Saturday, 13 December 2014

Marshal Law: Fear And Loathing (#1-6)

"I'm a hero hunter.  I hunt heroes.  Haven't found any yet" - Marshal Law

A slight cheat here, although the creative team on this book is British, the comic was actually published by Marvel's Epic imprint, an attempt to do a more mature and creator's rights friendly publishing arm.  But while it's American in that way and indeed set in the USA and about the very US concept of the superhero, the way it approaches that concept is very British. Something I've touched on a few times when dealing with superheroes as written by British writers is how suspicious those writers tend to be of the superheroic archetype. The most famous example of course is Alan Moore deconstructing it in works such as Miracleman and Watchmen.  But he was comparatively gentle compared to fellow countrymen like Garth Ennis who has no time for any superhero apart from Superman. Or Warren Ellis versus The Fantastic Four. Or here with the first 1989 miniseries Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing, the 2000AD writer and editor Pat Mill's along with artist Kevin O'Neil at his most "ugly" aiming a double-barrelled shotgun at the superhero concept and letting fly with their story of manufactured "superheroes" who are pawns of the military-industrial complex, in a dystopic San Francisco of the near future, being hunted and controlled by the hate-motivated, S&M leather clad Marshal Law himself.

Once again I turn to Grant Morrison, the only UK writer it seems to unequivocably love superheroes to sum up Marshal Law in his book Supergods:

Grant Morrison: "[Pat Mills] saw superheroes as emblematic of regressive, reactionary forces and disastrous foreign policy. They were America's self-delusion, a fantasy of US omnipotence that Mills depised and set about eviscerating with the glee of a revolutionary on the purge... This was hardcore lefty comics, taking the superhero back to his socialist roots with a shot of sleazy, antisocial satire".
The man himself.
Confession time.  I was fifteen when Marshal Law: Fear And Loathing was collected in the trade paperback I still own.  I was (and still am) a hardcore lefty myself and loved Marshal Law so much I painted him on a T-shirt I also still own when none seemed forthcoming officially.  Yet while I see Marshal Law as the extreme end-point for superhero satire and one that ran out of steam when mere hate couldn't sustain it past a few more miniseries and one-shots, I find I can still love both it and it's complete ideological (Morrison-penned) opposite, All Star Superman. 

One thing that is most noticable is the sheer amount of content in these six issues, there is tonnes of detail including excerpts from a thesis examining the psycho-sexual image and influence of superheroes in the Marshal Law world written by Marshal's civilian identity's girlfriend (she is unaware of his violent alter ego and has amusingly determined that Marshal Law must be gay), as well as pertinent quotes from real world publications kicking off each issue. 
Marshal Law, Public Spirit, Celeste and Sleepman
The background to the story is that artificially created superheroes like the Superman analogue "Public Spirit" inspired many young men to join the army in exchange for superpowers, they then found themselves taking part in a Vietnam-like mess of a war in South America resulting in hundreds of traumatised superhuman war vets coming back home to the rubble of earthquake devastated "San Futuro".  This betrayal as he sees it, by  the glamorous superstar heroes is what fuels Marshal Law's hatred of them in his new career as a policeman and as he begins an investigation into the anonymous superbeing called "Sleepman" who has been raping and killing women dressed as the Public Spirit's girlfriend, the "Siren" named Celeste.
Sleepman's twisted credo.
The story begins with Marshal flashing back to when he was a kid and felt the magic of superheroes.  The JLA - Jesus League of America led by the public Spirit inspired him to join the army in exchange for superstrength and resilience and found himself in a world of hell called "The Zone".  While this was going on, Public Spirit went on a mission to the stars, which due to relativity took two years for him and twenty-five years passed on Earth.  Now his return has coincided with the Sleepman's attacks on prostitutes and strippergrams dressed as Celeste and he is Marshal Law's number one suspect.

The action then cuts to a Celeste strippergram desperately trying to outrun the Sleepman.  He catches her and throws her off the top of a building say she "must fly". She lands near a "hero" called Sorry, The Nearly Man, whose only power is that he has a tail.  A criminal gang led by a hero called Gangreen find him with the body and decide to mete out some justice, but before they can kill Sorry, Marshal Law arrives and saves him.  He fends off Gangreen who promises to beat him next time.
Marshal beats down Gangreen
Marshal picks up some groceries before returning to his secret base.  We meet Father O'Brian and Mrs. Mallon who runs the shop.  Then in the underground base we meet the wheelchair bound Danny, who is Mrs. Mallon's son who is his computer whiz.  Marshal is told that his request for the Public Spirits DNA has been rejected.  Then an alert sounds that Gangreen's forces are attacking.  Marshal Law decides against wiping them out and just blocks off the tunnel.  He says killing them would just inititate a huge gang war and anyway:

Marshal Law: "They're just the symptoms... I'm after the disease!"

The narrative jumps forward a little, and Marshal finishes his shift and changes into his civilian identity of Joe Gilmore and returns home to his flat where his fiesty, feminist girlfriend Lynn is waiting.   When she sees Celeste on TV she has the following disgusted reaction:

Lynn: "God, look at that sexist cow. The unbelievably long legs... the enormous bosom... the mass of hair... and the exceptionally small head. Do you realise her head is smaller than her breasts?"
Lynn and "Joe".
She says she and some college friends are going to the Superdome the next day, dressed up as heroes to mock them.  We then cut to the following day at the Superdome which is like a superhero theme park.  The Public Spirit is giving an appearance, so Marshal, Danny and Mrs. Mallon are all attending.  Mrs. Mallon is highly critical of Celeste, while Danny says she is beautiful.  We are then told that Danny hacked the SHOCC computer and discovered that Public Spirit had a previous Siren girlfriend called Virago before he left on his star mission.  She died mysteriously out to see one day when she and the Public Spirit were out training though her body was never found.

The Public Spirit gives a speech, then Marshal asks him if there is anything he is not capable of.  Public Spirit gives a trite answer to the affirmative so Marshal starts listing superpowers Public Spirit doesn't have and begins to fluster him before holding up a small card asking if he goes around with a bag over his head raping women.  With Public Spirit on the ropes he then goes on to accuse him of killing Virago because the possibility she was carrying his child would have disqualified him from the star mission.
It's a valid question...
This cause something of a commotion, meanwhile Lynn dressed as Celeste is in serious trouble.  The Sleepman appears and grabs her.  She pleads with him to at least take his mask off, which he does, revealing a horrifically lumpy face.  Then he graphically rapes and kills her realising that Marshal law will kill him for this and it would be what he deserves.

When Marshal realises the latest Sleepman victim was Lynn he his completely gutted, holding her boody close to him in grief.  Then the Sleepman releases the supercriminals held in a stockade nearby and as they invade the Superdome Marshal engages in some cathartic hero killing.

In the chaos Marshal fights his way to the Sleepman.  It goes to show how nihilist this comic is that when the villains throw children exhorting them to fly, unlike say, Miracleman, no one is there to catch them. The Sleepman and Marshal fight though Marshal is no match for him.  The Sleepman grotesquely cradles Marshal's head thinking "I love you", then flies off.
Sleepman's "real" face.
Back in his civilian identity, Marshal mourns Lynn.   How she helped open his eyes to what he did in the military.  He thinks about meeting her parents to tell them the bad news and how they really didn't get their daughter. He looks at a photo of her.

Marshal: "The photo didn't do her justice.  It didn't show the food stains on her blouse or the dandruff on her shirt.  Or that she'd opened up my world."

Back at his base, Marshal is told that the Sleepman and the Public Spirit share the same blood group.  Marhsal wonders if the motivations for the killings is jealousy. He meets with his boss who describes himself as a super-liar.  He tells Marshal the Public Spirit is to be left alone at least until after his wedding to Celeste.

Commissioner McGland: "I explain about the scandal and I appeal to his patriotism.  He looks uneasy.  He's always had that weakness...he still believes in the dream. That's why he hates the Public Spirit. He thinks he betrayed the dream."

He then tells Marshal that the Public Spirit is donating a million dollars to the home for down and out heroes.  Marshal has to give a speeach and it nearly kills him, especially afterwards when he and the Public Spirit deal with Gangreene's men outside and the Public Spirit slaps his back describing it as a "team up".  Marshal just thinks that the Public Spirit is safe until the cheque clears and after his wedding Marshal will be coming for him.
Bad Ass.
The next chapter starts with the Public Spirit sat on a toilet, shooting up anabolic steroids.  Celeste ponders this as she doesn't want to use them herself.  She works out with She-Beast who is hugely muscled and sees nothing wrong with artificially enhancing their powers.  Then Celeste sings her Siren Song to the Public Spirit and they engage in a bit of flying sex.

The action then cuts to Marshal Law and his neverending war on the superhero gangs.  Mrs. Mallon's grocery store gets trashed in a battle.  Meanwhile Danny has found evidence that the Public Spirit uses steroids, which Marshal Law says his increased sex drive would be another pointer to his guilt.  Marshal then questions Father O'Brian to clear up something that's been niggling him.  He wants to know why O'Brian wouldn't marry the Public Spirit and Celeste.  O'Brian admits that the Public Spirit told him that he drowned Virago all those years ago because she was pregnant but he suspects she survived and gave birth to a son.


We then return to Celeste getting ready for the wedding, just after she dons her bridal gown, the Sleepman comes crashing through her window. Marshal arrives on the scene to find her dead, violated body.

Marshal Law: "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Should have realised it was you all along. Only I wanted it to be him so bad."

He then goes down to where the Public Spirit is waiting with the rest of the guests.  he wants to shoot him dead, but controls himself and grabs one of the servants instead.  He pulls of her wig to reveal Mrs. Mallon, who in turn reveals herself to be Virago.
Virago revealed.
The next chapter is entirely narrated by Danny, now revealed as the Sleepman. He flashes back to his childhood and how whenever he flew his mother would beat him and call him a "dirty boy".  He's waiting by the seashore saying he saw him at the wedding where he was hoping to see him kill the Public Spirit.  Public Spirit and Virago flew off and are arguning close by to Danny.  When Marshal Law got into his helicopter to begin looking for them Danny appeared to lead him to them.

Back with his childhood, everytime he expressed an interest in heroes, his mother spanked him calling heroes "filth" and "bacteria".  When he was bullied at school he used his powers for the first time to kill his tormentor.  After this, with Danny now a teen, Virago tells him the truth of who his father is.  She says that when he grows up he'll get his revenge for her, he says he'll make them all "suffer".
Uh oh.
After some background into the creation of Virago and the Public Spirit, we are told about how South America started experimenting with superheroes before turning to Marxism to solve their problems.  So of course the US invaded and thousands of young men were given superpowers to fight in The Zone.

Danny: "The war dragged on for years with no definite direction. It seemed to me that Doctor SHOCC  had made an excellent job of ruining countless young lives... as my parents had ruined mine."

When Marshal Law returned to wage his war on the criminal superheroes of San Futuro, Danny's hacking skills got him accepted into the police force and assigned to Marshal.  Virago commands him to kill Celeste but he couldn't face her at first and started killing surrogates. He and his mother tried to manipulate Marshal Law into killing the Public Spirit and nearly succeded.  Now he waits for Marshal Law as his parents argue about him.
Worst. Parents. Ever.
Virago commands Danny to kill Public Spirit, but Danny holds back as a raging Public Spirit finally kills Virago for good.  Then Marshal Law arrives.  Danny expected there would be quite a showdown between them, and removes his lumpy mask.  But Marshal Law merely says "bacteria" and shoots Danny in the heart.  Danny falls into the water and sinks to the bottom thinking:

Danny: " I'm out of the way you can go after father.  Now he's finally killed mother he can't escape justice. And I can sleep forever."
Danny "dies".
The final chapter begins with Marshal hunting the Public Spirit, he finds a lookalike sent to confuse him and menaces him into telling him where the Public Spirit is fleeing to. The police try to arrest the Public Spirit at the airport but he bulks up and punches right through them.  He then goes on the rampage, while Marshal Law arrives to take him down.  Marshal flashes back to something Lynne told him. About the symbolism of the Public Spirit.

Lynne: "The archetypal sun hero who proves his manhood by destroying things with phallic beams."

Marshal says this proved to him that the worlds greatest superhero was a "dickhead".  He and the Public Spirit fight as Marshal reflects on how he used to idolise him as a kid.  The Public Spirit knocks Marshal down then accuses him of being a negative influence on Danny, how if it hadn't been for his hatred of him, Danny might have been able to resist Virago. The action during this has been cutting back to Danny in a hospital bed, the psychiatrist has presented him with two artificial mothers to choose between.  Danny mumbles "ma.. ma.. Marshal Law."
Kind of a one-sided battle really.
Back with Marshal and Public Spirit, Public Spirit attacks Marshal Law calling him a "faggot" and a "leather clad tinkerbell".  Before he can kill Marshall, he gets a faceful of fear gas which makes him confront his biggest fear, that of failing.  Which he had.  He slumps back down to normal size and Marshal Law beats him up.

Public Spirit: "They expected too much of me."

Marshal Law: "They wanted you to be a superman."

Public Spirit: "It's impossible! No one can be superman! No one!"

Then suddenly his brains are blown out by a police sniper.  Marshal Law's boss says that they'll be covering all this up and arrange for it to be known that Public Spirit went out in a plane crash, much to Marshal's disgust.  The story ends with a mourning Marshal Law visting Lynnes grave.
Marshal at Lynn's graveside.
Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing is still a remarkable book.  It hasn't dated in the slightest.  The main unfortunate aspect of it is that it preceeded a whole host of grim and gritty psychopathic heroes created during the nineties that kept all the violence but had none of the smarts Pat Mills wrote into it.  Even later Marshal Law series fell into that trap, but this first series is fantastic.  It's probably my favourite example of Kevin O'Neil's artwork as well, his distortions of the human body and physical exaggerations are still grounded in a full understanding of anatomy and perspective. Marshal Law is a compelling character, a man of two parts driven by hatred and later sorrow to war on his own kind, yet could still pass for "normal" when living with his girlfriend.  The Public Spirit is an incarnation of how no one could live up to the expectations placed upon them as the worlds greatest hero and how Superman feels unreal by comparison.  It's a deeply cynical view, and not one I share, but it's typical of Pat Mill's fierce dislike of the superhero concept.  This edition is long out of print, but luckily all Marshal's adventures have been collected in a swish hardback and it's definitely worth checking out if you enjoy a more complex look at superheroes and the kind of world that would create them.


  1. marshall law is the coolest looking superhero there's ever been! bet he looked awesome on a t-shirt :)

  2. I was pretty proud of my T-shirt, must dig it out sometime.

  3. I was thinking of borrowing this from you, but I changed my mind as I read the review. I mean, crumbs, it isn't half bleak! I like Pat Mills' stuff but I think that he sees too many things as sexual. Like, everything longer than it's wide is a phallic symbol, and anything hollow is a womb or vagina or whatever... I don't think that that many things are sexual. Apart from boobs and penises, obviously.

    Virago is an obvious spoof of Wonder Woman. I don't like it when Lynn criticises Celeste for the way she looks. It just comes across as mean-spirited sniping envy. Why can't some women have long legs and big boobs? Why can't women look like whatever they want to look like? Lynn's really just the same as some Saudi Arabian puritan telling Celeste to put on a burka.

    Good looks are like money. If somebody else has them and I don't, I say "Good luck to 'em, and I hope they enjoy them."

    Oh, I dunno... just found all this vaguely irritating. Would be nice to read more Pat Mills stories where the woman triumphs in the end (e.g. Nemesis the Warlock) instead of being brutally raped and murdered so that her partner can muse on how desperately sad it all is (Sláine; Marshall Law).

    I think Pat Mills honestly wants to be a feminist, but he writes too many stories in which (a) the women are dominating cows who treat mean like scum (e.g. Finn) or (b) they get raped and murdered. It's just, at the moment I'm reading The Ballad of Halo Jones, and that's a PROPER feminist book. It's human and funny too. Pointing out that women have dandruff and food stains on their clothes (and on both of those counts I am guilty as charged, m'lud) isn't enough.

    Great artwork by O'Neill, though. Nice to see him in colour.

  4. Heh, I dunno Lucy having been reading quite a few Image 90's era comics and their unfortunate depictions of women, I almost sympathise with what Lynn says about weirdly proportioned women, I pretty much say the same thing when I lay eyes on yet another example of boobular 90's comic woman! But you have to remember Lynne is only 19, who didn't have extreme opinions at that age? I cringe a bit when I remember what a pain in the arse I could be politically back then, things like that mellow with age for sure.

    You are quite right about the "Fridging" of Lynn to motivate the male partner feeling problematic in retrospect. I will say in it's defence, it's presented more as a random act of cruelty rather than a means to an end to get at him and she is all over the final chapter in the form of her thesis on politics, superheroes and Public Spirit and Marshal Law.

    But you're right, The Ballad Of Halo Jones is one of the most feminist comicbooks there has ever been. It almost feels ahead of it's time now, so imagine what it was like then! I was a bit too young for Halo Jones when it first came out but quickly caught up with it via the monthly Best Of 2000AD which motivated me to check out more of this dude Alan Moore.

    I'm glad we can agree on the artwork. I liked O'Neil well enough in the Nemesis reprints, but colour really does make his art pop. Seeing superheroes made to look as appalling as he renders them here was quite an eye opener at the time.

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