In the 80’s a small handful of books changed comics. Marshal Law was one of them. It hasn’t been widely hailed as the seminal work of ground-breaking anti-superhero fiction, or a classic tale of the dangers of unquestioningly pandering to popular opinion, but this is exactly what it is.
Set in an entirely destroyed and debauched San Francisco of the distant future. This is the story of an ex-soldier, genetically altered to be stronger and feel no pain, hired by the government to be their high-profile, sanctioned “hero-hunter”. He operates his own renegade “police station” from a disused BART station, working with a sparse team to detect and hunt down those with superpowers who would break the law.
When Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law came out, it was part of a smattering of books that questioned the previously invulnerable superhero image. Books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are now bywords for the genre, ground-breaking seminal stories which forever changed the way American comic books would be perceived and regarded. But Marshal Law did this too, and in many ways, far better. V for Vendetta (another well-known classic of the same era) similarly described a brutal dystopian future, using the trappings of futuristic comic book heroism to criticize the right wing government and the people who’d voted it in. It was a damning comment on the current values being espoused, and the ultimate outcome of those kind of politics. Marshal Law also did this, in more detail, with more vitriol, and with absolutely no fanfare.
Top Shelf Productions have announced plans to release a 512 page omnibus of Marshal Law and now is the time to order it. This is a book that deserves a place on every shelf… if you can handle it.
Why is it that Marshal Law has never been lauded in the way that it’s peers have been? I believe that the reasons are twofold. First of all, it’s goes further (on many levels), and secondly, the story continued, rather than simply being a one-shot book.
Marshal Law is quite a bit more extreme than the books of a similar ilk and a similar era. It’s just that little bit more acerbic and challenging, (increasingly so, over the run), which can take some of the joy out of it, and force it’s audience to think about the world in a way that might not be too comfortable. After all, when V for Vendetta painted a portrait of London plastered with spy cameras and the population willingly duped by politicians, it was easier for American’s to enjoy it as fiction (even if is all coming to pass now) because it was a story about a foreign country. Similarly, reading about the dysfunctional society of a geriatric Batman in the Dark Knight Returns was that much easier in an overtly fictional future, replete with comically wacky punks and a culture with values ostensibly far outside our own. Even the sad, introspective superheroes of Watchmen have nothing on the deeply dysfunctional mental-patients of Marshal Law. Marshal Law is bitingly funny, brutally vitriolic, and deeply sarcastic. It’s the difference between a bit of a heated discussion with a friend, and deciding to pick up a shotgun and just blow the bastard away… which is one reason why Marshal Law isn’t lauded as one of the greats. It’s just too much for a lot of people.
Using the actual language of contemporary (at the time) social politics to talk about the superheroes and the world they inhabit, not metaphors or synonyms, the actual language that politician were using to describe the horrors of a world gone fatally wrong. Taking the world to it’s most extreme, negative, logical conclusion makes this a thought-provoking work, even in the times when it isn’t too pretty. Politically, sexually, and emotionally it’s a brutal book, no punches are pulled and it works well that way… It demands a level of immersion that many comics happily waive. There is little joy, (apart from the darkly comedic undertones), no classic feel-good payoff for Marshal Law or the reader. There is glee in the achievement of goals, but those goals are violent and more to do with prevention and death than any cultivation, renewal or culmination of happiness. No, the reader must be satisfied with a grim and desperate desire to see those who would perpetrate evil destroyed. There is no other hope, and no more power than this destructive one, and for Marshal Law this is enough.
At the end of the first volume (“Fear and Loathing” reprinting the original issues 1-6 of Marshal Law) a villain of the piece presciently talks of the staying power of the great ones, those who die at the height of their popularity. “He’ll be a legend then… like Lennon… or Monroe.. or Martin Luther King… You know, heroes are really a lot less trouble when they’re dead.” Like the heroes who’s beauty and talent is unmarred by their continued growth, the books most highly regarded are those that had the good grace to piss off and stop asking the difficult questions. Unlike those limited series, after Marshal Law’s iconic first storyline, wherein terrible, wild ideas are presented, mocked, and dispensed, Marshal Law must inevitably continue the fight against wrong. This is right and appropriate, since the story is that of a warrior who will never rest until he has finished his unpalatable work. As in life, there is no happy ending, no neat wrapping up of loose ends. Instead there is only the unending spawn of a broken society producing sick so-called superheroes, and Marshal Law is there to fight them. It is this evolution of the story, this need to keep picking at the scab that makes it difficult for some to pick up and adore. It isn’t simply one cute little story, it’s an entire rethinking of the superhero mythology and popular opinion. There is no end.
Right from the beginning, Marshal Law took a different approach from everyone else, as it says “Out Rambo-ing Rambo.” It was kicking huge amounts of ass before Kick-Ass ever was. It was exploring the idea of death-inducing super-sex before The Boys ever thought to. It was bitter and critical before Transmetropolitan ever thought to dissect the populist futuristic urban nightmare. You name a good comic, rich with impact and bite, and you’ll see the many ways in which Marshal Law was it’s precursor. The benchmark of a great work is not simply the sum of it’s parts, but also the ways in which it affected the genre. The ripples of Marshal Law can be seen in many of the more intense comic book tropes that are so familiar now. What is essential to remember is that, like Watchmen, the Dark Knight Returns, and V for Vendetta, no one was doing this yet. At the time, this was relatively new territory. It was challenging, confrontational, intense comic book writing and it wasn’t even clear if this kind of thing had an audience. The bravery of this kind of comic book creation has to be balanced by a profound desire to tell such a story, otherwise Mills and O’Neill would surely have taken an easier route. We can be bloody grateful that they didn’t, and that we can soon purchase this edition of this epic time-capsule to finally set in it’s proper place in comic book history.
NB: Many thanks to James for thinking to ask the very simple and obvious question: “What would you consider to be the most underrated book in comics?” You can probably pre-order the Marshal Law Omnibus from your local comic store.