A leather-clad Tinkerbell

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Rereading Marshal Law: Fear & Loathing by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill.

I’m joined for a dialogue about Marshal Law with Joe McCulloch, blogger, contributor to the Comic Books Are Burning In Hell podcast and writer for The Comics Journal no less. 

Marshal_Law_030ME: I came into the recently published Marshal Law Deluxe hardcover with a mix of weary foreknowledge and anticipation, having read the first half of the content but not the second. And it is, to be a football pundit, very much a book of two halves. Fear and Loathing is ostensibly a serious examination of superhero myths, casting the superheroes firmly in the role of menace. The only heroic thing about Marshal Law is his hatred for them, and for himself. He’s played for a fool – the Public Spirit, his all-American nemesis, isn’t the rapist and murderer he’s hunting – but the Public Spirit is still guilty and still dies. Apart from the Marshal’s visually arresting assistant Kiloton, who in O’Neill’s hands looks like a Transformer whose robot form is a priest, everyone dies. There’s barely a supporting character left standing. But at the same time as weaving this tragedy stroke massacre around its cast, the comic refuses to take superheroes seriously. They’re mocked in every piece of graffiti in the background, in their dumb referential names, in their inability to achieve anything. The art undercuts the plot; even when Marshal Law’s getting big action sequences, big heroic splash pages, he’s posed stiffly and looks two-dimensional, a dress-up cutout.

I’d last reread Fear And Loathing in the 00s and judged it harshly. There are grounds to do so. The first couple of issues mix cartoon satire and the grim ‘n gritty flavour of the time fairly uneasily. Putting it out front; the first sequence, when we stalk and murder a strippogram dressed as a superheroine, isn’t good. It’s all shown through the killers eyes and the killing is blatantly sexualised. Not just the death-by-claw-penetration, which you could perhaps make a thematic case for, but the fact that in four shots of the corpse falling from a tall building every one of them is a titshot. That’s something nobody was uncomfortable with back then – these were adult comics, Biff Bam Pow not just for kids – but is profoundly uncomfortable now. And Lynn, the Marshal’s girlfriend in his secret identity, gets three pages of loving relationship which ends with them getting it on before she’s dressed in Celeste’s costume and is leered at, stalked, raped and murdered to better motivate our protagonist. A woman in a refrigerator before they’d been named.

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Examination of those scenes, though, gives up the key to Fear and Loathing: it’s all about sex. As the murdered strippogram’s corpse falls, she passes the windows of a widow of the superhero wars, a sexy Public Spirit groupie with the T-shirt slogan CAPE ME, and a beer-ejaculating macho man. Next we’re introduced to Sorry, a superhero dick joke, and from there we go straight to the superhero red-light district. Law’s fights are nakedly sexual, his desire to shaft the Public Spirit openly expressed, and Suicida’s dream of punching the whole world in the mouth would have been fucking it up the ass in an industry with less self-censorship. Celeste is a star whore, the hooker that superheroines have always dressed as while espousing values of purity and goodness, describing her wedding as the best trick in the world. The key confrontation takes place at that wedding, Law rushing to be at the altar alongside the Public Spirit. And why else is Danny called the Sleepman?

It’s a valid approach, to assume that all superhero comics are about subliminated sexual desires and flipping them over so that’s on the surface. There’s barely a character in Marshal Law who isn’t seen through their desires, their sexuality. Violence becomes sex, the splash pages with big guns pin-up shots. And it pays off in the final chapter, the mystery explained and the Sleepman left for dead, when Law and the Public Spirit play out their homoerotic relationship in a game of cat-and-mouse in an airplane graveyard while Lynn’s analysis of the language of the Cold War and of superheroes is laid over the top. The Public Spirit is cast as an erection kept up by drug use, Law as the seeker for the truth who brings him low with it. The comedy and tragedy of the series, the lewd sexual jokes and the constant slapstick super violence, stop rubbing against each other uncomfortably and mesh together, each feeding the other.  The finish, the protagonist visiting his girlfriend’s grave while we establish that he’s no better than the heroes he hunts but is at least different, puts us on firm ground for a continuation and a rematch against the Sleepman which takes years, literally years, and a complete change of tone to arrive.

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JOG: My attention is roused by your reading of this text! I find it well-supported – albeit, perhaps uncomfortably, in two separate directions.

First, to the left, is Pat Mills. I was very amused, recently, to see Chris Sims giving Mills’s old Punisher 2099 run with Tony Skinner the funny essay treatment over at Comics Alliance, though some of Sims’s argumentation as to the work’s satiric character gave me pause. Specifically, at one point he identifies a confrontation between a hard-bitten female vigilante character (of the year 2099) castigating the Punisher (2099) for employing “male and penetrative” projectiles in his murderous romps as proof that the comic is lampooning ‘tough woman’ stereotypes in action comics – presumably from a wizened, Comics Alliancesque position of moderate reason, which readers of Third World War will no doubt recognize as Mills’s home turf.

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No, if there is any critique going on there, it is auto-critique, in much the same way that Marshal Law functions as auto-critique. If I may offer some added context – and ‘offering context’ is basically my entire schtick, as the brimstone-scented gentlemen hopefully told you prior to signing the contract – Fear and Loathing was initially published by Epic Comics as a six-issue comic book miniseries, released over the course of 19 months, 1987-89, per the cover dates. As stately a pace as we expect from Kevin O’Neill, yes, but what’s interesting is the possibility (not a guarantee, mind you) that Mills may have been updating and refining his scripts the whole while, which would place the conclusion of Fear and Loathing at around the same time as Mills was scripting the second book of Third World War and just beginning Sláine: The Horned God – two stories directly concerned with overt matriarchal structures acting as a corrective to destructive masculine behavior.

And so we have the Marshal’s girlfriend, Lynn — stuffed in the icebox back in early 1988, ie issue #2 — verily rising from the dead in April of ’89 via interspersed flashbacks to educate us all as to the phallic imagery inherent to the superhero game as called by Mills. Except: Marshal Law himself, even as he fights his final battle with the Public Spirit, is duly identified as a sexual actor, a doubling-down on hard-man iconography. All, again, as you’ve said.

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Yet, at the same time, the Marshal’s personal motives are most closely associated with Virago, the Public Spirit’s first lover and the mother to his diseased child, Danny, the Sleepman, who later became the Marshal’s boy sidekick of a sort while moonlighting as a rapist-killer. Throughout the last two issues of the series, the superhero-hating motives of both the Marshal and Virago are examined, but while Virago arguable has a personal, visceral reason to hate heroes – stemming from her desire to give birth to a child, which is to say directly from a function exclusive to women – the Marshal is primarily upset at the falsity of the ideals promulgated by the Public Spirit, and thus the Spirit’s betrayal of the Marshal’s own youthful idealism. He loved him even more, we’re told, than the  boys’ adventure trading cards in which Nemesis obliterated the dinosaurs: not a subtle allusion to earlier Mills works from 2000 AD, and it is Nemesis to which Lynn finally compares Marshal Law… whom the Sleepman finally embraces as his true mother!

In this way, Mills achieves a genuine transgression: he admits defeat. Which is to say, he reveals himself as only creating new masculine fantasies in the same mode as his prior works – superseding Virago’s feminine motives in favor of manly rage at spoiled ambitions – while at the same time savaging superheroes in a way that is not truly destructive, but merely substituting an arguably worse status quo for the genre’s prior lies.  As you say, Marshal Law is grim ‘n gritty in the fashion of its day, but I would add that Mills’s admission of inefficacy at promoting substantive change marks it as the only post-Watchmen work — and, by its murder mystery, its wartime background, its American critique, and its spoofing of extant superhero archetypes, it is very specifically post-Watchmen — that betrays some cognizance as to the ways in which Watchmen’s legacy would be processed: more violence, more darkness, more ugliness atop a hardly-cracked genre foundation.

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Or, put simply, Marshal Law is the only post-Watchmen comic to acknowledge Watchmen’s failures, and, moreover, its own failure by following the Watchmen path.

However, because this is not a solo work, to the right we must consider Mr O’Neill. A while ago my usual podcast crew put together a Marshal Law episode that mysteriously became corrupted before it could be edited, which is so apropos to Marshal Law itself I’ve elected to classify the whole thing as conceptual art on my Guggenheim application. But, during that episode, my friend Tucker Stone observed that the early bits of Fear and Loathing represent an evident struggle between Mills’s critical intent and O’Neill’s overtly visceral, sensational approach, a visual style Tucker doubted O’Neill could restrain even if desired.

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This leads to the problematic sections which you’ve identified: scenes of sexual violence against women that seem to revel in the sex and the violence. Clearly, Mills wants us to understand that excess is ultimately perilous – you’ll notice that every supporting character that actually agrees with the Marshal’s attitudes toward superheroes (i.e. Virago and Billy) is eventually revealed to be arguably worse than the superheroes themselves.  Yet O’Neill adds a flattening effect that refuses to acknowledge any nuance: everything is equally loathsome (OR) equally exciting (OR) equally funny.

Perhaps the most striking moment in all of Fear and Loathing is when Lynn faces off with her horny protestor compatriots and shouts: “Is this the only reason you came? So you could see me half-naked?” In that panel, she is framed so that she is staring directly at the reader, deriding them for gazing upon the enormous, nearly-bare breasts with which O’Neill centers the panel.

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Or perhaps there is another striking bit. Lynn states in issue #6 that “the most insidious result of the macho hero’s denial of his dual nature is his example to ordinary men who attempt to prove their virility by constantly achieving and succeeding in a society where failure is seen as a disgrace (‘female’ weakness).”

In admitting defeat, then, Mills allows himself a certain latitude for evolution, while O’Neill, in saturating everything in the gaze of a Tex Avery wolf, challenges even the possibility of that. It is a troublesome work, this Fear and Loathing, but it is interesting trouble. Later chapters, however, would prove O’Neill more the victor than Mills. This is my theory as to *why* everything changes – because how could such weird, tortured ambiguity last for very long?

ME: I hadn’t considered Mills’s contemporaneous work, but the similarities of theme with Third World War and Slaine are obvious. To which I’d add another Mills and Skinner joint, published in Toxic and later by Dark Horse, the little-known Sex Warrior. Which, from what I remember, was the same feminine vs patriarchy plotline but was thematically the reverse of Fear & Loathing: ostensibly about sex, but the money shots were all gore.

You define this as a post-Watchmen work, which it absolutely is, but in style it’s more post-Dark Knight Returns. Mills steals the coloured first-person captions from that, though they’re not used as different narrative threads but for convenience, a lazy way of giving a point of view. And the dark, violent, sexually conflicted hero is closer to Miller’s Batman than to any of Moore’s heroes. Miller tried to kill the idea that vigilantes help society while glorying in the iconography of them, but who did Batman help? His return meant the Joker’s return, he stopped the mutants but saw his gang splinter into various vicious youth cults instead, he fought Superman and lost. The best you can argue is that he took Two-Face down and quelled a post-EMP riot, which isn’t much. Mills takes that super-noir masculinity, strips away the remnants of heroism to leave nothing but a savage nihilism, and exposes the ultimate failure of the superhero to do anything that matters.

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Marshal Law: Fear & Loathing by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill was originally published in Marshal Law #1–#6, and is available in the Marshal Law Deluxe collection. 

Comments
2 Responses to “A leather-clad Tinkerbell”
  1. LondonKdS says:

    I get the feeling that Lynn’s death was intended as a critique of the Women in Refrigerators cliche – have the protagonist’s girlfriend murdered at the usual point in the narrative when it would act as a motivating/sympathy-eliciting factor and then undercut it at the end by revealing that the protagonist himself bore a major share of the moral responsibility for the murder. A more subtle and less comic version of the Private Eye turning out to have murdered his own parents in “Kingdom of the Blind”.

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