Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch forever changed the scale of superhero comics…
There had been comics like this before, most definitely. Ellis was obviously setting the stage for this during much of his Stormwatch run, but even there, things shifted dramatically with the arrival of Bryan Hitch. Once he came onboard and provided a little artistic stability, the storytelling canvass got progressively larger, and this extended far past the grand visuals and into the larger ideologies at work. The stage was now set for one of the most explosive and adult depictions of superheroes that we’d ever seen.
Sure, we’d seen glimpses of the true and awful damage superhuman beings could do to the world if they actually existed, but no other title did it with such a sly combination of glee, intelligence, and horror. No other title was so quickly and often imitated, its style and look quickly coined “widescreen,” and its mission statement so pervading that other creators felt compelled to respond to it in their own titles. It was something that couldn’t be ignored or marginalized, even though it featured characters most people hadn’t even heard of. And it was the perfect marriage of words and pictures, serving as a storytelling blueprint for how and why things should be done.
Grant Morrison probably says it best in his introduction—
“The Authority is the first great superhero team book of the 21st century. Beside it everything else seems pale and stale and repetitive. Be honest.”
Now…let’s talk a little more about exactly why that is.
And in Five Pages- (The Circle, Chapter One)
One of the best “five-page pitches” I’ve ever read. One of the first things I ever learned about writing comics (or columns for that matter) is to start strong. Come out the gates blazing and open with a scene, an image, or a situation that forces the reader to stick around until the very end. Even though this series truly began back in the pages of Stormwatch, Ellis quickly lets you know that The Authority is putting everyone else on notice with a simple line—They think there’s no one left to save the world.
Then he and Hitch cut to Moscow, people navigating through snow covered streets, going about their business. A comet streaks through the sky, soon joined by several others, until one of them suddenly changes trajectory, instead arcing down to the street below. People look up and a baby screams, like he’s the only one that truly realizes what’s about to happen. Everything vanishes into sound and light, pulverized by super bastards wearing black spandex marked by a circle with three knots. They kill and destroy everything in sight and then casually move on when done, like the lives they’ve taken never really mattered to anything or anyone.
There are entire comics out there that don’t have a sequence this engaging, let alone in the first set of pages. If you can’t find a reason to finish this issue, after reading the opening scene, you officially don’t have a pulse…or possibly functioning eyeballs and/or a brain…
The Carrier- (The Circle, Chapter One)
More escalation here, now dealing with a roving headquarters that takes all of the familiar features of superhero hideaways and gives them stiff and pronounced kicks into the twenty-first century. “Fifty miles long. Thirty-five miles high. Abandoned. Powered by a caged baby universe.” This is in addition to its ability to open a “door” any place on the entire planet because the massive, sentient ship is simultaneously orbiting both around and in the Earth.
Does something like that make any sense at all…? The answer is no, and clearly it doesn’t have to, because the idea is just that cool and makes all other secret liars hopelessly lame in comparison. Also of note is that the actual position of the Carrier changes every time it’s referenced. The first issue has it “Moving downwake through the devachanic realm at a speed of twenty-five dreams per second…” and it all became much, much stranger from that point.
Game Over- (The Circle, Chapters One & Two)
More terrific first impressions, as The Authority makes its grand appearance, defending London against an invasion of the super bastards. Everyone is given their own visual spotlight and cool tagline, before combining for the prerequisite team shot, flanking Jenny Sparks who proclaims “Game Over.” Perhaps this is an ideological stretch, but I always saw this as not only an obvious proclamation to the team’s assorted enemies, but as yet another bit of meta-commentary from Warren Ellis to the industry at large—change or die. A storytelling line drawn in the hand, that dictated how it’s going to be from now on, and then following that with another eleven issues telling you exactly why.
Midnighter Explains it All- (The Circle, Chapters Two & Four)
Very basic concept here—nothing beats the hero talking mad ____ and then being able to back it up by kicking people in the face before they’re able to react.
It really is that simple.
That Farting Sound- (The Circle, Chapter Four)
Any great story is really an overpowering blend of several elements, but two things that it must always have are a strong opening and an equally strong close. Now, most of the above detailed how spectacularly fantastic “The Circle” begins, but we’ve all read that story of brilliant promise that quickly spirals down the drain, concluding a mere shadow of its full potential. That ain’t what happens here thankfully, and it all comes down to a few great scenes and great lines from The Midnighter.
Having penetrated Kaizen’s base while his teammates beat back an offensive over L.A., Midnighter comes face-to-face with the true mastermind, who in typical villain fashion rattles off just how important and perfect his ultimate plan is. Problem is that his little victory speech gives the most dangerous fighter on the planet a great idea—one so decisive and destructive that Kaizen can only mutter, while watching the Carrier carve a line straight through the city toward his impressive building, “I only wanted to have some fun.”
Midnighter’s perfect response is obviously Ellis speaking through his characters again, and demonstrating that the superhuman conflicts of the future will be settled by people of incredible strength and skill hitting each other, until one of them can’t get back up. Again a simple notion, yet elegant in its proficiency, and its application to this genre we’ve loved so much over the years.
Door to Door- (Shiftships, Chapter Three)
You know that moment in the action movie where the director enters a new scene with some massive, glorious shot of a building that you just know is going to explode before the final frame? That happens in the first chapter of “Shiftships,” when Albion launches a raiding party into our dimension, using the same door technology as The Authority. From that point, I felt both a little stupid for never considering the possibility of such a thing, and anxious for the inevitable scene where these people came charging into The Carrier. Though I never imagined they’d be on horseback when they did, a small twist that added so much to the scene and set the stage for the following priceless visuals—Apollo disintegrating horses, Jack hitting someone in the face with a severed arm, and the Engineer shooting horses with an automatic weapon.
On the dedications page, Ellis claims that fits of uncontrollable laughter were common while writing this book, and I’d bet money this was one of them.
Change Or Die- (Shiftships, Chapter Four)
Issue eight was my favorite single issue of The Authority, just barely nudging past the first, which obviously I’m very fond of. Everything that made this book philosophically different from everything else from its time period was on full display, illustrated at a level that makes me wish I could draw more than stick figures. Midnighter and Apollo share a very touching moment before the latter heads off on a suicide mission. That wasn’t happenin’ in the JLA. Jenny Sparks takes her giant ship to where the bad guys are and announces her presence with a lightning strike that sends everyone to Hell where they belong. This also wasn’t happenin’ in the JLA. Apollo’s solar batteries charge up in time to keep him from slamming into the ground, and he shows his gratitude by dive-bombing enemy ships. This might’ve happened in the JLA, but for some reason, it just felt cooler here.
Yet another very clear difference is the result of the final rain-soaked fight with Regis, who confidently tells the Midnighter, “I have been raping and killing better humans than you for half a millennium.” How do they deal with this monster that wants to turn the entire Earth into a rape camp, you ask? Jack uses a pissed off city to rip his ass in half, which…you guessed it…wasn’t happening in the JLA. The killer though, the big progressive stance the team takes when deciding on a more final solution for Italy has to be the biggest thing that wasn’t happening and will never happen in the JLA. The Authority drowns an entire country of people, fearing someone there will only pick up where Regis left off. In the words of the Engineer, “We just did something really frightening. We changed a world. We came in and changed things to the way we thought they should be.”
And that sentiment is the real reason we’re even having this conversation. We know superheroes are capable of things like this, but the prevailing question is always going to be—should they?
Engineer Has Landed- (Outer Dark, Chapter Three)
If there was one character that provided a clear viewpoint into what The Authority was really about, it was the Engineer. No one was more consistently amazed and sometimes even horrified about the things they were doing, and for me the culmination of all this happens in issue eleven when she’s standing on the Moon. After she uses the liquid machinery in her blood to grow rockets on her back and blast into space, laughing hysterically the entire way there. After she says something that doesn’t make any sense at all, but sounds real cool. After she lands on the Moon, looking back to the planet she just left minutes ago, with the widest grin anyone’s ever worn on their face. She offered the perspective through which every incredible thing was viewed and these moments felt the most honest throughout the entire run.
People have often commented that Warren is a “cynical writer” or that his material is inherently irritable, nasty, and/or unpleasant, but I believe those people can’t actually read. Ellis’ characters, despite their smoking and drinking habits, are always committed to seeing truth told and justice done. To experiencing as many amazing things as possible before they die. To honoring and protecting the people closest to them. To trying to find the best way to the future and to a better world.
All of this was embodied in this series by the Engineer, as it has been through a number of characters Ellis has written over the years. His writing is hardly cynical and could only be classified irritable because he believes that people could build better lives and worlds if they only got over themselves.
Be Seeing You- (Outer Dark, Chapter Four)
The last in a series of great endings, as “the Spirit of the Twentieth Century” goes out with a bang by setting God’s brain on fire with electricity and saving the entire world one last time. This was another one of those little things I would’ve picked up on if I were really paying attention, but that’s likely for the best, as I didn’t even think about it until she and the Doctor have their very quick and very secret conversation. After that, it was inevitable and even though you knew Jenny was going to make it in time, Ellis still ratcheted up the tension throughout, as the team cuts their way to the big brain that created the Earth.
Really just a fantastic ending to a fantastic series that went out and consciously pushed the boundaries of superhero comics—forcing the threats, and the questions to grow larger and more complicated, with no possibility of going back.
Hope you all got your Absolute Editions before they went out of print, because that’s the way to truly appreciate this work.
The Authority #8
The Authority #1
The Authority #4
The Authority #12
The Authority, by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, and Laura DePuy—this is why I love comics.
Originally published as Ambidextrous 274 on Newsarama.com