The Authority: Controversy and action in Widescreen

Last week we looked at one of Marvel’s tent pole characters, Thor, but for a change of pace this week we are looking at Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s 1999 creation The Authority. Now we are all aware of what a superhero is supposed to do, protect the world or neighbourhood from threats, get the girl and stick to a strict moral structure, for example the famous “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, what if a team of superheroes more powerful than any of the world’s governments decide to take matters of world security into their own hands? Well you get The Authority, a team with the motto ‘getting the job done by any means necessary’.

The Authority is part of DC Comics Wildstorm imprint and is on it’s fifth incarnation, but I am going to recommend the first volume due to the impact it had on me as a reader and also due the techniques of storytelling it used within the medium, which have been fully integrated into mainstream comics now but where fresh and new (and possibly never bettered) when The Authority was first published.

Apollo Midnighter KissIn the beginning Ellis was writing another Wildstorm title called Stormwatch, where he developed new characters that would later become The Authority. The book had flagging sales, but the people at Wildstorm liked Ellis and so after killing all the characters, save his own creations, in Stormwatch he was teamed up with artist Bryan Hitch and together they created The Authority. The book focuses on a team of heroes who have decided to create a better world no matter what lines they cross, which include killing villains and mass property damage. These heroes are Jenny Sparks, an attractive, foulmouthed, bisexual, chain-smoking blonde bombshell who is ‘the spirit of the 20th century’. Apollo the ‘Sun God’, a Superman archetype. All-powerful with a twist. Most notable for being one of the few openly gay characters in comics and has a relationship with and finally marries Midnighter at the end of the first volume. Midnighter is a Batman pastiche who actually has powers, he can anticipate his opponents moves in combat, and crosses the line The Dark Knight doesn’t by either badly maiming or killing his enemies. Doctor a powerful Dutch magic user who happens to also be a heroin addict. The Engineer aka Angela Spica who had always wanted to be a scientist and a hero due to diet of comic books as a child. She swapped nine pints of her blood with liquid machinery and became the team’s tech wizard. Swift a bisexual Tibetan Buddhist that has renounced her pacifist ideals to help fight for the future The Authority is creating (also she has angel wings and razor sharp talons). Finally there is Jack Hawksmoor who is known as the ‘god of cities’. His abilities are undefined in the books but he can manipulate cities and he can’t survive outside of urban environments, using air pollution as a source of sustenance. Together these heroes protect the world from threats as they watch everything from the massive base of operations The Carrier, a ship that can traverse dimensions. 

The Authority EnsembleAfter reading that description of the cast of characters it would seem that Ellis and Hitch set out to be controversial, however it clicked with the readership at the time craving something new from the mediocrity of the 90s superhero comic. The book has gained both critical and fan praise and become known for its intense and graphic violence, its uncompromising characters, grand scale and cinematic visual style. It was also given a GLAAD award for its portrayal of Homosexual characters.

The book utilised a comic style know as decompression, which emphasises on the visuals and character interaction, which leads to slower moving plots. In keeping with this style the book is awash with wider panels and the action is deeply detailed. This style has been coined as ‘widescreen comics’ and the book has more in common with the blockbuster film than a lot of the late 90s comics DC and Marvel where putting out. Ellis and Hitch’s plots where grand in scoop with The Authority battling armies of enhanced super soldiers, a parallel earth and even ‘God’. Even with The Authority’s remit of forging a new and better world under their own guidance, Ellis never overtly showed the politics of his characters and left it to the reader to fill in the blanks. That changed somewhat when Ellis and Hitch left the book with issue twelve. They where replace by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely who kept the violence and widescreen action, but added a more revolutionary attitude to the books characters. They began fighting social injustice, challenging the status quo and truly not minding the boundaries they crossed to reach their goals. Millar and Quitely had The Authority change leadership, battle both the earth itself and the government who created a new team of heroes to replace them, funded by (at the time) the nations of the G7 and had Apollo and Midnighter marry and adopt the new child character Jenny Quantum, which I believe is a first in the comics industry.

authority panelMore than Ellis and Hitch’s run, Millar and Quitely came under fire for being perhaps too controversial. DC comics even began censoring the book, starting with a kiss between Apollo and Midnighter, which DC thought would bring them under fire from the media, but their actions outraged fans. Also after the events of 9/11 issue twenty-three was postponed due to its violent nature and Bryan Hitch’s planned special The Authority: Widescreen (which he pulled double duty as writer and artist) was cancelled. However the most infamous moment of controversy in the Millar/Quietly run was the implication that Apollo was raped by The Commander (a take on Captain America) and in a fit of revenge Midnighter retaliated, which I won’t spoil here.

The Authority could be seen as excessive, in bad taste and dismissed as teenage violence fantasy or a retread of superhero critique that has already been done before (Alan Moore’s Watchmen). But that’s selling it short, it’s loud, in your face and much like its characters it’s uncompromising. It shows a world where superheroes have decided to use their powers to forge a brave new world, to be proactive rather than wait for the super villain of the month to turn up. Its character’s are deep and human, their reasoning is believable even if the situations are not. The book was the kick up the arse the industry needed at the time and it treated issues like homosexuality not as a defining characteristic (like say Marvel’s character Northstar) or a way to be controversial, but as normal occurrence. Therefore I highly recommend the first volume of this book from the Ellis/Hitch run to the end of the Millar/Quitely run.

To Read more of Dan’s musings on comic books, click here

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