There’s a trope called “Seinfeld Is Unfunny," in which a groundbreaking work seems less groundbreaking due to what’s come afterwards. In my review of X-Men: Phoenix Rising, I mentioned that it seemed a little old-hat due to the many major retcons that have happened since then. This book, The Authority: Relentless, does the same for rampant violence in comics. Back in 1999, the actions of the book’s “heroes” were shocking. Today, something similar might happen in the pages of a particularly grim issue of Secret Avengers.
However, as we all know from TV Tropes, tropes are not bad, and Relentless shouldn’t be judged by what came after it. This is Warren Ellis at his crazy finest. When Ellis is at the top of his game, he comes up with memorable characters and, more importantly, complex villainous schemes. Of the two stories in here, one is a world-conquering plan ramped up to an incredible degree, while the other is an invasion from a parallel world. Each is led by a dynamic plotter -- the former by pre-existing Wildstorm villain Kaizen Gamorra, the latter by Yngvi, ruler of a blue-skinned alien race.
Like Infinity Gauntlet, Relentless is another book that leads on from other major events. In this case, it’s the crumbling of the Wildstorm universe after the destruction of Stormwatch, which was also written by Ellis. If you’re not aware, the majority of Stormwatch was killed off in WildC.A.T.S./Aliens, making it the intercompany crossover with the most lasting effects in comic books. The remnants are brought together by Jenny Sparks, a “century baby” who literally personifies the twentieth century. Her cursing, smoking, drinking and overt sexuality say a lot about how Wildstorm in particular and comics in general perceived the then-present day.
On its surface, the Authority follows many of the normal superhero team dynamics. You have the Superman analogue in Apollo and the Batman analogue in the Midnighter. Swift is the almost obligatory winged character, while the Engineer has the technical edge. The Doctor has the equivalent of a Green Lantern ring with his magical powers. Jenny Sparks’ electrical powers have a precedent with Black Lightning and Living Lightning. Even Jack Hawksmoor’s ability to “talk to cities” gives him control over the ground, like Geo-Force, and telepathy, like the Martian Manhunter. Add in a growing or shrinking character and a maybe a god and you’re set. The team almost seems a little underpowered, with Apollo being the only strongman.
What makes the team truly powerful is its coordination. Warren Ellis has a talent for taking unusual teams and making them incredibly effective by using their powers in unusual ways. He did it again in his Secret Avengers run. Jenny keeps the team under her firm control, although she knows when to let some of her soldiers run loose. One unusual element of the team is a lack of arguments over leadership [and then we saw such arguments in spades in Paul Cornell's first DC New 52 Stormwatch volume. -- ed.]. She has to compensate for some of their personalities, such as the new and self-doubting Doctor and the almost lethally headstrong Apollo. But due to the sheer scale of the villains they face, they almost immediately throw their weight behind Jenny to lead. As someone who gets annoyed when team books devolve into internal squabbles, like The Ultimates or Justice League: Cry for Justice, it’s almost refreshing.
As far as the team member personalities go, Jack and Swift get less of a focus. As they were part of a team with Jenny previous to The Authority, Ellis probably wanted to concentrate on the newer members, which was likely the right move. Swift in particular seems to not be as effective as the others. Hawkman and Hawkgirl work because they are portrayed as powerful warriors -- almost barbarians at times. The tiny Swift, though, doesn’t carry the same weight in a literal sense. Jack’s powers are just strange, and I can imagine that he’s hard to use in a story, but Ellis does his best.
Let’s talk about the violence. Make no mistake: even by modern standards, there’s a lot of blood. But compare it to, say, the fight between Superboy Prime and the Teen Titans in Infinite Crisis and the feel is similar. That fight was even more macabre than some of the fights in Relentless. Editorial and storytelling standards have simply changed, making blood and gore more acceptable to both readers and publishers. The sexual content is also limited in this book. There is a lot of discussion about rape, for instance, as the alien society is dying out and is propagated by turning entire countries into “rape camps.” But Ellis wisely decides to not actually show anyone getting raped, which is a disappointing relief -- disappointing because we do have to be concerned these days about that kind of graphic content in other books.
Though he worked with Warren Ellis on Stormwatch, The Authority: Relentless helped Bryan Hitch get widespread attention. He even got to design the Cybermen for the current series of Doctor Who, which is an impressive feat. Hitch’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. Most pages are broken down into three large panels, and he uses this space to create intricate backgrounds and detailed characters. I especially like the designs of the alien Shift-Ships, which resemble the Predator drone. Even the Engineer, who is simply a metal woman, has a great design. I also enjoy his dynamic and varied covers; Hitch has some innovative group shots, which is an impressive feat.
With the New 52 version of Stormwatch out there, I would highly suggest looking at its roots. The Authority: Relentless has strong storytelling and great art and, despite being dulled a bit by age, it holds up well.