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Transfer Students

  The Authority: Transfer Of Power


Mark Millar, Tom Peyer (writers), Frank Quitely, Arthur Adams, various artists

Wildstorm/DC, 2002

Rating: 3.8



Posted: December 19, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

We're going to borrow the opening lines of this review from another source; hope you don't mind. On a recent post on the thought-provoking site Read Comics in Public, Marc Weidenbaum has this to say about the post-modern superhero comic:

"Nowadays, self-referentiality is the norm. Every upstart superhero team, from The Authority to X-Statix (formerly X-Force), treads on more levels than a Star Trek chess set: there's the baseline story, then there's the way that the characters closely resemble established mainstream characters, then there's the way these "multiply fictional" characters wrestle with issues (government funding, genocide, product placements) of which their predecessors were blissfully ignorant."

In the case of The Authority, there's another level that encompasses all of the above-mentioned ones, one at which the story is intended as a critique of the superhero comic as it currently exists. In forming The Authority from the ashes of its predecessor, the fairly generic Wildstorm title Stormwatch, British writer Warren Ellis made plain his impatience with the concept of superhero as policeman, reacting to the crimes of similarly-costumed supervillains. Expanding upon themes found in the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons classic The Watchmen and the late Mark Gruenwald's decidedly more mainstream Squadron Supreme series, Ellis posited a band of super-powered individuals taking the concept of vigilantism to a global extreme. In short, the Authority is the common superhero character writ large; using its fantastic powers in pursuit of an agenda similar in spirit to that of law-enforcement agencies while drastically different in regards to the letter, the checks and balances and bureaucratic tangles, of those agencies. The name says it all: The Authority is a group beholden to no one, willing to lend its muscle to common goals, but also willing to use its power as a blunt object.

At this level exist multitudes: The Authority exposes the ridiculous paradox of the superhero comic, wherein people with abilities that set them apart from humanity use those abilities to act merely as benign vigilantes, breaking all manner of laws while helping to enforce all the really important ones. In doing so, it almost of necessity is required to deconstruct the pristine characters of those who engage in such acts; the members of the Authority often come across as smug, superior, didactic, and possessed of wildly out-of-control ids, employing a brutal ends-justifies-the-means methodology and given to off-hours sex-and-drug-fueled debauchery of rock star proportions. The obvious homoerotic subtext of most superhero comics is exploded in the committed homosexual relationship of Apollo and the Midnighter -- thinly-veiled analogs of Superman and Batman, respectively. And the team's battles against larger-than-fantasy-life opponents -- including, in Ellis' last storyline, God itself, come to brush the pest of humanity off its doorstep -- are grandiose, cinematic spectacles of wanton property damage and often staggering loss of civilian life. But unlike the grim-and-gritty "deconstructions" that were all the rage in the late 1980s, The Authority isn't without a larger context and, more to the point, an obvious fondness for its proceedings. Ellis and his successor, Mark Millar (The Ultimates), weren't out to bury the superhero, but to amplify his cooler elements -- even while playfully and inventively exposing his flaws.

Another quick quote from Mr. Weidenbaum: "Trouble is, when these coy references appear within a comic, it can seem self-congratulatory, patently easy, even downright solipsistic." Nowhere was this more true than it the pages of The Authority, which delighted in de-pantsing the superhero comic even as it gleefully splashed around in its magnified debauchery. It could certainly be argued that The Authority too often took the patently easy way out, in effect splitting the difference between critique and superheroic wallow -- or trying to have it both ways, to the less-charitably inclined. It only makes sense, then, that in forever piling extreme upon extreme in ambitious pursuit of its twin goals, the title would run out of places to go, and would in fact end up feeding on itself.

Which brings us, finally, to Transfer of Power, the final story arc of this incarnation of the title (an all-new Authority: Scorched Earth, by Robbie Morrison and Frazer Irving, has just hit comic racks). Perhaps realizing the folly of forever trying to outdo each previous external threat, Millar finally turns the focus to the enemy within. It's the Authority's hubris that proves its downfall, on two levels: The U.S. Government, fed up with the team's unilateral ways (insert your own irony here), decides to take it down a few pegs. And on some level, it's the team's own arrogance that allows it to be easily dispatched, and replaced with a newer, more servile and decidedly less moralistic Authority.

Here's where Transfer of Power's troubles begin. Just after the issue in which all of the above is established, we're treated to a four-part story-within-a-story solely concerned with this team of scabs. It's not necessarily an insult to acknowledge that Tom Peyer, the writer for this story arc, isn't in the same league as Millar or Ellis, and the workmanlike tale proves little more than an amusing placeholder. In a nutshell, then: Upon discovering a hold full of Third World refugees aboard the Authority's sentient, dimension-swimming base, the new team promptly dumps the whole lot into "the Bleed," the bloodstream between realities. Needless to say, these displaced and discarded refugees pop back up like a bad rash, and the new Authority has to save the world from a newly-powerful, pissed off race of antagonists while covering up the atrocity that created such a monster.

Peyer's arc -- no doubt an attempt to buy time for notoriously slow artist Arthur Adams to take over from Frank Quitely, who'd moved on to do New X-Men with Grant Morrison -- does serendipitously serve to help establish the "new" team in the reader's mind; the original Authority's eventual victory thus seems more impressive than if it had simply started kicking butt and taking names in the next issue. In any event, eventually it ends, and Millar picks up where he left off, with an Authority in various degrees of deep shit. Sun-powered Apollo rots in chains, a plaything for the Colonel, the new team's putative leader, to beat up on; the liquid-machinery-empowered Engineer is brainwashed into believing she's a beaten-down wage slave with a brood of brats, an abusive husband and Hepatitis B; winged Swift is the codependent sex slave of a sadistic television executive; and team leader Jack Hawksmoor is a deranged panhandler cut off from his ability to communicate with cities. Only the leather-clad Midnighter, playing nanny to the powerful infant Jenny Quantum, has managed to escape such punishment, and slowly sets about rescuing his teammates.

Millar dutifully allows Midnighter to reassemble the Authority and subdue the impostors, and soon the team is taking the fight to Seth, a depraved hillbilly cyborg loaded up with more superpowers than exist. Seth's little more than a cartoon, an incestuous, sadistic hick with a diluted family gene pool and a sexual appetite for farm animals, no doubt meant to embody, on an exaggerated level, the "good ol' boy" soldiers that help an arrogant administration stamp its own will across the world. In true Authority fashion, Seth's eventual end is both perverse and hilarious.

But having the Authority dispatch an ignorant bad guy (and in a fit of pique, push a simpering American president through a warp doorway into Iraq) isn't the denouement Millar's after. The Authority, as an entity, seemed to have run out of ways to make the same points over and over again, and its penchant for offhand fascism, coarse humor and wanton violence seemed very much a relic of a bygone era after the events of September 11, 2001. So Millar ties everything up in a nice, neat package. When the aforementioned Bleed begins to hemorrhage as a result of Seth's actions, an understandably peeved Hawkmoor refuses to act, insisting that mankind must learn to clean up its own messes for a change.

In that moment, the entire level of Authority as critique reaches its inescapable moralistic conclusion, the same one that Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme did in the 1980s: Taken to its logical extreme, the superhero-as-policeman is a hopelessly flawed concept. It'd have been more effective, to be sure, had it been the intended final moment of the series from its inception, and the entire series planned as a finite one from the beginning (which would at least have spared us moments of obvious reaching, particularly in the previous Earth Inferno collection). But even if it seems, rightly or wrongly, a hasty, last-minute wrap-up, Transfer of Power nonetheless goes out on a positive note, the only possible one to give the series any meaning beyond the intellectual, post-modern thrill of demolishing conventions. "Capes and spandex just don't get the same adulation they used to get for going out every night and kicking the hell out of poor people," Hawksmoor sums up in the final scene. With everything said that needs to be said, the proposition of a new Authority at the hands of all-new creators seems a murky one at best. But for all its flaws as a gripping piece of action-adventure storytelling, Transfer of Power here ultimately redeems the entire original series.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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