My Life is Choked with Comics #3 - Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing

Hello everyone, I'm really excited to be standing here in your computer screen today.

You see, yesterday was my birthday and a lot of exciting things happened. My mother phoned to remind me that I have the same birthday as Harry Potter, as she's done each year since the Harry Potter series began. I got scratch-off lottery tickets in a birthday card and I won fifty dollars, all of which were immediately earmarked for future spending. I spoke to people, and drank liquids, and reflected on the inevitable fading of youthful vigor from my body, one more step taken toward that crucial perched-on-the-dive moment where the implications of life's end must be confronted as intimate certainty.

Ingmar Bergman recently died, you know. He once called Andrei Tarkovsky the most important film director of our time. Tarkovsky once wrote that "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." I thought of this while writing a preview synopsis for World War Hulk #3 for my site, and then I smiled as I thought of knee-slapping lawyer humor to include. Alternative dispute resolution jokes? This’ll slay ‘em! Hulk, you are the reaper's kiss.

So, being older, I think it's only proper that this column take a more sophisticated approach for this week. A topic that will reflect the wisdom that I've attained over my long journey toward this post-birthday internet posting moment. A theme that absolutely screams maturity, always and forever:

Hating superheroes! From within!

Yes, the world of superhero comics has been known to produce the occasional work that takes a dim view of the rest of the genre. Why, I've heard that some such series may be seeing release at this very time! A fine tradition, replete with cutting-edge notions and razor wit. Have you heard that people dressing up in outlandish tights and running around across rooftops at night might perhaps harbor some... deviant sexual tastes? Or that some characters that claim to stand for fine ideals... actually might not? Or, you know, that Batman has sex with Robin... on top of the blueprints for Stephanie Brown's Batcave memorial that shall never be built?!?! Maybe that last one hasn't quite manifested in that form yet, but give my pitch time.

Still, there's no denying that some readers are inclined to detect superhero-hating vibrations coming off of a wider range of comics than is entirely reasonable. Like a high school student cringing at every passing laugh in the classroom, certain that chuckles are at their expense, these readers bubble with a mix of insecurity and self-absorption, certain that their taste in genre material is widely loathed, yet convinced that it is somehow always the topic of attention. What needs to be done, I think, is a quick overview of what a real, true-blue, at-heart superhero-hating superhero funnybook quacks like.

Hence, Marshal Law, brainchild of writer Pat Mills and artist Kevin O'Neill.

I love Marshal Law. Or, at least I love the first Marshal Law storyline, originally published by Marvel's Epic Comics in six issues, from 1987-89, and collected by Titan Books into a trade paperback subtitled Fear and Loathing in 2002. It's also been announced that Top Shelf plans to compile as much Marshal Law material as it can into a single full-color omnibus volume, for sale in about a year. It'll be a good pickup for interested folks, I'm sure, but in my opinion it's only that first Titan trade that you need (and it's what I'm commenting from). That was where Mills was at full power, and where the concept was fresh enough to be thoughtful, and free of the pressures of continuation. The first Marshal Law could have acted as the last, as it is a very complete work in theme.

And that theme is somewhat more complex than you'd think from reading a synopsis, or looking to the stuff the book inspired. Hell, I don't think the early Marshal Law quite gets enough credit as a shaded work. It's not just about hating superheroes - it's about what hating superheroes has to mean while creating works that employ superhero tropes in their telling. In the process, the book not only acts as prosecuting attorney, but places itself under cross-examination.

But first: the hate.

A lot of the classic 'superheroes are dumb' ideas are in here. You will indeed find gross sexual practices, as well as good-looking supermen who are really mean and ugly. But at its core, this story is less interested in the super than the hero. Our super-powered title character, you see, hunts heroes. He hasn't found any yet, but he hunts nonetheless. In the meantime, he tangles with superheroes, who run rampant through the post-quake urban sprawl of San Futuro as killer gangs. Marshal Law is a government-sanctioned, official vigilante. Clad in leather, arms wrapped with barbed wire, the words FEAR AND LOATHING printed boldly across his chest where a nice S or a bat logo ought to be, he cuts a striking figure. He hates superheroes very, very much, although he knows that he and they are very much alike. Hell, he even has a boy sidekick of sorts, a crippled young man who's good with computers and has a mother who hates superheroes as much as the Marshal.

Plus, both Law and lawbreakers got their powers the same way - signing up as young people for an ill-fated war in the jungle, one where all the soldiers were made mighty, in the tradition of the oldest, greatest superheroes, also the products of government experiments. Like the Public Spirit, who was muscular, platinum-haired, deeply religious, proudly patriotic, media-manufactured, and conveniently away on a space mission while boys went away to die for the apple pie ideals he represented, and the survivors returned to a nation with nothing much for them to do. Law, at least, built up his hate, and you can guess that he hates the Public Spirit most of all.

As such, Mills (he of the famed Charley's War) positions superheroes as soldiers - former soldiers, acclaimed soldiers, part-time soldiers, but always men and women of war. This is the key genre concept of Marshal Law, and one it shares in certain ways with major superhero works that preceded it. In his introduction to the Titan volume, Mills praises Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as masterpieces, and both of those earlier works contain themes of superheroes as government tools, and notions of the superhero as soldier.

Batman used it for rhetorical flourish, and a means of imposing his individual worldview on his surroundings. Watchmen, characteristically, employed the notion as yet another means of throwing the fantastic nature of its cast into sharp relief against the machinations of realism. But in Marshal Law, ‘soldier’ is neither another costume for a superhero to wear, nor another cruel, vaudevillian role for mighty talents to fill. For Mills, the soldier is the superhero, in that the ‘superhero’ is an ideal made flesh that’s sold to transform young people, to get them into foreign lands. They are both the bright fighters on the page, as well as the eager readers of their own prescribed myth. Hey, why not? Nothing could go wrong with this science, this spirit! This country! Hard work and guts!

It is so simple it hurts. They are superheroes because they are the beneficiaries of a superpower, in both the fantastic and geopolitical sense.

So, Marshal Law hunts down his own fellow veterans, unhappy with the false things their 'heroism' stands for, the violence and useless wars and popping Hitler in the kisser and all that. His eye is really on the Public Spirit, and he gets his big shot when a mystery superperson known as the Sleepman starts going around raping and killing women who dress like the Public Spirit's current lover, Celeste, a deep-cover mind-control super-siren. Marshal Law thinks the Public Spirit murdered an old lover, Virago, who was also a siren. Now he thinks he's murdering again.

Easy, right? Rebel avenger faces down false god, saves the day, slaps around America's lies, laughs at dumb capes, etc. Right?

It could have been that simple, but Mills is far too keenly aware of the ironies behind a superhero hating other superheroes, icons of hitting tackling icons of hitting through socks to the kisser. I'm going to get into spoiler territory now, but the story's 20 years old so I think the statute of limitations has run.

More than anything else, the story of Marshal Law is a collection of narrations, and not just by the 'good' characters. Most sequences are dotted with caption-based thoughts by someone, and in this way we learn that, say, the Sleepman also hates superheroes just as much as Marshal Law. Actually, he's kind of fond of the leather-clad nut. We hear of Celeste's mercenary view of the superhero life. Crucially, we get the perspective of Law's boss, a cynical man who sees both Law and the Public Spirit as the same, both providing succor to the masses. One a catchy batch of popular down-home appeal, the other a pleasingly grim 'n gritty avenger who cleans things up good. Hell, one could probably replace the other, if the fashions change. Both are good cogs in the wheel of policy. Mills clearly knows this.

As the story goes on, it becomes uncomfortable in its own skin. Law's hatred of the Public Spirit causes him to nearly miss the truth behind the mystery: that the Sleepman is actually his own boy assistant, who is also the Public Spirit's secret son, and his superhero-hating mother is actually the thought-dead ex-lover of the Public Spirit, the mind-control siren Virago. Both hate superheroes for different reasons - the Sleepman due to the self-loathing of a stunted adolscent, Virago because of personal betrayal. It's not hard to read these characterizations today as critiques of different modes of genre hate, that powered by personal discomfort and that powered by personal disappointment, respectively. There's sympathy for both, yet both are ultimately ruled ineffective before the Marshal's deeper, comprehensive hate.

But even he's not let off. The story's sixth and final chapter all but collapses into a fit of anxiety, as the Marshal and the Public Spirit fight to the finish, and the Marshal's dead girlfriend (oh, she got raped and killed by the Sleepman, by the way) critiques the concept of the superhero, and the makeup of both characters, from a feminist perspective. The Sleepman declares Marshal Law to be his mother. The title character is revealed to have maybe created half of his problems by playing the opposite of his fallen idol, standing as the architect of a false revolution, the newest form of exactly the fake ideals he hates. He's Watchmen as the superhero genre, rather than Watchmen as the end of the superhero genre. He fails to bring the Public Spirit to justice his way, he fails to kill the Sleepman, and he's left weeping in a graveyard at the end. This is good, however, as his tears show that maybe he's on his way to finding a more effective means of revolt.

The message is plain: heroism will not be found in superheroes, but it also can't be manufactured by playing into the same games in a 'cooler' way. Mills suggests that one has to reject the masculine, violent accoutrements of the genre as a whole to avoid merely reinforcing it. The heroism that Marshal Law craves probably can't be found through any idealistic clashes, and that's what really sets the story apart from similar critiques - there's no yearning for a lost innocence, or a desire to purify the superhero genre. The book spends half its length smashing what is, then spends the next half exploring the futility of reform. That's what I mean by comprehensive hate. We can't expect better. We have to leave it all beyond recognition. Maybe we just have to leave it.

It didn't happen that way for Marshal Law. The book was popular, and new stories were made. Marshal Law kept on fighting, more-or-less acting as the new badass-type status quo superhero that his first storyline warned that he might become. Parodies of famed Marvel and DC characters were wheeled out for beatings, noisy slapstick became the norm, team-ups with established characters were had, and the series settled in to being another superhero book, 'hate' flavored.

Kevin O'Neill's art always looked good, at least. I've hardly mentioned him at all, huh? Rest assured that he's very good on all of these stories, but especially in those moments in the first storyline where he gets to play up the iconographic elements of comics art, a hugging mother's arms forming a heart, or a young boy's head being plastered on a burly superhuman body. Like that first story as a whole, its strength is not in subtlety, or subtext, or gentle caresses against your cheek. I like when a comic caresses me, sure, but don’t go expecting it here. It's roughness leads it into added trouble - the story's treatment of its female characters perches unsteadily between criticism of the genre's sexualized treatment of women and exploitive shock tactics like the hero's chick getting raped and killed to drive him onward with burning spirit. Always conflicted.

I guess I should also say I don't really agree with Mills' conclusions about the genre, not totally. But I respect the story as a funny, intensive work, a smartly-made thing that articulates its points well and is willing to follow them all the way. Far enough that the concluding impression one has of the story is that of a genuine existential howl. A perfect birthday gift.