(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
I try to keep a sense of diversity in this column. Really I do. I want to present a mix of creator-owned and corporate comics, superhero comics and non-superhero comics, limited series and ongoing series, new writers and old. But being the completist-minded fanboy that I am, there are certain recurring themes that I won’t be able to shy away from until there’s nothing else there to talk about. Chief among them is the work of Warren Ellis, a comics writer I worship without apology. We’re coming up on a year of work with this column and I’ve already looked at his writing here several times. But guess what? It’s time to do it again, because I can’t wait any longer to talk about The Authority.
Ellis doesn’t do a whole lot of superhero work, especially now that he has the reputation and stability to pick and choose projects. He’s not shy about admitting he finds much of the genre boring these days, which actually seems to be a rather fashionable opinion to have, but few of the people who have it seem willing to do something about it. When Warren Ellis writes superheroes, he writes them the Warren Ellis way. In Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, the excellent documentary released last year about his life and work, Ellis described the formula for writing a superhero comic as follows: “What you do is you take a soap opera, and you take out all the sex scenes, and replace them with people punching each other.” I’m not going to spend the whole of this column attempting to analyze The Authority as it relates to that statement, but I will say there’s an awful lot of punching, and it’s the kind of punching that literally knocks jaws clean off.
Ellis generated The Authority at Wildstorm in the late ’90s, around the same time he was beginning what is his most important superhero work to date: Planetary. Authority grew out of the ashes of another Ellis Wildstorm title – Stormwatch – which Ellis has said was being published just because the people at Wildstorm liked reading it. Stormwatch was full of complexity in its plotting, its characterization and its themes. It was a grown up superhero comic, a departure from everything else the genre had to offer at the time. And it didn’t sell.
So Ellis recycled some characters, added a bit more “flash and thunder,” and The Authority was born. The idea is, as with most superhero team books, simple. The Authority or a bunch of superhumans who ride around on an extra-dimensional craft called The Carrier and combat various threats to Earth. It’s what Ellis does with them that sets them apart.
First of all, The Authority isn’t exactly made up of the most virtuous of characters. They aren’t outright nasty, but they can be a rather grim lot. Their leader – Jenny Sparks – has been around for a century watching humanity rise and fall, and she’s come to view things rather simply. She wants to leave the world better than she found it. She wants to put on vulgar displays of power in the hope that she can convince humankind that it’s got more to offer the universe. She doesn’t always have the highest hopes that this wish will come true, but she keeps fighting anyway.
I’m not going to go down the full list of members of the group and give you a mini-analysis of each, but you get the idea. Not your typical superhero team. Then Ellis – with the help of the stunning work of artist Bryan Hitch – goes about making sure we’re not reading a typical superhero book. Within a few pages of the first issue an entire city has been leveled, and things only get bigger from there.
Part of the genius of Warren Ellis is his knack for simultaneously playing by a genre’s rules and subverting them. The Authority follows the classic superhero formula of present the threat, find a way to hurt the threat and then eliminate the threat. But you’ve never seen another superhero book like this.
The visuals are the first thing you notice. Everything is bigger. This isn’t just Batman decking The Joker on the jaw (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or Spider-Man wrapping up Doc Ock. Cities fall in The Authority. Invasions come from parallel worlds. One of the threats in Ellis’ 12-issue run is literally God. The Authority runs a no holds barred kind of game. They will punch your face off, incinerate you without batting an eye and pilot their alien trans-dimensional supership right down your throat. It’s a new kind of badass, the kind of badass only Warren Ellis can summon, and once you’ve read it you’ll put down everything other superhero book feeling that just a little something was missing.
Ellis only did 12 issues (three story arcs) on The Authority before turning the book over to Mark Millar, who also turned in some great stories. The Authority has been through five volumes, several creative teams and nearly 100 issues, but it’s those first dozen that remain landmark works in the field of superhero comics. They turned the page on something new, just like Planetary. Everyone points to Transmetropolitan when it’s time to discuss the impact Ellis has had on modern comics, but what’s too often forgotten is just how versatile he is. Yes, he’s among the most important writers of creator-owned material ever, but he’s also a guy who got inside the system and helped remake it in his own image.
Plus, you know, faces getting punched off. Kinda hard to argue with the value there.