[3 March 2004]
A lot of people say I’m a uniformed thug, no better than the scum I hunt down… a fascist cop… a glorified Nazi… a legalized vigilante, handing out his own highly suspect street “justice”... someone with a pathological hatred of superheroes, reveling at the chance to beat the hell out of them. That sounds fair. I can live with that.
Heroes have always been a part of popular culture. The definition of heroism and its values differ according to history and culture, but it is safe to say that the prevalent American stereotype of the hero is what the word conjures up in most minds today. This image, based largely on film, is that of a solitary, defiant, well-built male, intent on going where no one else has gone, a regular John Wayne. He occasionally takes liberties with issues such as the rule of the law, human rights and freedom of speech, while simultaneously preaching them, because, after all, he knows better. He is a role model to some, and is an important tool in duping other misled souls into getting involved in questionable wars.
The superhero is the hero stereotype at its extreme. Not only is he all of the above, but he is also nearly invincible, a step above his fellow man. In the mid-1980s, excellent works, notably Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, re-examined the superhero, taking a deep look at his motivation, his mannerisms, and his flaws. Yet while Watchmen offered several different portraits of superheroes with different agendas, from the idealistic to the fanatic to the opportunistic, Dark Knight presented a superhero model (Batman) that was the antithesis of the common model (Superman) and put the two in direct confrontation; the new superhero was an obsessed vigilante, taking even more liberties with law and human rights, but only because certain scum deserved it, while the old one was blindly serving a set of rules and reporting to an authority of a bygone age. In his excellent introduction to the collected Dark Knight, Alan Moore stated that Frank Miller had, for the first time in superhero comics, come up with the anti-hero, the dubious grim hero for a new age.
Marshal Law is the literal anti-hero, not just a flawed hero, but a hero-hater. Marshal Law is the poor soul who was conned by the typical superhero and cheated into screwing up his life. Now he has dedicated the rest of it to a personal vendetta disguised as a career: he hunts heroes.
Welcome to San Futuro, a near-future version of San Francisco, rebuilt after the original was destroyed by a major earthquake. Nearly a quarter of a century earlier, the American government had discovered a way to “create” superheroes, and used the magical draw of the first bunch of these to enlist hundreds of young men as special “super-troops”. Now, a failed war in South America has left most of them dead, and the rest are back home, half-deranged and delinquent, plunging the city into an interminable gang war. Marshal Law was one of these, but rather than indulge in super-gangsterism, he enlisted in the police force to help bring put a stop to super-violence. His real targets, however, are the original super-heroes, those who are adored by the public and live in mansions, the ones who sold him and many others like him the poisoned dream. When a series of rapes/murders takes place and the suspect is identified as a superhero, Marshal Law is convinced the nation’s top superhero, the Public Spirit, is behind them. But is it true, or is his blinding rage driving him to presumptuous conclusions?
On the surface, Fear And Loathing is a bitter, scathing attack on superheroes, but it actually uses them as surrogates for writer Pat Mills’ pet peeves: religion, establishment, war, bigotry, hypocrisy.
Mills is one of the founding fathers of modern British comics. As founder and longtime editor of 2000 A.D. he was involved in the shaping of the UK comics scene, not to mention providing a breeding ground for creators like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley, Garth Ennis and countless others. Mills also created and wrote some of the UK’s quintessential series such as Slaine, Charley’s War, Nemesis the Warlock, A.B.C. Warriors and more. While many of his protégés went on to extremely successful careers in the USA, Marshal Law was one of his few American escapades, issued on Marvel’s fondly-remembered Epic imprint (when it actually existed!). Released during huge superhero boom of the early 1990s’, this anti-superhero series still managed to build up a cult following. After Epic’s demise, Mills and co-creator Kevin O’Neill retained the rights to their project, which was recently collected in three books by Britain’s Titan Books.
Fear And Loathing collects the first six issues of the series, a self-contained storyline that introduces Marshal Law’s world and then develops into an action-packed thriller with psychological overtones and a sarcastic wit. The tone is set by the very first page: a full page shot of a bunch of freaky superheroes, costumes and names taken from Biblical sources, collectively known as the Jesus League of America. This type of manic convention-twisting continues relentlessly throughout: weird characters with brilliantly bizarre names and looks; graffiti, neon signs and costumes screaming memorable slogans (billboards for a campaign against casual sex say “Keep it zipped for Christ’s sake” and “Superheroes do it on their own”); an overload of madly eclectic ideas (a mobile confessional that looks like a tank with angels riding atop it). Thankfully, Mills uses all this as embellishment and doesn’t allow it to drown the story. It is a tight, well-crafted thriller that unfolds slowly and provides all the answers, and more, by the end. By the final pages, you have an insight to the different characters and what motivates them, and it is to Mills’ credit that while he obviously sides with Law, there are no clear lines between good guys and bad guys. Each character gets to present their point of view, and surprisingly you find you can sympathize even with the vilest of them. Except for the Public Spirit, that is, because he is the lowest form of scum!
The Public Spirit is the archetypical superhero, presented in unflattering candor: he is publicly untouchable, righteous and wholesome, while basking in the benefits of his status and firing the fantasies of females everywhere. In his introduction, Mills confesses his absolute detest for superheroes, and more generally, the idea of the hero. Echoes of the same sentiments fill Mills’ previous work, such as the obvious analogy between the alien-hating humans and the Catholic inquisition in his Nemesis stories. But none of his previous work has the vitriolic anger that drives Marshal Law.
Marshal Law would not be the same without Kevin O’Neill’s visual assault. While most US readers only know him as the illustrator of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, O’Neill has a long history in British comics, frequently as co-creator with Mills. Their long partnership is evident in Marshal Law, which feels uncannily like the work of one person: the marriage between words and images is seamless. O’Neill plays around with many styles, twisting page compositions, distorting anatomy, even experimenting with cubism in certain places. The result is a true visual feast.
Fear And Loathing is the freshest re-examination of superhero mythology since Watchmen and Dark Knight, and yet is sadly under-appreciated. It sits in direct contrast with the countless re-writings of these two classics, presenting a view that simultaneously examines the superhero stereotype as well as its effect on society with unflinching directness. It ends with a fictional essay that explores the relationship between the superhero and the phallus, and concludes that Marshal Law is the logical progression of the Public Spirit. You will find yourself nodding in approval.