Propaganda – One Marshal Law book really is my limit.
by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neil
I first read Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s tale of hero-hunting, hero-hating Marshall Law when it was released in ’87 by Marvel’s Epic comics line. Since then it’s been here, there and everywhere on the publishing schedules with series and issues at Epic, Apocalypse, Dark Horse, Toxic and more. Top Shelf recently announced that they plan to gather together as much of the available material as they can and bring out a 500+ page hardcover omnibus/ archive/ essential/ absolute type thing projected to come out around November 2009. (details on the Top Shelf website).
The only problem I have with this is that I fear it’s not really necessary. I think that this volume: Fear And Loathing, collecting the first six Epic issues from ’87/’88 is pretty much all you need to read in the entire Marshal Law canon.
Pat Mills was and is an absolute master of writing for weekly comics in six page chunks, whether it was Slaine, Charley’s War, Nemesis The Warlock, ABC Warriors or Dredd. But I always found that his perfection on a six page weekly didn’t transfer as well to anything larger. His writing has a necessary stacatto feel, with beginning, middle and end every six pages. Similarly, I always found his work over-written and overly wordy; perfectly good in a six pager, otherwise there just isn’t enough reading to be had per week, but it’s very noticeable on anything larger. It certainly guarantees that you always come out of a Pat Mills comic feeling you’ve got your money’s worth but can be a slightly off putting experience.
But (and it’s an important but) the writing in this very first Marshal Law book is good enough to overcome all of this. Indeed, Marshall Law is such a strong, entertaining concept that the very idea almost carries the comic. Marshal Law: Fear And Loathing probably deserves to be held up as an example of great comics. Maybe not in the same sentence as it’s contemporaries, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, but certainly in a nearby paragraph.
(Issue 1 of Marshal Law – cover dated Oct 1987. From Marshall Law, art by Kevin O’Neill, c) Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill)
Marshal Law came about just after Watchmen and Dark Knight had redefined the superhero genre. Suddenly every comic was full of gritty, dark, shady, morally and sexually ambiguous heroes who dressed in stained tights and did their best to stain them some more. Any Brit writer sober enough at the end of one of the UK comic conventions to talk to an editor at DC or Marvel was being offered a revamp job on a hero of their choice. Dark was in, grim and gritty became the norm and for a while comics seemed to revel in trying to outdo themselves in debasing and humiliating previously upstanding superheroes.
Enter Pat Mills. Mills just didn’t do superheroes; he had no time for them and could never see himself writing them. And the Marshal Law character he’d developed with Kevin O’Neill was initially more corrupt cop fighting against even more corrupt authority than it was to do with superheroes. But as the idea developed, Mills realised that he’d unwittingly created a superhero in Marshall Law, albeit a superhero from Mill’s own perspective; a superhero who hunts down the other superheroes.
You probably know Kevin O’Neill’s work on the Alan Moore written League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But O’Neill’s work has always been wonderful, right from his very first 2000AD appearances. This is the man whose very artistic style was once deemed completely inappropriate for superhero comics by the Comics Code Authority (as for who they are – it’s too long and stupid to explain – see here). And it’s this inappropriate artwork that works so well in Marshal Law.
In Fear And Loathing Mills is working extremely hard to pack an awful lot of story into the six issues. We’re quickly introduced to the Marshall Law idea: the wonderfully pure and idealistic superheroes of the time left for the stars and in the twenty-five years they were away everything went terribly wrong. Super-soldiers were created to fight foreign wars in their place, but returned to realise that their superpowers didn’t mean they were heroes, just super-powerful and able to do whatever they wanted in a lawless city. To top it all off the big quake finally nails San Francisco and you have a perfect recipe for one of those post-apocalyptic future cityscapes you read so much about. O’Neill’s artwork is perfect here, every horrible, degraded, abased, terrible moment of the world is captured in his panels. This is not a nice place to be and the heroes are to blame:
“Doctor Shocc gave us superpowers to win the war. Worst of all, he gave us power over pain. If you can’t receive pain, you want to inflict it. To see what you’re missing. You become capable of anything.”
One of the super-soldiers in question was Joe Gilmore. After coming back from the war he tries to sort some of his rogue super-soldier comrades out by becoming “The Vet” but when that failed, the city offered him the job of hunting them all down as they get worse and worse and their actions become even more out of control. Joe changes one costume for another, puts on his leathers, wraps barb wire around his arms and steps out as Marshal Law:
“I’m a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven’t found any yet.”
“Lot of people say I hate superheroes… That’s not true. Well, all right…. It’s partly true ….. okay, it’s true”
“I hate what they turned us into. ‘Cos God help me I’m one of Doctor Shocc’s children… Only one who wanted the job of doing it to his own.”
And that, in a few tortured and drawn out lines is the entire motivation of the book. Marshal law hates being a hero, hates doing what he does, but does it because he hates the other heroes more. He especially hates Public Spirit; a shining beacon of super- heroism, purity and strength.(And absolutely nothing like Superman. Oh, no. Not at all.)
(Issue 2 of the Epic series, with our platinum blonde super man Public Spirit as the focus of Law’s hatred. From Marshall Law, art by Kevin O’Neill, c) Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill)
Law’s hatred for Public Spirit is so strong that, when a new freak calling himself the Sleepman turns and starts killing strippers who dress like Public Spirit’s girlfriend, Law puts two and two together and doesn’t care what the answer is. He just knows that Public Spirit must be just as vile and corrupt as the rest of them and decides to go after him for the murders. That all the evidence is circumstantial at best doesn’t deter him from a violent, bloody path through the city to prove his idea, his hatred of this all too perfect hero is enough.
It’s a long and engrossing read from this point, with Law harassing and pursuing Public Spirit, much to the dismay of the authorities. It’s part violent romp, part detective story, big part analysis of all that the world of superheroes was becoming. At every level Pat Mills succeeds and creates something packed with venom, anger, hatred and yet manages to be rather funny whilst doing so. Law battles on, determined to bring the Public Spirit to justice, blind to anything that isn’t supporting his own theories. And as he goes on you can feel him becoming more and more unstable as he realises that his self-hatred governs everything he does and that he’s not really that far away from everything he hates.
(Interview technique in Marshal Law. Probably not the best way to address the world’s most beloved hero in a press conference? From Marshall Law, art by Kevin O’Neill, c) Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill)
Even this many years after the publication I’m not going to give the ending away. Obviously the Sleepman and the Public Spirit aren’t the same, we all knew that from the start, but there are plentiful twists and turns all the way through this book, with the last issue proving a particularly downbeat corker. Marshal Law looked very much like a simple tale of an anti-hero. But Pat Mills’ writing elevated it to far more. It was an impressive study into the nature of heroism and in the end proved to be so much more than just another grim and gritty dark hero comic.
And that’s where this review should stop. Because at the end of Fear And Loathing, the entire story is done. But Marshal Law was successful and further tales were told, just not with the impact and originality of this one. I know that I read some of them or at least skimmed a few, but any desire to read them again has long gone, replaced with a nostalgia and the memory of how good the first series was.
When it all comes down to it, I think I’ll pass on what I know will be an absolutely gorgeous omnibus edition hardcover from the folks at Top Shelf.
Everything I really need to read about Marshal Law is here in this very first book. Sometimes less really is more.