Crossing Lines in Mark Millar’s The Authority

Posted by Jennifer

This past year, I discovered a line of comics I’d never really given much consideration in the past: DC’s Wildstorm imprint. I caught up on Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina (which, granted, isn’t really part of the Wildstorm Universe), read all of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Sleeper and the Point Blank miniseries that preceded it, and finally investigated The Authority for the first time. While I enjoyed the first two items on that list without much conflict, and found myself intrigued by Warren Ellis’ 12-issue introductory run on The Authority, the Mark Millar run that followed caused me considerable consternation, primarily in its treatment of women and gay characters.

The Authority is pretty seminal as far as comics history goes. It was the first major ongoing superhero series to take the superhero concept and apply it to a less idealized world, a world where superheroes might decide to exert their will over humanity to forcibly make the world a better place. Everything about the comic was more graphic and more adult — not to mention more “widescreen” and “high octane” — than had been the norm for comics at the time, and it also featured one of the first — and still the best-developed, longest-lasting — gay superhero relationships in mainstream comics, between Superman and Batman analogues Apollo and Midnighter. I knew all of these things going into the comic, and they were largely the things that attracted me to the series in the first place.

I’ve notoriously had trouble with the comics of Mark Millar; their over-the-top ultra-violence is often too much for me, and I find many of his jokes and developments juvenile and tasteless. But I had enjoyed Ellis’ work and wanted to continue following the characters, and so I went into Millar’s run on The Authority with as open a mind as possible, vowing not to pre-judge the book on the basis of Civil War and The Ultimates and trying instead to remember his Superman: Red Son miniseries, which I’d enjoyed much more. Unfortunately, Millar’s run on The Authority reminded me more of the former two series than the latter, featuring as it did some of the worst excesses of his writing, including a reliance on an inbred hillbilly stereotype as a villain and cheap shots at other mainstream comics (like the Stan Lee analogue who creates awful superheroes to destroy the Authority). But worst of all was the gratuitous and problematic presence of misogyny and homophobia.

(Spoilers for ten-year-old comics follow; read at your own risk.)

I was relatively happy with how the gay characters and female characters (The Engineer, Swift, and Jenny Sparks) were handled during the Ellis run. They were all competent heroes, no less than their straight male counterparts. The relationship between Apollo and Midnighter was only lightly implied, with nary a kiss or bedroom scene in sight, but it was still evident they were together, and that still counted as progressive at the time — and, considering the paucity of advances since, likely still would today.

In some ways, Millar actually made the comic more upfront about its pro-gay and feminist undertones. Apollo and Midnighter’s relationship became explicit text, with one small kiss in Millar’s first issue and a full-page kiss in his last, which featured their wedding. To my knowledge, this was the first, and possibly only, gay marriage in a mainstream superhero comic. And all the gay and female characters remained heroic and triumphant, competent in their roles. Jenny Sparks may have died at the end of Ellis’ run, but that was always to be her fate (as the Spirit of the concluding 20th century), and her legacy still obviously affected her surviving teammates, even before her 21st century reincarnation was discovered. And the Engineer and Swift continued to kick ass.

But with this increased visibility came an increase in the portrayal of sexism and homophobia in the comics, and that’s where things get tricky. On the one hand, I appreciate Millar’s attempt to portray the very real bigotries that women and LGBT individuals face on a daily basis. This is necessary to create a realistic universe, and has been used to great effect by writers like Greg Rucka, whose Batwoman story about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was deftly handled. But on the other hand, there comes a time in fiction when these sorts of insults cross the line between “realistic portrayal” and “gratuitous abuse.” The gay jokes and stereotypes flew so fast and furious through most of the series that it was impossible to imagine that they weren’t there, in part, to bring amusement through their creativity, like a teammate referring to Apollo as a “big, gay kebab” when he nearly burns up in extreme heat, or Apollo himself claiming he always wanted to be “one of those guys who sponges down wrestlers between bouts.” (The gay jokes extended even past Apollo and Midnighter, to a firefighter who confessed his love for his fellow firefighter in the face of certain death, used as a punchline to contrast with the other firefighter’s confession of urinating in his partner’s coffee.) And the things that happened to these characters at the hands of villains, unlike their straight male counterparts, were almost always related to homophobia and misogyny.

Take, for instance, the scene early in the run when Apollo is brutally raped by one of the evil Stan Lee’s creations — an analogue for Captain America. (And let me just say, “a comic where Captain America rapes an openly gay hero” is pretty much what I would invent if someone asked me to envision my own personal comic from hell.) The rape is actually treated fairly realistically, for a comic book rape — Apollo is obviously shaken by it for a long time after, and Midnighter is absolutely furious. But the fact that it had to happen at all is troubling, as is the fact that Apollo is not the one who eventually enacts revenge — it’s Midnighter who sodomizes the rapist with a jackhammer and kills him. This reinforces the idea, present in so many films and other media, that rape is more of an offense to the victim’s significant other, whose partner was “stolen,” and that this person has more of a moral right to anger and vengeance than the victim does. This feminized victimization of Apollo by Millar (in the relationship, he’s always the one in need of rescue and protection by the more traditionally masculine Midnighter, despite his stronger power set) is bad enough, as far as the portrayal of gay relationships is concerned, but the use of this rape trope adds insult to injury.

And this isn’t the last time that something like this happens to Apollo. At one point, the Authority, believed to be dead, is replaced by a new team of amoral villains in a fill-in arc by Tom Peyer, and when Millar returns it’s revealed that these villains (created by the U.S. government) have been hiding and torturing the original Authority (except Midnighter, who escaped). But while some of the characters, like Jack Hawksmoor and The Doctor, are simply given punishments related to their powers (amnesia and general helplessness), the gay and female characters are served with punishments that are severely gendered. The Engineer is convinced that she is a poor housewife with a heroin addiction, an abusive husband, and six children, while Swift is brainwashed into becoming the slavishly-obedient wife of a television mogul, who spends all his time insulting her intelligence and domestic skills. Apollo, meanwhile, is tied up and beaten every single day by a virulent homophobe, and threatened once again with rape.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see, at the end, how these characters are able to triumph over this torture, fight off their oppressors, and become heroes once more. (Though once again Apollo doesn’t get a chance to exact his own revenge; Midnighter kills his torturer, and Apollo instead goes off to kill his and the Engineer’s replacements.) And I understand that this torture, gendered as it is, is meant to be a BAD thing, a reflection of the worst that could happen to these characters. But it seems like a step backward for the comic to so gratuitously show these women and gay man torn down and beaten and humiliated. A flippant attitude toward this gratuitous portrayal is reflected in the letters column — when Apollo and Midnighter first disappeared, a reader wrote in with disappointment that gay characters would be so quickly brushed aside and replaced with homophobes, asking, “Could it get any worse?” The cheeky reply was, “Sure it could! You could find out the homophobe has locked one half of the gay couple in an out of the way room, and has been using him as a punching bag.” — a.k.a. the plot reveal of the very next issue. This indicates, to me, that Millar (and/or his editors) KNEW this storyline was offensive and problematic, and went through with it anyway, for no discernible reason beyond a craving for shock and awe and torture porn — a craving that is absent from Hawksmoor’s and the Doctor’s punishments. And while I can make no claims about Millar’s personal feelings on the subject, this violence-for-violence’s sake ethos crops up repeatedly through most of his comics and is frequently inflicted upon female characters in heavily gendered ways. In classic Marvel canon, Ant-Man Hank Pym slapped his wife, the Wasp, once, and spent the rest of his life wracked with guilt; in Millar’s Ultimate canon, he beat her to a pulp, then sprayed her with bugspray when she shrank to escape and sicced his ants upon her. The contrast is clear, and the pattern is worrying.

But I remain conflicted. How do you strike the right balance? Where is the line between a realistic portrayal of bigotry (rather than a utopian world free of misogyny and homophobia), and gratuitous torture in the dubious name of eventual triumph? Ultimately, despite Millar’s advances, I can’t help feeling that the progressive strength of an on-panel gay wedding is at least partially canceled out by all of the gay rape, gay bashing, and creative gay jokes that precede it — and that the presence of strong female heroes is at least partially canceled out when they spend several issues being subjugated and abused because of their gender in a way their straight male counterparts never are. But if Millar’s Authority definitely crosses that line, where does that line actually lie?

By Jennifer Smith
E-mail: Jennifer@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • http://www.valhallahan.co.uk Valhallahan

    While I really enjoyed Millar’s ultimates, and generally give the first issues of whatever his new projects are a look, his run on the Authority ruined it for me. I remember picking up Authority #1 when I was 15/16 and it blew my head off, loved the characters, the look, the scope of the stories, the general feel, then when Millar’s run came, it seemed to totally miss the point, and just became an obnoxious read. Nowadays I’d never think about buying an Authority issue, the Millar stories (including the Jenny Sparks origins mini, which I pretend never existed) just totally killed it for me.

    Also, didn’t Apollo and Midnighter kiss before Millar started writing it? I thought I remembered a bit in the final Ellis storyline.

  • http://throughthebrush.wordpress.com/ Jennifer

    @Valhallahan I haven’t read the Jenny Sparks origin mini, but something tells me I should avoid it, if it’s by Millar. (Which is sad, because I loved the Mike Costas Hawksmoor origin mini.)

    As for the kiss, it was apparently a big deal that Apollo and Midnighter even got a tiny, corner-of-the-panel-in-a-crowd-scene kiss in Millar’s first issue, so I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anything in Ellis’ run.

  • Monica

    Millar’s run sounds very skeezy. It’s disturbing enough to see men get violence while women get sexualized violence, but to take it further and give the gay men sexualized violence, too? It certainly reinforces the othering of gay people. At the same time though, I would say it might be better than keeping the queerness of the characters subtextual. And it is better than retconning gay characters.

    I feel this could be a companion piece to the post about Drakken and bisexuality. They’re both very thought-provoking.

  • sigrid

    I really liked the Jenny Sparks mini, actually.

    This run of Millar’s on The Authority is what made me quit the book.

  • Cash

    Hmm. I read the treatment of the captured Swift, Engineer, and Apollo as more of a commentary on the bigotry of the bad guys as anything else. Given the radical political agenda of the Authority–e.g., taking control of the world away from the bastards who’ve been running it–it sort of makes sense that the aforementioned bastards would be rather traditionalist in their worldview and rather reactionary in their approach to handling the captured heroes.

    Given that, it seemed pretty natural to me that the bastards would relish the opportunity to turn ass-kicking world-saving scientist Angie (my favorite of the Authority heroes) into an abused mom-cum-addict. That would (in their minds) be not only an effective control method, but a proper and ironic punishment for her daring to violate their model of proper female behavior. Similarly, they thought it would be appropriate to turn the free-flying Swift into a caged domestic goddess because she similarly defied their image of proper female behavior.

    In the panels above, I note that the pseudo-Cap criticizes most of the Authority as “whores” and “sissies,” while the worst thing he can say about Jack is that he doesn’t wear shoes. Clearly, pseudo-Cap (and the other bastards) are not just upset by the Authority’s actions (which were taken with Jack as leader, let’s not forget, so ), but terrified by the very idea that people who aren’t straight white males might dare to defy the existing power structure. The bastards may hate the straight male heroes, but the existence of Jack and the Doctor is not in itself a threat; it just needs to be controlled. By contrast, Angie, Swift, Apollo and the Midnighter are the Other; it’s got to be destroyed.

    I think we actually agree on what’s being said here; I guess the difference is that I see it as a feature, rather than a bug.

    (Sorry for the length. I completely agree on one thing, though: Ellis’s issues were better than Millar’s.)

  • Jackie

    As I recall, we find out that Apollo and Midnighter are together when Ellis was still writing Stormwatch. I’d have to pull out my issues to check.

    However, Millar’s run on The Authority really hit me in the gut. I get what he was trying to do but it felt like he’d just didn’t have the sort of deftness and feel for the subject matter that would have made more of an impact. And the artwork didn’t help.

  • http://fantasticfangirls.org Caroline

    I don’t have a major comment because I haven’t read these books, but I’m really intrigued by your analysis. As you say, there’s a line between critiquing oppression and revelling in it, and it’s going to be a tough call, sometimes, for each writer and each reader –

  • bewize

    I’ve not read the series either, but I am intrigued – especially after Caroline’s comment – if you (or anyone else) has suggestions of places where you feel this is handled better?

    there’s a line between critiquing oppression and reveling in it, and it’s going to be a tough call, sometimes, for each writer and each reader

    I’m wondering if Jackie isn’t right and Millar just didn’t have the deftness to make his point – nor the class to keep his mouth shut in letters to the audience.

  • http://fantasticfangirls.org Caroline

    Yeah, I have no experience of this particular comic, but “deft” is not a word to apply to Millar in general. Though, again, that’s going to be subjective to every reader’s experience of the story.

  • http://throughthebrush.wordpress.com/ Jennifer

    Thanks, everyone!

    @Cash I think I have to agree with Jackie that Millar just isn’t very deft with his writing, and it makes things more problematic than they’d otherwise be. I agree with you that this kind of point about the bad guys being threatened by strong women and openly gay men was likely the intent of the scenes, but they still strike me as gratuitous, and perhaps even dangerous, in that they’re yet more pieces of entertainment featuring graphic things like rape and female degradation, without much in the way of context or nuance.

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve watched all three seasons of the show Mad Men. Mad Men is very good, usually, at showing the very real prejudices of the early 1960s — particularly against women — without replicating them. It’s a tightrope, and they usually manage to walk it. But even Mad Men, I think, has crossed its own lines on occasion — a scene with a character performing in blackface at a party, for instance. I think there’s a line somewhere, a line of taste and responsibility, and Millar doesn’t so much cross it as trample all over it.

  • Cash

    Yeah, “deft” isn’t the word for Millar, is it? And I can’t help but wonder if Frank Quitely’s artwork isn’t somewhat to blame as well. As beautifully detailed as it is, he sometimes shows an unsettling desire to depict every flying droplet of gore, and at times it seems a little too celebratory.

  • http://fantasticfangirls.org Caroline

    The ‘Mad Men’ example is a good one — you might remember, my reaction to the blackface scene was that the show just hadn’t been good enough at addressing race to earn that scene.

  • http://throughthebrush.wordpress.com/ Jennifer

    @Cash I tried not to mention art here because there were so many artist changes on this book, but I do agree that Quitely’s tends toward a gleefully hyper-detailed depiction of horrors. It certainly doesn’t HELP, at any rate.

    @Caroline Yep, I remember you saying that, and it’s definitely true. Bryan Batt’s firing also irks me, in that in order to have a “realistic” storyline where a gay character is permanently fired, they’re actually firing a gay actor. (Which is, of course, not relevant to comics, since you don’t HAVE actors, but it’s another example of line-crossing, I think.)

  • http://shehulk.sliverofice.com Erica

    Excellent post.

    Now I remember all the reasons I can’t stand Millar comics. It’s like he’s never met a literal anvil he didn’t throw in his story. Everything’s gratuitous.

    I was also bothered with every villain being homophobic as their reactions to Apollo & Midnighter. I mean, yes, villains are bad, but bad doesn’t automatically equal homophobia. I had the same issue with Ennis’ run on Midnighter’s solo series.

  • lilacsigil

    Millar is not subtle, no. Part of the problem with identifying the line between his portrayal of bigotry and gleeful revelling in the consequences of it is that he usually does put some thought into what happens – The Engineer, for example, is thrown into a twisted, nightmare version of her own past – but then seems to get caught up in escalating his own self-congratulatory DARING and it just gets gratutious and revolting from there.

    Comics are usually so bad with gay characters (if they exist at all) that I think it can make readers like me a bit hesitant to point out more subtle bigotry like Millar thinking one of a gay couple has to be “the girl” (and I mean that in the most 1950s way possible) when it’s actually a lot *better* than what most other mainstream comics are doing.

    Also? Erica is totally right about the literal anvils. I await the day that a 16-ton weight (with 16-ton weight written on it) falls on someone’s head.

  • http://throughthebrush.wordpress.com/ Jennifer

    @lilacsigil *nod* I do think Millar THINKS about these things; it’s just a matter of what he actually does in the execution, and it’s hard to judge a work on anything but the execution, which is what we actually see and can objectively evaluate.

    I can see what you mean, about even small advances meaning a lot, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand better; otherwise the companies will pat themselves on the back for throwing a bone and not have any real need to make things better.

  • lilacsigil

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand better

    I totally agree, and fans are really the engine of this kind of change. But I also think that fans often settle for the bone that they throw (see: Young Avengers) and don’t keep pushing in other areas.

  • LondonKdS

    You left out the “best” bit about Millar’s run, where a villain goes back in time to rape Angie as a child and it’s treated as a single-panel gag scene.

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