We were all expecting Superman and Batman in James Gunn’s new DCU slate. But the big shocking surprise was the announcement of a movie based on The Authority, DC’s hardcore, bloody, and profanity-infused super team series. But the non-comics reader may be scratching their heads about this team, who never had the media exposure DC super groups like the Justice League and the Teen Titans did. Although a cult title, The Authority has had some of comics’ biggest names working on it over the past 25 years, and created the template for similar comics like The Boys and Invincible.
The Early Wildstorm Days of The Authority
The Authority was first published in 1999, and was actually part of DC’s Wildstorm imprint. Wildstorm was superstar artist Jim Lee’s label, under the Image Comics banner. Lee later sold it to DC in 1998. But back in 1992, in the early Wildstorm days, Lee created the hit series WildC.A.T.S., as well as its spin-off title Stormwatch. It was in the pages of Stormwatch that the Authority was really born. Many of the characters later made famous by the Authority were created for Stormwatch long before DC Comics was ever in the picture.
Stormwatch were super powered heroes who answered to the U.N., as many DC and Marvel teams historically did. They debuted in 1993, but by the late ’90s, their style of superhero comics was going out of fashion. Writer Warren Ellis then took over the series in 1997. Given carte blanche on a dying title, he introduced several new characters, like Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and others. And then, in 1998, he basically killed off all the members of the Stormwatch team he didn’t create in the WildC.A.T.s/Aliens crossover. Yes, the iconic xenomorphs from the big screen, in a bloody rampage, ultimately led to the creation of the Authority.
A Dark Mirror Version of the Avengers and the Justice League
The Authority, made up of remnants of Stormwatch, was a mashup of both DC’s Justice League, and Marvel’s Avengers. Like the JLA, there were 7 core members. Apollo and Midnighter were counterparts to Superman and Batman, respectively, only they were a committed gay couple. Both were genetically engineered, with Apollo having powers nearly identical to Superman, and like him, drawn from the sun. Midnighter could predict any move in a fight, making him the ultimate hand-to-hand combatant, similar to DC’s Dark Knight. They instantly proved to be the most popular, and most attention-getting, members of the team.
Swift was a winged warrior, and an analogue for DC’s Hawkgirl. The Doctor was a mystic, and an even trippier version of Dr. Strange. The Engineer was a bit of Iron Man, with a side of the X-Men’s Colossus. Jack Hawksmoor was perhaps the one truly unique member, a character who drew his strength and power from the energy of different cities. The team’s leader, Jenny Sparks, was an edgier version of Captain Britain, with electrical powers. But unlike their DC and Marvel Universe counterparts, the Authority really followed only one authority—their own.
The team’s home base was a bit of an homage to the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier from Marvel, simply called the Carrier. But this base was a ship capable of moving through the Bleed, the red space which separates alternate universes. The Bleed would later become a big part of DC’s multiversal mythology, one of the series’ big contributions to overall DC lore. Through the Carrier, the team could appear anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye.
Although their goals were ultimately noble, unlike the Seven in The Boys, they took the law into their own hands. They didn’t allow things like international law or “innocent until proven guilty” to impede their brutal version of justice. A version of justice that saw them invading sovereign nations and crushing the skulls of corrupt leaders. In fact, they eventually set themselves up as the rulers of the United States.
The Authority: Ground Zero for “Big Screen” 21st Century Superhero Comics
Although never the biggest seller, The Authority was the buzzy book everyone in the early 2000s was talking about. The art by Bryan Hitch was cinematic and huge, and the battles looked like the movie versions of superhero fights we’d see decades later. After Warren Ellis left the title, a series of writers who all would become the biggest names in modern comics followed him up. Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning, to name but a few. Artists like Frank Quitely also made a name for themselves thanks to this series.
Its gritty, violent, no-holds-barred take on superheroes influenced everything from Marvel’s The Ultimates, to Garth Ennis’ The Boys. Even the kid-friendly animated Justice League took inspiration from the Authority. In the episode “A Better World,” the alternate-Earth Justice Lords, who were a Justice League that took over the world, drew inspiration from the Authority. There were many ways in which The Authority set the tone for many of the 21st centuries best superhero tales, many that received more recognition.
The Elite: The DC Universe’s Answer to the Authority
In the 2000s, the book that parodied DC and Marvel heroes was itself parodied by DC. In the seminal Action Comics #775, writer Joe Kelley introduced “the Elite,” a thinly veiled riff on the Authority. He designed the Superman story to pose the question; could Superman’s moral code and no killing rules exist in a world with heroes like the Authority? The leader of the Elite, Manchester Black, was a clear combination of the Authority’s Jenny Sparks and Jack Hawksmoor, at least from a visual perspective.
However, the Superman story proved so popular, the Elite became a regular part of the DC Universe. They were even the subject of an animated film, Superman vs. The Elite. Manchester Black then became a character on the CW’s Supergirl. Was there even a need for the Authority anymore, with the Elite around? Everything runs its course, and by the end of the 2000s, the Authority’s days as a trend setting concept seemed to be over. Its imitators had eclipsed it. But you can’t keep a good super team down forever. Not one with characters that were so rich.
The New 52: The Authority Characters Join the DC Universe
When DC folded in its Wildstorm titles into the DC Universe in 2011’s The New 52 reboot, many Authority characters made the transition. But the Authority itself, at least as a title, didn’t. They were essentially replaced with the returning Stormwatch series. Solo titles for characters like Midnighter and Apollo were released, but no book called The Authority. For ten years, there was no team going by that name, until 2021. Grant Morrison, who briefly wrote the old Wildstorm title, wrote a new series called Superman and the Authority. In this version, Kal-El secretly created the Authority as a team when he began to lose his powers.
Things start get really meta with this incarnation of the group. As part of this new team, Superman recruited Manchester Black, the character that was created as a riff on original Authority leader Jenny Sparks. Morrison then included classic Authority characters like Apollo and Midnighter. However, several new members were classic DC Universe stand-ins for characters in the original lineup. Enchantress was an analogue of the Doctor, while Steel was an analogue for The Engineer, and so on. It was very much a case of the snake eating its own tail. And this was the last incarnation of the team we saw in the comics.
Will it influence The Authority‘s eventual film version in the DC Universe? Only time will tell. But there are over 25 years of groundbreaking stories to draw from.
Originally published on February 1, 2023.