Classics Reissued: The Authority
by Warren Ellis (script) & Bryan Hitch (art)
DC Comics, 2013
Back in the 1990s, upstart comic book company Image Comics began publishing the adventures of a United Nations-sponsored super-team known as Stormwatch. The team was composed of hard-bitten super-powered mercenary types who fought brutal battles (against aliens, supervillains, and eventually each other) and suffered real casualties (nobody disappears into vague energy clouds; they get mutilated and dismembered).
As the decade progressed, the team underwent dozens of changes – not least being changes in its creative teams. The property itself was subsumed into the “Wildstorm” imprint of DC Comics, a pocket line separate from the company’s main continuity (i.e. none of the Stormwatch characters were able to run across Superman or Aquaman while out fighting crime – different world, different reality). Toward the end of the 1990s, the Stormwatch team, battered and demoralized, disbanded. And in 1999, writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch envisioned some Stormwatch survivors – and some intriguing new players – banding together to form a renegade super-group called The Authority: seven superheroes (winged warrior-woman Swift, a mystic necromancer called The Doctor, alien-crafted cyborg Jack Hawksmoor, a living arsenal called The Engineer, a Superman-style strongman named Apollo, a grim Batman-character called The Midnighter, and, leading the team, a century-old being composed of living lightning and called Jenny Sparks) headquartered on a vast vessel orbiting Earth in a parallel dimension.
The first twelve issues of The Authority – comprising the creative stint Hitch and Ellis spent on the title before yielding it to other creators – were walloping great comics reading as they were being published, and in the following decade the run has taken on the status of a contemporary classic. In DC’s recent company-wide “New 52” reboot, the world of The Authority was folded firmly into the mainstream DC continuity (it is indeed now possible for, say, Apollo and Superman to meet in the sky over Metropolis), and the company has recently released the Hitch/Ellis arc as a new hardcover reprint.
I sat down with Open Letters Monthly’s resident comics expert (and host of its comics-themed blob The Four-Color Opera) Justin Hickey to talk about that reprint.
SD: Years ago, DC Comics reprinted the first six Hitch/Ellis issues as a paperback; then they reprinted the second six Hitch/Ellis issues as another paperback; and years after that, they reprinted the whole 12-issue run as a deluxe slip-cased hardcover. And now there’s this new hardcover reprint. So the first question is the most obvious: is the run really worth all this attention?
JH: Undoubtedly! The Ellis/Hitch take on superheroes as global champions, fighting to protect real people, cities, and landmarks from chaotic villainy, is the take that’s been succeeding in cinema this last decade. When Hitch finished his Authority run, Marvel scooped him up and allowed him to give The Avengers a gritty, realistic makeover as The Ultimates, which were essentially filmed by Joss Whedon last year to resounding fan response.
SD: What’s at the heart of that fan response, do you think? After all, some comics writers (some of whom you’ve celebrated on your blog!) in the past have managed to work in some of those same elements – heroes as global champions, a sense of real-world relevance – what caused this particular take to catch the popular imagination the way it did?
JH: Primarily, it’s because the late 90s had very few solid superhero comics–Busiek and Perez’s Avengers being the best. But it’s also about striking the right tone. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between comic creators and the fact that fans actually love certain characters and worlds. The Authority treats everyone, on both sides of the paper, with a dignity that had been lacking. And Hitch didn’t just approach the art like a cinematographer–his action scenes essentially are storyboards, for an action film too boisterous to actually exist. You wince seeing real cities attacked.
SD: Audiences famously winced at that very thing in Man of Steel – but unlike the equally-destructive Avengers, Man of Steel has been faulted for lacking heart. It’s not just the cities that are real in The Authority, is it? The central characters often felt refreshingly knowable – there are squabbles, workplace flirtations, and one of mainstream comics’ first openly homosexual relationships (all the more subversive that it’s between the Superman and Batman stand-ins!). In your reading, what are some of the character-driven highlights of this arc?
JH: Considering there’s a ton of beautiful moments, let me try and choose. When Midnighter faces down one of Kaizen Gamorra’s super-henchmen, and he’s explaining at length that he’s already fought the fight in his head, his last words before simply pummeling the guy are: “Put the child down.” That child, rather than being tossed aside while Midnighter cracks his opponent’s skull, ends up safely in our hero’s arms when he says, “Told you so.”
And of course there’s all the panels in which Jenny Sparks, Twentieth Century girl, reveals to us that she’s almost out of steam. It’s 1999 after all, and this twelve-issue run ends on such an incredibly real, bittersweet note. In the end she whispers to Jack Hawksmoor, “Save the world. They deserve it.” Superheroics boiled down to the essential phrase, I think.
SD: So in this rare instance, you’d agree with the hype? This really is an essential volume for comics fans to own?
JH: Yes. Wherever you’re reading comics’ history, as a new fan or old, the original Authority run is a vital touchstone of a work. Each creator has since gone bigger, but I’ll argue that neither Hitch or Ellis has done better.