The Authority vol. 4 #1-2 (2006-07), by Gene Ha and Grant Morrison. DC/WildStorm.
There are two questions the concept of the superhero's never really gotten past, though it's been a fair few decades struggling. The first of these, How would truly adult superheroes behave, was both posed and answered by Grant Morrison in the other volume-four-of-a-WildStorm-property he embarked on in fall of 2006, the ill-starred WildCats relaunch that provides as good a pivot point as any for modern hero history from the heady boom times of the early 2000s to the lean years costumed adventure's been mired in for the past while. The answer to the question was perhaps simplistic, perhaps even crude, but it justified another 22 pages of another set of corporate characters nobody feels much emotion for one way or the other, and when it's as engrossing as Morrison and Jim Lee made it, that's about all you can ask for from your mainstream comics.
What was most trenchant about the WildCats book, though -- and also probably most disappointing -- was that in their psychedelic, sexy one-page answer to the question of super-maturity, Morrison and Lee knocked down a proverbial Goliath with a feather. Adult superheroes were supposed to be an epic narrative struggle, something to be arrived at only after trade paperbacks of toil; after all, Watchmen spent 400 pages and couldn't quite get there, and after a good twenty times that page count Chris Claremont's still beating his head up against it! Once the acme was found, it would only have been decorum for its discoverers to draw it out slowly, scattering clues through the kind of 50-issue run that keeps the industry cranking for another half a decade before revealing the senses-shattering whole of the thing in a "paroxysm of searing intensity!" (to quote Jim Steranko). But six-panel glo-fi sex scenes don't work that way, so Morrison and Lee went one and done, and the WildCats relaunch was let to die, and thank heaven for it too, because even the nine pages of the comic after that page sorely lacked a point. On to the next one for Morrison, back to the Batcave for Lee.
The other big question that's dogged the heroes since the days of high Kirbyism and pop art is a more interesting one, and in these comics, one with a much less spectacular answer. What would superheroes be like in the real world? It's a deceptively simple question with a few stumbling blocks to it, and most important is the one Ha and Morrison spent most of their two Authority issues grinding up against, a problem so blindingly obvious it's hard to look in the face: ya can't find out in a comic book! Not really, not in any way that'll make the question matter. Because a comic book is not real, and the only point of even asking the question about superheroes in reality is the curiosity of seeing how they'd fare when set against a world already so chock-full of motion and notions and its own self-importance that it would simply refuse to bend to musclemen in costumes. The mere notion of creating an entire comic about what happens when the heroes meet our genuine day-to-day is skewed with a four-color logic that gives the concept more weight than reality itself does. In our world, what the folks in the DC comic books used to call "Earth-Prime", a man dressing up to go around fighting crime is a minor news story on a boring day, maybe half a page at best. A comic is 22 pages. These two issues of The Authority are 44. The Twin Towers didn't get that much ink on September 12th. There are more important things than superheroes going on here, and that's why the men in spandex tend to stay in the comics. We don't have time for them anywhere else.
So in a way the real-world superhero comic is doomed from the start as a complete artistic success, but the same thing could be said about any corporate-owned comic if we're really being honest. As long as there's superheroes there will be a significant interest in trying to make them real-er, anyway, and Ha and Morrison give it a better, more noteworthy attempt than any other I can remember offhand. The mere fact that these two comics made me think of that paragraph above witnesses to a deeper engagement with the fundamentals of the question than most books that take it up ever get, and even the most cursory of glances inside the first issue is enough to state in no uncertain terms that this comic is not interested in the usual brightly colored drama.
I mean, you know what that bit of cold, ugly, utterly unsentimental Gene Ha boldness reminds me most of? Blaise Larmee's "Shower Comic", which hasn't got any superheroes in it, but which definitely puts the real world on the comics page in no uncertain terms. This is like anti-comics art, at least in the sense superhero comics culture has come to fetishize it in: fine linework blurred out in every panel, essentially made to lack its "quality" (odd word), the evidence of hands behind it that fans use to distinguish the work of an Alex Maleev from a Mike Deodato. (It's not always easy in a genre of infinitely repeated muscular forms forever papered over with workmanlike coloring.) Hell, the last panel lacks line entirely, slapped on by colorist Art Lyon with the same aggressive impulse toward mediocrity that glows from the computered-in phone screens spread across a full three panels. It's astonishing to see stuff this actively drab in a mainstream comic, to own a commercial object that gives up this hard. The total lack of motion on the page, the failure of the grid to cohere into a single design unit, the choppy cropping that always fails to hit whatever germ of drama this rather pathetic scene might contain... there's really no comparison to make, nothing I can think of that makes this much of a point about getting the mechanics of its medium wrong.
And that's where it gets tricky. Because there's an effort that goes into looking this off, a fairly significant one. And in a genre where not-trying isn't just the norm but the consecrated way of being, stylistic bravery half this arresting is worth a closer look. Like I said, this isn't just mediocrity -- it's aggressive mediocrity, visual art by a couple of talented artists working at evoking something. That something, of course, is the "real world" the comic's titular characters are set to collide with, and while it's still drawn on a page and printed on thousands of copies more, it gets closer to the gray ghost-guts of de facto existence we've got going here on Earth-Prime than anything pretty or even half-assed would be able to. It's so especially worth noting that this page, and plenty of others like it, are logged right in the middle of A Superhero Comic, one of those things that are designed to lift readers up out of this particular mediocrity -- ideally into a transcendent realm of pure love and action and spirit, but serviceably enough into nothing more than a world that's been compromised by different factors.
But the first issue of Ha and Morrison's Authority flips the script on all that, on superhero comics themselves, and pushes the overwhelming drabness and imperfection of the world back onto the reader's plate. This stuff doesn't work as comics because it's trying its damndest not to be comics, to get to something more real not by shocking us with virtuosity a la Watchmen, or grit a la Frank Miller, but by putting us back to sleep, letting us drift over the pages of our momentary diversion the same way we drift over the shells of our our screens and phones at work or the view out the window on our commutes. It's an evocation of that most inescapably familiar of human feelings: boredom. Morrison's script, while it never quite reaches the same painstakingly pedestrian quality of Ha and Lyon's beautiful blurs, is attuned to the same general principle. It's dialogue only for this comic, no WildCats bombastic narration or Dada captioning. And what dialogue! I'll flip to a random panel... it says "Tell me about it." The next one... and it's "Come on." This coming from a man whose bigger-ticket superhero endeavors in 2006 included "I've dedicated my existence to explaining the unified field in the form of a perfect haiku," and "I'll see to it that your lovely wife is devoured alive by cannibal gourmets." The most significant element of these Authority comics is restraint, the medium's most hyperkinetic writer and the artist who packed the Alan Moore-scripted Top 10 with nothing but the most outlandishly intricate constructions of hero culture working hard together to create something singularly unremarkable.
That element of boredom, of concerted user-unfriendliness, is both this comic's most fascinating quality and its kiss of death. Because really, who wants to read something that isn't just boring, but puts great effort into being so? Especially in the form of a superhero comic, when we've got perfectly good David Foster Wallace novels sitting in their natural state (dusty) on the public library shelves? It takes a certain, bloody-minded, probably disillusioned kind of comics fan to desire this stuff, let alone enjoy the act of reading it, and that kind isn't necessarily the kind who spends much time combing the WildStorm website ("The StormFront", if I remember correctly) for info on the new releases. And even if you can enjoy the boredom, the utter drabness of the reality that Ha and Morrison put forth so powerfully as our own, there's a problem with being shown such gray and blur and blandness and told that this is your life, your place of existence. It engenders a reaction, the same kind of emotion-based knee-jerk denial that the average committed superhero fan comes back on you with if you happen to mention that "Hulk" is "retarded". I mean, I myself happen to really think the world outside my window is super fantastic, and I think all but the suicidal must view it with a little more color than Art Lyon gives it. As with all fictional worlds, all comic book settings, Ha and Morrison's "no-really-this-is-Earth" Earth is a subjective simulacrum, a picture of a way of seeing. And given that, as a real world it's a failure. As entertainment for anyone but masochists and stone-eyed comics critics, I'd guess it's much the same.
But honestly, who needs their comics to be entertaining all the time? Grant Morrison, for his part, has probably scripted more entertaining comics than all but five or ten other people ever to have lived, and Gene Ha has drawn his share of the same. It's enough that they produced something interesting, and to be quite honest the idea of a superhero comic that makes a focused attempt not to be entertaining, to step outside the safe enclosure of giving the people what they want, seems pretty worthy to me. Enjoyment of comics isn't just about digging the way the plot whips the characters through their actions, after all -- it's also in appreciating the broader stylistic choices being made, the aesthetic at play. And when the surface hook is vacuumed right out of it, as in these Authority books, the big draw of the reading is a cold, remote admiration for the cold, remote style of Ha and Morrison's plodding trek through the most banal views of our world that have ever been put to hero comics.
The Authority, originally written by Warren Ellis as the shiny metallic heroes of tomorrow, divested of all but the most streamlined superhero tropes, look only slightly more alive on these pages than anything else, swaddled in baggy mid-decade "fashion" or muddied black leather, walking the endless, echoing, blue-gray hallways of their crashed and sunken spaceship headquarters. Superheroes with all the crazed, adolescent sexual energy leeched right out, halfheartedly complaining that "there's nothing like us here at all." Subsisting on a visual style that had already grown cold, the brushed-steel leftovers of movies like The Matrix and X-Men, stuck being characters nobody knew in the story's real world, and nobody really cared about anymore in the oxygen-saturated genuine article. For all his superhero boosterism elsewhere, this book is Grant Morrison looking into the abyss and being swallowed whole. In the real world they lose their powers and look about as boring and passe as everything else. The superhero doesn't matter in any way that counts -- not here with us, not even in comics set here. Put them in an environment as flat and hard and frozen as what we struggle through every day and they bleach out and die. The game's over, the question's answered, and the only place left for the heroes is ground they've already beaten, more hyper-action, more high concepts, more adventure, and make it sweet enough to wash this Listerine taste out of our mouths please. Two issues and out. The third would have been different, but after the point was proved this roundly, who would have needed a third?
This is the emblematic panel of these two comics for me. There's linework to it, good old comic book ink on Bristol board -- and it's pretty good stuff, too, highly focused where it matters, cutting out where it doesn't, a little scratchy flair to Ha's use of the substance itself. But that fades away when you look at the whole, at Lyon's spot-on digital rendering of skin planes under dull light. Set against the subtlety of that muffled chorus of tans and beiges, black ink put down by human hands looks simplistic, over-certain of something that isn't necessarily true. In a comic that strives this hard for the look of the real, one can only wonder why Ha drew the lines at all. It has to be shown. It's just an occupational hazard of the comics medium that the effort of showing it comes off looking like a waste.
And those last two sentences could be restated in reference to the whole thing of these comics. They're visually fascinating in their own strange, quixotic way, and that's a justification for any comic's existence. They go in deeper and nastier and more honest on the real-world heroes question than anything before them, and that's another distinction. But their agonizing replication of the real world, their striving for glassy-eyed laziness -- it will always fall short because it's a comic, and that means it can never do what it wants to. The only way to get the real world is to put the thing down and inhale it. The only way to get superheroes in the real world is... well, here's the link to that Phoenix Jones story again. Enjoy, but if reading these taught me anything, it was that superheroes aren't that exciting when they stray too far from their natural habitats, the skyscraper aeries and crystal jungles and submarine mystery zones of fantasy pure on the comics page. It's an obvious lesson, but the learning of it is as fascinating a process as cutting through your own skin.
There's a postscript to all this, because there was a postscript to the two Authority issues Ha and Morrison did together. Unlike the WildCats relaunch, which last I heard was promised a rebirth at some unspecified time in the future as a full-length graphic novel (we'll just see about that), the series was continued once its creators had left what certainly felt by the end like an empty building. It's a shame, because issue #2 of The Authority volume 4 ended with the page above, which dropped the team's Batman analogue the Midnighter into an Afghani war zone, the cliffhanger promising some bitchin' super action in the next installment. Which... I mean, Gene Ha draws some great fighting, but it's such an elegant thing that this series cut off at the first hint of that same old mainstream comics page-fill. It had done the unique thing it was going to do, the thing it needed to show us, and it disappeared before it could get to the parts every other superhero comic has. When the book reappeared in 2008, a new Authority series had begun, and the remainder of volume 4 found itself without Ha and Lyon's brilliant, crystalline coldness or Morrison's remote, elliptical scripting. Instead, it was now the province of "Ambush Bug" creator Keith Giffen and a rotating cast of WildStorm farmhand artists. It was exactly the thing it began by not being, spent its pages muttering inaudibly against, and ended by just managing not to return to. Your average superhero comic.
These books are a tomb that was never filled.
THE END. For realz.