Like any other story set within the context of “action-adventure,” the raison d’être of super-hero comics is the fight scene. The very first superman comic (i.e. Action Comics #1, published in 1938 by DC Comics) depicts Superman lifting a car over his head as he battles some decidedly non-super bad guys.
As the universe of the super-hero expanded, so did the need to escalate the level of violence contained in the obligatory fight scene. Two decades on from the debut of Superman, DC Comics presented their premier group of super-heroes, the Justice League of America, in Brave and Bold #28 in a battle royale with the Star Conqueror, a gigantic starfish from outer space. By the 1960s, Marvel Comics had upped the ante significantly with the Hulk laying waste to entire cities with the war cry “HULK SMASH!” and Galactus, an alien entity dubbed “the devourer of worlds,” threatened the very existence of the Earth itself in the pages of The Fantastic Four.
One peculiar convention of super-hero battles of those kinder, gentler times was the distinct absence of civilian casualties. Thus, while it was clear that entire cities were being decimated, there was seldom cause to depict the suffering and loss of the innocent bystanders caught between the crossfire of two (or more) supremely powerful beings. By the same token the protagonists themselves seemed to almost always come out of a fight relatively unscathed. Which, I presume, is where the term “comic book violence” was derived.
Well, that was then and this is now…
The Authority is, at its fundamental core, a treatment of the Justice League of America taken to its logical conclusion. Seven of the most powerful superhumans in the Wildstorm Universe take it upon themselves to protect Earth from all threats, internal or external. These threats are usually gargantuan in nature and the eradication of these threats equally Herculean. This is widescreen, cinema-scope super-heroic fiction at its finest. Consisting of Jenny Sparks, Swift, the Engineer, the Doctor, Jack Hawksmoor, Apollo & the Midnighter (a gay version of the World’s Finest duo i.e. Superman and Batman), The Authority was a spin-off from the late Stormwatch series, which took as its premise a UN-sanctioned super group. The creators responsible for these epic wonders were Warren Ellis (writer), Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary (artists) and together they delivered 12 pulsating issues that illuminated the jaded super-hero comic book industry.
In those dozen or so comic books, Ellis presided over the destruction of entire cities and dealt realistically with the ramifications and consequences. The Authority hardly took any prisoners in one chilling incident Jenny Sparks (who had the ability to control electricity) electrocuted several villains to death in the River Thames in London.
Enter Mark Millar and Frank Quitely, saddled with the unenviable task of following Ellis and company at the end of the latter’s run. Hand-picked by Ellis himself, the Millar-Quitely team wasted no time in establishing the new order with the “Nativity” story arc. In fact, considering the impact of Authority creators Ellis and Hitch, Millar and Quitely managed to out-do and out-gun their predecessors in terms of story content as well as comic taboo.
It begins innocently enough with the Authority, now led by Jack Hawksmoor after the ‘death’ of Jenny Sparks, flexing their considerable powers to right the wrongs of the world, in this immediate instance, Indonesia. But ‘sparks’ start to fly when they discover that Jenny Sparks may not be dead. Apparently she has been re-born in Singapore, and in the course of the tale, the Authority are pitted against a clandestine super-team of villains known as ‘The Americans,” (a thinly disguised knock off of the Avengers, Marvel Comics’ equivalent of the Justice League of America) for the custody of Jenny (now named Jenny Quantum). In the ensuing battle, Singapore is almost destroyed, Apollo is apparently raped and the Americans kidnap Jenny Quantum.
The “was he or wasn’t he?” question heated up many discussion boards and Millar himself would neither confirm or deny it. From a straight (no pun intended) reading of the issue (#14), there appears to be no evidence of this rape, perhaps happening off panel. Nonetheless, it is certainly a controversial, groundbreaking moment in super-hero comics.
Not content to simmer in this hullabaloo, Millar then introduces the bad guy of the piece, an elderly visionary called Jacob Krigstein, or as it is painfully obvious, the late great Jack Kirby, the artist responsible for the creation of such wonders as the Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men with Stan Lee, and the New Gods for DC Comics. What Kirby, one of the most influential comic book creators all time, had done to deserve this slight, Millar only knows?
As the conflict between Krigstein and the Authority heads towards its inexorable resolution with more Kirby analogs thrown into the mix (the Y-Men, anyone?), Millar would again turn the typical comic book conclusion on its head by having the Authority spare Krigstein’s life in exchange for his assistance in re-building Indonesia! Millar had succeeded in highlighting the very “real” world occurrence of unjust compromise and splattered it all over this 4-color comic book! Apollo and the Midnighter have their own special brand revenge over “The Americans” as they are rather ultra-violently dispatched with the piece de resistance being saved for its leader (and Apollo’s ravager), a fate which leaves little to the imagination.
With The Authority, iconoclastic writers like Ellis and Millar have taken the super-hero comic to its logical conclusion super-powered fights lead to super-powered violence leads to destruction and death for the people involved. A little bit more like true life. How far this realistic portrayal is allowed to be taken would depend very much on the imagination of the creators, the attitude of the publishers and the response of the public.