“I’m a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. I haven’t found one yet.” –Marshal Law
[Content Advisory: Marshal Law deals with a lot of ugly subject matter including but not limited to rape and other gendered violence against women; this is discussed in a blunt and nongraphic way within.]
There’s not a lot to say about Marshal Law that the work doesn’t say itself.
Marshal Law, specifically the recent collected edition put out by DC (which sadly omits the Marshal Law/Hellraiser crossover as well as others), is subtle like a brick to the mouth, being less a reaction to the superhero genre and more Pat Mills getting some of his friends together to take on the genre (and its fans) with bottles, chains and heavy boots (these last being provided by veteran artist Kev O’Neill whose expressive, borderline unwholesome pencils perfectly channel the rage/disgust of Mills’ script). Where other stories might try to deconstruct the genre or point out the silliness of its tropes or possibly toss a pedophilia joke at the whole idea of teenaged sidekicks, Marshal Law simply recasts the superhero as an extension of the military-industrial complex and the patriarchal systems which spawned it—with all the attendant disposability, self-righteous cruelty and automythologizing justification that implies. The superhero is cast here explicitly a tool of American imperialism and arrogance, a bunch of nasty, self-obsessed monsters playing out absurd dramas in the wake of cataclysms they create with only the imperfect but ostensibly right-minded fascist Marshal Law on-hand to deliver the justice they so fervently seek to avoid.
Our protagonist, Joe Gilmore (aka Marshal Law), is a former superhero soldier so thoroughly disgusted by the American lionization of the atrocities he and other superpeople committed in a thinly-veiled Vietnam analog that he’s signed up with the police department to murder the everliving fuck out of any of the many superheroes in his city who act out of turn—which they inevitably do; usually in a way displaying the hypocrisy of both the hero in question and the ingrained social system which props them up; a system which the Marshal takes part and sometimes even supports, usually to the detriment of the handful of people he thinks are worth a damn. Given this setup, it’s probably unsurprising for me to report that the series has a cynical bent, though seeming to ease up a little near the end when the Marshal admits that heroes do exist; though they’re rarely the sort of people who get the endorsement deals but, instead, people who do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.
So given all that, I’m left to ask myself if I like the work.
And the answer is a qualified “yes”.
The qualification comes from a lot of places both big and small throughout the work, the things which threw me out of my engagement that were really matters of personal taste and character aesthetics that I don’t quite hold in common with the creators; most specifically the treatment of women throughout. After all, there are precious few named women characters throughout who don’t get raped or murdered in some (usually spectacular) way to show the badness of the bad guys, particularly in contrast to Joe, whose greatest crime against any woman, as far as the narrative is concerned, is primarily of being a liar to his girlfriend, Lynn, by keeping his alter ego a secret; something she rakes him over the coals for when she finds out.
Of course, by that time she’d been raped, murdered and brought back to life by a nihilistic zombie superhero so it’s hard to say if that was her as an active agent saying it or merely her being used as a weapon of psychological warfare by the aforementioned zombie-hero, which took some of the bite out of it for me.
I’d call that a spoiler but it’s pretty plain that Lynn’s going to get refrigerator’d almost the moment she shows up, if only because her outspoken antifascist and pro-feminist activism mean she must die because if her peaceful, humanist ideology and methodology had any chance at succeeding in the violent and exceedingly patriarchal world she inhabits, we wouldn’t need Marshal Law to bring the guilty to his particular brand of stylized, one-liner-infused justice. Marshal Law’s world is a doomed one; damned by its own hubris to have Marshal Law inflicted on it. And, the work seems to argue, we are likewise damned for supporting the system the work intends to parody; for supporting the idea of the superhero, the superpower, the flag or any other “unassailable” symbol you might want to name. Indeed, writer Mills seems eager that we, the readers, should divest ourselves of any hero worship for Joe not only because he’s often spectacularly wrong but also by having Lynn act as the author’s voice in providing a scathing description of Marshal Law and his over-the-top macho-fascist bullshit. All the “heroes” are shit, including ours; just that he’s gonna take out the bigger shits first.
And for all that I can certainly understand the argument that the work came from a different time and is intended to parody the artificial “grit” which had begun to afflict the superhero genre by taking it to an extreme while also straining against limits of what is tasteful or, to use the parlance of the time, “politically correct” (feel free to roll your eyes with me), it’s not as effective at pushing that envelope for me because what was shocking at the time has been repeated ad nauseam until Marshal Law’s comical violence and hypersexualized plasticine superheroines can only be understood as satire by the words spoken by Marshal Law and the transparent malice the narrative holds for the “heroes” and the society which enables them. In recent years, the sex and violence Marshal Law satirizes have become the fodder of even the oldest, stuffiest and most saccharine stalwarts of the superhero genre (e.g. modern issues of Justice League). And as with all satire, Poe’s Law applies: “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing,” and I could easily see a fair few people taking Marshal Law as a story of a good superhero who fights bad superheroes By Any Means Necessary as opposed to the frothing condemnation of the entire genre that is my reading.
That said, the bits that don’t leave me feeling a bit sketchy are incredibly satisfying on a visceral level and show the core of what makes the Mills/O’Neill team work so well; that is to say cartoonishly exaggerated violence against strawman targets of ridicule. To the credit of the pair, they seem largely concerned in this work with making a strawman out of people in power who direct, distort and otherwise defend an untenable status quo, one which allows superpowers to descend upon weaker populations or countries and commit heinous acts for the purpose of ego-stroking or just to prove that they can while covering everything in one of a dozen justifications ranging from patriotism to hard-to-credit claims of self-defense; Mills has used similar storytelling techniques with a variety of artists including O’Neill in Nemesis the Warlock, setting an anarchist wizard against a fascistic, xenophobic theocracy (similarly based on a very certain country of my birth) headed by the reincarnation of Torquemada, Hitler and other evil personages throughout history.
In this light, a more generous reader than I might take the aforementioned gendered violence—which, again, is not against a single person in a single one of the stories the collection contains but present in nearly every issue with a variety of victims—as a condemnation of a society which would create or defend (in one way or another) that kind of violence and for all I absolutely believe that was the intent, I’m not convinced it came off that way in the narrative; the death of a woman is too often used as an early springboard to propel a man to action and while some of Marshal Law’s male comrades fall in battle, they tend to receive a bit more agency, history or characterization than do any of the murdered women.
As you may have guessed, the whole thing is a rather large sticking point for me because it keeps the work from being what it really could be (in my head, anyway); if the male and female superpeople were shown to be the same sorts of threats, if the rueful shake of the head at the horrible things done to women didn’t clash with the spectacle of said horrible things’ presentation, if only I didn’t feel like the gender politics clash hard with the angry anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, anti-status quo message the work was trying to get across, it would be an amazing counterargument against the worst excesses not only of the superhero genre but of the culture which created the genre and the one which has perpetuated the genre since the ‘30s. If only, if only, if only then I could give the thing an unambivalent thumbs-up.
Because the criticism Mills and O’Neill bring up is a worthy one: a child expressing a power fantasy is normal and, to a certain extent, healthy; but when adults—particularly adults in possession of tanks, bombs and nuclear ordinance—do so, we should be wary. Similarly, when adults demand that possession of those armaments allows them the same unaccountable vigilante behaviour we forgive in the subjects of children’s power fantasies and build up massive, complex rationales as to why this should be so, we should not only be wary but derisive, unkind and, as Mills and O’Neill seem to do, frothing at the mouth with rage.
And for all my problems with the work and mixed feelings about the superhero genre, that’s a moral I can’t fault.