In recent years there has been a massive shift in popular culture towards superheroes. Of course, this shift is more due to certain films rather than the comics that influenced them (from the grit and gloom of Christopher Nolan’s Batman to the bright, humour-driven juggernaut that is Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe), but all the same, we are now living in the age of the comic book superman. An age where stories of adults dressed in capes and masks running around fighting crime, dark magic and alien invasion are not just considered to be the pastime of a stereotypical sweaty, socially maladjusted young male demographic, but of popular culture at large.
Perhaps there has never been a better time to read the unrelentingly savage, blackly funny superhero satire of Marshal Law. Created in 1987 by writer Pat Mills (one of the founding creative forces behind 2000AD comics, home of titles such as Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper) and Kevin O’Neill (whose wonderfully twisted artwork gave such personality to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), it’s the product of two fantastically talented and influential comic book creators at the top of their warped, misanthropic game.
Set in the city of San Futuro (‘Home of Law and Disorder’, built upon the ruins of a demolished San Francisco after an earthquake), the world of Marshal Law is one inhabited by men and women with lab-created superpowers. Intended as a new breed of soldier for use in the American military, most of these genetic freaks and misfits now stew in the nightmarish, sex and violence-obsessed city. Used up and abandoned by the government, they partake in brutal gang violence in an insane, bloodthirsty spiral of sexually frustrated, morally bankrupt carnage. One such genetically-altered ex-soldier, the titular Marshal Law, works as a government-sanctioned ‘hero-hunter’, dispensing brutal ‘justice’ to rogue superheroes. Bloody mayhem ensues, but it’s not mindless; Mills and O’Neill inject some sneering, pitch-black anarchic humour into these pages, and scathing commentary on subjects such as war, sexual repression and the very nature of the idealised superhero image.
One of the most entertaining things about Marshal Law is how it skewers popular comic book characters from the pages of DC and Marvel comics. Mills’ hatred of superheroism takes no prisoners; there are obvious analogues for Batman and Robin, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Dr Fate, Hawkman, The Punisher… the list goes on, and Mills delights in deconstructing, mocking and unceremoniously killing off what he (and Marshal Law, acting as his in-narrative mouthpiece) see as degenerate scumbags wrapped in their own power fantasies. Mills/Marshal Law’s stance is succinctly summed up in one sequence, narrated by Law, as he beats up a group of ‘capes’: “Lot of people say I hate superheroes… that’s not true, y’know. Well, all right… it’s partly true… okay, it’s true.”
I write this article as a huge fan of superheroes, but it’s still darkly amusing to read Mills’ venomous diatribe against them – especially when it’s coupled with O’Neill’s incredibly detailed art, which has a hyperkinetic, endearingly ugly quality, emphasising the freakish and revelling in the nasty. They really are a perfect team, and this ‘deluxe edition’ collects every Marshal Law story (not including non-canonical crossovers) in one handsome volume, making it a must-read for superhero fans and detractors alike. Its cartoonishly extreme violence, graphic nudity and overall tone of nihilistic hatred won’t be for everyone, but nearly thirty years after its creation, Marshal Law remains one of the most breathlessly energetic, gleefully shocking books about superheroes you can get.