One of the defining comic books of recent years, THE AUTHORITY became a victim of its own notoriety. With a relaunch approaching, Ninth Art looks back on two stories from the first volume's creative teams.
21 February 2003

Writers: Warren Ellis, Mark Millar
Artists: Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, Frank Quitely, Trevor Scott, Scott Williams and Mark Irwin
Letters: Ryan Cline/IDW
Colourists: Laura Depuy and David Baron
Price: $17.95
Publisher: DC Wildstorm
Collecting THE AUTHORITY #9-16
ISBN: 1563897563

Hand on my heart, I freely admit that THE AUTHORITY was one of those titles I looked forward to with fanboy glee back in early 1999. STORMWATCH under Warren Ellis was a book worth reading, far removed from the spandex posturing it started out as; this new iteration looked to be even better. And for a year, THE AUTHORITY was as good as superhero comics get. When Ellis departed, taking Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary with him, I took the loss on the chin and moved on.

Then along came Mark Millar and Frank Quitely...

There's a quote on the back cover of the UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT collection - culled from Entertainment Weekly - that lauds THE AUTHORITY as being "the most outrageous superhero comic being published today". That sheer outrageousness led to the title being rested, due to the uneasy tension between creative impulse and editorial dictates; it's now being relaunched, but recapturing what made THE AUTHORITY so special may, I suspect, prove a challenge.

Those three benchmark stories by the Ellis/Hitch/Neary combo - their final one, 'Outer Dark', is included here - added a new spin to the tired superhero genre, by reinventing how such narratives could be told. As Ellis himself put it in an online interview, the mandate "was [to] apply massive decompression ... to examine fight scenes from different angles ... just open it all the hell up and see what happens." 'Outer Dark' takes this approach to its apogee, as Jenny Sparks and her crew attempt to ward off a god-level biological entity intent on (un)terraforming our planet.

'Outer Dark' is Ellis in Michael Bay mode, with things exploding on the left and people getting seven shades of you-know-what kicked out of 'em on the right. There is the patented snarky repartee, to be sure, but don't mistake the icing for the cake; Ellis has often called attention to the mechanics of storytelling, and his work on THE AUTHORITY (and STORMWATCH) is an excellent example of crystal-clear clarity. Hitch and Neary follow suit with their grand vistas and sweeping expanses (the sequence with the Engineer rocketing to the moon is a highlight), defining the 'widescreen' trend that swept the industry in recent years.

Suffice to say, the climax of 'Outer Dark' involves Jenny making a sacrifice that leads to the second story in this collection, 'The Nativity', introducing the infant spirit of the 21st Century. The first arc written by Millar - and the only one fully illustrated by Frank Quitely - involves a kidnap plot (with baby Jenny the intended target) by a demented scientist. This soon leads the Authority into bloody battle with a strike force calling themselves the Americans - misguided doppelgangers of Marvel's Avengers.

And this is where the problems start. Millar and Quitely appear bound and determined to shock the reader at every turn, and as such the plot becomes inconsequential in light of the bloodletting and one-liners. While I can certainly grasp Millar's desire to make the characters "champions of the oppressed," it's hard to identify with such intent when his characters go about it in such a cavalier fashion. The violence is piled on - and indeed, some of it is censored - and becomes boring by the story's finale (which, in itself, was clever enough).

Quitely's art is, frankly, divisive - he has an exceptional sense of pacing, but his depictions of the cast are, to these eyes, uniformly ugly. Millar's writing follows in much the same vein - his crisp and distinctive dialogue fails to cover up what is an all-too-familiar plot. While Ellis took his inspiration from Sax Rohmer, Moorcock and Lovecraft for his arcs, Millar seemed content to recycle the 'evil double' riff seen in THE AVENGERS (coincidence?) and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA circa the mid-1960's. As a result, it falls far short of its high-minded intent, reading like a fan-fiction variant of PLANETARY.

It's evident in 'The Nativity' why collective fandom - and much of the comics press - took to the Millar/Quitely AUTHORITY like it did, but to me, it's just so much empty calories. After the leaps forward made by Ellis, Hitch and Neary, 'The Nativity' can be seen as something of a backward step. It's very much a case of putting the sizzle before the steak - by amping up the ultra-violence and glib exchanges, the feeling of uniqueness becomes depreciated, like throwing T&A into an episode of THE WEST WING. (Or, conversely, political debate into BAYWATCH.) That sort of thing can be readily found elsewhere, in most other bog-standard superhero titles. Having THE AUTHORITY turn into a parody of the same appears to be missing the point.

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