“DC Comics confirm Marshal Law omnibus for firm publication date of Spring 2013. It will feature all the Law stories apart from the crossovers. These might be included in a later omnibus edition. Sorry about delays, but this does sound as though it’s finally set in stone.”
Hurrah! Let Joy and Jubilation reign! Finally…! Criminally-underrated, Marshal Law – penned by Mills and blessed with a visual tour-de-force by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill – remains one my all-time favourite comic books, a wonderfully funny and scabrous swipe at Superheroes that, twenty-five years on, has lost absolutely none of its merciless satirical edge.
Given that so many classic comics series are bestowed deluxe hardcover collected editions these days, Law’s deserved passage to the same has been frustratingly glacial, thanks to a lengthy stint in limbo at Top Shelf Comix where the promise of a two-volume, slipcased collection of all the Law stories kept slipping back over a period of years, for reasons never explained. However, despite the rather amusing irony that Law has ended up at DC, home of the superhero archetypes that Mills and O’Neill so savagely mocked, the bottom line is that a truly great series that is ripe for discovery will once again be available. It’s a shame that this initial omnibus won’t feature the crossovers, but one mustn’t complain – at least it’s actually bloody happening.
To mark the happy news, here’s a feature on Marshal Law that I wrote for Judge Dredd The Megazine back in early 2009, entitled “FEAR AND LOATHING IN SAN FUTURO!” in which I spoke to Pat and Kevin about their infamous creation.
In 1987, as superhero comics embraced a “Grim and Gritty” period typified by ultra-seriousness and not-a-little pomposity, writer Pat Mills and artist Kevin O’Neill – both 2000AD legends – provided a savage satirical riposte with Marshal Law, a blackly-hilarious and shockingly-blunt series that took Comics’ most beloved genre to task. A shamefully-underrated Comics gem remembered very fondly by its fans and ripe for rediscovery, Mills and O’Neill spoke to DANNY GRAYDON about the sheer pleasure of taking caped Gods and “blowing the bastards away…!”
When it comes to superheroes, Pat Mills is pretty damned unequivocal: “I fucking hate the bastards…!” he declares, somewhat gleefully, down the phone. A little extreme? Perhaps, yet this is no knee-jerk snobbishness on the part the veteran comics scribe: “When I say I hate them, let me quickly add to that: I hate the value systems that they seem to stand for. If you had superheroes who were actually doing something heroic for a change, who were dealing with real-life issues, as opposed to tokenism. If you had stories which were actually interesting – as in Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and a minority of others.”
Given that Mills illustrious 40-year career in Comics has been anchored on vivid and varied explorations of the term “hero” and its complexities, generating no shortage of classic characters, his innate dislike of the comparatively-lightweight ideologies and straightforward action that defines the superhero genre is understandable. However, in the mid-80’s, Mills intense dislike of anything involving a cape and tights magnificently fuelled one of his most potent characters: the futuristic super-hero hunter Marshal Law. Created with his long-time 2000AD collaborator Kevin O’Neill, Marshal Law gained instant notoriety for its scathing and ruthless dissection of the superhero genre. Possessing a rare combination of outright hilarity and righteous indignation, Marshal Law is a modern classic.
First appearing in 1987 and then sporadically over the following eleven years via a handful of publishers, Marshal Law was a popular success – providing Mills with his most significant foray in to the American market – but the character never attained the recognition it deserved. Indeed, it’s criminally-underrated. “It’s funny,” observes O’Neill, “There was a book called The Dark Age about the 80’s superheroes, ‘Grim and Gritty’ period of Punisher and the like, and they managed to cover the whole decade but they didn’t mention Marshal Law at all! It surprises me, because the book was popular but now it almost seems to be forgotten.” Perhaps, but the character undoubtedly has a fervent cult following amongst comics fans, with such high-profile followers as acclaimed Scots comics scribe Mark Millar (Wanted, Civil War), who fulsomely proclaimed “I love Watchmen. I love Dark Knight Returns and I worship Will Eisner, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but Marshal Law is still my favourite comic book of all time.”
According to O’Neill, the character’s gestation period came at a time when they were struggling to crack the US market: “Pat and I had done a book called Metalzoic for DC Comics which, unfortunately, came out the same time as The Dark Knight Returns and so wasn’t very successful. While we were doing that I scribbled down some ideas, made the play-on-words “Marshal Law” and drew the rough image of him. I posted to Pat and said maybe we could do something with this. Originally, it was going to be a Mad Max kind of strip, with lots of weird cars and strange mutants and stuff like that.”
“We knew that Marvel Epic wanted a story from us and Kevin came up with this incredible design for a character.” Mills recalls, adding that, at that point, superheroes weren’t even a consideration. “I came up with a classic crime thriller plot, involving an illegitimate son who comes after the father. The original intention was to show the plot from six different angles and to have a central character who was corrupt.” However, rather inevitably when Marvel Comics is in the equation, superheroes became a consideration. “Both those elements were diminished when the superhero element took centre stage. I kept looking at the guy and thinking there’s a kind of superhero thing here and Marvel is the home of superheroes so I really should do them. But how the hell can I do them? I loathe them! I’m not really qualified to write about superheroes, but I’m sure as hell qualified – in fact, uniquely qualified – to write a superhero-hunter.”
This Eureka moment gave the character, as Mills saw it, “an energy that is very much unique to him.” It certainly inspired O’Neill, who created potent new elements to surround the character, notably that the character work in a dystopian, earthquake-devastated future version of San Francisco – dubbed San Futuro – which would be populated with superheroes, who had returned from a Vietnam-style conflict as disenfranchised, disillusioned veterans, albeit dangerously powerful ones. “Kevin and I are extremely influenced by the surreal and cutting-edge fantasy of Metal Hurlant Magazine, which was coming out with the most astonishing, surreal fantasy and we were trying to adopt that style.”
In O’Neill’s hands, San Futuro became a vividly baroque mix of dystopian city and surrealist nightmare. “We wanted it to be a recognisable ruin of San Francisco but also to be incredibly operatic.” says O’Neill. “There is some wonderful Surrealism that Kevin gets in but he draws it with a “straight bat”, adds Mills, referring to the gloriously-OTT environment of the San Futuro Police Department, replete with giant Magnum .44 elevated walkways and a Commissioner’s office where the desk is surrounded by a small shark-infested moat, a location, according to O’Neill “became more ludicrous each time we went there in an effort to show just how duplicitous (Law’s Police handler, McGland) was.”
Crucially, the leather and barbed-wire sporting Marshal Law (O’Neill: “The Gestapo look always works!”) would be powered by the contradiction that he himself is a super-powered war veteran, who retains his ideals and chooses to become a licensed vigilante charged with policing his own kind with terminal prejudice. “He’s the only one who wanted the job of doing it to his own.” says Mills, “He feels he has to do something about this plague of so-called superheroes who are swamping his city and behaving reprehensibly. Of course, inevitably, his attention strays to the upper-echelon superheroes and, let’s face it, superheroes would be a rich elite.”
The first storyline, Fear and Loathing, saw Law brought into conflict with America’s Greatest Super-Hero, The Public Spirit, whom Law sees as a corrupt mockery of heroic ideals. While the ultra-patriotic The Public Spirit was generally perceived to be a swipe at Superman, Mills maintains that his focus was broader than that. “Indirectly, you could say he was. In fact, the main inspiration was the American iconic figures who have something in common with Superman. A prime source was Ronald Reagan. I had a book of Reagan’s speeches and he had this very jingoistic, Wild West gunslinger rhetoric. From a visual point of view, he is the ultimate hero, but I was actually using lines directly from Reagan. Additionally, I used some John Wayne lines. If he comes across as very real, it’s because he is based on real figures, all of which adds up to a very scary image.”
If Marshal Law’s despised nemesis was a determinedly cynical mix of The Man of Steel and US political icons, there was something decidedly unsettling about The Sleepman, not only a serial killer but The Public Spirit’s illegitimate and more-powerful son. In fact Marshal Law’s young, supposedly-disabled assistant, The Sleepman’s hideous appearance and penchant for raping women dressed as The Public Spirit’s super-heroine girlfriend expressed a grim perversion of Spider-Man’s signature mantra – “With the greatest power comes the greatest irresponsibility…” – and underlined the extent of the ruthlessness which Mills was applying to the genre.
While Fear and Loathing and its successor, 1989’s Punisher/Marvel pastiche Marshal Law Takes Manhattan, were controversial but very popular, the third instalment seriously ruffled feathers in the industry. 1990’s Kingdom of The Blind (published by the short-lived UK comics publisher Apocalypse) in which Marshal Law faced a very thinly-disguised version of Batman called The Private Eye, perfectly coincided with the immediate aftermath of the phenomenally popular Tim Burton Batman movie released the prior year and which had ignited massively renewed interest in the character. “[That story] was an absolute blast,” recalls O’ Neill “the first one we did outside (Marvel imprint) Epic. Batman’s in the news now, but he was very much in the news then. Pat did warn me that people might find it objectionable – and indeed they did, that one more than any other. It made people blanche! Pat was always amazed that I was a Batman fan and that he never was – but some of the more venomous stuff came from me, as I was always pushing him to go further. It just didn’t bother me.”
“Within the industry, I think it’s pretty fair to say that just about everybody was pretty critical.” Mills adds, “These characters are considered to be almost Gods and, certainly, professionals both in Britain and in America took particular exception to Kingdom of The Blind. I think (artist) Simon Bisley, amongst others, thought it was very mean-spirited.” Not unsurprisingly, because the pair’s deconstruction of the genre’s most popular character was utterly unforgiving: The Private Eye was a supremely vicious thug with a murderous hatred of the lower classes and whose suspiciously-large number of teen sidekicks was down to the fact he was harvesting their organs in an effort to prolong his own lifespan. As for his alter-ego, billionaire Scott Brennan was an arrogant and vigorously-elitist Orwellian poster-child possessed by a pathological fear of his inherited riches being taken away. Ouch.
“I read a book about the dreams of very rich people and a very common dream, I discovered to my great delight, that for all their billions, they are absolutely tormented that someone was going to take it all away from them. That was my story: he’s a billionaire who’s going to get out there and do it to them before they do it to him!” It allowed Mills to exercise one of his most vigorous complaints about superheroes: “It’s very bad to have these wealthy, patronising people made in to heroes, when the working-class heroes are thin on the ground. These people are scared and to eulogise them as Percy Blakeney’s and the like, it’s ludicrous!” The story remains a firm favourite to the pair, especially O’Neill, as “that was the one where I was really happy with the artwork.”
Visually, one of the series’ joys was the profusion of punning graffiti that often filled O’Neill’s panels. From an over-sized bullet emblazoned with “This is it: THE BIG ONE!” to a gun barrel marked “Swallow This” to a superhero corpse with his head smashed through a TV with “Turn on, tune in, drop dead!” scrawled on the side, they all amusingly added to the series already very mordant humour. “When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of MAD paperbacks,” O’Neill explains, “They were so densely populated with background material, notations, the equivalent of Graffiti, I guess. I was a big fan of Bill Elder and Wally Wood and it just seemed incredibly American, that form of density. You could read it three or four times and it would still be funny.” For Mills, this seemingly-simple visual extra provided a vital service to the series: “Those graffiti lines were pure Kevin. You can look back at certain scenes in the script which might not have been particularly humorous, but by the time Kevin’s worked on it, there is a dark black humour there.”
One of the best aspects of Marshal Law, Mills notes, is that “he’s not a character who runs out of steam when you’ve satirised the obvious superhero targets.” Following the duo’s masterful filleting of The Dark Knight in Kingdom of The Blind, the subsequent stories demonstrated Law’s genre versatility, although maintaining the core superhero satire. The Hateful Dead (1991) and Super Babylon (1992) received a hearty infusion of Zombies, while 1994’s SF Horror entry Secret Tribunal is essentially Law vs. Alien. The character also indulged some high-profile crossovers, with the existentialist horror of Law vs. Pinhead: Law in Hell (1993), Image Comics big-hitter The Savage Dragon (1997) and finally – as well, as somewhat surprisingly – The Mask (1998). “We got in to the notion of crossovers as it is a good way to promote the character and a good way to take him further.” Mills explains. “One of the reasons is that these people who secretly pray to these icons probably thought to themselves “Well, okay, you’ve taken the piss out of Batman and Superman, why don’t you f**k off now?” but Marshal Law isn’t that slight a character. Those big superheroes were the ones I guess we had to start with, but he is very much an all-round character. You can hit all kinds of notes. It’s a much wider concept.”
While Marshal Law has faded from view in the last decade – save for two text novellas, collectively titled Origins, published last year – an intriguing reminder of Mills and O’Neill’s creation came in late 2006 with the publication of The Boys, a creator-owned series written by Garth Ennis (Preacher) and drawn by Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan). While not pastiche-led nor as surreal or dystopian as Marshal Law, instead favouring Preacher-style ultra-violence and sexuality, the series concept – about a super powered CIA squad whose job it is to keep watch on superheroes and, if necessary, intimidate or kill them – is remarkably similar to Law (particularly the main super-antagonist, “The Homelander” essentially being a post-9/11 version of The Public Spirit) a fact seemingly totally lost on the book’s fervent core audience, likely too young to remember the barbed-wire clad Marshal.
“I’ve heard about this!” Mills exclaims, “I deliberately haven’t read it myself because it is in the same genre as Law. It is flattering that there are other anti-superhero characters out there. I suppose whatever motivates Garth may be the same as what motivated me, but in the case of Marshal Law, what makes it so strong is that it is very apparent that we really mean it. It’s not in tune with the fashionable sensibility in modern comics which is to be very cynical and very violent. Marshal Law may have those elements, but it’s primarily because I feel so passionately about the notion of heroes and heroism and the way they are so devalued.”
The series’ descent into relative obscurity has in large part been down to the fact that getting hold of the various stories has long been a difficult proposition. This year, however, the series will get the treatment it has long deserved when indie US comics publisher Top Shelf publishes a lavish hardcover collection of every Law story. Unsurprisingly, the prospect thrills Law’s creators: “It needs it, doesn’t it? It’s such a classic character.” Says Mills. “It’s amazingly gratifying.” O’Neill enthuses, “There’s still an undercurrent of interest in Marshal Law and it’ll be good to get a complete collected edition. It’s running to at least 500 pages and will probably end up being a couple of volumes in a slipcase. It’ll certainly be substantial. I will be looking through boxes of stuff to find sketches, notes and various other things.” While the extras are to be determined, Mills confirms that the Savage Dragon episode – collected for the first time since its 1997 printing – will be coloured and the Law Vs.Pinhead tale will be re-coloured.
“When I was doing a signing tour for [The League of Extraordinary Gentleman] The Black Dossier,” O’Neill mentions, “the question I was asked most often was “when will there be more Law books?”.” Unfortunately, it won’t be happening in the immediate future as O’Neill is fully committed to the forthcoming fourth volume of League, while Mills is busy maintaining his considerable output for 2000AD and his French comics series, Requiem Vampire Hunter. Encouragingly, though, the enthusiasm is only too apparent: “Of all the things I’ve worked on, Law is the one I’d go back to – but it’s when we both have the time. I’m sure we’ll do more as we never got fed up with it. . Whenever talking about the earlier books, we always end up laughing our heads off and talking about what we should be doing.” O’Neill says. “I’d always make time for Kevin,” says Mills without hesitation, “but the compromise solution we have at the moment is the novellas – which isn’t entirely satisfactory, but I think there is a market for pulp fiction and therefore a Law pulp fiction novel. If Kevin doesn’t have time to do another Law graphic novel, we will probably end up writing another text novel.”
After 23 years, Mills enthusiasm for Marshal Law clearly hasn’t dimmed, likely because the character directly caters to the core concern of his writing: “Once I get into Law, I find it quite a wrench to come out of again. What he’s saying is actually very, very important: people who have the label “hero” are often undeserving of it and there are so many everyday heroes who are ignored. Marshal Law is so important to me for that reason. Kevin and I still miss the character a great deal because there is so much we can still do with him.”, before mischievously adding, “Here’s this character waving two fingers in the air at characters who are regarded with quasi-mystical significance and to me, it’s like, I can’t think of a better reason to blow the bastards away…!”