Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing

Sherif Nagati

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.

Marshal Law

Publisher: Titan Books
Subtitle: Fear and Loathing
Contributors: Kevin O'Neill (Artist)
Price: $19.95
Writer: Pat Mills
Item Type: Comic
Length: 192
Publication Date: 2002-05

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.
-- Marshal Law

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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