Throwback Thursday: The Authority

by Heather Harris McFarlane

The Authority vol. 1 (WildStorm/DC 1999)

Created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch

Originally published on the WildStorm label, The Authority pushes boundaries beyond what you would expect from a typical superhero team-up book. Warren Ellis isn't known for playing it safe, and this brainchild of his is a chip off the ol' block.  For the purposes of this blog post, we're mostly going to stick to discussing the Ellis/Hitch/Neary run that is published together as vol. 1 of the DC reprint. This is the volume that is still currently in print and can be obtained at or special ordered from your friendly neighborhood comic shop.

Onward to the story! Consider its cast of characters and their array of powers and abilities:

  • The Engineer: Scientist Angie Spica removes her own blood and replaces it with nine pints of liquid nanites. With it, she can construct just about anything she wants, and typically secretes it into a body-enveloping and instantly adaptive armor. She's a walking armory, but also a genius with a tremendous sense of fun. She knows exactly how cool it is to be able to do what she can, and revels in it.
  • Jenny Sparks and Jenny Quantum: They're not the same character, but each is a Century Baby, with powers reflecting the scientific achievement of her era, and living for the entire century to which she is born, though she stops physically maturing at her peak. As the Spirit of the 20th Century, Jenny Sparks (as her name implies) harnesses the power of electricity. Jenny Quantum can manipulate the fabric of reality itself. Both Jennies lead the Authority in their turns, with Sparks in particular garnering awe and respect from world leaders as she browbeats them into cooperating.
  • Apollo: A "Majestic-class" (read: Superman-type) hero, he is the most familiar-feeling of the roster. Thanks to more bioengineering, he can fly, and depending on how charged up he is by the sun, incinerate and overpower just about anything thrown in his path. He can store up a certain amount of solar energy, but once his reserves are depleted, he withers and and risks serious damage until he can recharge. He displays all of the sense of duty and loyalty you'd expect from a Superman-type hero, but without any grandstanding about it.
  • Midnighter: With a supercomputer that can extrapolate outcomes in a nanosecond wired into his brain, a rapid healing factor and redundant organs, and several of his biological systems replaced with tech, he was engineered to be the perfect fighter. It turns out, he's mostly okay with that. He struggles some with what kind of person that makes him, but with Apollo to give him perspective, he often seems remarkably well adjusted.
  • Swift: Similar to the concept of Inhumans in the Marvel universe, Shen Li-Min had a genetic marker that was activated by a cosmic event. In her case, she ended up with talons and functional wings. She has strong pacifist morals, but recognizes that peace is an ideal and not always a possible outcome of the situation at hand.
  • Jake Hawksmoor: He is another human whose abilities are the result of deliberate engineering. In his case, he's been turned into "the God of Cities," able to teleport between cities, manipulate urban environments in combat situations, and engage in telepathic communion with the essence of cities. The downside is that he can only survive within cities, in a manner similar to Apollo's relationship with the sun.

If that's not a compelling and interesting lineup, I don't know what is. The roster changes as can be expected with a long-running team-up book, as characters leave, come back, and get added in later storylines. This is the basic group during this run, and it's a good cross-section of the kind of characters you can expect to meet. With such an unconventional collective skill set, it should be no surprise that this crew isn't taking on routine assignments. For the Authority, a day at work might involve dimension-hopping aliens from an alternate England, a tentacle monster in the moon, or traveling through the veins of an immense, ancient alien in a sentient, 50-mile-long trans-dimensional spaceship.

Aside from the incredibly cool character attributes and plot points, I have a personal affinity for this book because it gets right a few things that really impress me in modern fiction. Most notably, among the characters, there is diversity of age, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and gender, with none of those things being the main, defining characteristic of the person it belongs to. The Engineer is a scientist, and adventurer, a friend, a respected colleague, and a woman. There is a fantastic girl-power moment when Apollo encourages her to take a momentary detour on a mission that has them traveling in space, to touch down and be the first woman on the moon. Her achievements are celebrated, and she delights in the fact that her life choices have led her there. Other than this moment, though, her gender is practically a non-issue. Jenny's, uh, authority is never questioned by the powerful men under her command. In short: the women are just treated as if they are people, on equal footing, to be judged by their merits and temperaments exactly as their male associates are. When the nature of the relationship between Apollo and Midnighter is revealed to be a committed romance, there is no dramatic coming out. As fictional characters in an environment crafted by this creative team, they didn't need to go through that. They simply don't hide their feelings in a moment when their lives are threatened. Aside from a crack from Hawksmoor about getting a room, no one even finds it necessary to remark upon the new information at all. They are heroes, bioengineered superhumans, ex-black-ops agents, and gay, among other things. Neither fits into any nice little box, and neither is defined by his relationship to the other.

Apollo and the Engineer on the moon in The Authority #11

Apollo and the Engineer on the moon in The Authority #11

Later runs of The Authority continue (or fail to continue) this virtue with mixed success. For me, Mark Millar's run (currently in print as part of The Authority, vol. 2 with the DC label) falls a bit flat as concerns Apollo in particular, and also to some degree with Midnighter, though it does give us the satisfaction of a happy milestone for the two of them. Ditto Ed Brubaker's turn at the wheel, though the uncomfortable feelings I have in reading the Revolution story arc arise more from sympathy to the characters, and not as much a reaction to what is, to my way of thinking, the problematic storytelling in Millar's arc.

Over the course of the entire series, the relationship between these two characters strikes me as one of the great love stories in comics - especially in superhero books. I'd be remiss if I didn't cite Abnett and Lanning's run, during the World's End storyline as evidence. There is no shortage in history of stories about star-crossed lovers, and there's definitely no small amount of those that are eye-rollingly trite. In this case, however, when a cataclysmic event forces them apart, except for a stolen minute or two once in a while, they don't pine away; they aren't useless to their friends and colleagues; and they don't hesitate in their given tasks. That doesn't mean there isn't still evidence of a strong bond between them. Swift's narration acknowledges the tragedy of the situation, but puts it in perspective. Both Apollo and Midnighter think of each other in quiet moments, when nothing else is immediately demanding their attention, and in the fleeting seconds they spend together, they draw strength from it and find their bond no weaker for the forced estrangement.

Apollo, Midnighter, and Swift in The Authority: World's End #1

Apollo, Midnighter, and Swift in The Authority: World's End #1

I won't tell you how it all plays out, but for my money, there's not much better than a story of two battle-scarred grownups who have faced unimaginable trials, whose love stands the test of time. In the New 52 incarnation, we meet them younger, and just when they're about to meet each other, instead of meeting them years into their relationship. They face a whole new set of problems, and, let's face it - a book that is a bit lackluster as concerns much of its characters - particularly the female ones, though it occasionally lets some quality humor and heart shine through. Now, their story continues in Midnighter's eponymous post-New-52 solo title, which, as of this writing, is on issue #11. It remains to be seen whether they'll walk the same path as each other or as any of their old-universe friends, but I'm looking forward to finding out. Most of the other characters don't have much of a presence in the post-Flashpoint DC universe, beyond the end of the New 52 StormWatch.

If you're interested in The Authority, volumes one and two are available from your local comic shop, and some collected editions of later volumes are available, while others may need to be sought from dealers of used books.

For related reading in more current titles, consider:

  • StormWatch (New 52) vol. 1-4: reintroduces characters from The Authority in the post-Flashpoint universe
  • Grayson: Midnighter is a recurring guest star, sometimes as an ally, and sometimes as an opponent. Witty banter and double entendre abound.
  • Midnighter (2015): Spinning out of Grayson, establishes Midnighter's reworked origin story while retiring the chin-spike and pauldrons in favor of clothing more closely resembling his original look, currently ongoing.
  • Batman & Robin Eternal: This weekly comic has featured Dick Grayson prominently, and it was only a matter of time before Dick called in some help from Midnighter, which he did as of issue #23.