Exposing Status Quo Super-Heroics in Mark Millar’s The Authority

In 2000, a largely unknown writer named Mark Millar took over an already revolutionary title called The Authority, published by DC / WildStorm. Under the previous writer and series co-creator, Warren Ellis, the title had pioneered a new style of super-hero comics, following Hollywood blockbusters and dubbed the “widescreen” style. Millar, however, would use the title to renovate the genre itself, radically changing the super-hero’s relationship with the world around him. No longer would the super-hero sit idly by, imprisoning super-villains who would later escape while at best musing about social issues. Instead, the super-hero would turn his social conscience into action, transforming the world in the process.

Just as the governments within The Authority would object and strike back, so too would those within the comics industry who wanted to keep the super-hero politically safe. Millar’s work was censored from his very first issue even as DC / WildStorm exploited the title’s stellar sales with spin-offs and specials. As if this weren’t enough, 9/11 intervened and bought with it a period of shell-shocked censorship of art and political speech. Condemnations of The Authority poured in from all quarters while Millar’s final issues faced repeated delays and censorship. In the process, DC castrated one of its top-selling titles.

But Millar’s run would see completion. Its irreverence and its sensibilities would resonate through the veil of censorship, acting as nothing less than a beacon for what super-hero comics could — and should — be.

Stormwatch

Stormwatch had begun in 1993 during the heyday of Image Comics, when various creators had abandoned Marvel and formed their own publishing company. The second title from Jim Lee’s WildStorm (following WildC.A.T.s), Stormwatch was lackluster fare that sold mostly because of the wider high volume of comics sales and its association with the then-novel Image Comics. Such sales wouldn’t last — in part because the American comics industry as a hole collapsed around 1995 and in part because readers eventually realized that the quality simply wasn’t there.

StormWatch Vol. 1 #37That is, until Warren Ellis took over the title with #37. Ellis was an unlikely hero to the genre: the foul-mouthed Englishman openly detested super-heroes (or claimed to). But he was making his living as a comic book writer, and this meant scripting super-heroes. Then all but unknown, Ellis renovated Stormwatch, introducing new characters, escalating the violence, offering more characterization, and adding a political element. It was rough but promising stuff, unpolished but filled with raw energy. It also went all but unnoticed in the shrunken comics industry of the time, however.  WildStorm chose to relaunch Stormwatch, hoping a new #1 issue would get the title the attention it deserved.  Ellis concluded the old title with the spectacular “Change or Die” storyline, running in Stormwatch #47-50.  It debuted a character named Jenny Sparks, the spirit of the tumultuous 20th Century.  A tough female British smoker, she argued that super-heroes perpetuated the status quo, taking out crazy super-villains in tights only to leave a corrupt world with real horrors untouched.

Despite the new #1 issue and promotions that included a special preview story designed to draw attention to the new series, the second volume of Stormwatch also lagged in sales.  Ellis introduced new characters and added a conspiratorial element, but to no avail.  The title’s artists, without whose participation Ellis said he would not have wanted to relaunch the title, departed after only three issues.  But then Ellis fell in love with the work of the new artists, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary.  With sales not improving and the title veering towards cancellation, Ellis conspired with Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary to again relaunch the book, this time as something more commercial.

To finish off the second Stormwatch series, Ellis concocted a cruel but radical move.  Having been handed the task of writing the inter-company crossover WildC.A.T.s / Aliens, Ellis decided not to write just another inconsequential inter-company team-up.  The WildC.A.T.s needed to respond to an attack of the vicious aliens, so Ellis had the aliens wipe out almost all of the Stormwatch team — not only in an inter-company crossover, but one in which they weren’t even the stars.  Stormwatch concluded with the following issue, #11 (cover-dated September 1998).  Still, almost no one noticed.

Warren Ellis’s The Authority

DC Comics purchased Jim Lee’s WildStorm Studios shortly thereafter, giving the new title Ellis had planned a big boost of attention.  With Hitch and Neary, Stormwatch was thus relaunched as The Authority (with the first issue carrying a May 1999 cover-date).  WildStorm, Ellis, and artist John Cassiday almost simultaneously launched Planetary, a comic book about a small team of investigators into the hidden history of WildStorm’s super-hero universe.  Whether it was the attention DC brought or the slicker, better colored look of the two new books, both books became hits — quickly rocketing no less than three creators to the status of masters:  Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, and John Cassiday.  They would also feel spectacularly new, reinvigorating a genre that was feeling tired if not dead.

For The Authority, Ellis had put together a formula that critics would quickly dub “widscreen” super-heroics.  Modeled after big budget action movies, each story would run four issues, be rapidly paced, and see expertly choreographed action and widespread carnage the likes of which Hollywood would never have been able to match.  Any character development would have to occur quickly, between action scenes, and in snappy, sparse dialogue.  And importantly, The Authority would have no qualms about killing vicious murderers.

The Authority Vol. 1 #1 pageThe first issue opened with a legion of Superman-like villains decimating the city of Moscow. Jenny Sparks, with a nearly all-powerful team partially comprised of Stormwatch characters and living aboard a gigantic inter-dimensional spaceship, then fought the same villains as they destroyed much of London.  Rallying, the team fought a similar assault on Los Angeles while the team’s vicious Midnighter literally drove their enormous spaceship along the Earth, ripping apart the lead villain’s headquarters.  Many voted this the single best moment in all of comics in 1999.

Any good sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster has to up the stakes of the original, and Ellis did just that.  His second four-issue storyline saw an all-out invasion by a parallel Earth’s high-tech alien rulers.  Jenny Sparks and the Authority again won by taking out the villain’s headquarters — this time by traveling to the invaders’ dimension and literally holding all of Italy in place while the Earth continued its rotation, thereby burying the entire peninsula underwater.  In doing so, The Authority had taken its willingness to kill to the next level, eradicating an entire planet’s culture of exploitation and rape camps.

The Authority Vol. 1 #11 pageThere was only so long that this sort of upping of stakes could continue.  Knowing this, Ellis conceptualized his third storyline’s villain as God — and arranged, along with his artists, to leave the series with #12.  This version of God, however, was a planet-sized alien that planned to eliminate all life on Earth and got off to a good start.  Jenny Sparks electrocuted the alien’s brain, but died herself — appropriately, for the spirit of the 20th Century, at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2000.

But while Ellis called this new dramatic style a dumbing down of his earlier tone, fans rallied to it for more than the action.  This was the super-hero world turned loose, with no restrictions keeping villains from simply causing massive damage, plowing through skyscrapers and the like.  It might have been paced quicker than a Hollywood blockbuster, but there was an element of realism at work, and not only in Hitch’s tight, seemingly effortless linework.  This was what super-villains would do in the real world, and this was the hard line super-heroes would have to take in response.

The departure of both writer and artist left the popular title in limbo.  Ellis had named writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely as his preferred successors, and WildStorm had agreed despite the fact that most comics readers didn’t know their names.  Millar had written Swamp Thing years before and some issues of Superman Adventures in the interim, but the work wasn’t coming in and, he said, he was considering withdrawing from comics.  Quitely had illustrated the four-issue mini-series Flex Mentallo and three issues of 2020 Visions, both for Vertigo, but his artwork seemed antithetical to the effortless grace of Hitch.  Many fans doubted these new creators could match their predecessors.

In fact, they would exceed them, transforming the title — and the entire super-hero genre — all over again.

Millar’s Nativity

Mark Millar and Frank Quitely planned to stay on the title for a year of four-issue stories, then turn the book over to another hand-picked team. It looked like The Authority was becoming a kind of super-hero journal wherein great creators could really let loose with their ideas, changing the entire genre in the process. It looked like the only rule for The Authority was to be bold in one’s vision — to do something new in order to meet the challenge set by one’s predecessors.

Millar and Quitely did just that. Millar wanted to begin where all other super-team books left off. He took Jenny Sparks’s notion of changing the world for the better, rather than fighting super-villains simply to restore the status quo, to the logical extreme: #13 opens with the Authority intervening in world politics, overthrowing a corrupt regime known for killing dissidents and starving its own people. As a result, the Authority become celebrities, interviewed as such and featured on magazine covers; super-models and actors party and have sex with the Authority on the team’s massive spaceship. Jack Hawksmoor, now the team’s leader, even tells off then-President Bill Clinton when he objects. The super-hero had asserted his power against the status quo in the most dramatic way possible. In response, government officials and the 2000 Presidential candidates condemned the team, which had become overnight celebrities. As team member The Doctor said while pouring a libation on Jenny Sparks’s grave, the Authority had finally taken that brave step towards making a better world “and they love us for it.”

The Authority Vol. 1 #13 pageTo be sure, there were precedents to Millar’s political super-heroes. During World War II, of course, super-heroes had openly fought the Axis; a special two-page Superman insert in Look magazine showed readers how easily the hero would end the war. While more gutsy than later stories, the super-hero still operated as an unquestioning patriotic extension of his government. Marvel’s mid-1980s mini-series Squadron Supreme, scripted by Mark Gruenwald, had been celebrated for having its titular super-team take over the world after a global disaster. But it was tame fare by comparison, not showing the actual takeover, which occurred only out of necessity and not political consciousness. Moreover, the series was still dominated by traditional super-heroic soap operas and super-heroic battles. In Watchmen, the Nixon administration used Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam — but there the super-hero is a pawn of the government rather than an independent activist. When super-heroes such as Superman occasionally intervened in despotic foreign nations, they generally regretted it and learned their lesson. What’s more, they did so without killing or overthrowing the regime. What Millar had done, by contrast, was to turn super-heroes as political activists loose.

The Authority Vol. 1 #13 pageThere was, also, a perversity immediately apparent in Millar’s work. When the Authority attempt to secure Jenny Quantum, Jenny Sparks reincarnated as the spirit of the 21st Century, they face a government-run group of super-heroes that obviously parallels Marvel Comics’ Avengers. Over the course of the storyline, virtually every Marvel Comics hero is featured in modified form as part of a covert super-hero project that remains from the Cold War. Their leader — an old, dwarfish, savage version of Jack Kirby — and the “heroes” themselves are shown as cruel: Tank Man (a version of Iron Man) explodes a full nursery, believing Jenny Quantum inside. The Captain America analogue has the compulsion to rape everyone he defeats, actualizing his conquest sexually, and rapes none other than the Authority member Apollo before the Midnighter, Apollo’s gay lover, has his revenge by raping back — with a jackhammer. Apollo flies through the head of a version of Giant Man, whose legs have already been vaporized; Apollo later uses his heat vision to cut the legs off the version of Captain America.  References to the stupidity of comic book characters, including their defense of the status quo, abound. It was a literalization of what Millar had stated to the press:

The thing I had in mind when I took on The Authority, the brief I had in my head when I started the first page, was that this book should begin where the Justice League and The Avengers draw the line.

Revolutionary from his first panel, Millar literally kills off the past history of super-heroes, paving over their corpses in order to build a new utopia.  A few moments of cleverness stand out as truly revolutionary in a storyline full of cleverness:  most of all, the ending — in which, in the context of an ultra-violent story, the brilliant mad scientist villain is not killed but offered a job working for the Authority to make the world a better place — which was, after all, his goal all along. But this was not only a brilliantly original move in terms of the narrative. This was nothing less than Kirby himself, corrupted by the corporate comic culture he spawned, being co-opted, his original utopian spirit (the man himself had died, having made — like his alter ego here — many bitter statements about the industry in the years prior, and would probably not have approved of Millar’s work), being pulled into the ranks of The Authority, into this transformation of the genre, this new work that stripped away the bullshit.

The Authority Vol. 1 #16 pagesMillar’s first storyline, “The Nativity,” was a tour de force that stands as a classic — and it launched the new creative team to immense popularity just as it had Ellis and Hitch before them.  Millar and Quitely, who had long labored in obscurity, were becoming celebrities just like their characters — for doing things their way, for fucking things up.

“Earth Inferno,” Spin-offs, and Fill-ins

Things went downhill from there, however. The next two issues, for the first time since the title began, had art by a fill-in artist — a good one, to be sure, but not as good as Quitely and certainly inconsistent with Quitely’s style. Quitely, besides being slower than many artists (who work at an alarmingly fast speed due to the demands of monthly publication), took time off to illustrate the final issue of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. It was understandable: The Invisibles was nothing if not a noble cause, and that title’s final issue was probably itself one of the greatest works of literature ever published. But it threw off the new storyline, which featured the seemingly invincible Authority battling the one foe they might not be able to defeat — the Earth itself.

The Authority Vol. 1 #17 pageWe saw the Authority intervening more in world affairs, including getting the Russians to withdraw from Chechnia and the Chinese from Tibet. It was moving; it was wonderful; it was what super-heroes should be doing. We also saw New York devastated by a tsunami — raising the issue of how the world could deal with all of this devastation. Eventually, we saw a super-villain prison outside of time and the moving evacuation of the entire planet’s population to myriad interesting alternate Earths. Quitely did return for the second half of the storyline, and though the book lost a month in addition to the two artistic fill-in issues, all seemed right as the team headed into their final four-issue storyline.

The situation of The Authority was made worse during this time, however, by the beginning of WildStorm’s spin-offs designed to capitalize on the title’s remarkable success, which had begun with its first issue and, in the face of all expectations, actually become much stronger under the new creative team.  Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority was the first spin-off — a mini-series that, while below the quality of the main book, was at least written by Mark Millar. It attempted to fill in the gap between Stormwatch and The Authority and gave readers background information on a number of characters.  Around the start of this mini-series came Planetary & The Authority: Ruling the World, a prestige-format one-shot written by none other than Warren Ellis and featuring the great art of Phil Jimenez — all quite impressive, though the story itself had some pacing problems. Even these, however, shattered the four-issue storyline pattern that had worked so well for the book. A few months later, WildStorm published The Authority Annual 2000 as part of a crossover through its 2000 annuals, resulting in a competent story with good art, though one utterly inconsequential and disposable. Had the later spin-offs retained the quality of these three, however, the house Jenny Sparks built would have remained quite solid. In fact, the worst was yet to come.

The Authority Vol. 1 #21 pageBefore the final four-issue storyline of the Mark Millar year could commence, however, we got a fill-in issue. Issue #21 also served as an introduction to the new monthly spin-off, The Monarchy, which would feature the characters from Stormwatch that had been largely dropped in The Authority. The scale was to be more limited, leaving the epic battles to the Authority and the problems too small for the Authority’s attention to this new team. Issue #21, however, was hardly an issue of The Authority: not only did it break the structure of the book by not being a part of a four-issue story (it didn’t even feature the format of the title page, with a black bar at the top and bottom of a single wide panel) and not featuring any members of that year’s creative team, but it destroyed the book’s numbering — the second year would have to finish two months late and with #25 instead of #24. Combined with the two fill-in issues that began “Earth Inferno,” Frank Quitely had only illustrated two issues of the last five. That the title was not simply delayed, putting quality (or at least consistency) over quantity (i.e. the income from a monthly title), stood at sharp odds with a title that had been defined by great creators being given the liberty to go crazy with a title.

The Authority Vol. 1 #14 pageMoreover, WildStorm had been mildly censoring the new team from the beginning — making the overthrown dictator in #13 a generic one instead of a specific one in a specific country (which might make the sequence seem like a writer’s revenge fantasy against a real-world ruler, as if such a thing were bad) and insisting that Apollo’s flight through the version of Giant Man, beautifully rendered by Quitely, have a red filter applied to it in order to obscure the violence. Millar had been writing around such problems — making the version of Captain America’s many rapes strongly implicit rather than explicit, for example. Millar and Quitely had actually talked of quitting when they were censored.

All these problems aside, however, we were going to get Millar’s final storyline, completely pencilled by Quitely, concluding in #25 (rather than #24) with a new one-year run by some new, unannounced team to follow and hopefully to fuck things up all over again.

The First Derailment (Quitely), Plus More Spin-offs and Fill-ins

the final page of The Authority Vol. 1 #22Issue #22 was published on schedule, though two months behind and numbered one higher than it should have been. And it was unimaginably fabulous. The G7 economies weren’t going to lie down for The Authority’s threat to their hegemony. They unleashed a super-powered hillbilly who killed The Authority, member by member. This done, they replaced the team with focus-grouped replacements, one from each of the G7 states. Millar had decided to do the unthinkable, however logical, apparently killing off the entire team and having them replaced within a single issue.

But as soon as it was published, the trade press reported that Frank Quitely had left the title, having been offered nothing less than Marvel Comics’ X-Men, a very high-profile book soon to be revamped, retitled New X-Men, and given Grant Morrison as a writer. Mark Millar had already begun Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men, another high-profile book — though this had not sabotaged The Authority because it takes less time to write a book than to illustrate one. As a result of Quitely’s sudden departure, The Authority had been pulled from the schedule, meaning (because of the distribution system) that a new issue could not arrive for at least four months. It seemed that The Authority was a victim of its own success. This was particularly upsetting because the entire team had just apparently been killed.

The Authority Vol. 1 #23 pageWildStorm soon announced that Arthur Adams was to fill in for Quitely and complete the “Brave New World” storyline. Adams had apparently been Millar’s choice, and it was a respectable move under bad circumstances.  But Adams had other commitments that would delay this completion. WildStorm thus announced an intermediary storyline, “Transfer of Power,” to have four parts but to take place after #22 — during the “Brave New World” storyline. It made sense, in a way; after all, a new, government-run Authority had been featured in #22, ready to substitute for the old, government-challenging one. Written by Tom Peyer (who many good writers like but whose work is tremendously inconsistent) and pencilled by Dustin Nguyen (a good artist but with little published work), “Transfer of Power” would feature the new Authority during its early days, being vicious instruments of the elite. Their first act was to dump the refugees in the Authority’s spaceship onto an alternate Earth. They drew their fights — much like mainstream super-heroes, a parallel not explored in the story — away from cities and towards the poor who were a problem for ruling politicians and the Alaskan wilderness that could not be developed by oil concerns because it was too pristine. The story also featured a super-hero priest brought in for camera opportunities and propaganda about how this Authority had so respected the former one. Moreover, the Apollo equivalent cried constantly at the war crimes they were committing, while the Midnighter equivalent feared being thought a homosexual — a phobia that ultimately, and delightfully perversely, saved the day. It had its moments, and was definitely far above average, but it was no Warren Ellis or Mark Millar.

Issue #27, which featured part two of Millar’s final storyline, was scheduled to carry a December 2001 cover date. Issue #22, the first part of the storyline, had carried a March 2001 cover date. In the interim, WildStorm not only published a four-issue fill-in storyline but also two short Authority stories in Wildstorm Summer Special and an appearance by the Authority in the childish WildStorm series Gen13. But Wildstorm began two spin-off series in this time. The Monarchy, which had used The Authority #21 as a lead-in, was published all through the absence of Millar issues.  Regrettably, this series was of fairly poor quality. The Establishment used a short back-up story in The Authority #24 as a lead-in and premiered the same week the fill-in storyline “Transfer of Power” concluded. Just as regrettably, this series, while featuring a few good ideas, was largely incomprehensible.

By issue #22, Millar’s year on The Authority was already running two months late (due to a fill-in and a missed month).  Now Millar’s storyline was scheduled to wrap up some ten months later than it had been originally — and it was scheduled to do so as just one of three titles, the other two being far below the par set by Millar and Ellis.

The Second Derailment (9/11), the Widescreen Retreat, and the Successors’ Withdrawal

On 11 September 2001, just one day before the last issue of the four-part fill-in storyline (“Transfer of Power”) was published, everything went to hell. That day, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by three of four hijacked planes. The twin towers of the World Trade Center that had defined the New York skyline were reduced to rubble; the fact that the terrorists had used passengers on commercial jets as cannonballs to slam into targets, including the utter destruction of two civilian skyscrapers filled with people, some of whom had jumped rather than be burned alive, only added horror to a staggering numerical death toll as New York City ordered 4000 body bags — then thought to be a rather conservative number.

In the wake of this tragedy, while sentiments of shock were heard around the world, there was immediate concern over how this would affect comic books, especially after a number of big-budget but violent Hollywood films were indefinitely postponed. But if any title was to be affected by this paranoia in the artistic community over depicting violence on a grand scale, it would be certainly be The Authority, the book that had partially made its reputation by depicting terrorism and death on a scale paralleled only by the 9/11 attacks. In the wake of a real life attack, fictional ones seemed in bad taste — and bad taste is fine as long as it doesn’t lead to bad publicity for a multi-national corporation.

The Authority: Widescreen, a 48-page special, had been solicited just a few weeks prior and was due to arrive some two months later. It was to feature an 18-page Jenny Sparks and Jenny Quantum story with writing and art by Bryan Hitch, the original artist on the title, not to mention a wraparound cover by Hitch and Andrew Currie. (It was also to feature a tale of Apollo and the Midnighter with a Tom Peyer script and Cary Nord art, as well as pin-ups by John Cassaday, Seth Fisher, Michael Golden, Gene Ha, Jose Ladronn, Jim Lee, and Matt Wagner.) Because Hitch’s tale featured carnage in New York City, the special was indefinitely postponed with Hitch’s agreement. Hitch stated to the press:

The reason we all thought to delay or suspend publication was basically because the entire story takes place against the backdrop of appalling devastation in New York. The opening scene of the story features a multipage heavily detailed sequence of destruction as a very large area of the city is leveled due to a spreading shockwave caused by the opening of a quantum tunnel on Fifth Avenue. While Jenny Sparks, The Engineer and The Doctor put their heads together to solve the problem, the rest of the team were shown searching for survivors and injured amongst the devastation.

One could perhaps understand this particular case of censorship, especially given that Hitch had reportedly barely begun illustrating the story and that he had consented to stop its production. Later changes to The Authority would not be as amenable.

the first page of The Authority Vol. 1 #27Shortly thereafter, Mark Millar revealed that The Authority #27, though finished, was to be delayed yet again. Fans were in an uproar, some claiming to boycott DC Comics. Supposedly, the delay was because, as was earlier the case with the violence in #14, WildStorm wanted to make a few minor changes. Initially, Mark Millar was reassuring. He told the press that the delay would only be a couple weeks to make mild changes, stating:

The Authority’s trademarked widescreen action is noticeably missing from this final arc. As anyone who read part one of “Brave New World” knows, it’s really more of an up-close-and-dirty story where the team are taken down by corporate interests in the G7 economies. The only “wide-screen” action in the next three issues are [sic] a five-page sequence where the new team annihilate thirty super-human teenagers from the 30th Century and it’s really nothing anyone in editorial has complained about. I’m sure — and hoping — that this really is a storm in a teacup. As far as I know, there’s no real problem with content and the issue will be released pretty much as is.

Within a few weeks, however, DC announced a that changes would be made — being far less diplomatic in describing them — and announced a new schedule that had #27 published in December, some three months after the attacks.

As if this were not enough, the much-anticipated team scheduled to replace Millar backed out. Brian Azzarello (then writing 100 Bullets and Hellblazer for DC’s Vertigo imprint) and Steve Dillon (famous for his work with Garth Ennis on Preacher and Punisher) had been announced as the creative team for the year to follow Millar. Due to the hyper-sensitive environment after the terrorist attack, which included a wave of anthrax attacks through the mail (and a plane crashing into a neighborhood in New York, ironically, supposedly due to mechanical failure), Azzarello backed out of the project, saying that the kind of stories he had planned would be utterly impossible. His focus was apparently to be religious, and his plans apparently included making Jesus Christ into team member The Doctor’s successor. Since Azzarello had not talked about intending to fill his work on The Authority with excessive violence, the patriotic didacticism in the air and the analogous self-censoring urge at DC were likely the real culprits. However the causes are dissected, the fact remained that not only had the title’s present storyline been postponed hideously, but now its future had been utterly changed.

The Backlash

Another rapid effect of the terrorist attack, one worse than that on The Authority, ocurred to the industry as a whole.  The intelligence of The Authority had been linked to violence, and the curtailing of violence following the attack acted as a catalyst for a backlash against The Authority. Creators who felt resentful of the sudden fame given to the title’s creative teams could now make statements such as this hypothetical one:

I’ve never approved of the violence in that title. When I use violence, I try to characterize its results — to show that these are people suffering. The Authority didn’t do that. So the sensitivity now over violence won’t change me one bit. But I hope it reigns in this excess.

Such responses were more a sign of inner resentment and of unease at the unapologetic way the super-hero genre had been changed. The Superman titles had incorporated an Authority-like team and global threats, but most had not. A string of annual tabloid-sized specials by writer Paul Dini and painter Alex Ross often had super-heroes examine social issues, but those heroes universally learned the lesson not to intervene by story’s end. These were good stories, but Millar’s Authority had rendered them tame, if not altogether moot. While this metaphor is certainly exaggerated, the creators who reacted against The Authority seemed all too much like filmmakers attacking talkies as lacking subtlety: the world, once changed, is different forevermore; eyes, once opened, cannot easily be closed. As the World Trade Center disaster changed global politics and the world’s conception of America irrevocably, so The Authority had violently changed super-heroics — and a lot of creative people with egos had their livelihood — or at least their relevancy — threatened as a result.

No less than celebrated writer Grant Morrison condemned The Authority was an extreme version of the power fantasy that had always been a part of super-heroics. He pointed out to that violence wasn’t going to liberate Tibet and claimed that depicting so was an easy out. Of course, this was nonsense; given the Authority’s power, it would have been a crime not to do as much — and depicting this was simply a result of the “what if?” school of writing that takes a possibility such as super-powers and follows it through to its logical conclusions. That no one else dared write such a passage previously was the remarkable thing.

Moreover, it could be said that the use of violence — or, in the case of the Authority’s liberation of Tibet, the threat of violence — in such an instance makes the inverse argument than it would otherwise (an effect similar to Milton’s depictions of angelic beings in Paradise Lost): what is good for gods like the Authority is not necessarily good for humans — in fact, depicting something as good for gods may intrinsically argue that it is not good for us weak people here on Earth. Wasn’t this implicit from the beginning of The Authority through Jenny Sparks’s snappy dialogue that, while charming to read, is detestable and maddeningly annoying if said by a human being on the street?

All of this smacked of a backlash, but it was one of misreading. After all, wasn’t such a backlash incorporated into Millar’s final storyline, as the powers-that-be in the world resist the change represented by the Authority and seek instead a return to the old status quo? Millar’s work had incorporated its own critique. This seemed lost on far too many.

Even Warren Ellis got into the act, writing (on his message boards in February 2002),

Bryan [Hitch]’s warm, personable, sexy characters worked well to obscure the fact that The Authority are, really, The Bad Guys.  I mean, come on.  A band of freaks headed by a one-hundred-year-old alcoholic 1) annihilate a city and steal a teleportation process that they will eventually see unleashed on the world and probably **** the structure of society in doing so 2) wipe out a country, expunge a culture and perform blackmail-with-menaces on an entire planet and 3) kill God.  The Authority are right out of Judge Dredd:  They Are The Law. Look at the third story: Jenny Sparks says “behave yourselves” and a rioting planet drops its arms and stands quietly until she comes back.

Ellis’s comments clearly had more to do with his run, from which all of his examples come, than with Millar’s. Moreover, Judge Dredd acted as an authoritarian extension of the law, representing exactly the kind of despotic regime The Authority targeted. But Ellis’s statement was revisionist history on his part, as well as, perhaps, a move to put himself back into the spotlight — or even to court DC editorial to hire him back on the title, which he openly discussed as a possibility.

It also seemed lost on critics of The Authority that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden were exactly the kind of murdering, oppressive despots who The Authority would have targeted. They would have done so, of course, without turning a blind eye to any hypocrisy on the part of the United States and other post-industrial governments. The Authority might even have gotten around to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its famous crimes against its own population. While The Authority would likely have done so without even the U.N. consultation that the Bush administration sought, it would equally not have trumped up evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and would not have offered no-bid contracts to American companies such as Halliburton. Other post-9/11 Bush rhetorical enemies, such as North Korea, would also likely be on The Authority’s hit list.  Whatever mocking of Bush and depiction of 9/11-like carnage, The Authority certainly wasn’t a reflexive attack upon Bush-style condemnations of oppressive regimes — it just didn’t limits its condemnations to non-Western nations.

Perhaps the critics could have been silenced by publishing a story in which The Authority went after the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, but blanket condemnations of The Authority as if they were terrorists must have seemed easier than recognizing the title as the perfect super-hero forum to engage such ideas. Millar would probably have even been allowed to use Osama bin Laden himself, rather than substituting a generic tyrant.

The Authority certainly blurred the lines between good and bad, but only in a world this fucked up, this accommodated to politicians explaining why killing civilians en masse is acceptable and alleviating genocide and starvation around the world isn’t practical, could people decry The Authority’s actions. Certainly, civilians were killed. Certainly, The Authority’s actions did not take into account the global politics that would play out in the real world, the escalations of violence that every nation from China to the United States would take. But when you have the power to change things, to just feed people, to just save people from regimes that are detaining and killing them, you have to do something as a moral person.

For super-heroes, as for those of us who are responsible today, the world, the cosmos, is our neighborhood, our polis. What Millar did was put Ellis’s philosophy, as espoused by Jenny Sparks, into practice and try to make the world a finer place. If Ellis, like so many others, couldn’t handle it (which should be no surprise, as he never did put that philosophy into practice), he gets left behind too. One could criticize the way The Authority intervened, certainly, but not that they did so. The alternative is super-heroes (and people) who put “the American way” before “truth” and “justice.” Moreover, as far as Ellis is concerned, Millar had merely carried out, however brilliantly, the set-up that Ellis had so capably offered: Millar’s Authority had only put into action Jenny Sparks’s cry for a “finer world.”

The Conclusion Trickles in

The Authority #27, containing Arthur Adams’s rendition of the second part of Millar’s “Brave New World,” was indeed published in December, according to DC’s twice revised publication schedule. Millar’s — and fans’ — hope for only minor changes was not, however, answered. Page after page of changes, some minor and some not so minor, began to circulate on the internet after reportedly being leaked by WildStorm personnel, angry at DC’s intervention, to comics gossip columnist Rich Johnston.

The Authority Vol. 1 #27 pageIn the original version, Millar had the new team leader have sex with the corpse of martyred team leader Jenny Sparks, actualizing what the new team was doing to the old one; the revised version gave him three women dressed as Jenny Sparks. President Bush, considered immune from satire after 9/11, was changed to an unnamed government official despite President Clinton’s appearance in Millar’s first issue. In addition, nipples were removed and the violence toned down.

More importantly, the printed version felt censored, as if areas of panels and moments in the script were repressed and uniquely lacking the mind-blowing effects that his earlier issues had produced in readers’ brains on a page-by-page basis. This is not to say that #27 did not have some of this effect, merely that it seemed muted. The news of the alterations, however, did not go over well, especially given that the second part of the storyline was published a full year, rather than a month, after the first.

The Authority #28 saw print in February, some two months after the preceding issue. It too would be clouded by scandal, though for different reasons. First, Arthur Adams quit, leaving the storyline’s final installment without an artist, prior to the issue’s publication. Between delayed scripts and having to redraw so much artwork, Adams had found his experience on The Authority less rewarding than expected. Secondly, although alterations to #28 had been much less than to #27, this was due to much tamer — and in some places illogical or quite unclear — story. A couple of weeks after publication, news broke that Grant Morrison had secretly written the original script for the issue as a favor to Mark Millar, who was in the hospital with what doctors thought was cancer. Millar had then somewhat rewritten the script in accordance with his own and DC’s desires.

the first page of The Authority Vol. 1 #29The Authority #29 ( #24) was finally published in May 2002, three months after the preceding issue. Featuring the capable art of Gary Erskine, it wrapped up the storyline, feeling a bit rushed but still possessing a good deal of brilliance — and even irreverence, from a gay kiss and marriage to the depiction of hillbillies as animal-rapists, that one could only be surprised had not been censored. An era had ended, but its glory had faded some time before. The Authority, as characters, survived, but their future as planned was limited to a special, by Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry, that had originally been intended to be published after Millar’s run as the final two issues of the series.

Ellis’s run had been brilliant and concise. Millar’s run, while indisputably brilliant, had been hampered by delays and quality-lessening decisions on the part of DC / WildStorm. Whereas the Warren Ellis year had been published over the course of a year and had featured the same artistic team, the Mark Millar “year” had been published over the course of over two years. Its main artist, Frank Quitely, had illustrated just seven of Millar’s twelve belated issues — and this was not even counting the five fill-in issues, the Jenny Sparks mini-series, the annual, and the special. The title’s numbering had gotten off by five, all of which had been fill-ins without any Millar involvement, and one of these five had violated the four-issue storyline rule. By the publication of the final issue, The Monarchy, begun when just three issues remained of Millar’s run, had already run its 12-issue course (thirteen with The Authority #21 included), and The Establishment (issue #9 of which was published on the same day as the final issue of The Authority) was already slated for cancellation. Millar’s contribution had been mind-bendingly good, but the publication itself had been a disaster in many ways.

Between the publicaton of issue #28 and that of issue #29, Millar (then successful at Marvel not only with Ultimate X-Men but with The Ultimates, the latter clearly somewhat modeled after The Authority itself) summed up his feelings about the experience:

The Authority was a very wounding experience in many ways. The way the book was treated by DC when it was their third or fourth biggest seller and fastest rising book was disgusting. Absolutely unprecedented in the medium. However, the good outweighed the bad.

Asked if he would work with DC in the future, Millar responded in more detail:

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.

As always, it was the art, the work itself, that would remain.

After Millar

DC and WildStorm wouldn’t leave The Authority unpublished forever. While contemplating the next step to take with the controversial property, WildStorm offered Garth Ennis’s comedic two-issue storyline as a single-issue special and launched a new version of Stormwatch entitled Stormwatch: Team Achilles and starring non-powered military operatives who were prepared to take down super-powered characters who, like The Authority, had gotten out of hand. Series writer Micah Ian Wright, in a promotional interview, positioned the series as directly opposed to The Authority: “Faced with beings of absolute power willing to impose their Authority upon us, what do the freely elected democracies of the world have to do to protect themselves from becoming enslaved by these godlike people?” Wright went further, calling The Authority “a group of superhumans who feel that they know what’s best for the rest of us and who are willing to kill us to see their will carried out” and summing up his new series as “everyman vs. the uberman.” The Authority even guest-starred in the series, where it was shown as incompetent and played as villains, much as Ellis had reversed himself to describe them.

Coup d’ÉtatThe Authority was soon brought back in a special and then an ongoing series, both written by Robbie Morrison. Critics felt that the new series was a pale imitation of the original. In 2004, WildStorm concocted to have The Authority take over the United States in a crossover entitled Coup d’État. It was not enough to save either title, and both The Authority and Stormwatch: Team Achilles were cancelled not longafter. In fact, the latter was cancelled amidst another bout of controversy as its writer Micah Ian Wright, who had long claimed to have been an army ranger, was revealed to have lied. He apologized, saying he had been friends with so many rangers that he had felt as if he were one of them, but it wasn’t enough. Not only did DC fire him, but did not publish his and the title’s final issue, leaving the last storyline unresolved.

Writer Ed Brubaker and penciller Dustin Nguyen were brought in to resurrect The Authority for The Authority: Revolution, a 12-issue mini-series running from 2004 to 2005. The team changed and lost control of the United States, but critics remained unimpressed.

As of this present writing, WildStorm reportedly plans to relaunch its entire line, including The Authority, sometime in 2006.

Mark Millar, meanwhile, had remained one of the hottest writers in American comics.  Signing an exclusive contract with Marvel, he went from Ultimate X-Men to creating the hugely successful and more mildly revolutionary The Ultimates with former Authority artist Bryan Hitch.  In addition to celebrated runs on Marvel’s Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Ultimate Fantastic Four, he published his own line of creator-owned mini-series, including the spectacularly successful violent super-hero series Wanted and the modern Jesus Christ story Chosen, through various publishers.

Final Words

The final words of Millar’s final issue, spoken by Jack Hawksmoor, offered not only a commentary on The Authority’s real-world interventionalism but how Millar’s run had changed super-heroics:

the final page of The Authority Vol. 1 #29Even with all the crap they [DC editorial and the industry] threw at us, we completely changed the [super-hero] landscape over the last twelve months [two years and two months]. Superheroes walk different now.  Superheroes talk different. Even the people who disagreed with us have ended up just following our lead. Guys who can hear atoms whizzing around [such as Superman] can’t get away with ignoring screams for help from third world concentration camps anymore. Capes and spandex just don’t get the same adulation they used to get for going out every night and kicking the hell out of poor people. We’ve changed things forever, Angie. There’s no going back now.

Like in the wake of 9/11, the world feels different after the accomplishment of Millar’s Authority. A fictional genre may go back, but a reading populace may not. Super-heroes defending the status quo, which they did even in Ellis’s Authority, can still be written. Super-heroes still will battle other idiots in capes while ignoring the world’s clear injustices. But we, as a literate public, cannot read such somnambulistic tales in quite the same way — because, ultimately, we remember The Authority and how they, not unproblematically, tried to make a finer world.

A version of this essay was read at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities at the Sheraton Hotel in Waikiki (Honolulu, Hawaii) on Sunday, 12 January 2003.

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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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