Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Authority: Under New Management

When I was first getting into comics, around 2000, The Authority was the biggest thing going in superhero comics. But, even then it was breaking down, and the years since have seen the ‘brand’ diluted and rendered essentially toothless in the marketplace. I read the first trade of the series, Relentless, back then, and didn’t really like it. I had issues with the fact that I didn’t really know, or care about any of the characters. It was all big action, with no emotional substance. I had the same critique of Morrison’s JLA, but since then I came around on JLA and came to appreciate the scale and joy of what it was doing. It wasn’t about character arcs, it was about spectacle, joy and wonder.

The Under New Management TPB opens with the final Ellis arc. It’s a pretty solid comic, though one that, like much of Ellis’s work, is more interesting on a conceptual level than in execution. They are fighting ‘God,’ but in this case, God is just a giant asteroid threatening planet Earth. The ending of the arc involves the team standing around on their ship, describing the cool stuff that happens outside. It’s got its moments, but after reading the arc that follows, it feels very lacking.

‘The Nativity’ starts Mark Millar’s run on the title, and his first issue is a bold statement of a new era for superhero comics. It’s not necessarily the basic idea that’s so radical, a superhero team that goes after evildoers, rather than just responds to threats, that seeks to alter the status quo rather than preserve it. That was the foundation of much of the ‘edgy’ early 90s work done by the Image creators, it’s the jump from X-Men to X-Force. The thing is, with Quitely on art, and a heavy political dimension to the proceedings, the book does feel genuinely revolutionary. The ensuing arc doesn’t always quite match what the first issue sets up, but it’s all giddy pop fun illustrated by arguably the best artist in comics today.

When I say arguably, I’m mainly talking about an internal argument with myself, with Quitely and J.H. Williams vying for that best artist title. The winner is whoever’s book I read last. Reading J.H’s work of Batman: Club of Heroes, I was so wowed by the varied styles and page layouts he brought to the title, it seemed pretty indisputable that he was the greatest artist in the world. But, then I read this book. Quitely’s renderings are so far beyond anyone else in comics, the very nature of the art is totally different. There’s a tactile quality to the art, a three dimensionality that’s unlike anyone else.

And he just keeps getting better as the book progresses. One of my only issues with Quitely is that all his faces look similar, but in the last issue of the arc, he manages to do some of his best emotional storytelling. My favorite pages are the ones where Swift speaks to Krigstein, Quitely does a great job of capturing the emotion in her face. There’s a subtlety that other artists can’t match. Throughout this book, you can feel what the characters are feeling, and that’s a huge testament to his art.

Bryan Hitch is one of the most beloved artists in comics today, but compare his stuff to Quitely’s and it looks utterly flat, like something out of the 50s, not the crazy future renderings of Quitely. Ellis frequently has panels where the characters marvel at something they’re seeing, and it’s kind of marvel-worthy, but every single panel that Quitely draws is a work of wonder. He owns these characters, each one feels like it was designed specifically for him to draw.

I’ve heard some people crack on Quitely as not being the right artist to match the sexy model aesthetic Grant wanted for his X-Men relaunch, but in this series, he manages to make every member of the team have their own dirty sexy feel. I particularly like the scenes where they’re just hanging around the ship, Quitely manages to give them a lot of humanity, but still maintain the power. There’s been countless “what would superheroes really be like” stories, but I think this is one of the most effective. They can change the entire world in theory, but there’s still a lot of forces resisting. It’s not quite Miracleman #16, these aren’t gods, they’re people who just happen to have huge powers.

I think those first few moments of #13 are the most giddy and full of potential, as Millar re-introduces the team as a group that isn’t going to put up with shit anymore, that’s going to try to make the world a better place. Reading the book in a post 9/11, post war in Iraq world is pretty interesting. How is what they do in Southeast Asia at the beginning of the book any different than what Bush did in Iraq? Well, a big part of it is the motivation. The Bush illegal invasion of Iraq was motivated by corporate profiteering, while The Authority’s attack is essentially motivated by the desire to liberate people from this oppressive regime.

The question is, can you just remove the bad man and make everything better? I don’t think so, and the end of the storyline gives us a legitimate solution to help build a new world order. In between however, there’s a whole bunch of superhero action. If it wasn’t Quitely drawing, it’d be easy to say that it’s essentially mindless violence, but Quitely turns every scene into something beautiful to behold. And, this is The Authority, violence and destruction is a big part of it. Millar comes up with some fantastic scenarios, I can think of few images as perfectly superhero as Giant Man pulling a plane out of the sky and smashing it into the ground. Ellis Authority and Morrison JLA took superhero comics up to 11, this comic keeps that volume, but brings them down to a more Earthbound level. It’s not gods in conflict, it’s a whole bunch of superpowered people fucking each other up.

In Ellis’s Authority, I always felt like there was a surplus of characters, particularly in that final arc, most of the team is just standing around. But, Millar manages to find something for everyone to do, and make each of the character their own kind of badass. The Midnighter and The Engineer are my personal favorites, but everyone gets some great moments that take advantage of their unique abilities. The fight scenes are innovative and exciting, and each issue feels dense with material. Reading a Quitely comic takes me a lot longer than most artists because I spend so much time with each of the images.

In the end, The Authority decide that it makes more sense to use Krigstein for good than just kill him. So, the new world order they propose is one in which those with great physical power clear out the bad people and leave those with great mental power to rebuild the world. It’s a great paradigm for a superhero comic. The political dimension here isn’t that deep, but it does give you some things to think about, and that makes the book a bit more than just stuff blowing up.

Things end with the new world order in progress and everything looking up. I loved that last issue, it’s a really exhilarating superhero comic, the whole arc is. It’s a huge jump from what Ellis was doing, and another bravura art performance from Quitely.

It’s a shame the series ran into so much trouble later on. I’m going to grab the next TPB, but my hopes are lower. Even the great Chris Weston can’t match what Quitely was doing, and it sounds like the last arc of the series was a huge mess, almost as big a disaster as Morrison’s relaunch of the series. Maybe it’s an idea whose time has passed, if it is, this run was a fantastic way to go out.

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