Censorship of The Authority

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United States of America left many Americans, and much of the world, seriously shaken and disturbed. Almost immediately, the shockwaves echoed throughout the artistic world: many speculated that Americans craved escapism and many artists experienced an existential crisis, wondering what their occupations meant in the wake of the trauma of the event. While Americans repeated the mantra that “the terrorists win” if their lives were altered because of 9/11, a simultaneous concern about being “insensitive” — or receiving bad press — led many companies to tone down violence in art, particularly terrorist or mass-scale urban violence. The trailers for the movie Spider-Man, for examples, featured criminals caught in a web spun between the two World Trade Center towers — which, of course, were no longer there; the trailer was pulled and portions of the film reshot. Other films were delayed indefinitely. No artistic medium was spared from these reactions — or perhaps overreactions — and comics were no exception.

The Authority, then in its famously trailblazing run under writer Mark Millar, seemed an immediate target of corporate censorship. Since its inception under writer Warren Ellis, the title had been known for its “widescreen” violence on the scale of city-wide devastation. But this controversy went beyond violence into sexuality and politics. Team members Apollo and Midnighter — analogues for Superman and Batman — had been implicitly homosexual since Ellis had created them, but Millar had made this explicit. The team had deposed otherworldly governments under Ellis, but under Millar had moved to deposing real-world governments and opposing the U.S. government. DC (owner of WildStorm, which published the title) had censored the book at least since Millar’s first issue (#13, cover-dated May 2000), including obscuring panels depicting violence and removing a kiss between Apollo and Midnighter. Reportedly, the company was concerned that the mass media would pick up that it was publishing an alternate version of Superman and Batman who were involved in a homosexual relationship, leading to a crisis within the cross-media Superman and Batman franchises.

(The use of the word “censored” as opposed to “edited” can be troublesome, though I reject the notion that a publisher, even as the owner of the artistic property in question, should be said to “edit” when the same action, taken by a governmental institution or a distributor, would be called “censorship.” I generally prefer lack of censorship for moral and artistic reasons, although I recognize a publisher’s need to censor in certain circumstances as well as the fact that the result, especially when generated as a compromise by the artists, may sometimes be superior to the original, censored version. But let’s call a spade a shovel, shall we?)

The Authority #27, as published.

As 9/11 hit, The Authority #27 was scheduled for publication, offering the second chapter of Millar’s final storyline; the first chapter had been published at the beginning of 2001, after which the storyline had faced a long hiatus (although fill-in issues were offered).

The first effect of 9/11 upon the Authority was the cancellation of The Authority: Widescreen, a special that had been scheduled to include a number of different stories — one of which, it turned out, featured a battle in New York City with civilian casualties. The story would not have been out of character for the series, but were clearly regarded as unacceptable in the post-9/11 environment.

Almost simultaneously, The Authority #27, with its long-delayed continuation of Millar’s final storyline, was delayed in order to be reworked. Fans, already upset over DC’s treatment of the revolutionary title, chaffed but generally prefered to see the conclusion of the storyline, even if it had to be delayed in the wake of history. The issue, penciled by Arthur Adams, at last saw publication in December 2001.

It was only then that the real scandal hit. Rich Johnston, the comics gossip writer, broke the story that large-scale changes had been made to the issue. Apparently leaked by people at WildStorm who had been upset by DC’s micro-management, many uncensored panels began appearing through Johnston. Some panels had been altered; others entirely redrawn. It soon became clear that most of the instances could not be attributed to 9/11. Many instances seemed related to sexual content and probably would have been censored anyway. Moreover, the fact that Arthur Adams had already drawn the issue prior to its censorship suggested a problem within the editorial ranks: the original version of the issue had apparently neared completion through WildStorm before being censored from further up at DC, itself owned by AOL / Time-Warner. It seemed to many that 9/11 had been used as an excuse for often unrelated censorship. All of this led to several conspiracy theories by the title’s outraged fans.

Some changes were perhaps understandable from a commercial standpoint: The Authority was neither approved by the Comics Code, the censoring body established by the major comics companies in the 1950s in the wake of popular criticism (and the published theoretically sound but morally indignant articles of Dr. Wertham), nor labelled “suggested for mature readers” like DC’s Vertigo line. Necrophilia, for example, just wasn’t going to fly; the mere suggested desire for the same had been controvertial in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and even DC’s Vertigo imprint had not ventured so far. DC almost certainly was not interested in publishing the corpse of the team’s dead leader, star of a recent mini-series, being used as a necrophilic object.

The censorship would continue in #28, which also saw censored panels leaked to Rich Johnston — although not as many. Arthur Adams, who had himself been an artistic replacement on the storyline, himself quit — while writer Mark Millar moved from polite understanding for DC to outright condemnation. Additional delays only compounded the outrage of fans. The storyline would at last conclude, under other artists, with #29 — Millar’s final issue and the final issue of the series. The Authority had become under Millar a top-selling title known for its aggressive and controversial nature, but this same nature lead to its censorship, delay, and ultimate cancellation.

The reality of leaked alternate versions, made possible by the internet, has allowed the following scholarly study of particular instances of censorship. I have attempted, wherever possible, to provide side-by-side comparisons between the printed and the censored versions. I have also included some material that, while not outright censored, simply never saw print.

The images themselves are copyrighted by DC Comics and are used here for scholarly purposes. In fact, I encourage readers to purchase and study the comics themselves, conveniently available in trade paperback form. Both versions are enjoyable and The Authority, in either form, remains revolutionary — which is, of course, why this scholarly study is of such importance. My hope is therefore that understanding these changes increases not only scholarly understanding but also interest and appreciation for the printed version.

The Authority #13

Censorship of The Authority actually began before 9/11. In fact, it went back at least to Millar and Quitely’s first issue, #13, which originally specified the nation and its leader that the Authority invaded and toppled: Jakarta and President Habibe, then in the news for crimes against the population. Apparently, DC thought that the appearance of a murder fantasy against a living president was going too far, but thought too few people would recognize the president to change his visage.

Here’s how the original version of page two of that issue looked (here split into two images):

And here’s how they compare to the version as printed:

Certainly, this was an inauspicious way to begin a run.

The Authority #14

Editorial interference in the run’s early days didn’t stop there. Millar and Quitely’s first storyline, running from #13 to #16, featured analogues of many Marvel Comics characters, most prominently including alternate versions of the Avengers. Neither Marvel nor the editors at DC were thrilled with this appropriation, and the design of the Commander — the Captain America analogue — was changed to render him more unique.

At left is the main section of the original cover to The Authority #14 (as it was solicited on page 85 of Previews volume X, number 2, cover-dated February 2000). It shows a version of the Captain America analogue that looks decisively more like the original. Readers will immediately note the presence of a shield in his hand, its pattern strongly echoing Captain America’s, but the character’s original coloring was also closer to the Marvel character. At right is the issue’s cover as published.

Additional changes occured in #14, as obscuring red filters were added to a few panels depicting the Authority killing, as a way of toning down Quitely’s artwork. Reading the issue, it’s unclear why the panels are so tinted, which comes off as an odd choice of stylish effect in an otherwise realistic comic.

The Authority #14 page

Also, the original version of page 16 (at right) from The Authority #14, showing the Engineer’s killing of the character analogous to the Hulk. In the bottom panel, the Engineer gives the middle finger to her foe’s corpse. The original was changed to the British “two finger salute” for the printed version, a change easily discernible because the raised finger was simply copied and pasted to create a second raised finger. There seems little logic in this change, given that the Engineer is not British, and it seems to have been made to obscure the gesture that is considered by many to be obscene: most readers of the American comic would not recognize the British version. (The change also has the effect of emphasizing the fact that Mark Millar is British — which has considerable cache since the British invasion of comic book writers, such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, in the 1980s.)

The Rest of Frank Quitely’s “Brave New World”

Reports vary as to how much unpublished work Frank Quitely had completed upon his surprise departure from the title, almost immediately following the publication of #22, which began what would have been his final story arc on the title, “Brave New World.” Most reports affirm that Quitely had only completed a few pages of #23, meaning that the issue would almost certainly have been delayed, in any case.

Quitely had, however, completed the next few covers, in order for them to be included with those issues’ solicitations. It’s not fair to say that these covers were censored, however, and they were probably not used to emphasize the replacement artistic team.

Above is Frank Quitely’s original cover to The Authority #23. After Quitely’s departure, a four-issue fill-in storyline was published (entitled “Transfer of Power”), before the resumption of the unfinished “Brave New World.” Thus, the contents intended to be published under this cover were actually published in The Authority #27 (pictured above).

It’s worth noting that, had Quitely continued on the title, the title logo would have been changed for later issues of “Brave New World,” much as it was for the fill-in issues. (This reflected the fact that the Authority had been apparently killed and replaced, in Quitely’s final issue, the first chapter of “Brave New World.”) The clever logo change was thus not original to those fill-in issues. It did not end up appearing on the concluding three chapters of “Brave New World,” presumably because it had already been used for the fill-ins, and the original logo’s return could thus promote the fact that Millar’s “Brave New World” had returned as well.

Above is the main section of Frank Quitely’s original cover for The Authority #24, which was to have contained the third chapter of “Brave New World.” The printed version of that story ran in The Authority #28, which similarly featured Apollo and the Midnighter confronting Seth, albeit from a more conventional perspective.

The Authority: Widescreen

The Authority: Widescreen, a special featuring various stories. Its main story and primary selling point was the return of artist Bryan Hitch, who had illustrated the title’s first year under writer Warren Ellis, to the characters. His story, however, featured urban carnage in New York City, including people being pulled out from under wrecked buildings. It was thus quickly cancelled in the wake of the 11 September attacks.

Reports vary as to how much of the contents for Widescreen were complete at the time of its cancellation, although it doesn’t seem to have been a lot. The special’s cover, however, had already been revealed.

The cover to the aborted The Authority: Widescreen.

The Authority #27

The second part of “Brave New World” was delayed twice: first by the departure of Frank Quitely as artist, who was replaced by Arthur Adams, and second by 9/11. When the story was finally published in The Authority #27, it was heavily censored, and it’s the controversy over this censorship that spurred this article.

The changes to the issue even included the cover, which had been redrawn, apparently at an earlier stage than the later changes to the content. Both versions of the cover depicted a bloody close-up of a tortured Apollo’s face, but Adams’s original cover (at left) is considered a great deal more brutal, while the printed version (at right) is considered less so, in large part because Apollo’s bruised and bloody face is turned away from the reader. Thus, instead of having to stare torture and brutality in the face, one can instead approach it from a slight remove. (Note that the “X”s in the original cover are a common illustrators’ vernacular to indicate that an inker should fill the area with solid black.)

Recall that the first chapter of “Brave New World” had apparently killed the titular team and introduced their replacements. This second chapter had been written by Mark Millar prior to the insertion of the four-issue “Transfer of Power” storyline. Thus, Millar begins this second chapter of “Brave New World” by introducing the new team by showing it in combat, accompanied by introductory captions for each member. This cleverly echoed how the original Authority had been introduced (by Ellis and Hitch) in issue #1.

In this sequence, on page four of the issue, the introduction of Teuton, the German replacement for Apollo, was redrawn. In the original version, he used himself as a projectile (which might have been too close to the idea of terrorists using commercial flights filled with civilians as projectiles):

In the published version, he throws some 30th-century teenagers (analogues for the Legion of Super-Heroes) to their deaths, thus still killing but hiding any actual death or blood from view:

This introductory sequence ends with the Colonel, an English football hooligan (soccer fan, for those in the states) who serves as replacement for Jenny Sparks. In both the original and printed versions, the Colonel literally kicks someone’s head off, in a perverse twist on the extremes of European football culture and the violence sometimes surrounding it.

But in the printed version, the details of the severed head have been erased, so as to make the killing seem less violent and the victim less human:

As the new Authority return to their base, the Carrier, Adams’s original art for page six featured new team member Rush’s right nipple:

In the printed version, the nipple as been erased, much like the details of the face of the Colonel’s victim:

On page eight, the Colonel returns to his quarters. In the original, they’re covered derogatory expressions of all kinds, as a way of outlining the character’s unthinking racism. (In an amusing twist, lesbians are, of course, welcomed, which instantly points out the hypocrisy of the anti-gay man who enjoys lesbian pornography.)

As the Colonel enters his quarters, he narrates how he enjoys the perks of his new job, which his overlords provided after he mentioned he fancied the dead Jenny Sparks, former leader of the original Authority. Shockingly, it seems that the powers-that-be have responded by digging up Jenny’s corpse, which the Colonel has apparently dressed in a nurse’s outfit. It’s hard to imagine a more transgressive image, nor a better illustration of the old Authority’s defeat, than this beloved and martyred leader’s corpse reduced to the object of a racist’s necrophiliac desires.

Yes, that was really intended to be the body of the real Jenny Sparks.

The printed version is considerably tamer. Instead of using the Colonel’s quarters to characterize him as a racist, he’s simply characterized as sloppy instead, with beer cans strewn about the entrance. And instead of Jenny Sparks’s corpse, the new Authority’s masters have instead responded to his fetish for her by providing three lookalikes.

The lookalikes are still a clever touch. One is dressed in a nurse’s outfit, not unlike Jenny’s corpse would have been, and it’s heartwarming to see that the Colonel’s nurse fetish wasn’t altered along with his necrophilia. The topless lookalike clothed only in a Union Jack undergarment invokes how Jenny wore the same pattern as a shirt, a clever appropriation. But as lovely as Arthur Adams draws (living) girls, the issue’s theme is that the new Authority has utterly conquered and humiliated the originals. In a way suited to Millar’s over-the-top run, Jenny’s corpse drove this point home. These three surrogates, while still a clever twist, considerably lessen this sense of defeat.

The issue soon turns to former team member Swift, who has been given to one of the new team’s overlords. The point of the sequence is to underline the original team’s humiliation by showing Swift reduced to a parody of patriarchal domesticity.

Thus, on the top of page 13 as originally scripted and drawn, Swift, formerly a vegetarian, is made to do the dishes… with her tongue.

In the revised version, Swift is still in the kitchen, only now it’s before the meal, as she slaves over an elaborate meal of chicken.

As the page continues, the domesticated Swift interacts with her new master. In the original, he summons her and uses her mouth as an ashtray in a shot that is heavily reminiscent of oral sex:

Of course, the cigar has long been considered a phallic symbol, a tradition Millar and Adams clearly intentionally play with. Indeed, the original version is remarkable for its orality: Swift’s mouth is used as a garbage disposal and an ashtray, leaving us to wonder what else it has received. This strongly recalls the psychological theory of the oral stage of development, supposedly the first stage of psychosexual development, in which an infant’s mouth is its primary source of sensual or erogenous contact. Those considered to be suffering from arrested development are sometimes accused of having never outgrown this stage, and this applies both to Millar’s depiction of the Authority’s (and the world’s) power-hungry overlords and, through Millar’s satires of super-heroes and comics culture, to super-hero comics readers.

In the revised version, Swift brings the dinner she has just prepared to her master, who brushes it off, putting his cigar out in it.

It’s a rather tame substitute, stripped of its erotic power and psychological implications, which are reduced to the 1950s stereotype of the housewife who cooks all day only to have her husband not appreciate it. Admittedly, the man’s sadism about the matter does suggest that dehumanizing the housewife was precisely the point of 1950s patriarchal values, although that could have come across in the original, through parallel dialogue.

As the issue approaches its close, it turns to former team member Jack Hawksmoor, now homeless and unable to activate his powers, causing him to question his sanity. The Authority’s overlords, including Seth, watch this from a NASA-like control room.

The original clearly features George W. Bush, the newly-elected President of the United States:

The new Authority’s overlords are certainly depicted as in bed with international corporations, so the inclusion of Bush made a lot of sense, given Bush’s seemingly unfailing pro-corporate stances. Of course, Millar’s The Authority has used real-world leaders before, most prominently in issue #13, which featured U.S. President Clinton and — at least in its original version — Jakarta’s President Habibe.

Bush’s inclusion, however, would suffer the same fate as Habibe’s. But because readers could be expected to identify Bush visually, he had to be redrawn. The replacement strongly resembles resembles Merkin Muffley from Dr. Strangelove — an apt choice, given that it, like Millar’s Authority, is so over-the-top.

Speculation raged, after this panel was released in January 2002, that Bush’s visage had been removed because criticizing him had been deemed unpatriotic in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Indeed, the cowardly word balloon assigned to him, in which he fears that Jack Hawksmoor might wake, could be seen to recall his fleeing the Eastern seaboard and his administration’s evacuation of the White House on the day of the attacks, which some criticized as showing panic.

And it did seem a bit of a double standard that Clinton had been used, without alteration, in issue #13, in which he threatened the Authority — a particularly unfair double standard, given that Clinton, while pro-corporate, wasn’t nearly as much so as Bush. By including Bush, Millar seemed to be hinting that, whatever the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans, they are united by service to their corporate masters.

The Authority #28

This censorship continued into The Authority #28 (published in February 2002), though apparently to a lesser extent because Millar and Adams had already adjusted the script and illustration, in the wake of their experience on the preceding issue.

In the middle of the story, Teuton, Apollo’s replacement, confesses his plan to sexually experiment with his captured and tortured predecessor, who happens to be gay. Because Apollo is a prisoner, this constitutes a threatened rape. (Apollo was actually raped earlier, albeit off-panel, in issue #14.) But Apollo’s lover the Midnighter enters and kills Teuton.

In the original version, Teuton begins to molest Apollo, heightening the sense of implied rape. When the Midnighter kills Teuton, we can see a nail gushing forth along with the human debris, implying that the Midnighter is using some sort of high-powered nail gun. (It’s not clear how a nail gun — or even a plasma blaster — could, to use a suggestive expression, penetrate Teuton’s head.)

In the printed version, the central two panels have been almost entirely redrawn, substituting a close-up of Teuton for the molestation panel and lessening the gore of the killing:

This desire to lessen gore was exactly the reason a red, detail obscuring filter had been applied to certain panels in Millar’s earliest issues, and it’s not clear why that effect wasn’t used here as well. It would certainly have added some artistic consistency to this effect’s usage, making it stand out a bit less in those early issues and helping to tie Millar’s final issues, under a different artist, to his earliest.

The altered panel depicting Teuton’s killing seemingly takes place a fraction of a second before the original panel, thus avoiding the need to depict gore. But it does add to the panel’s ambiguity. A nail-gun might be a less than satisfying weapon with which to kill Teuton, but at least in the original we knew what kind of device was being used. In the printed version, that’s not even clear, and Teuton’s head seems to be bulging or bubbling up where the nail (or whatever it is) would emerge a fraction of a second later, leaving us to wonder exactly what’s going on here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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3 Comments

  1. Colin Smith says:

    Collecting together my notes on The Authority as I am, I thought I really ought to just say what an excellant piece of work this is. It’s an inspiration. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: First Of The DC WTF Covers Revealed - Jim Starlin's Stormwatch Gives Us A New 52 Reboot? - Page 11

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