By Charles EP Murphy
Jenny Sparks, electric spirit of the 20th century; Jack Hawksmoor, engineered to command cities; the Engineer, living nanite arsenal; the Doctor (not that one), the latest in a line of Earth’s shamanic healers; Swift, the fastest person in the sky; Apollo and Midnighter, living weapons and lovers resembling a certain two DC heroes.
They are a frighteningly powerful superhero team out to build a finer world.
They are the one of the biggest comics from the turn of the century.
They are, in a now-deleted message by Warren Ellis on his forum, “The Bad Guys. I mean, come on.”
They are the Authority and they want you to behave.
But what if they’d never been published?
The Authority spun out of Stormwatch, one of a barrage of titles flung onto the marketplace in the early Image Comics days – when every first issue could be a huge (speculator driven) seller, the founders made sure there were a lot of first issues. Originally done by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi, it followed the adventures of a United Nations superhero team in explosive battles, with political machinations and secret agendas in the background.
For a look at how this time is popularly remembered, we can go to Barry Windsor-Smith merely a year after drawing a Stormwatch/WildCATS crossover. He used the miniseries as an example to The Comics Journal about how “characterization [in comics] that I think has gone right out the bloody window… I tried to read some of the preceding books and I still couldn’t find anybody’s particular characteristics — except for one guy was really big, or something like that.”
Then, after the crossover, Stormwatch was given to British writer Warren Ellis. In a Wildstorm retrospective for The Beat, Ellis would say the company was “crap at admin and oversight” and trusted the creators to handle themselves, and as a result “me and my friends got to do an awful lot of fun stuff with content and design that wasn’t really happening at DC proper or Marvel”. Wildstorm let him throw out half the cast and rework everything in his very first issue. A fourteen-issue arc ended with Stormwatch caught in the middle of a fight between their insane leader and the High, a thinly veiled Golden Age Superman, whose team of super-anarchists (including the original Doctor and Engineer) are trying to change human civilisation. And his run ended with the team bankrupted and shut down after their veteran heroes were killed off-panel in an Aliens crossover with another comic!
Ellis, according to his own words in the last Stormwatch (Vol.2), had lost interest in the title until artist Bryan Hitch showed up and made him want to do bigger-scope comics. Later, in the Beat’s retrospective, he admitted another reason: “I found out that, despite the fact that no-one was buying Stormwatch, they kept it going because they liked reading it in the office and wanted to keep me employed. And I felt so bloody awful about that”. So, he decided to create a less complicated, more action-heavy comic that would make use of Hitch’s style.
His last issue of Stormwatch ends with Jenny Sparks organising a new team to deal with threats the old one couldn’t handle.
The Authority #1 opens with a swarm of supervillains blasting Moscow off the face of the Earth in a series of silent, destruction-laden pages – pacing and sheer destruction that was just not done in US comics, and happening to a real city in regular continuity. The Authority battle the enemy in stunning displays of power and mass destruction, before smashing their spaceship base right through a city to splatter the villain. Subsequent four-part stories escalated the threat level as the team fought an invasion by an alternate timeline and then kill “God”.
The sheer explosive impact of the art, the deceptively simple-seeming plots and quotable badass dialogue, and the fact DC Comics had just bought Wildstorm a few months before & brought extra attention to the company were a perfect storm. The Authority was a massive hit.
In among the destruction and cool lines, there’s something ominous about the team, from their name to their sheer power to the fact they want to change the world without asking us. That name harkens either by choice or design to the High’s mission: “The world will see that it need suffer for nothing. Least of all authority.” The term came up again in the penultimate Stormwatch story, when the team leaders decide against intervening on a parallel Earth as they don’t have “the authority, or the right”, to the disgust of the superhero Winter. That parallel Earth’s Stormwatch was run by Jack Hawksmoor, who at one point says the sheer might of a large superhero team makes him the only genuine superpower, and he uses it to force the United States to stand down and “behave”.
In their second storyline, the Authority do not just defeat that invasion from a parallel Earth, they decide they do have the right to intervene. They destroy an entire country to decapitate the ruling regime – and tell the newly liberated world “behave”. Ellis’ own Planetary did a crossover one-shot with The Authority that explicitly noted that with this act, “the Authority may be our ruling power”.
Midcard writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely took the reins from Ellis & Hitch, and managed to attract even more attention by running with the “finer world” theme and having the Authority fight real-world establishments. Their first story opens with the Authority overthrowing President Habibie of Indonesia and having him killed by an angry mob, telling the world this is just what they’re going to do now if you commit human rights abuses; they then battle a pisstake of the Avengers, who are establishment supporting thugs and rapists. (As it turned out, Habibie had resigned and elections had been held before the issue came out, and Indonesia was transitioning out of the dictatorship anyway) The Authority would turf Russia out of Chechnya and China out of Tibet, and threaten President Clinton. They become celebrities and infamous for an extremely decadent lifestyle, a challenge to the industry’s normal view of how superheroes comport themselves.
In an interview with Sequart during his first storyline, Millar said “I really wanted to say something about the fact that the Marvel U.’s premiere super-team are card-carrying members of the Establishment. The same establishment who let people sleep on the streets and don’t provide decent medical cover for malnourished kids. The same establishment who let the Third World starve.The Authority feels like a crusade to me at the moment. Superheroes have been useless for too long. Let’s make them mean something again. This is a poke at superheroes at both DC and Marvel. Why should they always fight for the status quo?”
In his final issue, the status quo fought back as the G7 itself arranged for the Authority to be taken down and replaced by a team of cheap knockoffs. Corporate interests turned the superheroine Swift into a 1950s housewife and told the Doctor that his shamanic astral plane garden was now being sold off to corporate brands. A fill-in story arc, to allow Art Adams to finish drawing the four-parter, showed the distaff Authority violently preventing the overthrow of Western capitalism by superpowered refugees. Of course, the Authority stand triumphant thanks to violence.
However, the Millar run was blighted by censorship– DC Comics took issue with the level of violence. More depressingly, it also censored Apollo and the Midnighter kissing. (Allegedly, DC was worried about the media fallout if the mainstream got hold of panels of pastiches of Superman and Batman being visibly gay.) Then, Rich Johnston’s gossip column Lying in the Gutters got hold of proof that the long-delayed #27 had been brutally edited by DC, with entire panels ordered redrawn (one being turning George W Bush into a generic president after 9/11). Edits of #28 saw Adams quit, and by #29 the comic had ended with a whimper.
The subsequent run by Brian Azzarello and Steve Dillon never happened. Editor John Layman reportedly lost his job as a result of all this.
Afterwards, Millar said: “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… I’d have serious reservations about working with any company which was under the DC umbrella while they’re under the current administration.”
Several times after,DC Comics would try to bring The Authority back as it remained one of Wildstorm’s big sellers and the trade paperbacks were reliable hits – and Wildstorm was being consistently mismanaged by DC and books undercut by management, so hits were needed. A contemporary review by Paul O’Brien of Authority: Scorched Earth,the first attempt at revival, said it lacked the ‘widescreen’ scale of destruction and was: “a perfectly competent generic superhero story… DC just still don't get why the book was popular in the first place.” Indeed, a running gag in Garth Ennis’ Kev spinoffs was that the Authority were becoming a normal, non-threatening superhero team and the Midnighter was pissed off about it.
In the last few years, Ellis was asked to revamp Wildstorm again with Jon Davis-Hunt in the maxiseries The Wild Storm. The climax saw the gathering of a rebooted Authority to save the planet from feuding deep states – this time, starting as a more real-world team (“at least as much as there can be with people who have machinery for blood” as Davis-Hunt put it) operating out of a flat, before unleashing power and violence beyond the rest of the comic’s cast.
“Least Of All Authority”
All of this would never have happened if Warren Ellis had simply left before Stormwatch Vol.2, or Bryan Hitch had not joined as artist. What happens then?
The first and obvious impact: Wildstorm doesn’t have a massive commercial and critical hit. It continues to be a midcard company that’s sort of there. It doesn’t try to milk The Authority with spinoffs with names like Monarchy and Establishment, and it can’t promote a new Stormwatch comic as non-powered everymen soldiers versus brutish superbeings like the Authority, and it can’t rely on Authority comics to anchor later revamps. Wildstorm’s commercial decline is accelerated – for context, Garth Ennis’s The Boys started at Wildstorm and a skittish DC let another publisher have it despite sales in the tens of thousands – and the imprint is likely wrapped up a year or two earlier at best. It may also have struggled to attract enough creators in the early 00s without the impact of Ellis and Millar’s Authority runs.
The second obvious impact: careers. Warren Ellis was already getting attention for his comics and had worked for big companies, but numerous jobs – getting to revamp three X-Men comics in the 90s or Iron Man in the 00s, writing the Castlevania show – may not come his way if he’s just known as a clever indie comic writer and not as a commercial one. This may take out influential comics like Global Frequency and nextWAVE, and certainly The Wild Storm.
Beyond Ellis himself, his popular Warren Ellis Forum in 1998-2002 has been hailed as a place that attracted and allowed networking for numerous 21st century creators like Kieron Gillen (Uber and Wicked & Divine), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel), and Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim). His reputation of doing grand things with the medium brought many people in and without The Authority, less people would have come in. Knocking out any one creator could cause a cascade effect: Scott Pilgrim was a huge hit for Oni Press before it was a film, DeConnick is responsible for Captain Marvel becoming a prominent character in the form you know.
Then there’s Mark Millar’s career. In his early interview with Sequart, he stated: “To be honest, I’d already had three adult-oriented projects closed down at DC (Phantom Stranger, Secret Society of Super-Villains, and the Saviour) and was seriously planning on going full-time as a TV writer / director simply because I didn’t have a choice.” In contrast, he’d just sold Channel 4 on a vampire show called Sikeside. If he never lands The Authority, Mark Millar will give up on comics and try for TV, which will appear to be paying more attention to him (unaware Sikeside will never be made, which he attributes to the department losing ties with C4 after commissioning the critically panned Metrosexuality).
Mark Millar would work on numerous best-selling comics in the next twenty years. These include Wanted, Kick-Ass and The Secret Service (AKA Kingsman), which would all become successful films. It includes his Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates series for Marvel’s movie-friendly reboot lines, the latter (named because nobody would ever call a film “The Avengers”) inspiring large parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury. It also includes Marvel’s Civil War crossover, where Millar pitched the idea of superheroes being forced to register as deputised law enforcement, and that crossover shaped almost every comic Marvel published for about four years. All of that would be gone.
Even if Millar had lucked into getting a comic and stayed in, he got those Ultimate jobs because Marvel heads Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas were both Authority fans. He had previously worked mostly at DC and may continue to be there without Authority to sour him on the company, plugging away and trying for hits.
Ultimates would itself be influential. It uses his provocative style honed on the early title – the Avengers are indeed establishment agents as well as celebs, forces of the US government carrying out War on Terror missions – and also makes great use of Bryan Hitch, who was also hired for his Authority work. And Marvel had already poached Frank Quitely off Authority to work on Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Both these titles use the ‘widescreen’ format for their battles and scenes of great urban destruction, and the Ultimate line in general is written in the style of The Authority: scenes are spaced out and given room to breathe, dialogue is more pseudo-naturalistic and superhero lines are more ‘badass’.
As well as the ‘widescreen’ format, this style of dialogue and pacing would creep into the rest of Marvel’s line and into many other comics as well, and become known as “decompression”. It was a major stylistic change to the more crowded, dialogue-heavy styles of American comics in the past, and one that tied into the growing trade paperback market. Instead of a monthly issue being the primary story telling unit, every six issues or so would form a single story for the trade. This would be the dominant style of the 2000s.
Now,The Authority was not the only influence here. Manga was growing ever more in popularity and had a similar way of pacing itself, and Morrison’s JLA had used a similar style, and Brian Michaerl Bendis’ was using a more conversationaly version on Ultimate Spider-Man. However, would this have become as widespread without the influence of The Authority on Marvel’s new bosses, who would hire Bendis and, in Jemas’ case, co-plot the first story arc? Would it travel without Ultimates to show it working in the ‘mainstream’?
Along with the ‘widescreen’ format came a growing amount of mass destruction & violence. More comics would start showing the devastation of real cities with loving detail– a thing that halted after September 11 but came back with a vengeance. Even a more traditional comic like the Kurt Busiek and George Perez Avengers run had an issue in which Kang the Conqueror obliterates Washington DC to force Earth’s surrender. And while comics had often been political in the past, it became quite blunt in the aftermath of Millar’s Authority and Ultimate sruns. (The War on Terror also helped here, radicalising a large number of creators)
Some of these influences were good. Some were just a stylistic change for a few years, as happens in all mediums. And they also had a negative effect, due to them being pushed by editorial and management when not every comic warranted it. Decompression and writing for the trade became infamous for ‘padding’ and too often, little happened in a single issue. In a review of 2003’s Silver Surfer#1, Paul O’Brien remarked: “Regular Marvel readers will note that this is yet another debut issue in which the lead character doesn't turn up until the last moment. Venom embraced the technique with particular enthusiasm and didn't have its lead character turn up until the end of issue #2.”
The escalating level of violence and destruction would also have negative effects – indeed, Wildstorm itself tried to turn sales around with the World’s End status quo shift where the apocalypse happened and everything was permanently blown up, which did not entice readers back. In the more mainstream superhero comics, there could be shocking levels of brutality that would’ve been labelled Mature Readers in days past.
In a 2011 retrospective look at the Ellis/Hitch Authority, Colin Smith remarked: “Today’s mainstream is characterized by gods being torn literally in half and Teen Titans high on heroin attacking drug addicts with dead cats…In this context, The Authority looks rather middle-of-the-road and restrained from the perspective of today.
“… Yes, [the Authority] operate according to their own whim and conscience, and yes, they kill a great deal of people. But we don’t see most of it, and of that we do see, well; it isn’t so different from that on display in the latter-day X-Men, and it’s a great deal less morally worrying than recent runs of Daredevil and Justice League: Cry For Justice. “
No Authority also means we’d not see the odd pushback from traditional superheroes. Action Comics #775 dealt with Superman horrified by the violent, obscene “Elite” and how the world seems to like them more than him; and Morrison’s JLA Classified #1-3 had the Authority-styled Ultramarine Corps beaten and humiliated because their blunt, violent methods can’t work “in a complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel”.
And to end on a plus side –The Authority had two very prominent gay superheroes in a time when you could count them on the fingers of a blind butcher’s hand. And here they were in a bestselling title, one that wasn’t showing them off in a hamfisted way, and one of them as the cool ultraviolent badass one of the team.
Shortly after, Marvel’s X-Statix (also using the decadent superhero celebrity idea), Young Avengers,and Runaways would all have gay members, and more have since followed. Part of this is due to changing Western cultural mores, but would some of these characters exist as soon as they did without the Authority battering people? What impact did it have on young queer fans who’d become creators that their favourite comics had characters like the
One comic in the right place at the right time, even with its owners doing everything possible to nobble it, changes the entire industry.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.