So many exotic variations on nothing

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Rereading Marshal Law Takes Manhattan and Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind by Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Mark A Nelson and Mark Chiarelllo.

The second part of 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.

ME: It turns out that Alan Moore wasn’t the first great British comics writer to say “Hey, Kevin, instead of releasing a six-issue miniseries over 36 months, how about we just do irregularly released specials?” Pat Mills beat him to it. After Fear & Loathing introduced the hero hunter and hater the Marshal switched to one-shots and Marshal Law Takes Manhattan, Kingdom Of The Blind, The Hateful Dead and Super Babylon, came out as four one-shots over three years.

To bore you with a little more context for a moment, the first one-shot came out through Epic Comics. The second may have been originally destined for Epic but came out, in the UK anyway, as a magazine-sized publication available from newsagents under the Apocalypse Comics banner. This was Mills’s self-publishing venture, linking up with other 2000AD luminaries who hadn’t broken big in the States. Kingdom Of The Blind was its first publication, chosen to have an impact and lead in to the weekly Toxic! in which Mills wrote about six stories and in which Marshal Law appeared in a serial collected as The Hateful Dead, which we’ll examine in the next part of this blog.

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The first two one-shots, which for me are the zenith of Marshal Law, are more reflective of trends in the comics industry than the idiosyncrasies of their own publication. In previous blogs I’ve talked about the slippery nature of what was venerated as realism in comics back in 1989, and how that thing which adolescent male readers sought above all else is so much harder to define in retrospect. Manhattan and Kingdom are both takedowns of character then riding a dark wave of popularity because of their gritty realism: The Punisher and Batman.

Neither have powers, of course, apart from the tacit invulnerability given to any heroic vigilante. The Punisher used proper guns and killed his enemies; Batman, post-Frank Miller, lovingly narrated the violence he did to the baddies and they did to him in anatomically pornographic first-person captions. (Dave Sim does a perfect parody of them in the Roach’s wall-climbing scenes in Church & State.) Neither had mutations, or fortuitous cosmic-ray accidents, or technology indistinguishable from magic in their side. That made them realistic, and realism was the thing. They were darker than the rest in their hearts, in their methods, in their motivations. The Public Spirit was an inspired amalgam of Captain America and Superman, both out of favour in the Dark Age. Batman and the Punisher were Marshal Law’s fellow travellers in leather-clad, pain-dealing, scum-hating vigilantism.

Marshal_Law_takes_Manhattan_009 panelSo naturally, Pat Mills had to take them down. The critical term would be deconstruct, but that doesn’t begin to capture the savage absolutism, the gleeful fury, that Mills, O’Neill and Law brought to the fight. There’s no mocking affection here. The Punisher becomes The Persecutor, a former CIA Black Ops murderer and torturer unable to realise that he is the link between his indiscriminate slaughter of supposed communists in Latin America and the indiscriminate slaughter of his own family in North America. Like the US, Mills tells us with a bracing disregard for subtlety, he refuses to accept that the blood on the American dream at home is the consequence of the swimming pools of blood shed abroad. And like the Punisher, of course, who returned from Vietnam a trained soldier with hundreds of kills but also somehow an innocent, a soul washed clean by a flight home and an honorable discharge, a family man strolling in a Norman Rockwell park until the unthinkable happened.

Well, that was his origin before Garth Ennis got hold of him. But Joe has ideas to share on Ennis. Before I hand over, I’ll just throw out the warning that anyone expecting us to stop saying Marshal Law is all about sex is wrong and should leave now. I thought I could stop; I remembered the mid-period as being less obsessed with correlating gun and groin than Fear & Loathing. But man, it doesn’t let up. The Marshal goes to see The Persecutor murmuring “Darling… don’t start without me,” the insane heroes of marvellous Manhattan are flashers and perverts, the Persecutor’s torture methods are focused on penetration, the testicles, the anus. The transposition of sex and violence remains, and I haven’t even got to Batman analogue The Private Eye yet. Before I do, Joe has an explanation of Manhattan’s influence on Garth Ennis that once heard can never be unheard.

JOE: Put bluntly, Marshal Law Takes Manhattan strikes me as a potential ur-text for Garth Ennis’ career as a comic book writer. Initially released in 1989 – amid the banging of forks and knives on tabletops by eager readers and piqued bean counters at Epic chanting SE-QUEL, SE-QUEL – the second of the Marshal’s cases would have arrived at roughly the same time a teenaged Ennis, having recently seen his professional debut in Crisis via Troubled Souls, would have been preparing to enter the ranks of 2000AD’s script droids only to quickly find himself thrust into the role of John Wagner’s hand-picked successor as primary writer for Judge Dredd. So often, a young man searches for role models, and Ennis – a devout squaxx as of the magazine’s initial launch – has himself since characterized his Dredd work as overly derivative of the great droids of the past, Wagner (whose own later Dredd work, so spiked with melancholic fog-of-war reflection, became, to my eyes, distinctly reminiscent of Ennis’s mature work, thus returning the favor of influence) obvious among them.

At the same time, we mustn’t disregard Mills, whose black-clad terrorist-for-us Bill Savage would prove to be an enduring Ennis favorite, enough so that Billy Butcher, anti-hero of Ennis’s The Boys, can very easily be taken as a cross between the earlier character and the haunted, morally compromised superhero-hunting Marshal Law himself.

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But let’s get into specifics.

Generally, as Tom has noted, Marshal Law Takes Manhattan sees the Marshal pursuing a variant of the Punisher – startlingly, per Douglas Wolk’s 2009 interview with Kevin O’Neill for The Comics Journal, the project was initially suggested to Mills & O’Neill as a real crossover with the actual Punisher, which understandably raised some red flags with Mills as to how much latitude he was really going to be given with the scenario – into a huge madhouse where unflattering versions of many beloved Marvel heroes are kept: Spider-Man is a repressed midnight exhibitionist ‘shooting webs’ (no doubt while taking pictures of himself), Thor is a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur, Reed Richards is talking to an empty chair he believes is his invisible wife, etcetera. Of course, all of the heroes want to confront the Marshal over his actions in Fear & Loathing, and, of course, they are easily dealt with.

This alone has major parallels with Ennis’s body of work: the ‘haw haw superheroes R dumb’ perspective of works like The Pro, The Boys, and especially Ennis’s early work with the Punisher which began in 1995, the very year he ceased working on Judge Dredd for the remainder of the 20th century. That debutante work was The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, which my friend Sean Witzke once observed was basically the same comic as Marshal Law Takes Manhattan, minus the asylum. I would also add that it replicates the sense of self-loathing Mills brings to the Marshal, but without a lot of the self-critique; instead, there’s a distinct cognizance of what superhero fans might like to read, ie clever scenarios in which a non-powered character like the Punisher might ‘beat’ stronger foes… I think Wizard magazine used to have a column like that!

The Marshal, in contrast, just scrapes ‘em off his boots.

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This is a critical difference between Ennis and Mills. Particularly in works like The Pro, and The Boys – and that one issue of Hitman, of course – Ennis indicates that he does believe nobility and heroism and, indeed, super-heroism are real things, and can be pursued by positioning the superhero metaphor in the ‘right’ way: the haggard, gruffly honorable, tough-talking-yet-sensitive, stoic, mournfully vulgar, not-so-lamely-dressed Garth Ennis manner. Mills, in contrast, betrays remarkably little hope in the superhero as iconography or inspiration or anything – it is flawed at the foundation, and best demolished.

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As such, we arrive at the Persecutor, Mills’s non-Punisher – and really, the best joke in the whole comic is how his family are only shot down in the park because he gallantly leaps out of the way of oncoming fire – who was also the Marshal’s old instructor back in the war-torn jungle. Interspersed throughout is a canned history of the United States’ usage of torture in the latter half of the 20th century, which Mills gleefully links to the same manifest destiny, we-can-do-it-because-we-can-do-it impulse that powers the superhero idea (and, as Alan Moore might add, the foundational perspective of early 20th century US science fiction, lampooned in his recent Nemo: Heart of Ice… drawn by Kevin O’Neill, naturally!).

This is not an unfamiliar subject matter to Ennis, whose later, adult-oriented Punisher comics (The Punisher MAX) placed the title character in conflict with an alternate version of himself: the boisterously mean Barracuda, who, despite being a younger man, nonetheless reflects the thoughtless passion of accomplishing violent goals Mills attributes to the Persecutor, in contrast to Marshal Law, whom Ennis now utilizes as the Punisher himself.

But it all goes deeper than this. Constantly, throughout Ennis’s body of work, there are significant interactions between a violent, charismatic, dominant male character and a somewhat less-certain, milder, male, whose inner darkness is teased by the dominant party, sparking some semblance of friendship or camaraderie, but also bringing them into conflict. This dichotomy ranges from Tom and Damien in Troubled Souls to Hughie and Billy in The Boys, but it also recurs a lot in Ennis’s war comics, where the stage is always well-set for moral clashes – making the wartime background and extremely similar character dynamics in Marshal Law Takes Manhattan seem a very likely, primal influence.

For the record, I don’t mean any of this as OMG Ennis ripped off Mills – that’s just fucking stupid (and anyway, Troubled Souls preceded this comic). What I’m saying is that I suspect this particular work held a powerful resonance for Ennis at an important, formative time: an influence which evolved per the artistic process in the midst of Ennis’s other influences, ranging from James Ellroy (looming enormously over Ennis’s most recent superhero-characters-go-to-war serial, Fury MAX), to the Irish coming-of-age that no doubt informed his emphasis on cyclical, retributive violence.

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ME: I’m selective when it comes to Ennis’s work, but find myself taking the volumes of Punisher Max off the shelves far more often than comics I’d pretend to myself I liked more. There’s a purity to his vision, a recognition of the core of the character, that effortlessly carries him through 60 issues and a bunch of extras. And, after absorbing your unarguable exposure of Marshal Law’s influence, I’ve come to think of that run as an answer to the question Law posed. As Moore realised in with Rorshach, a vigilante obsessed with fighting crime doesn’t live a fulfilling personal life. That’s something Mills ignores with Law, who takes off the leather and becomes an ordinary Joe, but Ennis makes the focus of his Punisher work: if you live to kill the baddies, what does that do to you? What else is there to you? His answer, drawn out over five years, is nothing: there’s nothing else. As you say, Ennis uses Law as his model for the Punisher and takes that model to its logical conclusion. Mills may not be fond of superheroes, but he likes his protagonist so he sidesteps logic and uses Law, in this middle period, as a targeted missile instead.

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Which leads me to Kingdom of the Blind in all its beauty. Mills applies his logic, drawing straight lines to a vanishing point, rigorously to Batman. What kind of millionaire goes out every night and beats up poor people, which is who criminals generally are? What kind of man hugs the trauma of murder so close to himself that he becomes his wound? Why would anyone dedicated to inflicting violence on others routinely take a child along? And if you have to fight crime, is it really necessary to do it with such an all-encompassing brand identity?

What kind of man? A sick fucker, which is Mills’s answer to everything. But, with twisted little details provided by O’Neill like the cut-and-stitch-Eyemobile and Alfred as a heavily armed Cato with his testicles on retainer, he makes a convincing case. The Private Eye has been dealing out vicious mutilations to the people of San Futuro for years and, despite it being obvious on a moment’s consideration how fucked up that is, the authorities let it happen. Even Marshal Law, propagandised into thinking that one man’s pathology bears some relation to justice, lets him go. And, in a touch I love, everyone knows Scott Brennan is The Private Eye because it’s completely obvious, just like it is with Bruce Wayne.

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Wayne is portrayed as a victim of circumstance, an orphan who takes his PTSD and his fortune and his privileged position and, through will, turns them into something unique and good. Brennan turns that spurious reasoning inside out; he’s torturing and killing because he gets off on it. Crime is just an excuse. On the second page, we establish that it’s his substitute for sex. He’s drawn without discernable genitals in these nude scenes, handsome in a way that has nothing to do with women and everything to do with male power fantasies. His origin, rather than the innocence of a Zorro film, begins in a porno video shop (and how anachronistic is that update?) and ends with the young Scott, oversized weapon in hand, saying “Open your mouth, Pop!” and pulling the trigger. His skyscraper, the Eyrie as an inverse of the Batcave, is where he unzips and pisses on the city below. And the final battle is as sexual as ever: the Marshal threatening to shoot his enemy in the ass, the Public Eye going straight for the nads, sheepshagger gags, and the final, triumphant ejaculation of blood which drenches the Marshal.

kob12 panel(And that’s ignoring the Suicida scenes, where the Marshal’s old sparring partner dresses as a fetishised Marshal and tries to kill him with a big red-tipped vibrator…)

Kingdom of the Blind marks the series’ high point, with O’Neill switching the Marshal from a gritty grey palette to a royal blue one, infusing colour into the unreality of the series which floats it above the exhausted seriousness of the times. Narrating in grey boxes, Brennan provides the alternative narrative of Batman: he fears the poor, the criminals, the other just as much as they fear him. He makes the untold wealth, always in the background as an enabler for Batman but never explored, central to the myth. There are lots of ways to help people if you’ve got money. Using it to make yourself into a creature of the night engaging in one-on-one violence with an underclass of society that you despise is the most pathological. As Law says, “THE ONLY REASON A BILLIONAIRE BECOMES A VIGILANTE IS TO HOLD ONTO HIS MONEY.” Brennan, and by extension of the analogy Batman, is a Neo-Con hero defending privilege, defending inequality, indulging in the secret fantasies of those who despise the poor and acting as a symbol for their repression. A perfect blend of the sexual, the political, and the iconography of superheroism. Happy 50th birthday, shithead.

JOE: I like your mention of the color schemes! I noticed that both Marshal Law Takes Manhattan and Kingdom of the Blind open on near-monochrome splash pages, which seem to allude to each issue’s target by virtue of hue: gunmetal gray for the Punisher, and batty blue for the Caped Crusader.

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Indeed, in re-reading these comics, I was very impressed by how O’Neill’s visuals are never so jarring as to remind one of the troubles of serializing a comic. I get the impression Marshal Law Takes Manhattan was completed in especially short order, because Epic wound up assigning O’Neill both a colorist and (*gasp* *choke*) an inker, and yet… you can barely fucking tell! It certainly helped that the colorist was Mark Chiarello, one of the unsung heroes of his trade, having developed the original Hellboy color scheme with Mike Mignola – he later ascended to a VP position at DC comics, where he played a crucial role in midwifing visually-oriented projects both well-remembered (Solo, Wednesday Comics) and perhaps not (Batman: Hush, Before Watchmen) – while inker Mark A. Nelson would ultimately demonstrate a certain gross-out post-underground sensibility in extreme horror comics and weird genre stuff, so you might at least call him a fellow traveler. These weren’t ignorant people.

Still, I honestly suspect O’Neill is invulnerable to tampering. How is an inker’s output ever *not* going look like Kevin O’Neill, detailing such exaggerated forms? I suppose you could always go bananas with the coloring, but I wonder if there isn’t a psychological pull manifested by the sheer character of the drawings – to mess with them seems less like a job poorly done than a personal attack on the artist himself, who isn’t exactly given to color work on assembly line comics anyway. His work is like witnessing a signature’s explosion.

Kingdom of the Blind sees Mills still diligently interrogating superhero archetypes, to the point where the Marshal begins to feel like a supporting character in his own comic. As always, the series’ obsession with sex is matched with a running examination of parenthood, both literal and metaphorical: the biological result of all that spandex rutting. Young master Brennan is scarred by his parents’ callous animal research – including an excellent homage to the 1940 movie classic Experiments in the Revival of Organisms; sure beats Zorro! – prompting the adult Private Eye to enact the ultimate in social engineering: pummelling fearful spectators with dubiously-justified acts of violence shocking enough to inspire furious reprisals from desperate targets, which thus justify yet-worse acts of ‘responsive’ force to assuage the citizenry’s fears, and so on and so on.

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It’s the most elegant and prescient metaphor of the entire series, accounting for both the darkening of superhero fiction in the 70s and 80s as well as the contemporary terror stratagems that have awarded even smallish American police forces with armament enough to repel a modest territorial invasion. And that’s not even getting into Mills’s specific Batman Family critique, in which the dominant corporate property literally harvests the organs of the young to replenish its virility. In this, we can see both the captured soul of Bill Finger, as well as anticipate the skilfully directed energies of progressive fans lobbying for better treatment of characters like Stephanie Brown and Barbara Gordon: worthy motives which nonetheless position Batman’s corporate owners as unassailable gatekeepers of cultural capital. Lift these pages to your ears and you can hear the screams of Jason Todd, and perhaps cash boxes chiming splendid returns.

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One way to combat this horror is to do something illegal. I don’t know if cartoonist Josh Simmons has read Kingdom of the Blind, but his bootleg Batman comic from 2007 (since collected into Fantagraphics’ story compilation The Furry Trap, wherein a few strategic name changes magically transformed the work into protected speech) sees the Dark Knight surgically disfiguring Crime in a manner not entirely unlike the Private Eye.

Another avenue is to molest the adventure comics audience from a position outside the corporate apparatus, which is basically what Apocalypse intended to do, what with its creator ownership and shared profits and similar Commie shit. The actual plot of Kingdom of the Blind may not hold together especially well – it all boils down to the Marshal not listening to his trusted aide, until the moment he does listen to him, at which point the drama concludes – but the spirit behind launching a new, exciting, equitable publishing concern via a superhero comic demolishing the very philosophy behind a beloved corporate superhero is irresistible. You have to remember, this comic arrived during the long holiday between Tim Burton’s gigantically successful Batman movie and its (better, weirder) sequel when Batman was A HUGE FUCKING DEAL. My podcast cohort Chris Mautner once told me how he bought this comic off the stands when it was new, and seeing Marshal Law gashing open the throat of an American icon – he was young, yes, but by god it really seemed transgressive.

Unfortunately, Toxic! then attempted to make transgression its brand identity, to ill effect.

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Marshal Law Takes Manhattan and Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind by Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Mark A Nelson and Mark Chiarelllo are available in the collection Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition.

Comments
One Response to “So many exotic variations on nothing”
  1. Mat says:

    Excellent, excellent reading.

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