could dream of having access to - "door!" - and, as stated, the evil-doers had all the nostalgic and unthreatening depth of an Egghead or Killer Moth. (There's even the teacher-spirits of previous Doctors in their "Garden Of Ancestral Memory", ready to advise through their experience on the best course to take, an utterly ignored trope today when the likes of Professor X or The Ancient One must either be killed off or emasculated so our heroes can't be kept in for the superhero equivalant of detention.)


And what could be more traditional than how our heroes are constantly needed by the not-great and the un-good of the powers-that-be, who'll always need The Authority because the powers-that-be aren't as strong and capable as they'd like to believe. Isn't that the most fundamental superhero fantasy? To be outside the system and yet have the system's survival reliant upon a few outsiders in their very shiny pants? And in the end, when the Authority leaves the Earth to kill God, Jenny Sparks can even tell all six billion humans to "... bloody well be good ... ", indulging in a hitherto hidden level of the ultimate power fantasy of anyone overwhelmed by homework or inflation, diminishing pensions or a party curfew: screw feeding the world, let's just mange to get it to shut-up! Yes, it is indeed an ambition most probably held by those of us who feel quite outside of whatever power elites can be brought to mind, but then, would anyone object if Superman had asked, more modestly, the entire population of the globe to be kind to each other while the JLA was off fighting the sand-giraffes of Red-Mumble-12, or whatever?

Such fidelity to the traditions of the Silver Age comic book even extend to Mr Ellis's love for throwing comic-book spins on contemporary science into his books, just as John Broome, to name but one writer, used to do with his "Flash Facts". (The broken universe which transmutes speed into music in "The Authority" is no more convincing than the 64th century science that changed The Flash into a puppet, but both snippets contain interesting ideas: Broome was introducing his audience to Arthur C Clarke's dictum concerning advanced science being in effect the same as magic, and Ellis the idea of alternative universes where the fundamental laws are quite distinct to ours.) In a similar fashion to how Stan Lee would add a slither of depth into his scripts through the use of untypically demanding words, for a comic book, such as "omnipotent", a challenge to his readers to just trot a little faster to keep up, a gesture of faith that they weren't as stupid as they were often treated, so too would Mr Ellis throw in mention of a " ... mathematical key suitable for late type-zero civilisations ...", far less an example of tech-speak and far more a cheerful wink that we're all smarter than the surface of the comics we're reading might lead others to believe. It shows a fondness for the audience to occasionally wink at them and acknowledge that they too are clever enough to play around with ideas which most folks who sneer at superheroes wouldn't even recognise as anything other than gobbledygook, and it also shows that the writer is having fun too.

8. "Where Do We Go From Here, Which Is The Way That's Clear"

Authority-Fact: for a man who has claimed so often to hate superheroes, I'd be astonished if Mr Ellis doesn't retain a great deal of fondness for The Authority and its members, even if he never feels the slightest need to go anywhere near the characters again. And it's hard, given how The Authority was so very much like the Silver Age comic books of the genre's second childhood, to believe that Mr Ellis hates superheroes at all. Perhaps he does, and perhaps he hates all the ridiculous things that have been done with them as they've risen to swallow up so much of their fellow comic book genres. But there's just too much affection for the traditions of the form and too tender a devotion to his characters for all that grumbling and carping to obscure the truth that The Authority is a far more affectionate and traditional book than so many folks would have it, even today. For if the Authority is a satire, it's only a slight if worthwhile one, poking fun at the superhero fan's belief that their genre has become more mature and meaningful as time has passed. Yet, if "The Authority" is to be trusted, if Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch have told us the truth, and I think they did, dark and gritty doesn't in itself indicate depth, and sweet and traditional doesn't always mean all-mined-out and childish, and the one approach doesn't need to be disconnected from the other at all.


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28 comments:

  1. Very well put. And, agreement on all points. Ellis is a curmudgeonly so-'n-so, but he does seem to really enjoy super-hero stories.

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  2. Thank you, Josh. I can't claim to be any kind of expert on Mr Ellis, but I was shocked to find such a substantial amount of old fashioned sweetness in The Authority. And pleased too. It's quite a trick, to end up appearing to be using two quite distinct traditions, at the very least.

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  3. The conclusion of Millar and Quitely's first story arc, directly follwing Ellis/Hitch, fits interestingly with what you're saying up top--[decade-old spoiler alert] rather than caving in the head of that arc's mad-scientist-sorta-Kirby villain, Swift instead asks him to put his brain to work for the benefit of humankind.

    The twist is very un-Millar, for one thing, but more importantly, it distinguishes the Authority more as practitioners of superhero realpolitic than as violent but well-intentioned superfascists. I don't know if this is really a departure from Ellis, or where it falls on then genre subversion scale relative to something like 'Swiftships,' but until this post it hadn't dawned on me just what a different sort of ending it is.

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  4. Hello Greg - it's strange, isn't it, to go back to comic books you thought you knew well and discover that not everything's as you believed. Time and time again in pieces for here I've pulled a book down and found that it wasn't at all what I recalled. I only started to write about The Authority because I thought it seemed impossible to do - I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it was more a sense that if I thought there was nothing to say, I was probably wrong.

    And now your points about the Miller/Quitely Authority has underlined how I really ought to go over that too. You're of course quite right to point out the realpolitic nature of conscripting rather than at-least imprisoning that quite depraved figure. I'm always rather intimidated by Mark Millar's work, because I find his work all over the place, sublime in moments, and yet quite slapdash and perhaps even immoral in others. I suppose I really do need to do what you've done and go back and think about his Authority work. But I fear it's a tar pit, Greg, I really do!

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  5. Thank you.

    "Oh no. Not me. I never lost control..."

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  6. Hello Mr Ellis. My very best wishes to you, sir.

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  7. I more or less concur about Millar, though I did find Old Man Logan to be a great guilty pleasure comic. But Frank Quitely drawing an army of Silver Age pastiches makes even the harsh bits go down more easily. (And come to think of it, there's another scene in the arc where an ostensibly-doomed Midnighter talks down the Iron Man analogue who's about to kill him! No other series of Mark Millar books has more instances of lateral thinking.)

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  8. You've convinced me, Greg. The Authority II really does need to be taken down and placed in the "to-read" queue. And I really do need to look at Mr Millar's work and make sense of where I stand with it, because he obviously loves superheroes and wants only good for the genre. I can't help but feel that I've missed something -perhaps a great deal - with his work, just as you're pointing out that I certainly have with that Authority work. I do love his Superman Adventures stuff, for example, and I think I need to go and have a look there too. My heart's telling me that Mr Millar is a good egg, so my brain ought to go and work out why it's worried about his scripts at times. Old Man Logan, here I come. (I always recall David Hepworth, the music writer, declaring that there are no guilty pleasures, only pleasures, though I absolutely know what you mean.)

    I do recall the work you're describing by Mr Q. I of course adore his art, if we're allowed to use that work in the comic book blogging fraternity. I'm looking forward to seeing it again ... in the next 30 minutes, I expect!

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  9. On the one hand, Millar's run is worse, because it's meaner. On the other, it extrapolated what came before and set the stage for something potentially dazzling: there was much in the text of it that suggested our heroes had gotten closer to being outright villains. Of course, the follow-up was awful, so it all went for naught. But suppose the next writer had just quietly crept it forward. Wouldn't it be amazing to see readers arguing about the latest gruesome act by the world's defenders? Wouldn't it be fun to see the fact slowly dawning on the audience that this collection of genetic experiments is no longer worth rooting for? Have we ever seen established heroes go off track and go bad for good, or go off track and then fumble to get it right again? I was so disappointed by how it all actually played out.

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  10. Hello GF - One of the reasons I’m humming and hahhing about engaging again with Mr Millar’s “Authority” is the fact that there was there a great deal of editorial interference, as we know. I’m even more unsure than usual of what was his in the text. I know little of what came after his work, but I do recall the Millar era being full of potential & promising to engage with some VERY interesting ideas. I’m always disappointed when an able run is terminated without the creators being in control – even to a degree - of how their work closes. (I care a lot less whether it’s to my own taste than I do about reading something which is an expression of theirs. That’s the point of there being creators, of course.) And you’re right that it WAS interesting to see the Gruenwald “Supreme Squadron” situation played out by Mr Millar with the status quo left with Mr Ellis. Yes, I agree that I’d’ve liked to see more – I’ve just paused from writing this & taken my Authority II collection off the shelf to make sure I still feel that way - & yes that feeling remains. Ah, well. It’s a very long list, isn’t it, the one which has all those comic books cut off before their potential was properly fulfilled …

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  11. I'll have to give these a quick re-read. That's one thing I'll say I really loved about Authority. I came to it in TPB and I just ripped through those stories. It helped me enjoy the pacing and the stated goals of the series - ACTION!

    One of the things I remember distinctly was how small the normal man's plight felt in Authority. Everything was taking place over our heads or in the fraction of a second it took for the normal man to get cut down by those floating black clad "daxamites."

    Not that feeling small is uncommon - superhero books are often about being "above" those concerns - but I recall how abstract the loss of life seemed to be. I think "violent" permeates these books for two reasons:

    1) The occasional full out depiction of violence (the head disintegration seen above)

    2) The general sense that this is business as usual. That the normal man is slaughtered as cattle on a routine basis and our heroes are somewhat unconcerned and above this loss. Yes, they save the earth but these are heroes who take the longview - "What price freedom? A million? A billion?"

    I would argue that while Mr. Ellis did not intend that his world end in cinder and ash lesser creators (informed and influenced by this detached / disembodied violence) with less affinity for the material drove the wildstorm universe to its apocalyptic conclusion.

    The Authority (in my mind) set the table for the second era of Image (post founding members) and put forward some amazing moments, stories, imagery, and the like.

    If you want to see a sunshine ode to heroism (preceding my all time favorite A.S. Superman) check out another Ellis gem - goes by the name of PLANETARY. That is some grade A goodness.

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  12. Hello Smitty – I’m actually more up to speed with Planetary than I was, just a few days ago, with The Authority. Of the whole run, I’m a particular fan of the Kung-Fu Policeman ghost story. I respect the whole run. But I adore that story.

    I suspect, without any knowledge beyond my own recent clod-hopping reading, that the idea of the Authority being Moore’s “over-people” writ-REALLY-large was quite deliberate, a comment on the traditional and often unnoticed distance between the Superpeople and the folks they see fit to save and supposedly serve. I also suspect that the idea that mass slaughter as an inevitable component of superhero worlds was another deliberate layer to these books.

    But I don’t think that The Authority felt themselves above the ordinary mass. They actually were living and acting as if they were, but in their hearts, they really were fiercely protective of the woman and man in the street. They were patriarchal and in some ways arrogant, but not uncaring. Existing half-way between “the road to hell paved with good intentions” and “to protect and serve” located the Authority in a very interesting place indeed. I’m glad I went back and spent some time reading them again.

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  13. The Authority as old-fashioned: I never thought of that before. And yet, you make a very convincing case. I liked Stormwatch better, mostly because the stories and characters went a little deeper, but Authority was certainly more whiz-bang. I remember Ellis saying something along the lines of wanting to tell 3 big, dumb super-hero stories in which the stakes rose with every confrontation and ending with the team killing God. That's true in broad strokes, but you pointed out just how he made something more out of the "big, dumb" outline.

    Millar's run contains some of the nastiness alluded to in the wikipedia article, including at least 2 instances of sexual violence, but I liked it nonetheless. The last few pages of Millar's last issue seemed to be the ultimate statement about the relevance of super-heroes, and the perfect place to end the series. Of course, we've seen several regrettable Authority comics since.

    Old Man Logan started out fun, but ended too violently and cynically for my taste. Plus, the plot was a bit familiar (Unforgiven by way of any dystopian sci-fi future).

    Enjoy your day!
    - Mike Loughlin

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  14. Hello Mike - I hope you're enjoying your day too.

    Well, I wish I'd had your rough quote when I started. It would have helped to show how clearly Mr Ellis saw his purpose when he started, how he never lost control of what he was doing.

    I've read some of the Stormwatch material, but I think I'll keep an eye on picking up the material and reading it in sequence. It'll be interesting to see how Mr E's approach there was different, and if so, to what degree.

    On the Millar issues: there's always some doubt about what he did and didn't write in those later issues, isn't there? I wonder if you, or indeed any folks, knows if that's so and where I might find some more data on what is and what isn't his. But, yes, I recall the sexual violence, and I'm uncomfortable with it. Still, if I've learnt anything doing this blog, it's to go back and check that such feelings are justified. So I will.

    Thank you for your thought on Old Man Logan. What with that and the FF run, both of which I've read but sections of, I think I've got alot of catching up to do with Mr Millar's work. Despite being far from pay-day, I'm tempted by your capsule review to get OML now. His making that premise you've described work, or not, is something I'd be really curious to experience.

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  15. I'm surprised but convinced by your your "Super-friends" argument. You've explicated something that was there all along but unrecognized. I salute you. It's interesting that behind the wide-screen pyrotechnics lies this comfortingly familiar template.

    When I was in college at the dawn of the Reagan years, people I knew chose to enact a Freudian "kill-the-father" bit by embracing the grandfather *he'd* killed. The Young Republicans at my school, with short hair, blue suits and red ties, embraced a kind of urgent Eisenhowerism which was consciously a repudiation of the late-sixties-early seventies "youth rebellion." "Reagan Youth," we called them, and back in 1980 they were almost as visually jarring as the punks were. In the late-90s, using a silver-age JLA tropes is a rebellion of a similar kind. If so, I missed it at the time, distracted by the artwork, the violence, and the more-honest depiction of homosexuality--all of which said "modern" to me.

    My other thought is this: Character interaction at Stan Lee's Marvel (and later at DC) was predicated on the belief that unlike in the early JLA portrayals Lee was reacting against, if you put super-people on a team, there will inevitably be some open conflict.

    And that seems very true, especially to youth/teen readers who are used to their peers asserting their identities by loudly proclaiming their differences with others, or getting angry or else being completely deflated from a schoolmate's jibe. I think its less true of adults, though.

    I found the fights and teasing within the FF okay--they're a family. Likewise in Spider-man, who was still young. But the chip-on-the-shoulder bickering in the allegedly grownup Avengers is something I found tiresome. Their iconic round table was really like one in a junior-high cafeteria. Granted, those old JLA characterizations are bland to the point of invisibility...but the contrived bickering in Avengers was hardly an improvement to my young eyes.

    And as an adult, I work with people with whom I have profound differences, and I socialize with friends and neighbors who, while neither Kree, android, nor gamma-irradiated, nonetheless hold world views sometimes very far from my own. But at work, we tamp down resentments and and try to get the job done. At the pub, we may occasionally tease each other about seriously different political differences, but mostly we find common ground, and we enjoy the party.

    I would argue that Ellis's Authority aren't devoid of personality, though it may seem like it because they don't have many temper-tantrums. They're shown as very different people who nonetheless get the job done. And then enjoy the party. They're grownups.

    -mikesensei

    PS; this has become a must-read blog for me. Keep up the great work.

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  16. Hello Mike – Your comment had me remembering the Young Thatcherites who followed a similar strategy as the campus Republicans, and thinking about how predictable it was that such an apparently conservative style should be part of a very radical, world-changing movement. Of course Mr Ellis is no conservative, artistically or politically, but – I think, because of course I don’t know – like most folks who are good at what they do, he’s taken from what he’s studied & recast the familiar in a deliberate way to a specific effect. Or at least, I think so. I’m just a bloke blogging, of course. But his work is terribly well-informed and controlled. And though the form he adapted was in part conservative, the result of the hybridisation he created was revolutionary. The more I strive to get glimpses of the structure of his work, the more I admire it. Which is one real benefit of blogging, I guess: it obliges me to keep looking until I get past my own preconceptions. I can’t swear myself that those Silver Age modes are actually there in The Authority: but I’ve always believed that blogging isn’t so much about being right so much as TRYING to be right, making an effort, but not pretending to know the answer. But I’m glad I’m not the one the only person, Mike, to see glimpses of that SA structure, as well as the far more radical innovations of Mr Ellis’s work.

    I think you’re quite correct about the Authority’s personalities. I certainly over-stated my case there. I’d go back and change it but that’s cowardly. It’s cheating to go back and change too much after the ship’s sailed, though after every blog, I wish I could!

    Indeed, Mr M, I loved your lines containing the words “ … Kree, Android nor Gamma irradiated …”. It’s true. There are substantial and awful struggles between adults, but they don’t exist between all people all the time. If they did, life would be as exhausting as an overwrought and angst-ridden comic book. And life’s hard enough without all that.

    Thank you for your kind words. I hope your day has been a splendid one.

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  17. Hi Colin--

    Just thought I'd drop in to tell you that you have a lovely blog.

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  18. Thank you, Carol. You're welcome over this way whenever you so like.

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  19. Dear lord, I certainly admire your work ethic. Producing regular, well reasoned and exceptionally well written blog posts is an achievement.

    Your point about Warren Ellis being something of a post-modern John Broome is profoundly insightful and well-taken. As fans, I think that we get to easily distracted by the surface of things. Ellis brings a higher level of craft to the table as well as a post-comic code freedom with content. However, the impulse to treat the superhero genre as a contemporary science fiction story has a grand tradition.

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  20. Thank you, Dean, I've certainly always appreciated you dropping in here and taking the time to comment.

    I was actually quite fearful that I was either saying something about The Authority which everyone had discussed constantly since, well, 1999, or that it was so daft an idea that I shouldn't express it. I'm seriously glad that it wasn't quite as redundant as I feared.

    You're quite right about the craft in Mr Ellis's work, of course. One of privilages to getting to look at all this work in depth is having the chance to note some of the detail as well as the sweep of the big picture that I missed the first few times around. And in a few years, I can go back and see another chunk of what passed me by this time.

    Lovely to hear from you, Dean. I wish you a splendid day.

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  21. This is one of those things that would never have occured to me but, when laid out, makes so much sense I'm amazed I didn't notice it.

    - Charles RB

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  22. Thank you, Charles, especially considering how often your words have had a similar effect for me. I hope the evening finds you well.

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  23. Excellent post, sir! Actually, "post" seems a rather weak word. Excellent article! If only there were articles in Wizard like this.

    That said, I've never read The Authority, but it's long been on my must-read lists. This just gives me more impetus to get through my current backlog of reading material.

    Anyhoo...

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  24. Hello BP, That's a very kind thing for you to say. Having by chance read some discussions yesterday on some boards of my pieces on Gail Simone's Secret Six, I feel I need to own up and say that, based on what I read of the opinions of those comic-book fans, a single article by me would sink any magazine, inlcuding Wizard. But hey-ho. I'm always damn grateful when some good folks drop over here & don't have that response. My thanks to you.

    I do know what you mean about that pile of things to read. And then there's the other one of all those things that require re-reading too. But what a luxury, ah? And should you work your way out and get a shot at the Authority, I suspect you'll find it's many thing, but perhaps most of all, it's clever and it's fun, two qualities too rarely matched together.

    My best to you, BP. I hope the day is treating you kindly.

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  25. It's a little odd to dismiss the book's violence on the basis of current standards of violence that were influenced by this book in the first place.

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  26. Hello fifthfiend:- I hope you'll forgive the fact that I don't follow your argument. Do help an muddy old mind out and let me know me know what you mean by "dismiss". It's been a year since I wrote the above, and indeed read it - oh,dear, but that style is stiff, isn't it? - but I did think I also pointed out that the Authority had a great deal with previous comics in terms of violence, that it wasn't the quantum leap forward that it was supposed to be;

    "Coming a decade and more after Scott McCloud's "Destroy!", in which two supermen destroy an entire city before the victorious protagonist, knee-deep in rubble, declares that it's good how nobody had been hurt, "The Authority" is hardly a radical statement even where super-heroes are concerned."

    Do let know where I've missed the point here. As I say, I am feeling muddy-minded this rainy morning, so I'd welcome your help.

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  27. "They're just off-the-assembly-line copies of generic, thinly-constructed, all-purpose opponents, which, as we'll discuss later on, helps to lower the sense of jeopardy even when the punch-ups get a touch explicit and intense."

    It just occurred to me that the Authority would make an excellent video game. You could even do an Apollo/Midnighter tag-team!

    "They never loose control. They're never separated, picked off, turned against each other, or even any more hurt than exhausted. Wherever they are is the safest environment that can be imagined, the members of supervillain armies notwithstanding."

    It was about here that I realized I've been wearing a great big smile for most of this review. It makes me happy to read such a well-written article, and one that confirms beliefs and observations I didn't even know I had.

    I'll argue Sparks's death is foreshadowed, from the beginning of the arc, but not in a way that there's much angst.

    Impressive how Millar manages to keep the spirit of the thing going, hitting pretty much every mark you describe here (except his Marvelesque superhero villains are a degree more sketched-out than the identical cavalry & clones of Ellis. Still, only a degree). 

    Epiphany: Widescreen works for the Authority BECAUSE the plots and characters are designed to be two-dimensional! The design and structure of the book is perfectly suited to the story it's telling. 


    OMG Warren Ellis said hi! And quoted Bowie! I think I'm ascending into total literary crush mode. (when was my last? Michael Chabon? Mysteries of Pittsburgh is fantastic!)

    And if you'll allow me to say it, it's interesting to look at these comments, written a year ago, with you saying you "should really take on Millar sometime"- you are nothing if not a man of your word, and constantly evolving and developing as well.

    Re: Millar's sexual violence- reading through, I never really quite got that. Yes, the Midnighter with his jackhammer certainly IMPLIES it, but not enough that I noticed it my first couple read-throughs.

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  28. Hello Historyman:- "They're just off-the-assembly-line copies of generic, thinly-constructed, all-purpose opponents, which, as we'll discuss later on, helps to lower the sense of jeopardy even when the punch-ups get a touch explicit and intense."

    Well, I’d never write something quite so … blunt about a comic I admired now. But I hope my excess of fondness for the book shone through. I’m very fond of the Authority, I really am.

    “It just occurred to me that the Authority would make an excellent video game. You could even do an Apollo/Midnighter tag-team!”

    It’s an invulnerable concept exactly as WE and BH presented it. I have no idea how it managed to get so mangled in the years since.

    “It was about here that I realized I've been wearing a great big smile for most of this review. It makes me happy to read such a well-written article, and one that confirms beliefs and observations I didn't even know I had.”

    That’s so generous of you to say so, Mr H. I fear that all I can see is the mistakes, but if the enthusiasm is transmitted, then that’s not such a bad thing. Cheers to you :)

    “I'll argue Sparks's death is foreshadowed, from the beginning of the arc, but not in a way that there's much angst.”

    Actually, that’s true. And that lack of faux-angst is SUCH a relief, isn’t it?

    “Impressive how Millar manages to keep the spirit of the thing going, hitting pretty much every mark you describe here (except his Marvelesque superhero villains are a degree more sketched-out than the identical cavalry & clones of Ellis. Still, only a degree).”

    There are problems with MM’s run, but then there’s problems with everyones. I was uncomfortable that once again his stories are essentially Meta-tales. But even given that, there’s SO much to enjoy, and few things to worry about, in his stories.

    “Epiphany: Widescreen works for the Authority BECAUSE the plots and characters are designed to be two-dimensional! The design and structure of the book is perfectly suited to the story it's telling.”

    Huzzah! Well put. And, of course, when you’re not writing as well or as relevantly as WE is, widescreen is a bad idea. Yet it’s become the industry standard, whether it’s appropriate or not.

    “OMG Warren Ellis said hi! And quoted Bowie! I think I'm ascending into total literary crush mode. (when was my last? Michael Chabon? Mysteries of Pittsburgh is fantastic!)”

    He was very gracious. I wish I’d written the piece better. A man that generous deserves better work. (And yep, it was great that he nailed the quotes and threw in an absolutely appropriate one of his own. I shall never cross paths with him again, as is of course quite right, but that was a lovely moment.)

    “And if you'll allow me to say it, it's interesting to look at these comments, written a year ago, with you saying you "should really take on Millar sometime"- you are nothing if not a man of your word, and constantly evolving and developing as well.”

    Well, I think I just learned very quickly that the folks who turn up are experts too, and they know about stuff that I don’t. It’s nothing but common sense, Mr H, and it’s one of the few examples of my applying it that I can remember.

    “Re: Millar's sexual violence- reading through, I never really quite got that. Yes, the Midnighter with his jackhammer certainly IMPLIES it, but not enough that I noticed it my first couple read-throughs.”

    Bless you, Historyman. You think well even of the jackhammer scene, and more power to you. Seriously. I raise my end-of-evening glass of water to you.

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