Monday, August 25, 2008

Morrison's Authority

[As you will be able to tell, I wrote this a very long time ago. I thought I had an opportunity to do some freelance work for an online magazine, but then they forgot all about me. But I came across it recently looking for something else in my hard drive and thought I would reprint it. Here it is.]

Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s Authority, launched under the Wildstorm imprint in 1999, set a new standard for superhero comics by fusing together two closely related genres: the superhero team book and the Summer Action Blockbuster Event. The result was three four-issue plot arcs that could have been two issues each; the slow pacing – called decompression -- meant action sequences could go for pages and pages of grand panels filled with big screen action and big screen violence. Ellis was very violent – the Authority are so powerful that they can just punch through people’s skulls without thinking about it, as Superman could, but chooses not to. In Ellis’s finale they basically electrocute God.

Mark Millar and Frank Quitely picked the book up next and kept that structure: three four-issue plots. Millar added a faux-political twist: Ellis’s Authority saved the world from villains and aliens in each story; Millar’s Authority saved the world from dictators and shadowy government programs. Millar does this to take up Ellis’s original claim for the Authority -- that the Authority, unlike the JLA, really will change the world permanently rather than just restore the status quo each month. This is, however just an excuse to continue writing a very fun book, and play a game of one-upmanship, in terms of violence. Millar’s run includes the suggestion that a character based off of Captain American raped a character based off of Superman, and has a villain go back in time, in the middle of a big fight, and sexually molest one of the female characters, only to return and defeat her as she remembers what happened to her.

The violence and faux-political commentary of Millar’s run are an answer to a major problem that appears in the concept of the book after only twelve issues have been completed: superhero books are traditionally designed to be sustainable – The Justice League of America, for example, has been running for decades in various incarnations, and creators often complete runs of forty or more issues before handing over the reigns to someone else. The sheer scope of Ellis’s Authority makes it impossible to sustain – the same fevered pitch cannot be kept up indefinitely, especially since the point is these characters are supposed to change the world. Ellis does a mere twelve issues, all of them great, before leaving: how could he do more without failing. Millar does only twelve issues as well; his violence and faux “real world” politics allow him to have fun – and write a great book – while distracting the audience from the fact that he is covering the same territory.

And so it goes, as various writers try to keep the book going – everyone tries to introduce a twist, but they are less and less successful: the concept of the Authority is not designed to be sustained, but no one wants to let it die either.

In September 2006 Grant Morrison and Gene Ha put out the first issue of their re-launch of the Authority, followed almost six months later by their massively delayed second issue. Newsarama broke the news that issues 5-10 will be handled by another creative team who will be telling a flashback story; Morrison and Ha’s future on the book is unclear. Nevertheless their first two issues deserve to be singled out, because Morrison comes up with the stroke of genius that will get him out of the deadlock of the book’s concept.

Morrison begins with a surprising move – he exacerbates the decompression that was established in Ellis’s run. Ellis gave every fight scene more than ample time to unfold. In a possibly unprecedented move, Morrison makes the audacious decision to have NONE of the title characters, and no characters like them, appear in his first issue re-launch at all. Instead he and Gene Ha spend twenty-two pages on the minutia of a guy who lives in England and is called to investigate something that has gone wrong on a submarine. Ha draws much of the issue to look like digital video, almost a home movie or an independent film. Morrison subtly parodies Ellis’s decompressed fight scenes by spending pages on the tension between a man and his wife before he leaves the house – they have a shockingly realistic and petty fight over the phone bill, and he can’t find his cell phone. They have a very hard time communicating with each other without accidentally or intentionally causing emotional pain. While he is gone, she leaves him, taking her copy of Dan Brown with her, a wonderfully realistic detail. Once on the submarine, he and his buddies talk about farting, reality TV, the football game, and how lame Steven Segal is before they discover something huge under the ocean – the readers know it is the Authority’s ship, damaged. They guys investigating have never seen anything like it. And so the issue ends.

Morrison’s Authority, it turns out in issue two, have crash-landed in parallel world, a perfectly common plot for a team that sails the multi-verse. What is not so common is that the world they are stranded in is OURS – no superheroes of any kind, and no power source to allow the Authority to repair their ship. Bored, the Midnighter (the team’s Batman character) kills “terrorists” – that was what went wrong in the submarine our protagonist from the first issue was sent to investigate – but now something seems wrong. In a comic book world killing bad guys out of boredom is the fun kind of decadent; here is just seems … wrong, as his badass-talk clichés appear in another context.

Smartly, Morrison gets an obligatory (and possibly stupid) scene out of the way quite early: in Manhattan, the team hits a local comic book shop and flips through the collections of the Authority comic book including Warren Ellis’s first trade, Relentless, and make jokes about people charging twenty dollars for a comic book. This really IS our world. The moment is important because superhero stories that attempt to be “realistic” often fail to mention actual superhero comics: in the pilot of NBC’s wretched Heroes, for example, it appears no one but Hiro has ever heard of a comic book. In real life it is the first thought any normal person would have.

In the final page of the second issue we see what this very strange idea for re-habilitating the Authority has accomplished: the team has agreed to not interfere with this world but Apollo, their resident Superman character, has been shot down flying over Afghanistan trying to power up in the sunlight, the source of his power. The Midnighter – his boyfriend (Ellis’s original twist on the Superman-Batman relationship) – goes out to fight because he wants to stay true to their original mission to change the world, Ellis’s initial manifesto for the book. “Oh, god,” says their leader as we see him ready, on his own, to take on military helicopters, “he’ll start World War Three.” That ends the second issue.

Morrison has re-envisioned how to make this book work like it did in the first few issues of Ellis’s run. Ellis’s Authority are supposed to feel HUGE but after a few issues we are deadened by the constant battles and HUGE begins to feel regular. With this final page, just one character suddenly feels MASSIVE again – you believe he COULD start World War Three on his own. As the Doctor, the team’s Shaman, says in this issue, in this world they cannot but be monsters, trampling on natural laws until they break. Implicit in Ellis’s story was the feeling that his “heroes,” in spite of the fact that they saved the world, were really bad guys – killing indiscriminately, changing the world as they saw fit, and answering to no one. Morrison’s protagonist from the first issue says it explicitly, asking the team, who identify themselves as the good guys, how they KNOW they are good guys. In terms of both physics and ethics, their whole world has been turned up-side-down – or right-side-up.

Morrison and Ha have figured out a way to reinvigorate a concept thought long exhausted. With only two issues out over six months with very little fanfare (it was hard to tell from the first issue if Morrison had a good idea or not), and with an unclear future, this two issue might have gotten past a lot of readers, but it deserves to be noticed. Even if it continues no farther, or continues for only for a few more issues, it is still a tremendous imaginative accomplishment.


Stephen said...

Dang. Now I really wish that they'd managed to get a few more issues out. You make it sound like a lot of fun.

I mean, sure, I'll pick 'em up if I see them in back-issue bins maybe. But I wonder if it will have any punch knowing there was no follow-through. Sometimes imaginative accomplishment requires completion to take effect.

Fun analysis, though.


Christian said...

I think Morrison stated that there won't be anymore at all. They're just ditching the storyline completely, because it took so long to come out.

And this isn't the first time Morrison wrote Authority. He ghosted one of Millar's issues as well, due to Millar being prognosed with Croehn's Disease.

Kyle said...

Isn't Midnighter married to Apollo since the last Millar issue? Admittedly they separated in Revolution, so maybe they're divorced now (a small quibble on wording in your good post).

I hear the new volume's good, but I mourn losing Morrison's take.

Patrick said...

At the New York Comicon, Morrison said that The Authority run wouldn't be continuing because it got such a poor critical/fan response, and I'm guessing the lengthy delays meant he lost most of the enthusiasm he had for the project. So, it'll live on as an unfinished work. I read the issues that came out a while back and reviewed them. It's not perfect, but as Geoff said, it really does feel like The Authority are meaningful and dangerous again, in the way they were in early Millar or Ellis.

But, I'm guessing that the lengthy delays, combined with the unconventional issue killed most peoples' enthusiasm for the project.

Joe Gualtieri said...

I wish Ellis had never made that post on the WEF "revealing" that the Authority were bad guys...

Of course they were to an author who previously wrote an introudction to a Hellblazer trade on the evils of authority, but it's an interpretive question.

Saying that the kill indiscriminately rigs the arguement in Ellis's favour. Actually reading the comic, there is some discussion of the morality of killing, but the actions of the team are really a fulfillment of the genre's beginnings back in Wylie's Gladiator, where Hugo Danner is ultimately struck down by God when he plans to actually change things (NB: Danner may not have followed through anyway).

Millar's run, while amusing in its first two acts, is ultimately redundant (they had already killed a third world dictator after all) and rjects the entire premise of the series when the Authority in the end decide to let humanity save itself.

Ellis's run was unsustainable on because of how the author chose to portray the team an concept-- he only shows them in the process of saving the world from tyranny, be it from that of a petty third wolrd dictator, an imperialist nationalist, or divine power. Robbie Morrison's run wasn't very good, but it showed the next step, which asing the question of what happens to the Authority when they're in power, which has far more to do with whether or not they're the bad guys than how they act in Ellis's issues.