Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Authority

The make-believe worlds of Marvel and DC all too often take the concept of superheroes for granted. There is little sense of wonder or scale. It's the same group of goodies battling the same group of baddies over and over again, with only mild variations on a theme tossed in to keep long-time fans coming back for more. It's a state that has arisen because the two companies have become so big that they have to worry about things like marketing, meaning they can never kill off a character that’s even remotely popular because there's money to be made.

A criticism can be levied against the inhabitants of these fictional worlds too. If they are all-powerful then why have they never escalated their war against the legions of bad beyond the petty skirmish level? Working together these characters could create a utopia yet they choose not to.

The answer that they don't want to interfere doesn't cut it. Firstly they interfere on a daily basis, they just stop short of doing anything beyond maintaining a precarious status quo. Secondly the world they live in is real to them. It's their home. These people are scientists and heroes and gods, exactly the sort of people who should want change for the better.

The reason this never happens is simply that Marvel and DC are too scared of affecting major changes. They like presenting a world comparable to our own, for marketing reasons and ease of writing. To their credit Marvel have over the last year experimented with creating a more advanced planet in their Ultimate line of titles but you get the feeling that's more because sales had dipped and something needed to be tried to turn the ailing line's fortunes rather than because they thought it would be an interesting way of presenting an alternate Marvel universe.

Someone over at Marvel HQ should have read the original run of The Authority before they started this Ultimate endeavour. Launched in 1999 by writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch it is the story of a group of super-powered beings forming a team with no allegiance to any Earth government and a self-imposed mission to save the world by altering it for the better.

The first three arcs see a realistic depiction of the response such a group would receive, with the media, governments, and the general populace all receiving a voice. The plot concepts are, for the most part, impressively large scale. After a relatively low key opening story in which tyrannical dictator Kaizen Gamorra (a character previously seen during Ellis's run on The Authority's spiritual predecessor Stormwatch) launches assaults on major Earth cities we see the gang tackle meatier opponents in the form of a full scale invasion from an alien-controlled parallel Earth and a gigantic alien that is essentially God.

These tales strike a careful balance between character moments and big fight scenes, the latter of which got the title pegged as the world's first "wide-screen comic." Keeping a sense of danger present is particularly impressive when you consider how powerful Ellis made his characters. Apollo and Midnighter are not only pastiches of Superman and Batman but also the world's strongest super-being and a genetically and technologically altered super assassin respectively. They can defeat any opponent in an instant yet Ellis manages to make them relatable and vulnerable.

Jack Hawksmoor is the ‘God of Cities’, needing to stay in metropolitan areas to survive. It's a moniker that has plenty of scope when it comes to powers and Ellis has plenty of fun tinkering with the concept. Swift is a human-bird hybrid who often felt out of place amongst such a powerful unit but is subtly used as a social conscience. The Engineer and the Doctor are a walking super computer with a mouldable body and Earth's great mage respectively, and team leader Jenny Sparks is a woman who looks twenty but was born in 1900 and can control electricity (and is a Century Baby, something that would become very important in one of Ellis's other Wildstorm titles). Each character is well formed and interesting enough to be able to carry a book in their own right. That Ellis has not only tossed them all into one book but manages to write them all equally well is a tremendous accomplishment.

The original creative team only produced twelve issues before moving on to other projects. They were replaced by Frank Quitely and a pre-Millarworld Mark Millar. They too produced storylines unlike those seen elsewhere in superhero comics, opening with a race between The Authority and a an outfit sponsored by a rogue megalomaniac scientist to find a baby born to be 'The Spirit of the 21st Century' with a story in which the Authority are dispatched by the world's various governments, replaced by more agreeable members. Millar keeps the plotting as tight as Ellis did and services his cast just as well, while Quitely proves a one of the few men capable of not being overshadowed by Hitch. Unfortunately Quitely didn’t stick around for Millar’s entire run (although it should be noted he doesn't stick around until the end of the run like Millar does).

Disappointing sales and concern at DC’s head offices over the title’s direction caused The Authority to be cancelled at the conclusion of Millar's third arc. Subsequent resurrections of the book have not reached the heady heights of those first 29 issues. The Ellis, Hitch, Millar, and Quitely run is well worth tracking down because of its inventiveness and dedication to shaking up superhero comics. It is a fine example of creative comic book ideas done right.

Critical information:
Writers: Warren Ellis and Mark Millar
Artists: Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely
ISBNS: 9781840231946, 9781840232796, 9781840233711, 9781840234909

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