Monday, May 23, 2005

Comics you should own - The Authority

Before I begin, I should remind y'all that I'm giving away two different comic books at the end of the month in honor of my own nativity. Go here for all the gory details. Good stuff, people!

And yes, I just did one of these last week. Aquaman, however, had been sitting on my coffee table for a while before I got to it, so I started re-reading these a while ago. Anyway, to wit:

The Authority by Mark Millar (writer, issues 22, 27-29), Tom Peyer (writer, issues 23-26), Frank Quitely (artist, issue 22), Dustin Nguyen (penciller, issues 23-26), Arthur Adams (penciller, issues 27-28), Gary Erskine (artist, issue 29), Rich Friend (inker, issues 23-26), Jason Martin (inker, issues 23-26), Tim Townsend (inker, issues 27-28)
DC/Wildstorm, 8 issues (#22-29), cover dated March 2001-July 2002

"What?" you say. "Greg doesn't consider Ellis's run on The Authority essential?" Well, first off, it's comics you should own, not comics you already own, and any comics geek probably already owns Ellis's 12 issues. Secondly, when you get right down to it, Ellis's run is pretty simplistic. None of the political machinations or even interesting villains of his take on StormWatch. Yes, I love reading the issues, and yes, Hitch's art is magnificent, but if you really stop to think about it, it's all "Here's a bad guy - let's punch him in the brain." Worth the time, but nothing really ground-breaking (especially if you buy Liefeld's latest assertion that he, not Ellis, invented "wide-screen" comics).

Then came Millar.

His first storyline is another good arc, but again, you all own it. His second arc, with the rogue Doctor, was weaker, and I suspect many people left the book during it, especially with the delays in printing. Then Doselle Young stepped in with, basically, a set-up for his title, The Monarchy (whatever happened to Young? - he was supposed to be the next big thing). His issue (#21) was one of the weirdest comics I've ever read, and I still don't get it. So by the time Millar began his "death of The Authority" arc in issue #22, I suspect the book had lost a good chunk of its audience. Add to the fact that Quitely suddenly left to go do X-Men and Millar had some issues with the censorship board at DC, and the final issues of the first volume of The Authority limped out in late printings, taking over a year to complete. By the time it was put out of its misery, it was a shell of its former glory.

Or was it? Sure, waiting for the issues to come out was interminable. But I submit to you that these latter issues of The Authority were just as good, and in some ways much better, than the sanctified Ellis run. No, the art wasn't as good. Hitch remains a master at the kind of art this book needs, although Nguyen, I would say, gave him a run for his money then and now in the latest incarnation (which I don't buy but look at whenever it comes out). I have my issues with Quitely's art, and I don't think Adams really works here, although I love his art, and the Erskine's art in the finale is just yucky. So the art is inferior, but not by too much. It doesn't take me out of the story, which is all I want in my comics (in case you haven't guessed, I'm more of a story guy).

The stories, however, are more complex and far more interesting than Ellis's run. Ellis gave us a ridiculously stereotypical Asian terrorist who would have made people writing Fu Manchu comics in the 1930s pause, a silly alternative Earth with a straw dog as a villain (Regis doesn't really do anything, does he? I mean, Hawksmoor kills him by jumping through him!), and, well, yet another take on aliens returning to Earth to find out the annoying humans have taken over. Millar and Peyer give us the United States government. Sure, it's just as much a cliché as the aliens coming home, but it's still more interesting. It's something we can believe the government doing, since most governments are all about preserving the status quo. When The Authority gets too big for its britches, the government steps in. Who's to say they can't?

Issue #22 sets up the story. We get that eerie shot of the Midnighter's mask lying in the sand, and then Quitely slowly pulls back to reveal the downed Carrier. We flash back a week to Jack giving an interview to "Ed Bradley," and this gives Millar a chance to spout more of his "leftist-dictatorship" dogma that so many comic book writers enjoy. It's still good reading, but the shit hits the fan pretty quickly when Seth, the genetically-enhanced assassin sent by the government, gets onto the Carrier (in typically gross Millar fashion) and begins killing people. He's pretty stinkin' good at it, too, and the team is dispatched with minimum fuss, leaving the new Authority in charge. Exit Millar for four issues.

When Peyer takes over, the book really gets interesting. If you skip from issue 22 to 27, when Millar takes over again, the book really doesn't work as well, even though that was apparently how it was supposed to work. Of course, Millar may have completely changed his story after the censors got to work on him. But Peyer's interlude allows us a couple of things: it allows us to believe the old Authority is really dead, and it also allows us to see things from the villains' points of view. It's been noted other places that building a book around villains doesn't really work long-term (even Ostrander's Suicide Squad, as great as it was, had a good mixture of good guys and bad), but for four issues, Peyer makes it work. The key is, of course, to make them human beings and make us care about them. We don't like the new Authority because, after all, they're bastards, but we do care about what they're doing, and it's a good trick. They uphold the status quo and get away with being just as depraved as the old Authority because of who they represent, but they also have feelings for each other, although they hide them under a veneer of bastardness. The dynamics of the team make for interesting reading. Obviously, the relationship between Teuton and Last Call is the most interesting, as Teuton wants to be a crime-fighting team like Apollo and the Midnighter, but Last Call doesn't want to get too close to him because of the "couple" associations with the heroes they replaced. Peyer makes Teuton a weepy baby at times, which adds comic relief but also points out that he's not a complete villain, and Millar makes him a closet homosexual who wants to "experiment" on Apollo just before the Midnighter kills him (in a scene the censors got to, apparently). I'm not sure if Peyer knew Millar was going to do that, but it makes the scenes where he breaks down and sobs a little weirder than they need to be.

Peyer's story arc is, of course, a none-too-subtle dig at other superhero team-ups in the "real" comic book world that DON'T fight the status quo. The Justice League and the Avengers would never dump a bunch of refugees out of their space station, but if the rich and elite of society suddenly lost all their money and the JLA found out who was behind it, you can bet they'd go punch them in the brains, just like the new Authority does. With more subtlety, I would argue, than Millar did with his Avengers stand-ins in his first storyline (I laughed quite hard when they showed up, I'll admit, but I doubt if "subtlety" is a word Millar is familiar with), Peyer shows us that superhero groups are ultimately about keeping things humming along the way they always have done, and the Colonel's line in issue #23, "But we have to rebel in our own way. We choose to do it within the system" is a perfect refutation of Superman's dictum that humans have to save themselves - those with god-like powers can't do it for them, an excuse that always bothered me. The Authority made the world better for humans who simply could not help themselves. Hey, Clark, tell the Tibetans and the Australian aborigines and blacks and Hispanics in this country that you can't help them because it's not in your code. They'd tell you to go screw yourself. The new Authority shows perfectly why the supergroups in the "real" comics' universes (the regular DC and Marvel ones) can't do a damned thing. Just when we think the old Authority is coming back and the "status quo" of everything being different will be restored, Last Call thwarts that because he's not gay. It's a very funny moment, and the new Authority is off again to uphold the ruling elite. Peyer doesn't give us the resolution we want, which is why this arc resonates - it's not the good guys winning, at least not our good guys. We want our old Authority back!

Which, of course, Millar does in issue #27. We find out that none of the team is dead, merely neutered. The Midnighter, of course, is going to save the day (even outside of the regular DC universe, Batman is always the last hope). In issue #28, he kills everyone in the new Authority, leaving Seth as the last bad guy to defeat. Issue #28 is another one where the censors took control, especially on the page where Rush and the Surgeon die, because you honestly cannot tell what happens. Apparently it was too graphic for DC, so they put panels over it. Stupid DC. Anyway, in issue #29 Jenny Quantum defeats Seth, Millar gets in some jokes about rednecks (ha, ha, Mark - it's not even as funny as when Ennis did it in Preacher, and it wasn't that funny then), and the status quo is restored. The Authority, interestingly enough, has become a stodgy, unchanging superhero group. And, in another interesting twist, they have lost all reason for being. Again, I haven't read it since issue #29 came out, but I can't believe it's any more or less good than JLA or Avengers. If you like it, fine, but if it's any more than superheroes punching people in the brain (yes, I'm running with that today), I'll be surprised.

What these final issues of The Authority did, ultimately, is expose the hypocrisy of superhero groups in a concise and entertaining way. Millar and Peyer exposed the reader to his (or her) own hypocrisy is supporting the status quo of superhero groups and superhero comics in general, and in a much less obnoxious and insulting way than Millar did in Wanted (the reason for my current Millar boycott, if you don't already know). This kind of thing is, of course, a Millar staple, and he does it with varying success. Here he does it well, and is able to subvert his own message of "change or die" with the subtext of "change is no good." While the Authority is creating a new world in which a different elite (but a "good" elite) is in charge, the comic is saying that everything has to stay the same. It's an entertaining read, sure, but troubling nonetheless because of what it says about our buying habits and our own relationship to whatever status quo we choose to acknowledge. Pretty heavy stuff from a superhero comic book.

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Blogger Bill Reed said...

I have never ever read a single Authority comic. Not Ellis, or Millar, or Peyer, or anything after them. Should I be ashamed?

On a related note, didn't Grant Morrison ghost-write one of the last issues, maybe #28?

5/23/2005 08:53:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I'm not sure about the Morrison thing. He may have. Half the time I'm convinced "Mark Millar" doesn't exist, that he's actually Morrison when Morrison doesn't want to be quite so weird and fears his fans will reject him. Now that's a theory!

Of course you shouldn't be ashamed. That's why I provide this service, in case you don't own this stuff and decide, through my piercing analysis, to pick them up. Now the choice is up to you!

5/23/2005 09:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike Loughlin said...

And I thought I was the only one who liked those last issues of Authority.

I understand a Millar ban - he writes at least as much crap as he does good stuff, and Wanted may be the biggest waste of potential from last year- but The Ultimates has been really enjoyable. It's the one comic wher Millar seems to write with a plot rather than a string of pithy lines and fight scenes.

5/24/2005 08:33:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, Mike, I like The Ultimates, but a boycott's a boycott! Maybe someday I'll cave. My objection isn't to Millar's writing, because I think he's pretty good. It's to his attitude - if he thinks all comics readers are losers, I don't feel I should buy his books. Whenever The Ultimates comes out, though, I feel weak. Must ... Be ... Strong ...

5/24/2005 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil Parr said...

After buying - but not reading - the first four issues of the current series, I sat down to finally put them behind me when issue 5 came out.

I'm glad I did. On the surface, bringing back Bendix may seem rather gimicky, but recent developments with Jenny (what? Prime?), and the "Midnighter must cause the group to disband" storyline have me actually looking forward to what Wildstorm will do with the title next.

5/24/2005 09:43:00 PM  
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