On The Authority

If you’re up on the Twitter wire, you might know that sometime last week, in a fit of strange nostalgia, I read Ellis/Hitch issues of The Authority. A little bit of confessional bio for a second: The Authority is the first “run” of a comic book that I ever read. Before that I had read lots and lots of single issues and had a serious Sonic the Hedgehog comic addiction for about five years. But The Authority was the first time I sat down and read an entire series (this is the Ellis/Hitch stuff) all in one whack. And I loved it, of course. So that little bit of confessional investment aside, I want to say some stuff about the issues.

I will let Anne Thalheimer at PopMatters do the work of giving you the short of the comic:

The Authority is, at its fundamental core, a treatment of the Justice League of America taken to its logical conclusion. Seven of the most powerful superhumans in the Wildstorm Universe take it upon themselves to protect Earth from all threats, internal or external. These threats are usually gargantuan in nature and the eradication of these threats equally Herculean. This is widescreen, cinema-scope super-heroic fiction at its finest. Consisting of Jenny Sparks, Swift, the Engineer, the Doctor, Jack Hawksmoor, Apollo & the Midnighter (a gay version of the World’s Finest duo i.e. Superman and Batman), The Authority was a spin-off from the late Stormwatch series, which took as its premise a UN-sanctioned super group. The creators responsible for these epic wonders were Warren Ellis (writer), Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary (artists) and together they delivered 12 pulsating issues that illuminated the jaded super-hero comic book industry.

1. What The Authority Do

In an interview about Desolation Jones, Ellis stated that

I saw no reason why the violence should be enthralling. Following the dictates of the hard-boiled detective genre Jones plays with, there had to be violence in every episode, but I didn’t want it to be without consequence, you know? So, when it happens, it’s stark and horrible, brings you right back down to earth – hopefully.“

While we get comics criticism pretty often from Ellis, getting a sense of his comic aesthetics is a little more difficult. The statement above assumes that the normative consequences for violence in comics is relatively low–which puts The Authority in a particularly interesting light. You see, The Authority is a superhero team comic. The characters go from incredibly original–Jenny Sparks, the spirit of the 20th century and Jack Hawksmoor, a god of cities–to derivative characters rendered whole-cloth from the history of superhero comics. The Authority is not some rag-tag group of individuals who have to prevent jokesters or wealthy moguls from taking over the world–they prevent catastrophe on a global scale. They prevent a moon-sized primal god from wiping out life on Earth. They prevent colonization of their reality by an alternate England ruled by alien Sicilians. They do big things, and they do them violently.

And maybe it is how The Authority do things that is interesting. A couple people have already hit on my point here, so lets just skip to the block quotes. Grant Morrison wrote in his Supergods that

“…the members of the Authority were comfortable with their powers, using them to sensible fight “bastards” and improve the lot of everyone on planet Earth. It was the utopian vision of Siegel and Shuster strained through British cynicism and delivered on the end of a spiked leather glove. It took the accusations of fascism that had haunted Superman and suggested a new kind of superfascist, one that was on our side.” (311)

Andrew Terjesen speaks to this as well in his “Why Doctor Doom is Better that The Authority,”

“… The Authority’s power makes it more likely that people would choose whatever the Authority wants for fear of getting beaten up. This might not be as big a deal if we could be sure that no one would ever use the power of the Authority to further their own agenda, but we have no guarantee that they are correct in their perceptions of what is best for us.” (89)

So The Authority are a team who direct the world through violence, whether we like it or not, and that violence has very few consequences. The often misquoted “great power equals great responsibility” line takes on a new form in the context of The Authority; they have the greatest power, and so they take on the greatest responsibility. This has consequences in a number of ways. For instance, read this page

The Engineer, with the help of some old-fashioned moral support, uses her “great power” and, on the next page, disintegrates the soldiers who are attacking her. She uses her power to enact a violence that is so overwhelming and total that the possibility of retaliation is literally impossible. She atomizes her enemies.

This is the entire project of The Authority: using superpowers to commit violence on the largest scale possible. “Stories on the largest scale we can imagine,” as Ellis said in the original proposal for the series. In another issue, Jenny Sparks wipes the entire continent of Italy off the map of an alternate-reality Earth. Everyone dies, of course, and she uses that as a way of explaining her powers to that world. She forces them, in her language, to “be good.” We should be horrified, of course, by all of this. Mass murder becomes a way of getting things done for the team, and Grant Morrison is right to call them fascists. Colin Smith reads it a different way, but I’m in the camp of thinking that atomic weapons are war crimes, so I’m in a different camp than Smith is anyway.

[SIDEBAR: Warren Ellis obviously has his own way of thinking, and being bored with, superheroes. They are human-figured gods, in all ways, and I don’t think it is any coincidence that all of members of The Authority are godlike in their power sets. There are no mere tricksters or dazzlers on the team–everyone has the ability to commit murder on a mass scale. There is a long history of gods doing terrible things to show their power and to make sure that humans behave, and unlike real life, there is no way to be an atheist in the world of The Authority. You have no choice but to believe. When Grant Morrison talks about comic book characters being our new gods, he should realize that they are the same as the old gods, and that The Authority are about as Old Testament as it gets.]

So that is what the team “does.” They commit acts of violence on a global scale and make sure everything is hunky dorey on the whole. Jack Hawksmoor, discussing the destruction done to a city after a huge battle, says “How many people would’ve died if we hadn’t been here? It’s not a great answer, I know; but it’s the best there is. We saved more people than we killed.” That’s the world that The Authority live in. That is what they do.

2. What The Authority Looks Like

Bryan Hitch was the artist on the first twelve issues of The Authority, and he is widely credited with creating what is now called “widescreen comics.” It is an aesthetic movement that is typified by uncompressed storytelling combined with large actions–it is a Roland Emmerich film in comics form. The fact that I can describe it this way is maybe the most telling thing about widescreen storytelling–it is based on film techniques rather than traditional comic book ways of showing and explaining characters and scenes.

In any case, Hitch invented it. In an interview, he talks about what drew him to comics, and that it was specifically Curt Swan’s Superman art, done in a “naturalistic style,” that pulled him in. One of the key things about Hitch’s art is how effortless everything looks; the superheroes look like people in their element, doing what they are good at, like sports players or Olympic swimmers. It looks authentic. In another interview, Hitch talks about the way that he and Ellis plotted out their issues of The Authority together:

“When Warren and I first came up with the idea of the Authority the three stories were worked out as just one line pitches: The Authority overthrow a tyrant armed with thousands of Supermen, The Authority repel an invasion from an alternate earth and The Authority Kill God. My input was more along the lines of asking for and describing things relating to the action, such as the dogfight over LA and having the invasion of The Carrier being on horseback. My input on Ultimates is far greater as the working relationship with Mighty Mark Millar is much closer.”

The stories that the The Authority are involved in are giant, and they require giant artistic visions. Hitch is amazing when it comes to this, and there are huge vistas destroyed in the most beautiful ways. People are trapped under piles of artfully rendered rubble. The drawn world, and the characters in it, become adapted to the kind of violence that The Authority are involved in. It makes a lot of sense that widescreen comics come out of this comic–we need huge focal lengths in order to comprehend all of the destruction.

This page is particularly resonant for me, especially considering that this was in 1999. The world was really buying that we were in end of history, or at least all of the non-grim meathook parts were. The visual representations that we were experiencing in that time period were all about the destruction of our world–the sheer number of late-1990s natural apocalypse is stunning. What I mean by “natural” is that there were a lot of movies in which the apocalypse occurred at its reasons were completely opaque–a meteor comes or an alien invasion happens. There are no reasons; they simply happen.

The Authority presents the world in a similar way, but instead of a solution with quirky working-class oil people, or Jeff Goldblum, we are presented with an equally opaque response. The people on the ground, the ones dying in the hundreds of thousands, don’t understand what is happening; The Authority is hidden to them–they just feel the impact. The visual world of the comic reflects this–there are lots of panels of random violence, cinematic in the way that Transformers 2 is cinematic. Things are happening, and I can’t really make sense of them, but I get a feeling of great conflict.

Hitch comments about this in yet another interview where he suggests that the storytelling techniques he used during his JLA run were “a difficult fit.”  He claims that there was a struggle between his desire to open up the action, presumably into a cinematic mode, and writer Mark Waid’s desire to keep the stories personal to the characters, compressing the action with dialogue and emotion. This is telling about the way The Authority‘s aesthetic is revolutionary–Mark Waid is the perfect distillation of Silver Age knowledge and ethics, and if it doesn’t fit with his vision of comics, it doesn’t fit with the way that comics sees itself. Nicolas Labarre writes about the page layout of the issue above, and notes that the battle becomes too big for individual pages, and that a two page spread has to be read as a “surface” in order to make sense. Hitch is pushing the physical boundaries of comics reading here, collapsing the old and bringing in the new.

[Too Busy Thinking About Comics actually posted about the aesthetics of The Authority in the middle of my writing this, comparing it with a modern issue of Justice League, making a point about how the expansive images, particularly splash pages, create a sense of large world in which monolithic happen.]

3. What The Authority Means

The year 1999 means something. In fact, it is a critical part of the series, with Jenny Sparks being the spirit of the 20th century and all. So the 90s are rolling around in the comic–U.N. approved measures, biological weapons, a prophetic giant aircraft crashing into an equally giant tower. These are all, fundamentally, images of destruction that were replicated across media in the closing decade of the millennium. In his mournful essay “Transaesthetics,” Baudrillard wrote

“Our images are like icons: they allow us to go on believing in art while eluding the question of it existence. So perhaps we ought to treat all present-day art as a set of rituals, and for ritual use only; perhaps we ought to consider art solely from an anthropological standpoint, without reference to any aesthetic judgment whatsoever. The implication is that we have returned to the cultural stage of primitive species.” (19)

Comics are just words and pictures, as we know, and they are no more immune to this process of collapse than a photograph of your grandmother. The Authority is Baudrillard’s ritual in the most base way–it attempts to divine the reasons behind being in the world. It is part of the same process of being-opaque to the common person that I remarked on above; no one understands the machine that is existence, and so we have to create ways of understanding. The Authority are bastards, but like Morrison said, we want them to be on our side. The subtle critique of the whole thing is that there is no such thing as “our side.” The average person is just another building, another expendable object, something to be burned and trapped and vaporized. People are merely numbers. The Authority aren’t prophets on this point–Ellis merely uses them to think through the very 1990s way of risk assessment. There is nothing sacred, not even life, and if the numbers work out, sometimes a city has to be sacrificed (or an aspirin factory has to be bombed.)

So what does The Authority mean? I don’t know, I just thought that sounded like a really nice way to wrap this up instead of saying “conclusion.” The comic is a way of thinking about the world, and it is a way of thinking about how terrible everything is, and that even in the fact of galactic, mind-boggling scale problems, the actions of those in power are probably going to be the same. For Ellis and Hitch, a grand scale necessitates a utilitarian politics that I am, frankly, unhappy with. But I think the comic is beautiful because of how it breaks and reflects a world on the cusp of the 21st century. So take that how you will.

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5 Responses to On The Authority

  1. Mark Waid says:

    “This is telling about the way The Authority‘s aesthetic is revolutionary–Mark Waid is the perfect distillation of Silver Age knowledge and ethics, and if it doesn’t fit with his vision of comics, it doesn’t fit with the way that comics sees itself.”

    Or…or, and I’m just going to throw this out there as an alternate theory to your offensive and inaccurate “Bryan’s a genius, Waid was a chimpanzee set in his ways” postulate…Bryan and I come from wholly different mindsets when it comes to how we see and construct stories. What interests me when I sit down to the keyboard are the moments of heart and personal conflict (which, BTW, are about as far away from the Silver Age as you can get, thanks), what Bryan gets ramped up about when he draws are the spectacular visuals, and while once I realized this was a sticking point I tried to adapt, it was too little, too late. I certainly didn’t ask him to leave JLA and I begged him to stay and help me construct stories more to his liking–that’s the God’s honest truth–but after hundreds of pages (including the tabloid), he felt burned out. We were and remain friends with great respect for one another’s work and where the other was coming from creatively, we just weren’t a good match.

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks for the clarification on this. I wasn’t trying to be offensive, but I was trying to get at the exact point that you are making: the way you envision the storytelling techniques and the way that Hitch envisions them are totally, and maybe radically, different. The arguments that I made came straight from those interviews with Hitch, and if I offended you, I really am sorry. I don’t think you are a “chimpanzee,” and I think you’re an amazing writer. I especially enjoy your Boom! work, and I hope that you keep producing great stuff in the future.

      The point that I am making about your connection with the Silver Age is that you are focused on tight, compressed comics storytelling, which I think is tied to the way that superhero comics envision themselves across the board pre-Authority. I’m not judging quality there–in fact, I don’t think Kingdom Come would be held in such high regard if that storytelling technique wasn’t valuable. That doesn’t change the fact that the way you tell stories is part of a grand tradition, and Ellis and Hitch throw them out to work on a different kind of project.

      I hope that clears up some of the confusion, and once again, if I offended you, I apologize profusely.

      • Mark Waid says:

        No harm, no foul. I just bristle whenever I hear myself described as some distillation of the Silver Age, which I think is really unfair and generally a pejorative. I may have overreacted in misunderstanding, for which I apologize. All’s good.

        • kunzelman says:

          Would you be interested in doing some kind of email interview with me? I really do think you get the Silver Age label put on you pretty often, and it would be interesting to ask you some questions about it and why you think it happens.

      • Ryan Charlie says:

        Do you find the Silver Age tag offensive in some way? I often times see you in that light because you seem to channel this pure sense of story telling that many other contemporary writers seem to have done away with and this is entirely a good thing. Your run on Daredevil for example is a throwback to when DD was a fun and happy character. That’s not to say that the previous runs on the book have been bad, just that the drastic change in tone from then to now is quite noticeable and I don’t know that any other writer could have pulled this off as well.
        We like when you tell fun and happy stories Mr Waid, in my opinion they are your among your strongest works. Nobody wants to read dark and depressing books forever and you always seem to bring a joy and happiness to whatever characters you are working on and your runs on said characters are almost universally loved.
        (Except for the Thing’s rap from Fantastic Four).

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