This month, DC comics relaunches its WildStorm imprint, bringing back the heavily science-fiction-influenced superhero universe originated by Jim Lee and developed by a wide-ranging group of comics creators. To celebrate, Birth.Movies.Death. is exploring the comics that made WildStorm a major name in the industry at the turn of the century.
TRIGGER WARNING: Bryan Hitch and Warren Ellis’ run on The Authority contains graphic violence, discusses mass-scale sexual assault and rape culture and features an Orientalist stereotype as one of its villains. Frank Quitely, Arthur Adams, Dustin Nguyen, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer’s run on The Authority contains multiple sexual assaults, references to incest, graphic violence, general misogyny, racism and a succession of callous, mean-spirited jokes about various celebrities in the early 2000s.
PREVIOUSLY, IN THE WILDSTORM UNIVERSE:
Stormwatch was the United Nations’ superhuman response team. Its leader, Henry Bendix, intended to drag humanity kicking and screaming into the 21st century, no matter what the US Military Industrial Complex wanted. Unfortunately for humanity, Henry Bendix was also a power-mad creep whose response to a team of superhumans trying to build a better world without him was to have them all killed. Jennifer “Jenny” Sparks, the living embodiment of the 20th century and master of electricity, killed Bendix. But she was left haunted by the deaths of his rivals, one of whom, a Superman/Captain Marvel analog called the High, had once been a dear friend.
Stormwatch worked to rebuild and atone for Bendix’s treachery, but the organization struggled. When an army of Xenomorphs (of Alien fame, on hand thanks to an intercompany crossover between WildStorm and Dark Horse Comics) attacked, most of the team was killed. The survivors were rescued by the Wildcats, a rag-tag team of formerly covert superheroes. Winter, a badly injured member of Stormwatch, would ultimately fly the team’s satellite base into the sun to prevent the Xenomorphs from getting to Earth. The UN, faced with the daunting prospect of replacing the extraordinarily expensive, internationally controversial team, chose to shut Stormwatch down completely rather than rebuild it. Jenny Sparks and her peers Jack Hawksmoor and Shen Li-Min, a covert Stormwatch team who weren’t present during the Xenomorphs’ attack, vowed to honor both their fallen teammates the High by protecting the world and changing it for the better.
PART ONE: IT’S THE END OF THE CENTURY. AND SOME WANT IT TO BE THE END OF THE WORLD. BUT YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
The Authority’s first volume consists of two separate creative runs. The first, which ran 12 issues from 1999 to 2000, was drawn by Bryan Hitch and written by Warren Ellis. Although the duo had worked together in the WildStorm universe before, during the back half of StormWatch, The Authority would be their biggest collaboration in that world. Together, they would define the tone and feel WildStorm would take for its most fruitful years. And on a more macro scale, they would codify and define aspects of the contemporary superhero comic that are still tremendously important to the genre and the works that have been built from it. Without Hitch and Ellis’ run on The Authority, not only would WildStorm have looked very different, Marvel, DC and eventually Valiant would have looked different. And if DC and especially Marvel’s work in the early aughts did not have The Authority to draw from for its look and its feel, the modern superhero film as we know it might not exist.
Hitch’s costumes, while still a blend of power and sexual fantasies, tend towards simple, clean, colorful designs. They are made from recognizable textiles, and some of them clearly come in separate pieces that their wearers assemble. In the case of Jenny Sparks and Jack Hawksmoor, their outfits are outright stylish civilian clothing. The recent trend towards superhero costumes (particularly for women heroes, particularly when women are involved in the creative process) that exist in the practical realm as much as the realm of the fantastic can trace some of its roots back to the Midnighter’s trench coat and Jenny Sparks’ penchant for white suits. This is especially true for Marvel, where Hitch’s work on The Ultimates with fellow Authority creator Millar would directly influence the line’s sense of style throughout the aughts and the new tens. In other words, we owe Bryan Hitch a debt of thanks for Chris Evans’ Captain America having a stylish helmet as part of all his suits besides his horrendous Avengers outfit.
Hitch’s action scenes, which take up a sizable portion of the pages in his run, are deliberately massive in scale. The Authority and their foes do not do battle on a street or in a single secret lab. They fight throughout the great cities of the world, cross-over into an elaborately conceived parallel Earth and ultimately come to a head (heh) at the massive brain of an ancient being whose scale and power are such that “God” is an appropriate name for it. While every one of these fights is gigantic, Hitch balances their timing and scale beautifully. During “Shiftships,” the second the first year’s three arcs, he devotes an entire page to the sight of Jenny transforming into a gigantic, humanoid lighting storm. But before and after that climactic moment, he builds up and builds down, cutting between each member of the Authority as they do battle with their foes and respond to the situations around them. Hitch is an exemplarily sequential storyteller, and his consistent presence during The Authority’s first year means that the book looks and feels complete in a way that StormWatch, and the back halves of The Authority and Wildcats Version 3.0 do not.
Through Ellis’ scripting, The Authority functions as a sequel to his earlier work on StormWatch and a standalone comic. StormWatch was a fundamentally anxious comic, one that constantly questioned not only if StormWatch could succeed in a world hurtling towards the end of the 20th century, but if it could survive at all. The book’s ultimate answer to those questions was no. Even if the team hadn’t been murdered by Xenomorphs, they were struggling to undo the damage Bendix had done by using the team as a blunt instrument for his eventual conquest of humanity, and to find a mission beyond “get through the next crisis as intact as possible.” The Authority, by contrast, is a much more confident book. Jenny Sparks and her peers are going to protect and change the world, and no one will stop them. The High, Jenny’s doomed, idealistic former friend, wanted a world where people would think for themselves and question authority. And, his logic followed, if people thought for themselves, why would they need authority at all?
The Authority is Jenny’s answer to her friend’s question. In her mind, it should exist to look out for people, bring down the bastards who would take everything for themselves and to help build a better world. Jenny has found a clarity of purpose that she did not have during her time in Stormwatch, and she feels called to put that clarity to use. Furthermore, her mission is urgent. The Authority begins in 1999, with the new millennium imminent. When January 1, 2000 arrives, the twentieth century will end. And when the century ends, she, its anthropomorphic personification, will die. Jenny plans to do the most she can with the time she has left, even though she is extremely uncomfortable with leadership. As she says to her colleague Apollo early in the run:
“Bad things happen when I run teams. And bad things happen when I don’t run teams. This is all a hellish gamble for me Apollo. But there had to be someone left to save the world. And someone left to change it.”
Jenny put the Authority together from her covert Stormwatch team – alien abductee turned city-speaker Jack Hawksmoor and the winged Shen Li-Min, also called Swift, the former anti-Bendix Stormwatch rogues Apollo and Midnighter, and two novice heroes who inherited titles held by members of the High’s team. When the High’s resident nanotechnology expert the Engineer was killed, he sent all his research to a brilliant scientist specializing in human and machine fusion named Angela Spica. She combined their work to become an extremely powerful cyborg. And when the Doctor, a magician who served the will of the planet, was killed, the planet selected a young, troubled man named Jeroen Thornedike to inherit his title and powers. The Authority, while prone to snarking at each other and occasionally terrified of Jenny’s relentlessness, share her commitment to building a better world, and are free of the doubt that Stormwatch struggled with due to Bendix’s machinations and manipulations.
What is most striking about Hitch and Ellis’ The Authority is that, despite its high violence quotient, it is a strikingly optimistic book. Ellis and some of his peers have noted that the team, given how brutal they are in combat and their acting with no oversight beyond their own consciences, could be considered villains who just so happened to fight worse people. Those are issues worth considering, but in practice, the Authority spend as much time rescuing civilians and minimizing collateral damage as they do punching people’s faces off and dropping their living interdimensional spaceship on a terrorist mastermind’s head.
The team goes out of their way to ensure that the extraordinary transportation and medical technologies left behind by Kaizen Gomorra (as much a baffling, awful yellow peril villain as he was in StormWatch, but given slightly more dimension here as a manchild whose brutality has left him with nothing in his life but a quest for ever more brutality), the terrorist in question, goes to the UN, where it will be studied, vetted and ultimately belong to the world rather than any one nation. They seek permission to operate in the nations they visit, but have no time for the perpetual game of international agitation Bendix played. They obliterate the political structure of a parallel Earth that allowed an unprecedented rape culture to thrive, and close out the century by killing the Earth’s former owner, an ancient being that does not care that humanity evolved and grew and lived while it was off on vacation.
The Authority are ruthless and slightly terrifying, but under Ellis they are quite clearly committed to serving humanity. Moreover, the team, for all their sniping, genuinely like working together. And, even as they face a succession of relentless evils, they find and share their own joys with each other. One of the run’s finest moments comes when the Engineer, who has taken to space alongside Apollo to reconnoiter “God,” realizes that she is the first woman on the moon. She is ecstatic, and Apollo is gleefully happy for his friend. As cynical as Ellis can often be, he likes people, and there is a deep and abiding warmth to his best comics that makes them a pleasure to read. This is clearest in the way he writes the relationship between Apollo and Midnighter. While the comparative lack of physical intimacy the two share is a frustrating product of society being far too slow to accept the fact that queer people are people, their deep and abiding love for each other is abundantly clear. Midnighter is both annoyed and amazed by Apollo’s impetuousness. Apollo refuses to die even when faced with overwhelming odds because he won’t let the man he loves down. They’re a wonderful couple to read, and some of Ellis’ finest creations as a writer.
Hitch and Ellis’ run on The Authority ends with the close of the 20th century, as Jenny Sparks uses her last minutes alive to kill “God” and free the planet from its former owner. As she lies in her team’s arms dying, she warmly urges them, in her own abrasive way, to keep pushing forward.
“Good start. Down to you now. Save the world. They deserve it. Be better. Or I’ll come back and kick your heads in.”
It is certainly sad to see Jenny pass, but it isn’t pure sorrow. Jenny, after living a long, strange, occasionally lost life, found her purpose and worked to execute it to the best of her ability. She is leaving behind a team who share her dream of a better world and a planet that has survived and thrived despite the best efforts of its worst people, in part thanks to her.
At 00:00 on January 1, 2000, the spirit of the 20th century passes away, surrounded by her friends. And at 00:00 on January 1, 2000, in Singapore, a new mother kisses her baby daughter, the spirit of the 21th century, hello. The world will live. The world will change.
Bryan Hitch and Warren Ellis’ The Authority is, while not without its problematic aspects (Gamorra, several homophobic jokes from Jenny towards Apollo and Midnighter, the maddeningly-perpetual-in-cape-comics objectification of women), an all-time classic cape comic. It set the tone for WildStorm at its best and laid the groundwork for a considerable chunk of how contemporary superhero comics look and read today. Its action is thrilling, its characters likable and its tone surprisingly warm and global. I highly recommend it.
I wish I could say the same about The Authority under its next creative teams.
But I can’t.
PART TWO: HOW TO BOTCH A REVOLUTION
After Hitch and Ellis finished their run on The Authority, artist Frank Quitely (New X-Men, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, Batman and Robin) and writer Mark Millar (The Secret Service, The Ultimates) took over the book. I will now describe their run, which included a guest arc by Dustin Nguyen (who worked as the primary artist on Wildcats Version 3.0, Storm Chasing’s next subject) and Tom Peyer, as well as additional art by Arthur Adams, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine (as well as a one off issue by John McCrea and Doselle Young that served as a pilot for the now-obscure StormWatch/The Authority spinoff The Monarchy) in one word:
Ok, that’s not fair of me. Per this article by Julian Darius on SeqArt.org, published shortly after the run’s conclusion (CONTENT NOTE: The images in the article contain graphic violence, some of which is heavily sexualized and strongly implied necrophilia), Quitely and Millar were repeatedly subjected to substantial meddling by DC’s editorial department. The mucking eventually became so severe that Quitely had to leave the book and Millar had to re-write most of his last arc. Nguyen and Peyer’s guest arc starring the Fake Authority was put together as a stopgap during this period. The team was hobbled from the very start of their run by a disconnect between the stories they wanted to tell and what DC editorial considered appropriate. That’s a genuinely lousy thing for anyone to have to deal with, particularly given that The Authority had made its name as a daring and unique title amidst its peers on the superhero scene, and both Quietly and Millar were known for producing daring and unique comics.
The second part of The Authority is, in some ways, a severely compromised book. But even taking that into account, it’s an astonishingly mean, utterly tone-deaf, self-satisfied piece of work. Quitely and Millar’s Authority is a very, very bad comic.
Frank Quitely is a great artist, but his work on The Authority is frustrating. He’s a poor fit for the semi-realism of Hitch’s costume design. Quitely’s leather jackets from New X-Men are amongst that team’s all-time best looks, and his Dick Grayson batsuit is as clean and elegant a rendering of that famed costume as anyone could hope for, but those are on opposite ends of the superhero costume spectrum – hard realism and fashion on one end, pure classicism on the other. Hitch’s Authority costumes, under Quitely’s pencils, lack the modernity of Hitch’s renderings or of Quitely’s own New X-Men designs. But they aren’t quite the traditional superhero costume either. Mostly they just look frumpy. Quitely’s action, by contrast, is excellent. It’s clean, clear and renders the motion of a superhero fight quite beautifully. I’m particularly taken by the big battle at the end of “Earth Inferno,” Quitely’s second arc. Apollo unleashes his heat vision on the genocidal serial killer who had once been one of the Doctor’s predecessors, disintegrating all his clothes. As the fight continues, the rogue Doctor’s psychedelia-influenced suit reassembles itself piece by piece, even as he continues to ward off the Authority, until he is completely clad once more.
Dustin Nguyen, whose work I’ll be discussing in more detail in the upcoming Wildcats Version 3.0 article, is, like Quitely, a talented artist undercut by the circumstances of his work on The Authority. His heavily cartoonish style gives the fake Authority a great range of facial and physical character, but his work is consistently sketchier and less detailed than his Wildcats work. Given that Nguyen and Peyer came aboard specifically to buy Millar time to re-write his last arc, it is not surprising that his art looks a bit rushed, but it is disappointing given how much better it might have been.
Arthur Adams, one of Quitely’s replacements on The Authority’s last story arc, fares well with both the Authority and their big government friendly replacements. His action is bombastic and bold, and his tour through a collective unconscious that’s being corrupted and co-opted by corporate interests is quite striking. Of all the artists who worked on the back half of The Authority, Adams does the most consistently good work. With that said, he only worked on the book for two issues. The post-Hitch Authority is never an outright badly drawn comic, but it lacks the consistent quality the first twelve issues possess, and Quitely, the run’s primary artist, never achieves the level of impact that Hitch does. Speaking purely in terms of its art, the post-Hitch/Ellis Authority is sometimes disappointing, but hardly a disaster.
No, the artistic failure of The Authority is mostly attributable to Mark Millar. On a purely structural level, his tenure is a loose remake of Ellis’ run. The first arc pits the Authority against an Earthbound power with the ability to mass produce goons. The second arc pits the Authority against a world, both figuratively and literally. The third and final arc pits them against a mighty foe who they cannot hope to defeat in straight-up combat, a foe who embodies the ideologies they have committed to stopping. This would not be an issue if Millar’s efforts to differentiate the content of his run from Ellis’ did not boil down to “I’ll be as crude, misanthropic, cruel and mean-spirited as possible.”
Millar’s tenure on The Authority replaces most of the team’s camaraderie with sharp-edged bickering and barked orders. There are hints of the wonder that drove them on during the Hitch/Ellis run, but they come few and far in between. Everyone is constantly mean. And their self-righteousness dials have been dialed past max and smashed with a hammer. The global perspective that drove the team when Jenny Sparks was alive has been replaced by bullying humanity into doing what the Authority believes is right for them. They execute a South Asian dictator, force Gore and Bush to make out during their debates by using voodoo and generally come across as heavy-handed and thoughtless. Apollo and Midnighter have a few sweet moments together, but most of these come in the aftermath of Apollo being raped and/or tortured.
The most inexplicable and awful part of Millar’s run is, without a doubt, the jaw-dropping amount of rape he writes into the story purely for shock value. Apollo and several civilians are raped by a shallow parody of Captain America. That same parody is later strongly implied to be raped to death by the Midnighter with a jackhammer. The renegade Doctor mentions that the guards in his prison have raped him repeatedly. During his battle with the Authority, he goes back in time to rape the Engineer. When the Authority are overthrown and replaced with fakes, Swift and the Engineer are both brainwashed and given to members of the anti-Authority coalition as gifts. When the Authority defeat the (sigh) super-powered, inbred rape-obsessed cyborg hillbilly (who is himself a child of incestuous rape) who initially took them down, they turn him into a group of chickens and deposit him at his brother/fathers’ home to be raped. What makes this so infuriating is that Millar doesn’t engage with the reality of rape at all. Within The Authority it’s an easy trauma he can inflict on his characters for cheap pathos, a trauma that can ultimately be brushed off with one liners, rather than a traumatic event which has very real consequences for the survivor’s state of mind and sense of self. Men who write about rape and sexual assault need to engage it with care and thought, and Millar does neither. He opts for “edge” and in the process, makes his heroes into monsters. It’s the biggest albatross of his tenure, but it’s hardly the only dead bird around his neck.
Millar almost always opts for a quick, mean joke rather than digging into the ideas he introduces. This is infuriating, primarily because his run is packed with interesting ideas that either go underexplored (The Surgeon, the Doctor’s replacement in the fake Authority, attempts to merge all religions into a single highly marketable gestalt entity that the powers that be can control – Religimon. The ominously cute critter is seen once and then ultimately dismissed with a brief piece of dialogue) or subsumed by more of the run’s constant crudity (the renegade Doctor’s absolute contempt for everyone but himself, and his belief that he should be God falls by the wayside for sexual assault and declarations of how much he hates people of color). Millar is not an unskilled writer, but the choices he made on The Authority actively undermined the book. When he left for Marvel, he would leave The Authority a hollow, ugly, shell of its former self. Tom Peyer’s guest arc starring the fake Authority is less repellent, but struggles with the fact that the fake team are all aggressively horrible, determinedly shallow humans and thus not the most compelling protagonists.
To put it simply, despite some very fine art, the second half of The Authority is a total artistic failure. Some of this is almost certainly due to DC’s meddling. And I don’t know if it would have been possible to sustain the quality of the first twelve issues with a different creative team, but as it stands, the first year of The Authority is one of WildStorm’s finest moments, the remainder of the run is best left ignored.
NEXT WEEK: Dustin Nguyen and Joe Casey’s unfinished Wildcats 3.0 is a compromised book. But where it works? It still reads like a comic from the future. A small team of superheroes is determined to save the world. And they’re going to start by selling batteries that will never die.
And then? WildStorm returns from the grave with Jon Davis-Hunt and Warren Ellis’ The Wild Storm. Storm Chasing will review at least the first issue.
This article featured artwork from Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely.