Friday, April 11, 2008

The Authority: Earth Inferno and Brave New World

The end of Mark Millar’s run on The Authority was one of the most troubled in recent comics history. I was somewhat into the comics scene at that point, so I remember seeing articles about how much stuff had been changed and messed with, but I didn’t actually read the book. Reading it today, I think it holds up as one of the defining superhero books of the decade, a run that raises a lot of interesting questions about what power can do in the world, and delivers just a really fantastic superhero story. There are some bumps along the road, but in general, this is a fantastic piece of work.

A lot of the book’s greatness is due to Frank Quitely’s amazing art. Chris Weston is one of my favorite artists, his run on The Invisibles is my favorite of any comic, but even he can’t come close to matching what Quitely does on the book. Looking at them back to back, there’s no contest. That said, the art shift in Transfer of Power is a bit easier to deal with because we’ve got four issues of Dustin Nguyen’s shitty art separating Quitely and Art Adams. Art Adams isn’t quite up to Frank’s level, but he’s still really good, and it’s not until Gary Erskine comes on that the art tails off a bit.

But, no one can match Quitely. My favorite issue in the back half of his run on the book is the battle with the original Doctor that closes out Earth Inferno. It’s an epic issue, and gives Quitely a lot of interesting stuff to draw. I think Millar’s greatest strength writing the title is that unlike Ellis, he always finds a role for everyone in every story. Each member of the team is an essential piece of the larger machine that defeats the villains. Frequently, it comes down to the Midnighter taking someone out, but along the way, everyone gets to do something. I remember when I first read Relentless, I was confused about who all these characters were, but reading these books, everyone has a role and something of a personality. It’s by no means a character focused book, but I do care about them.

Again, I think much of that is owed to Quitely’s art. Hitch draws pretty, but blank people. Quitely’s are grittier, more relatable and real. He’s a master of giving everyone an individual body language. This is most noticeable over in All Star Superman, with the division between Clark and Superman, but you can see a real difference in the way Jack Hawksmoor carries himself versus the way the Doctor carries himself. Quitely has so much more emotional detail in the panels, going from him to someone like Nguyen, who just draws pretty pictures, is a major step down. Quitely is like Wong Kar-Wai or Terence Malick in the sense that he makes you reassess what is possible with the medium. Every detail of every panel has a reason and tells us something about the story and the world.

But, that’s not to say that this only Quitely’s achievement. Millar’s hit or miss for me, Ultimate X-Men was pretty bad, The Ultimates has its moments, this is the only work of his that totally succeeds for me. He’s a writer who’s often out to shock, and with a book this over the top, the shock value stuff works better. As these last two storylines show, Millar’s writing is at its best when he’s at his most sadistic. He does a great job of coming up with massive threats for the heroes to deal with, throwing them down a hole and watching them dig themselves out.

The buildup in Earth Inferno is solid, I really like the scenes where the team has to save people who are drowning in New York City. I think this book has a lot to say about a post 9/11 world, and I’m glad scenes like that exist. Seeing the real destruction makes it more real and grounded. I can see why people had trouble with it at the time, but it’s better to deal with and question these issues than just leave 9/11 as this event that happened, but can never be dug into deeper than just it’s a tragedy.

But, the real joy of Earth Inferno is the last issue, when the evil Doctor battles the team. It’s a huge confrontation and Millar brings out a lot of great character moments within. My favorite is the devastating scene where the Doctor goes back in time and molests Angie as a child. It’s a totally sadistic moment, but if the goal is to show a character who exists beyond traditional morality, that’s the way you have to play it. At this point in the series, just blowing up a building doesn’t cut it anymore, this kind of psychological assault is harder to watch. This is the ultimate foe, someone who can travel through time and destroy you anywhere you are.

But, the sadistic assaults the characters encounter throughout the series can be a bit tough to take. The backhalf of Brave New World is largely about watching the characters suffer through a series of degrading psychological tortures. On the one hand, I do love this kind of altered perception stuff, and the tortures are pretty awful. They’re all about wiping away identity completely, removing the essence of who the person was and leaving behind a shell for the corporate gangs that rule the world to mess with. However, there’s just so much bad stuff piled on them, it becomes a bit icky. The Swift scenes in particular did this for me, particularly after seeing the altered art from #27. At what point does it stop being about pushing the characters down so they can rise up and start being just about enjoying torturing the characters?

But, if we’re looking at the book as superhero comics to the nth degree, shouldn’t the foes be even worse? I don’t really care about the ‘god’ attacking Earth in Ellis’s run, but I do care about what happens to the characters here, and I feel emotionally engaged in watching them fight back later in the story. So, it works in that respect. I will say that the last issue of the series is fantastic, full of great payoffs as the team finally regains their dignity and takes reality back.

I think the series’ political engagement can be a bit overstated. There’s not that much political content here, Earth Inferno is great, but not particularly groundbreaking superhero stuff. However, reading this book in a post Iraq context raises a lot of questions. The Authority are all about not heeding the will of governments who want to maintain the status quo, they will overthrow dictators and fight to make a better world. How is that different from what the US is trying to do in Iraq? Why are the same liberals who are outraged we’re doing nothing about Darfur so opposed to our attempt to make Iraq better?

That’s why I think the last storyline is important, and provides a kind of answer to the question. The corporate and governmental interests who control the world are interested in maintaining the illusion of change. We can go to war in Iraq because it will make them a lot of money without disrupting anything. We’ve already been there, and it’s an area that’s perpetually at war, so we’re not really changing anything. To invade somewhere like North Korea would require a huge change in diplomatic philosophy, and invading Africa wouldn’t benefit our business interests in any way, so Iraq it is.

But, that still raises the question, wouldn’t every Authority intervention lead to the kind of chaotic power vacuum we’ve got in Iraq? That’s part of what I think Morrison’s run was going to explore, the idea that the Authority can overthrow a dictator, but they can’t save one man’s marriage. You can never make everyone happy, so what’s the best way to make a better world?

The thing I like about the series is that it’s an essentially optimistic work, it’s saying that change is good, and we should work to evolve beyond the status quo. There are a lot of bastards out there, but it’s still worth fighting to change things. I feel like people may see the team’s frequently debauched behavior as an attempt to shock the audience, but it’s more about evolving beyond traditional morality. It’s okay to have two gay characters on the team, it’s ok for people to sleep with each other, they’re not bound by the restrictions of society, and that’s a large part of what bothers the corporate interests they’re opposing. Those guys are as debauched as anyone, but they keep it behind closed doors. That’s why they support the new Authority, they may be even worse than the originals, but they don’t flaunt it in public.

Ultimately, Millar’s The Authority is one of the seminal superhero works of the decade. In the future, I think we’ll see people doing throwback widescreen comics in the same way you see Silver Age throwbacks today. But, it’ll be hard to match what Millar did here. There’s the feeling that this matters, and is real and vital in a way that other Authority stories don’t. The best way to tell how good Millar’s Authority is is to compare it to the absolutely awful Joe Casey annual, which features all the typical beats of an Authority story, but just doesn’t work. I’ve got my issues with Millar’s work, but it feels fresh and exciting, a new paradigm for superheroes. It’s a shame the book ran into so much trouble in its later days, but read today, it holds up as a really great story.

Reading this made me even sadder that Grant Morrison’s Authority has ran into so much trouble. I think he had a really interesting take on the characters in the two issues that were published, his could have been the first really important take on the characters since the Millar run. But, in a lot of ways, the concept seems to belong to that moment, and perhaps it’s best to let it die with issue 29. There’s not that much inherently interesting in the characters or concept, it’s more the energy that Millar and Quitely brought to it in that moment, the series of amazing images they created together.

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