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The Authority: Harsh Realities

Warren Ellis’s The Authority was one of the trade collections that got me interested in buying those cardboard wrapped bundles of three-color goodness, and which cemented my love for Ellis as a creator above the rest of the majority of the comic book industry.

It was a spectacular continuation of his work on Stormwatch, a book he saved from going down in history as Image’s craptacualr version of a Justice League, taking the characters he had either created or revamped and giving them a world to change. It was both a tongue-in-cheek look at the idea of the “super-team” that examined the reasons for its own existence, while managing to be a refreshingly good action comic that never skimped on storyline or characterization. Poignant and intellectually stimulating, it featured a cast of characters that was diverse and creative in all respects of comic book characterization. It is possibly one of the greatest superhero comics ever written.

And then Ellis left the title and it all went to hell.

I continued with the series after Ellis left and Mark Millar stepped into writing duties and Bryan Hitch was replaced (ever so briefly) by Frank Quitely, mostly due to the funny spoof of superhero crossovers featured in their arc “Nativity.” As the series went on, and art duties changed hands rather quickly, Millar lost the feel for the characters and simply lent himself too far to the absurd and grotesque, making references to habitual child rape and creating villains that shat nuclear payloads, literally, while simultaneously removing the characters Ellis created in favor of his “edgier” pseudo-Authority. Some of the stories were interesting, but most were not and it was like watching the Hindenburg slowly burn as it fell to the ground. I was annoyed at the loss of the characters I loved.

But this is the gamble we who read comics make every time we decide to follow a title; we are at the mercy of serial format. In comics, the story must go on, so when a title changes writer or artist, a new artistic interpretation is foisted upon the reader. This is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a very bad one, for most comic fans are either following a writer, artist, or fictional character from title to title.

We may love a character so much the way he or she was originally written, that we’ll follow the character even when other artists take a crack at them. Judd Winick’s Exiles is a good example where a well-written and intricate team of superheroes was handed off to another creator when Winick left the title. That creator was Chuck Austen, or as I like to call him “The Anti-Writer.” He who can suck the intelligence from a comic in a single stroke of his keyboard and add cliché to any situation so as to make even the most recognizable comic book (*cough* Uncanny X-Men *cough*) into an unreadable mishmash of dead end plots and hack storytelling. He killed all joy in reading Exiles for me, and Tony Bedard's subsequent run did not help matters.

My point in all this is to highlight my trepidation in picking up Robbie Morrison and Dwayne Turner’s collection of their run on The Authority, a re-launch of the series with an issue #1. Was I setting myself up for more disappointment after the debacle with Millar?

Yes I was.

Millar at least attempted to keep the grandiose in mind when plotting his less-than-great scripts: making the Authority’s problems realistically global. Morrison and Turner’s “Harsh Realities” set up a storyline that meanders on its way to nowhere. The plotlines rarely seem to involve the fate of the planet (which is what the Authority is meant to be fighting for, “a better world,”) and almost all the action for the book is confined to the Authority’s homebase, the villain’s lair, or some other place that is not Earth.

The opening, wherein the Authority is attacked with no prior reason given, is utterly awful and poorly written, not to mention the idea of Viceworld, the world where everyone gambles on everything, has been done before and the idea that the Authority and who it fights is a topic of public entertainment and betting has been done before in things like “Mojoworld” from X-Men of latter years. Also, this entrance story has little if anything to do with the rest of the collection, creating no flow whatsoever. It might as well be an anthology collection of Authority stories for all the thought put into the arc. Also, Morrison has a tendency to make sure every character spouts off catch phrases and cliché one-liners as much as humanly possible. I counted at least ten in the first reading and did not have the strength to go back for a second.

But what most annoys me is the complete lack of characterization. Swift, the character that had always been a reluctant combatant, showing her more peaceful side whenever she could, is shown in the second page holding a human head and giggling. The Engineer, who is supposed to be the intelligent and scientifically minded member of the group, who can create anything out of her liquid metal blood, solves problems by copying herself and blowing things up. The Doctor, the Earth’s Shaman and a character that hasn’t had decent handling since Ellis, is a weakling and possibly an idiot under Morrison’s pen, who does next to nothing with his global power level. Apollo has become muscle and nothing more. While his husband Midnighter is still able to run combat simulations through his brain in microseconds, he fights with as much finesse and menace as a girl scout.

By far the worst is Jack Hawksmoor: he is called the God of Cities in other volumes, but we see him use his powers maybe three times, not to mention that he gets as little attention as possible from Morrison, despite his role as team leader and strategist. One of the most creative characters I’ve ever read about, and Morrison uses him mostly as a talking head for filler conversation. *sigh*

The art by Dwayne Turner is nothing special. He has little sense of pacing or action, usually throwing far too many panels onto a page, hoping to cover up his problems with anatomy and facial features that are blaringly obvious at some points, which is if you can see the artwork through the dense milieu of word balloons that crop up all over the place. This is a side effect of Morrison’s tendency to over-write. Also, the fill-in story illustrated by Tan Eng Huat is hideous, as each character seems to be suffering from a combination of old age and being punched in the face too hard, as to make their facial features concave.

This is awful and I’m sure there’s more than one person reading this thinking that I’m being too harsh in my constant comparisons between Ellis’s work and everyone else who has touched (and destroyed) The Authority. For those people, I have this to say: stop rewarding mediocrity (or in this case, less-than-mediocrity). There is no reason to not compare two comic book creators, especially when they worked on the same book. We shouldn’t give Morrison and Turner a pass because they had to try and live up to a higher standard than most other creators, because the standard should always be that high. If everyone out there creating comics wrote as well as Ellis, or Moore, or Talbot, or Winick; if everyone devoted as much work to their art as Hitch, or Gibbons, or Miller, then what we consider to be exceptional in the field of comics now would be the norm. There is a fierce load of crap in the comic book industry, and we continue to allow it to exist. We keep stubbornly following characters that aren’t written well (half the X-Men titles, Batman crossovers, etc.), or plots that go nowhere out of some fanboy notion of continuity or character adulation. I’m still frightened at the amount of people frothing at the mouth for a return of Hal Jordan to Green Lantern, and even more annoyed that DC Comics has decided its time he dusted off the old green and black spandex in a new series. Why do we do this? Are we here to read or are we here to play favorites with a comic book company’s character library?

The more we give in and pay to read mediocre or ever bad stories, just to follow a character or group of characters, the more we allow comics to stay mediocre. Follow good writing. Follow good art. And if the twain shall meet on a title with a character you love, then so much the better. Don’t shell out $14.95 on the vain hope that characters you love are finally treated with the respect a good fictional character deserves.

The Authority : Harsh Realities - Volume 1

Robert Sparling

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