On Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition, by Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill

There’s no better advert for the costumed crimefighter comic than Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law. Acclaimed for its superhero-loathing vitriol, it’s also the proof of how malleable and vital the genre can be. In what’s still a hilariously contemptuous and absolutely relevant parody, Mills and O’Neill gleefully savaged the superbook’s long-ossified pretensions and prejudices. But as with so much of the very best satire, Marshal Law simultaneously rejuvenates the very thing it skewers. In that, it reflects something of the exhilaratingly contradictory relationship between Punk and product. Just like the Stooges, the Ramones and the Pistols, Marshal Law eviscerates the opposition with a glorious mix of ecstatic cartoon energy, brutally righteous sloganeering and a knowing disdain for compromise. Yet in doing so, Mills and O’Neill revealed over and over again how absurdly exciting and provocative the form can still be. Can the superhero comic really be as mined-out and moribund as some claim, when it’s capable of both inspiring and informing such an intense, astute and, ultimately, joyful experience?

And Marshal Law is every inch the superhero. His is an existence defined and cursed by secret bases, ludicrous costumes, customised hyper-tech, doomed personal relationships, a super-power that’s more blight than blessing, a gallery of supervillains, a gaggle of sidekicks, and a perpetually-threatened world to protect. Though essentially an extravagant and vicious pastiche of an uber-violent, macho-miserabilist psycho-hero, he’s as much a fascinating protagonist as a bileful critique. With the depravity that’s constantly hurled against him, and with the real-world corruptions that his enemies were made to represent, he functions as a expression of the very kneejerk wish-fulfilment that Mills has always so understandably despised. The Marshal is undoubtedly a bastard, but he is, in Roosevelt’s words, our bastard. How can he not be identified with? How can he not embody the reader’s shameful longing for the bully who’ll brutalise for our side rather than theirs?

Just a detail of O'Neill's wonderfully detailed depiction of US troops shooting glory-boating Golden Age superheroes.

What still sets Marshal Law apart isn’t the fact that it satirised the superbook. There have, after all, been a great many other superhero satires, and a few of them, such as Kurtzman and Wood’s Superduperman, have been every bit as sharp and cutting. Nor is it the presence of a critical mass of purposefully outrageous enmity, vulgarity and violence that explains the comic’s reputation. The form’s no stranger to those qualities either, although few have ever come close to Mills and O’Neill’s brilliance as scornful and inspired assassins. Instead, it’s their determined and protracted campaign against political and artistic conservatism which marks Marshal Law out. Even taking into consideration Frank Miller’s despicably Islamophobic Holy Terror, no other American-published superbook can match Marshal Law’s passionate, focused advocacy of challenging principles and innovative storytelling. For all that its set-ups and pay-offs are still coruscatingly effective,Marshal Law’s uniqueness lies in the combination of aesthetic and ethical ends that its black comedy so successfully serves.

Over and over and over again, Mills and O’Neill hammered away at the complacency and fatuousness of the typical super-book, while concurrently lashing out at the hypocrisy and callousness of American capitalism and imperialism. If it wasn’t so uproariously done, then Marshal Law would’ve been nothing but agit-prop hectoring. Of course, it’s anything but. By contrast, the superhero comics of today rarely show anything but trace elements of the same passion, invention and insight. It’s rare enough to see the genre’s conventions even mildly mocked with any sense of conviction. Far rarer still are the books which resolutely challenge it’s tendency towards – knowingly or not – reactionary politicking. With the exception of the work of a few laudable creators in the so-called mainstream, apathy and timidity and rightism and forelock-tugging has followed in the wake of Iran, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and 2007′s economic meltdown. If  the values expressed in Marshal Lawwere radical in the context of the late Eighties, then they’re an incendiary and insurgent business today. Few have dared – or perhaps been allowed to dare – to show even a fraction of the comic’s belligerent and explicit condemnation of elite power and creative complacency.

Nothing highlights the bankrupt banality of the archetypal superbook more than O’Neill’s joyously  idiosyncratic art. His brilliantly singular work implicitly rebukes every artist who settles for the superhero comic’s most narrow and inbred influences. Exuberant and yet perfectly focused; complex and challenging and yet entirely transparent; artistically brilliant and yet never devitalisingly slick or predictable; O’Neill’s incandescent synthesis of so many eclectic enthusiasms surely ought to have been as inspiring as it’s gloriously heretical. For though there’s an undoubted regard for Kirby and Ditko on display in his pages, there’s also the same for prime-era Mad and Popeye, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, Loony Tunes and Monty Python, religious iconography and sexual fetishism, psychedelia and graffiti, and so on and on. Yet the influence of his ebullient storytelling, and the open-mindedness and ambition it represents, is depressingly limited in the work of 2013′s seventh-generation Jim Lee-clones. Plus ca change, etc etc.

That there’s been some incontrovertibly wonderful superhero comics published over the past 25 years is beyond questioning. (*1) That they’ve made for a tiny percentage of the industry’s overall output is regrettably also true. To re-read Marshal Law in 2013 is to realise once again how little has changed over the past quarter-of-a-century. Inspiring and engaged superbooks are still being published, but they remain woefully outnumbered by pap-saturated, know-nothing product. As such, Mills and O’Neill’s furious lambasting of the genre’s predominant lack of artistic ambition and political principle is every bit as relevant as it ever was. Yet Marshal Law was far less a stake through the superbook’s heart and far more the wrenching out of the same. What couldn’t the genre achieve with just a fraction more of the technical brilliance, creative vigour and ethical commitment that’s to be found in Marshal Law?

*1:- And I hope the content of this blog has made it obvious that I’m convinced of that. To note that there’s a considerable number of fine storytellers at work in today’s superbook isn’t to contradict the statement that the genre is all too often creatively stagnant and politically disquieting.
Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition is currently available from DC Comics. If you’ve not got it, then get it.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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