Note: Depending on the format of the source media and what makes organizing my thoughts easier, the overall format of this blog series will be flexible to accommodate that! So this first, comics-focused installment of In Retrospect won’t be repeated for (as an example), me talking about an episode of “Smallville” that stuck with me.
I do not claim to hold the copyright to The Authority or the images in this post. I may own copies of the books, but that’s it entirely.
Content Notes: references to racism, misogyny, colonialism, fascism, and homophobia
I got into The Authority right around the time that DC shut the doors on the Wildstorm universe for what I thought might be the last time.
A dear friend in the DC fandom, Sasha, had gotten me into the series after seeing me comment on fanart of Apollo and Midnighter with the kind of excitement that really only comes from getting to call a character “gay murder Batman” and pointed me in the direction of the series and some of its best arcs.
I started with Warren Ellis’s second volume of Stormwatch (which introduced the characters that’d go on to be part of The Authority and went on from there. It remains one of the series I reread as often as possible because the storylines and characters are just flat out fun to fuss over.
With DC’s The Wild Storm reinventing all of the characters from this run, I thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to look back at the first twelve issues of The Authority. What was so awesome about Ellis’s first run and why is it that Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s following turn on the series so dang distressing?
And above all: does this series still deserve the hype in my head?
The Circle (1-4)
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Bryan Hitch
Inker: Paul Neary
Colorist: Laura Depuy
Letterer: Bill O’Neil, Ali Fuchs (#3 and 4)
Moscow gets destroyed in the first few pages of “The Circle” the first arc of The Authority and Stormwatch, the superhuman crisis response team that got two volumes of books previously, can’t do anything about it. Stormwatch’s inability to help, by the way, is because much of the team is dead or has disappeared in the time between the last issue of Stormwatch and the first issue of The Authority.
Let’s start this off by me pointing out that villain introduced in this issue, Kaizen Gamorra, is a super racist “Yellow Peril” stereotype. He’s the sort of villain that superhero comics put forward in the 40s and 50s and that pulps stuck into their stories in the 1930s.
Flat out, he’s the kind of villain that no one should’ve been writing in 1939 or 1999.
A racist caricature of an East Asian villain, Kaizen Gamorra has no purpose other than that of world domination and evil. The focus on doing wrong for the hell of it is something that I’m used to that in my supervillains.
What I’m not used to is the way that Kaizen is explicitly set up to play off of that fear of East Asian encroachment on the West.
It’s not just that he’s attacking Western major cities first as the “knots” on the circle that make up his (and his dead brothers’) logo, but that he’s doing so while looking like he just stepped out of a 1930s pulp magazine.
Dressed in red robe and with long red nails, Kaizen is such a stereotypical old-timey villain that I want to give Warren Ellis a stern shaking for bringing him back in this book.
When Shinya Hoshino of the United Nations Special Negotiations Team asks him why Kaizen’s island nation of Gamorra was built on terrorism, Kaizen’s resulting monologue (delivered while he uses his dagger-length nails to mutilate a woman partially off-panel) is ridiculous.
Because I can. Because I am a wolf in a world of sheep. Because terror is the blood of life and its guiding principle. I have no politics to espouse through my terror, no ideals to force through. Terror is its own reward. Your missiles and bombers mean nothing to me. My terror has shown you that Gamorra is the one true superpower on Earth. That’s why. I am not finished. My mark is not yet cut. When it is, then you shall all know that I own this planet.
I don’t like pointless villains.
Kaizen Gamorra is peak pointless villainy.
There really is no point to what he’s doing. Sure, he brings up his previous run in with Stormwatch in a way that can make you think that this is a revenge thing, but… it’s not about that. He’s not in it for revenge, or for profit, he’s just… in it.
Which is fine for other people I guess, but… not for me.
What sucks extra hard is that this arc ends with Midnighter dropping the Authority’s shiftship on top of the country of Gamorra, killing Kaizen Gamorra and who knows how many of the citizens that aren’t the force-grown clones that are terrorizing the world.
The body count across The Authority tends to be really high. That’s normal for superhero media. So’s the way that the collateral damage and civilian deaths aren’t ever dealt with in a way that would count as meaningful to the audience or significant across the story.
Reading this first arc of The Authority reminds me of watching Man of Steel in theaters with my friend Kenia and kind of gaping at the destruction that pretty much leveled Metropolis. Batman vs Superman tried to bring the sort of commentary I’m hungry for to the table, but it’s another superhero film that sees cities get destroyed and tons of civilian casualties largely go unaddressed.
It’s just… a weird reminder that The Authority came about in an era (the “dark ages” of comics, really) where wide-scale casualties were really starting to be the norm for superhero events to the point where like… they didn’t even need to happen in an “event”.
(One last note? I didn’t realize how many little digs at Apollo and/or Midnighter’s expenses in the series at this point are probably homophobic in nature – e.g., Jenny calling ONE OF THEM a “ponce”, how she constantly needles them in a way she doesn’t anyone else, her asking them “Who wants to be Bert and who wants to be Ernie?”.
It’s wild because at this point, outside of non-Wildstorm stuff, I’m hard-pressed to say that there’s been a moment where I 100% loved how Midnighter and Apollo were being written.)
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Bryan Hitch
Inker: Paul Neary
Colorist: Laura Depuy with Chris Garcia, Michel Garcia and Eric Guerrero (#8)
Letterer: Ali Fuchs and Robbie Robbins (#8)
Even when other, older Wildstorm plots escape my mind, I will always remember Sliding Albion, an England from another Earth in this arc of The Authority. This was an arc that was somehow anti-fascism but also very fascist thanks to the Authority itself (which is an organization that “means well” but repeatedly turns to this weirdly fascist view of how to make the world a better place).
Sliding Albion is an empire from an alternate Earth lurking in Jenny Sparks’ lengthy past and its ruler has made “our” Earth its newest target for conquest. Sliding Albion is a version of the already-awful English empire that has succeeded in conquering the hell out of its own earth and is now looking for a new target. That “our” earth also has the added bonus of providing these blue-skinned jerks with a chance to get revenge on Jenny Sparks for her efforts in stopping them from attaining their goals back in when she was a young woman.
I think that the first memories I have of this arc of Ellis’ Authority arc was the first part of this weird mini-monologue from Jenny Sparks.
“I was twenty years old when I stopped aging. Earth stopped making sense about the same time. One minute we had the special theory of relativity, and the next, someone rewrote the laws of physics. England was very quietly touched by the strange. I was there to see the shiftships when the door appeared. I was a girl. I threw myself into the trouble that followed the door, fought the king of nails from Sliding Albion and slept with beautiful blue-skinned princes.
The Twenties were an age of scientific romance. And I loved it.”
After Apollo and Midnighter, Jenny Sparks is another one of my favorite members of The Authority.
Jenny is irreverent, hard to kill, and so sharp-witted that her dialogue can injure the unsuspecting. She’s interesting even when poorly written. That’s something that doesn’t tend to happen too often.
What’s cool about this arc of The Authority is that it introduces us to an aspect of Jenny that most readers hadn’t seen at that point: her past. While her past remains mostly a mystery until Mark Miller gets his gross and grubby hands on her in the main series and in a miniseries entitled Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority, this was one of the first chances we got to see what made her… Jenny.
Sliding Albion isn’t where Jenny came from, but it’s one of the settings for an iconic moment in her past. Up until this point, Jenny has been this mysterious boss-lady who’s front and center in the Authority and the group knows next to nothing about her. Even her actual closest friend in the group – Angela Spica/The Engineer – doesn’t know all that there is to know about her past.
So when Los Angeles gets invaded again and destroyed by pilots in small shiftships, no one’s expecting Jenny to recognize them. I think the wildest part of the arc – more out of the blue than the vileness of the colonial creepshow that is Sliding Albion – was that this arc introduces us to Jenny’s first husband Lorenzo.
Lorenzo is an asshole and Jenny really only married him for
a) his junk
b) a chance to disrupt the stranglehold that the blue bastards in Sliding Albion were trying to get on “our earth.
Rereading this ages after the first time and I genuinely get this wild kick of pleasure from watching those assholes get their just desserts. Like Midnighter and Jack just wreck Regis, the nasty horned hooligan that is trying to take over “our” earth and turn it a breeding facility for his blue skinned fellows. It’s so satisfying.
The Sliding Albion Arc is also one of the most (relatively) decent arcs of the series because of all the thoughts it sparks about colonialism and a blue British Empire.
I can’t tell you if Ellis meant for us to have these thoughts in response considering how the series and organization has never been far from fascist (especially with Millar and beyond), but I had those critical thoughts despite the series itself.
(Also important thing about this arc is the truly tender moment that Midnighter and Apollo have in the final issue of the arc where Midnighter is worried that an un-charged Apollo is in danger of crashing down to earth before he has time to recharge from the sun. It’s so sweet. What the shit??)
Outer Dark (9-12)
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Bryan Hitch
Inker: Paul Neary
Colorist: Laura Depuy
Letterer: Ryan Cline
This third arc in Warren Ellis’s run on The Authority is also his last.
It opens days from the end of the 20th century and shit’s about to hit the fan.
Right off the bat when rereading this arc, I’m overwhelmed by my bitterness towards what comes next. The Authority and the overarching Wildstorm universe were always problematic, but the self-awareness tended to make up for it. I remain uncomfortable with a lot of the early stories in the universe and I’m definitely hyperaware of what things were like for Midnighter, Apollo, and other marginalized characters prior to like this arc –
But I also know what’s coming next.
Like with my Anitaverse recaps, we’re at the beginning of the end. Sure, some cool things happen in upcoming parts of The Authority – Midnighter and Apollo’s wedding, Jenny Quantum, and Grant Morrison’s trippy work on the series – but what the characters go through is just not worth the lead-in.
“Outer Dark” is set days before Jenny Sparks will die with the start of the 21st Century and it focuses on… the owners of the earth before us. Asaide from how the way that’s set up makes it very clear that the target audience and creators of the series are probably white dudes without a grasp of how bad colonialism is and that we can’t own this planet – I did understand how terrifying it is to be faced with a sudden… smallness.
The idea that we’re not the most powerful beings in the world.
(Actually, to be fair, we’ve never been the most powerful anything anywhere. Humans are ridiculously fragile and we make super horrendous decisions that make no sense. We die SO EASILY. Ducks and dachshunds can take us out without breaking a sweat. I have no idea how humanity has survived as long as we have and I just think we won’t be around for much longer.)
On top of my mild frustration with the rest of the series and events I can’t change until I get my time machine, I did appreciate seeing the crew of the Authority experience that shift from Earth’s Orneriest Avengers to small specks in the universe’s annoyed gaze.
But the arc ends with Jenny Sparks burning herself out to kill god.
While I’m always down for a good god killing, that it leads to Jenny’s death and Mark Millar’s mediocre run on the series makes me super frustrated.
Rereading The Authority alongside The Wild Storm actually showed me how ass-backwards the former series was. With almost twenty years between the two runs, we can see how much differently Warren Ellis views the characters and the very nature of The Authority itself – framing it as actively anti-fascist in a way that the organization wasn’t always capable of being.
While I’m grateful to The Authority as a gateway to cool, gory comics and allowing me to use the phrase “gay murder Batman” to describe Midnighter in my thesis defense back in April 2018, I prefer The Wild Storm.
It’s a consistently self-aware series that reinvents familiar characters in the group as queer people of color. It’s not perfect because perfect media doesn’t exist, but it’s engaging, fun, and isn’t going to leave me stressed out about whether or not a character of color or queer character will be tortured or killed because of their identity.
While a lot of my looks back at The Authority are colored by how much I hate what Millar and a bunch of the folks that came after him did to the series, I definitely found myself flinching through way more of the twelve issues I read than I expected to. The weird racism, the homophobia, how Angie’s nearly nude body is a whole thing the art focuses on, and how women are super poorly written across them –
Those were among the annoying aspects of these twelve issues.
I get why I liked it back then…
But I don’t really like it that much anymore.
I vote for 25 more issues of The Wild Storm and new Wildstorm revival series done by queer people of color.
Are y’all with me?