“They think there’s no one left to save the world”.
Those were the first words in a little Wildstorm book called The Authority. Warren Ellis had been writing a book called Stormwatch for several issues when his new artist Bryan Hitch give him the inspiration to show these characters in a new light and in a new direction. Stormwatch was disbanded after the deaths of most of the members Ellis hadn’t created for the team, and soon after, The Authority was born with those words, meant to reflect the normal man’s view of that world.
I can’t help but think that’s what he was saying to the entire comic book industry as well.
01. HUMBLE BEGINNINGS ARE FOR NANCIES
When The Authority #1 was released, I was a heavy and exclusive DC and X-Men comic book reader, and things were getting as stale as an opened pack of Saltines in the desert. Comics needed some changing. I was shifting my pull box around quite a bit, trying more Marvel and indie stuff, searching for that book that would re-energize my love for the medium. At the time, my friends had been telling me to try Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch stuff, but I hadn’t made the effort other than random issues they put in front of me. I didn’t know those characters, and wasn’t into much of that universe at all despite my friends constant book pushing attempts.
But still, it was obvious to me that my comics needed some life, some kind of kick in the pants. Mainstream superheroes comics needed a little saving themselves, basically. Enter The Authority. It was an easy jump-on point since almost everyone Ellis didn’t have plans for was slaughtered most conveniently.
02. MAN I SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO MY FRIENDS SOONER
What came next was a book that changed the very language of comics for its readers. The conflicts were bigger, the scale was grander, the concepts and ideas behind it both some effortlessly simple and infinitely complex all at the same. Warren Ellis took whatever highly caffeinated spitball idea he had and injected a dose of human growth hormone in it. After adding his trademark snark and that super science pyshco-babble that sounds like poetry when he does it, he just sat back and everyone watched it grow into an industry standard, almost overnight.
Though it ages me, I have to say I don’t think a lot of people really realize just how differently comics were portrayed before this book opened the floodgates. The Authority used spreads and splashes with reckless abandon at every opportunity, was highly decompressed, and often used violence for violence’s sake. The threats they faced had an absolutely over the top gravitas about them. I mean, they fought God, and kicked his ass. It didn’t use the same old tired clichés of making team superheroics work, it stomped them into the dirt and took their freaking lunch money. Even when concepts that had been used in comics for decades were breached, they felt fresher, from communication techniques, to team transport, and all the details in between – everything felt new and so very 21st century. The title showed readers that you didn’t need an event for a comic to feel like one. It asked the question: Why shouldn’t a monthly comic feel large scale on its own? It felt like a bargain compared to the books with which it was sharing the shelf. It was like getting a movie for three bucks you could keep forever and Ellis didn’t mind breaking down or jabbing at the ridiculousness of standard comic book tropes. Its heroes’ problems became solutions. Sexuality of its members were open and honest, but not the focus. It was in a word, revolutionary, for comics as a whole.
Before you know, the rest of the industry caught on and well, rip-offs, homages, whatever you want to call them: the other guys did the shit out them. I mean, REALLY did the shit out of them – but as they say, imitation really is the best compliment. New X-Men and The Ultimates started Marvel’s adoption of the style to critical and commercial success using similar writers. The style breathed a new life in the company’s purpose, and it continues to be the house style they employ on most of their titles in some form today, whether they’d like to admit it or not (and probably a little TOO much). Super heroic event books even morphed as both of Big Two took notes, and it’s no coincidence that Epic Things Are Happening event titles became cool again. The work had been done for them. Ellis and Hitch had decoded the language of the “nu comic reader”. The customers and critics responded in droves.
Now, as we know….all good things eventually come to an end. Warren Ellis, an excellent writer for sure, has never been a “commitment” guy. He is an “ideas” guy, a “bores easily” guy, not a “I’ll be writing these for the next five years, sure” guy in any stretch of the imagination. But the show must go on, right?
03. THE NEW SCOT ON THE BLOCK
Upon the previous creative team’s departure, Mark Millar and Frank Quitely took over the book. At the time, Millar was mostly known for his works co-writing with the acclaimed Grant Morrison and writing the kid-friendly Superman Adventures book, and was ready for the challenge of the empty writer’s chair of the hottest new super team in comics. Hitch had changed the look and the feel of comic book storytelling with Ellis, but the new writer wanted to take it to its next evolutionary step. If Ellis and Co. were changing the game itself, Millar was changing the thought process behind it.
His stories were about the questions it dared to ask. What if superheroes went after the real villains of the world, and not just the moustache twirling superfreaks? What if superheroes didn’t fix everything that they broke? What if didn’t they didn’t mind getting their hands dirty for what they thought was the greater good, not their governments? What if they enjoyed it?
The book imagined a world where superheroes acted the way we might act with superpowers, not some holier than thou, pseudo-religious boy scout attitudes or following some kind of self-defined mantra and rules. It didn’t shy away from politics. Ellis had hinted at views, but left most of the thinking to the readers themselves. Millar displayed them in HD quality, thanks to the grittier but similarly dynamic art of Quietly, one of the few in the industry who could have believably followed Hitch’s amazing run of issues. The Authority weren’t going to answer to some higher moral authority and had a swagger and confidence about them that they knew they were doing the right thing. The things that needed to be done. The new team had done the impossible task of aptly carrying the torch Ellis lit, and somehow, some way, managed to take it a step further.
Most were unsure of how and if it would work, but the added political charge and focus on change actually increased The Authority popularity to new levels. I enjoyed those kind of comics immensely, but I wasn’t sure if the comic world as a whole would embrace it. But, boy did they. It was the first time I realized that the internet wasn’t a clear representations of what all the comic fans wanted after all. It sold like never before, and my fears were vanished.
Remember how I said all good things eventually come to an end? Well, if you’ve been reading comics long enough, you’ve had a team or concept that you love snatched from you. This was the case with The Authority. After a time, you could see the writing in the wall. In the middle of an arc, Quitely left the book to start drawing New X-Men over at Marvel and a fill-in arc was commissioned while Wildstorm scrambled to find a new artist. In the end, they did end up nabbing Art Adams to finish Millar’s story, but by that point, the book was dying. Millar was pushing the boundaries of gore and subject matter to levels most comics wouldn’t dare touch, and DC was growing increasingly uncomfortable with how far he was taking the book with each arc. There had been some reported censoring of images for the book on the way to print and mandates for future arcs were planned an arc beforehand. Millar wasn’t so much a fan of this (nor was a good chunk of his audience), which lead to the comments from the writer the company probably didn’t appreciate from an employee.
It became a real problem after the unfortunate, tragic events of 9/11 and was the title was purposefully delayed. The writer (and I) felt that defeated the very purpose of entertainment and not letting the real world stop it, but I think everyone can understand the thinking behind it even if they don’t agree with the choice to censor. They had a profitable company to protect and controversy could harm you just as much as it could help with violence in media being a scrutinized focal point at the time. Nevertheless the wheels fell apart, with Mark Millar leaving for Marvel, and DC deciding that in light of the tragic real life events, there would be no room on their schedule for a book like The Authority. This scuttled plans for the book’s immediate “mature readers” relaunch with arcs from Brian Azzarello and Garth Ennis on tap.
The book was never the same again, but to be fair it wasn’t for the lack of trying. DC/Wildstorm tried numerous relaunches when the pressure died down with varying degrees of success. As it stands now, the book has been missing from the shelves for almost a year (after various other starts and stops), though a comeback of sorts is being mounted in September when DC launches a new Stormwatch book by Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda. It’s the first attempt in a while that has me convinced it will capture the essence of what made The Authority so special when it started – but those first twenty or so issues? They changed my life and the way I thought about storytelling, and I was never the same.
This is The Authority. This is why I read comics.