I like the Authority.
I like it because the series raises big questions. It isn't as good at answering them, and it definitely deteriorated pretty quickly, but it's clearly a "literature of ethics", if not a "literature of ideas." When I suggested including it on the syllabus, most people seemed to agree that it wasn't quite up to snuff. And I had to agree... but still. At its best, The Authority was just ridiculously entertaining, and it raised big political questions more directly and explicitly than most other series.
Before I get to my own introductory thoughts, I want to be sure to point to Julian Darius's Continuity Pages, which gives the basic history of the series, and his two on-line essays on The Authority: "Mark Millar's Authority and the Polemic Over Iraq" and Censorship of The Authority
OK, enough of that.
First, "Change or Die," Warren Ellis's take on the mediocre Wildstorm series Stormwatch, is close to a perfect superhero political parable. John Cumberland, "The High", is a transparent stand-in for Superman (right down to being raised by Kansas farmers). During the 1930s and 1940s, he fought Nazis, corrupt landlords, munitions tycoons, along with crime. He then vanished, reappearing briefly in subsequent decades. "Change or Die" begins with his sudden reappearance alongside a band of exceptionally powered colleagues who together publicly announced their intention to use their powers to radically transform society for the better:
"Thanks to my friends, there is now a garden in Nevada that will give you anything you want. Food, energy, medicine, protection. All for free, like picking fruit from a tree. Tell me something. If you all had a garden like this, what would you need your current society for?... We're here to present you with these questions, and the tools for solving them. .. The world is used to costumed crimefighters, special men and women who seem to hold the world in their hands. What we're doing is handing that world back to you. Fighting crime is no good unless you look past crime, to its root. Saving the world is no good if we leave it the way we found it. It is our intent to hand you a saved world, to offer you tools that will make you great. And then - you will never see us again."
Henry Bendix, head of the UN superteam Stormwatch and spokesman for defending the status quo by any means necessary, interprets this as:
"A group of superhumans who have remained hidden to the world, intent on destroying human civilization. Replacing it with a lawless, drugged society that they will then ignore. Vandalism on a monstrous scale."
He then sends a kill-mission against The High, including a biological weapon.
We're being subverted from both directions here, of course: Bendix, up to now the hero of the series, is presented as increasingly insane, willing to do anything - including the mass killing of the High's team - to prevent change. Utterly uninterested in progress, in change, in the ideas and goods which the newcomers offer to bring to society. From the other direction, the High - the ostensible villain of the piece - is presented as impossibly well-intentioned, the closest thing humanity will ever see to a deux ex machina.
But just as we've got the new narrative in place, Ellis shakes it up again: it isn't actually clear that Bendix is wrong, or that the High is right. It becomes increasingly evident that the members of the High's team have agendas of their own: Blind is willing to torture and kill, Wish plans to toy with humanity for her own amusement. John Cumberland's good intentions blind him to the agenda of his allies. Is Bendix wrong? What kind of world would their intervention actually create, once the structures of society have been broken down? Cumberland's assumption that his own good intentions will carry the day, and his blindness to the agendas of his allies, is his fatal flaw.
But before the High can act on his new insight or doubts, even as Stormwatch members defy Bendix's kill order and talk to the High's team about their plans, Bendix pre-empts everything by launching a biological strike which kills everyone, destroys their technology and their contributions. Bendix by this point is portrayed as a raving lunatic - and is struck down by Jenny Sparks at the last minute - but given his fevered defense of the status quo against a perceived existential threat to civilization, is this really fair? Cumberland, in his rage and fury - at Bendix, and perhaps at himself and his own failures - blindly attacks the Stormwatch satellite and dies in the process.
Big questions are raised here. Which seems a good place to let off, before talking about the Authority itself.