Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it) (but see below)
I am in the uncomfortable position of giving a book my highest rating then telling you not to read it. On the one hand, this book executes a vision and a sense of life brilliantly, in both the details and the bigger picture. For the right audience, these story arcs are masterpieces. On the other hand, it is the comic book equivalent of cutting yourself, and no one should embrace or encourage that sense of life. It is utter debasement that is horrifying in its mix of dwelling in sadism and unreflective acceptance. I do not see how it works for an existing The Authority audience, who presumably joined under Warren Ellis's radically different themes, which presumably contributed to why the series was canceled immediately after this.
This fourth collection of The Authority collects the last two story arcs (eight issues) of the original series. As the cover shows, the big news is The New Authority, a replacement team of Authority knock-offs who are bound to the status quo that the original Authority worked to reform. By what bloody means does this transition take place, and who is this new team, friendlier on the surface but darker within?
The opening paragraph hit my two major points: very well done; why would you do this? This is the opposite of the first volume, taking us from Jenny Sparks's ideal vision and instead wallowing in the destruction of potential. It is dashing human aspiration in favor of pointless cruelty. It is the triumph of hate, in tiers as levels of vindictiveness succeed each other.
The New Authority is very well designed in its similarity and contrast with the original. You can look at each member and see his/her model, but you immediately get the sense of "not quite right." For good or ill, there did not seem to be enough time to develop all the characters, so half of them are exceedingly shallow, some hardly getting a full character trait (Machine, Street). The "ill" is how poorly the characters are developed; the "good" is that it would be more debasing to spend even more time with these people.
The Colonel gets the most characterization. He is a slave, eager to please its master while afraid of being kicked, rejoicing in its power over others and indulging in the carnal pleasures it fears will be taken from it. He is a sadist and a coward and is so beaten down that, given the reins of ultimate power, he could not dream bigger than further entrenching the established powers. He sets the tone for the comic under his leadership the way that Jenny Sparks did under hers.
I am torn on whether the other characterization is poor or if they are just that lousy of people. Probably both, with a bit more of the latter. Teuton is a caricature, Last Call is a more extreme inverse caricature. Rush had a few hints that were interesting enough to make me want more. She was her own sort of inversion, and I think that worked better when it was kept subtle rather than being made explicit towards the end. It was a bonus if you watched the art, and she had expressions other than inchoate rage. Loving The Engineer as I do, I was hoping for more from The Machine or much of anything.
The Retread storyline has too short a time once it comes into its own. As seems appropriate for that dimension, it is a series of swift reversals. A cycle of hatred and vengeance culminates in a sort of reset button. I want to say that it is not a good payout for the storyline, but given the arcs' theme of reinforcing the status quo, it seems entirely appropriate.
Should we contemplate for a moment the resurrection of Jenny Sparks and the implications of what went on around that lamp? No, let us walk away merely noting that much can be said about the transformations going on there.
Particularly from the perspectives of the ones going through them, which leads me to the explicitly debasing part of the series, in which torments are visited upon the original Authority. Each gets his own version, but you will notice that Shen and Angie get much the same treatment. It is probably a blessing that their treatment is passed over far too quickly. Contemplating that one would take the series's darkness beyond black.
The villains disagree about whether the abuse is for the evulz. It pretty clearly must be, even if some are in denial, because it cannot serve as an example for anyone, even the people experiencing it. The victim is mind-controlled and can become aware of what happened only if the control breaks, which is probably a very bad situation for the controllers; the victim is supposed to be dead, so you have limited chances to "make an example" except by showing it to selected targets as an explicit threat. If you want the victim to suffer, you need to leave him/her somehow aware of the debasement as it happens, as was done with Jack. But then, a recurring point is that the villains are thinking small.
If you really want a troubling evening, however, start thinking through what was going on with Angie and Shen. Seek counseling if that is not troubling.
The off-stage ending was a bit weak, as was the Krigstein appearance. Was that attack by future superheroes intended to be his, rather than just forgetting about that thread entirely? The New Authority fought it off well considering how much weaker than the original they appear to be. Considering how effective Midnighter was against them, the government-issue "heroes" were presumably intentionally weaker than the originals, and the ones with stolen powers never got a manual. Seriously, The Doctor can turn people into stone or flocks of birds, and he can commit genocide without breaking a sweat, but The Surgeon steals his powers and says he cannot take Midnighter? Seth's karmic fate was squicky, weak, and entirely inappropriate for re-establishing the "good guys" given the preceding paragraphs.
All I want to say about Seth is that he survived being crashed into a tank of anti-matter. That may strike you as a common comic book event, but consider for a moment a tank of positrons. Anti-matter and matter annihilate each other on contact, converting their entire mass into energy. That e=mc² equation? It applies fully here, so one gram of anti-matter yields about three Hiroshimas. Assuming that Seth has some kind of force field that kept him from becoming the matter half of that anti-matter reaction, he still survived however many kilograms worth of anti-matter detonating around him. I'm surprised the Carrier survived, maybe surprised the planet survived depending on how hefty those tanks are.
On another "thinking small" note, estimates of how much it would cost to produce one gram of anti-matter range from $25 billion to $100 quadrillion. (I'm pulling all these numbers from Wikipedia.) If the Carrier has just the six tanks shown in that frame, with one kilogram per tank, the fuel in that room is worth $150 trillion to $600 quintillion. We would need to think of new economies to make use of that kind of energy. Whatever else you might want from The Authority, even ignoring the value of a dimension-hopping city-sized vessel that enables teleportation as side-effect, that room is worth more. And The New Authority is told to look for fossil fuels in other dimensions. Those people are serious about maintaining the status quo.
The book is expertly done, but the villain protagonists are neither sympathetic nor charismatic, so there is not the drive to read about them. I am not sure if I will be carrying on with the series; the next volume or two seems to be what people think of as The Authority, a mix of darkness, power-tripping, and obscenity. There was supposed to be a Grant Morrison run in the future, but that seems to have gone only two issues.