Go toxic, Joe!

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Rereading Marshal Law: The Hateful Dead and Marshal Law: Super Babylon by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill.

The third 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: Among the many underlying similarities between British and Japanese culture is that we both like our comics weekly. None of this hanging around waiting for 20+ pages of colour adventures, a complete story every month, for us. No, give it to us fast, in monochrome, in an anthology produced by frantically rotating art teams. We have the insight into comics that America had with fast food; get it to the hungry fast and they’ll be clamouring for more before they realise they’re being served shit.

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That’s a little harsh, though whenever a few 2000AD readers are gathered they can entertain themselves by arguing about which strip of the 1990s marked the comic’s absolute nadir. But the principle is solid. Britain built a wonderful comics industry by keeping the action frenetic, printing it on bog roll and delivering it to the house every Saturday morning. All the grotesques of 2000AD and its competitors, Grimly Feendish and the Spider and the Steel Claw and Doomlord and Tough of the Track, were born from that weekly model. And Toxic!, launched in 1991 with a determination to out-grotesque everything else in the newsagent, wanted to do it weekly like the rest.

The comic was Mills’s leap into the world of owning your own work, a venture which included several other 2000AD luminaries who hadn’t broken big in the States. The comic officially began with Kingdom Of The Blind, spunking 48 pages of Marshal Law to get readers’ attention and lead in to the weekly Toxic! in which Mills wrote about six stories and in which Law was the lead character, appearing in the work that’s collected as The Hateful Dead.

JOE: To be even more specific, in fact, Kingdom of the Blind was conceived as (essentially) a fundraiser for Toxic! publisher Apocalypse Ltd., as relations with Marvel/Epic had apparently cooled following the departure of editor Archie Goodwin, who’d shepherded the original Fear and Loathing; it all very much anticipated the later breakaway of top Marvel artists to form Image.

Much in the way the name “Apocalypse” anticipated everything going completely fucking wrong.

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We’ve mentioned David Bishop’s Thrill-Power Overload before, and it has a good overview of the multifaceted fiasco that was Toxic! There were a lot of personality conflicts and ideologically-tinged ego bumping involved; Mills sort of assumed unofficial editorial duties by default early on, prominently rejecting John Wagner’s and Arthur Ranson’s partially-completed Button Man for inclusion on the grounds of tonal inconsistency with the Toxic! ideal. Early seeds of discord were thus sown, though, admittedly, the episode ultimately prompted 2000AD to recognize creator ownership in limited circumstances, a situation which now benefits Mills via his and Clint Langley’s American Reaper.

But there were also pragmatic concerns, such as the difficulty of assigning fill-in artists to a strip where the (rather slow) primary artist is co-owner.

ME: There were 31 issues of Toxic!, and Marshal Law appeared in nine of them. If your flagship character doesn’t turn up for work, your anthology’s got problems. And, given that Pat Mills had written the overwhelming majority of O’Neill’s comics work for the last decade, he presumably knew that the artist couldn’t keep a weekly schedule. How, then, did they ever expect Toxic! to work? Was there a plan beyond the first couple of months? I never read it, but reports of the comic remember series ending in mid-flow, replaced by others which likewise never concluded. Not unlike Warrior, then. Anthologies are clearly harder than they seem.

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The change from mini-series and one-shot star to masthead character of a weekly comic reverberate through those pages. There’s a huge shift in tone and direction. An entire anthology, a publishing venture and likely a whole bunch of money rests on the Marshal’s leather-clad ass. So immediately we start world-building. Rather than kamikaze runs against superhero archetypes, the tearing down of tropes that leaves them and the comic’s supporting cast slaughtered for easy laughs and swift conclusions, new players are drafted in. Razorhead, the fugitive recruited as deputy. Marshal Law’s dad, a pathologist with a sideline in shock art. The never-before-mentioned necropolis. And San Futuro’s red light district, the first regular beat a protagonist who’s ostensibly a policeman has ever had.

All that in 48 pages. And more, of course, because the actual story – which arrives without explanation or foreshadowing around halfway through – is about the dead superheroes returning to life and the personal grudge many of them hold against the Marshal for killing them. There’s an open goal here, an obvious opportunity to criticise the heroism of any death that’s followed by a promised resurrection, and an on-form Mills and O’Neill wouldn’t have missed it. But instead the Black Scarab, for reasons never given leader of the super-zombies, brings back the Marshal’s former girlfriend Lynn back from the grave. Never explaining why her conservative family had buried her nude in a star-spangled cowl and a voluminous red cloak, Lynn persuades Law to shoot himself in the head so he can be brought back by the toxic juices, hence the unsubtle chant “Go toxic, Joe!” He pulls the trigger, and the volume ends on a cliffhanger.

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After the relatively focused plotting of the previous two outings it’s a jarringly confused storyline. The texture is different, all short episodes with obvious joins, and the savagery of the Marshal is dialled down low. He gets through whole scenes with superheroes without hitting any of them, and cutting remarks are no substitute. The sex-violence transposition is still present, the red light district being where normals go to beat on supers, but there’s no analysis of any other kind, none of the deconstruction of icons that were the series’ lifeblood. In pinning their future to Marshal Law, in consciously using him as a flagship character, his creators defanged him, taking away the ultraviolence on the surface and the intelligence beneath.

JOE: It’s fascinating, then, to read about how O’Neill purportedly began to influence the writing of Marshal Law. In the artist’s own admission via Thrill-Power, he was “pretty sick of Crisis, the heavyweight political stuff, the eco-friendly dolphin-hugging spin.” Mills himself adds that “it was a style and comic style is all important, so I went for it.” The ‘style’ – an aggressive, guaranteed-to-offend comedy fart characterized by O’Neill as “torch a rainforest!” – was essentially what would later on in the ’90s be termed “political incorrectness,” a massively popular Clinton-era meme in the US ostensibly poised to counterattack the linguistic/thought policing of aggrieved interest groups intolerant to dissent. It’s only ever used by right-wing commentators now, and for good reason: in practice, it was typically just a means of maintaining status quo impulses through the mockery and diminution of already-marginal perspectives, or simply the characterization of opposing attitudes as “fringe” and “intolerant.” I mean, who the fuck wants to torch a rainforest?!

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This attitude leads to obvious problems, given that the political subtext of prior instalments of Marshal Law was very much an offshoot of Mills’ own involvement in dolphin-hugging Crisis. The Toxic! episodes reorient its focus as Marshal Law: Vice Cop, touring the sexual proclivities of superheroes with little means of providing for themselves beyond the use of their bodies. It’s amusing enough, and full of neat little asides – the ‘bludgeon the hero for cash’ idea just resurfaced the other week in Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas’s Gamma over at Dark Horse – but the laser-like specificity of earlier instalments is replaced by a more general gagging over gross sex, which of course the series is reliant upon for its atmosphere.

Granted, this particular hypocrisy was present in earlier issues, but at least then we were assured that the Marshal himself was a pervert, and that his mission was fundamentally counter-productive. Here, there’s a little too much in the way of LOL homosexuality, and instead of characterizing specific homosexual behavior as uniquely exploitative (like in Kingdom of the Blind), it’s pitched on the level of eww, older men fucking younger guys, eh lads? Eh? EH?

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By the time the serial ramps itself up into a travesty on the impermanence of death in superhero comics – yet another lick Garth Ennis snatched for The Boys – it’s all gotten perilously close to actually behaving like a normal superhero comic, complete with a way-cool new sidekick and an extended family for the Marshal, including a back-from-the-dead Lynn, no longer prone to quoting radical academia so much as flashing her tits in a notionally ironic manner: “Go Toxic, Joe!” indeed.

ME: Post-Apocalypse, the next time we saw Marshal Law was for a fourth verse same as the first two, a 48-page special published in the US where the main attraction was the Marshal pulling apart, literally and figuratively, iconic superheroes. But instead of contemporary icons of realism – surely Mills and O’Neill could’ve wrung juice from McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Lee’s X-Men – they chose to eviscerate the Golden Age ofsuperheroism. Which, at the start of the 90s, was the definition of kicking someone when they’re down. Going for a target barely featured in comics in years, remembered only for their cheap newsprint ridiculousness in our very serious glossy paper painted colour era, it was a baffling swerve.

JOE: Super Babylon is where the whole mess tumbles off a cliff. Released by Dark Horse in 1992 and possibly disinterred from completed serial content for the now-dead Toxic! (the first nine or so pages are tellingly modular) and the remnants of what I suspect were multiple future storylines, the plot concerns the Marshal’s attempts to cope with his undead lover’s carnivorous appetites while repelling the unfortunate revival of propagandist WWII era superheroes who are motivated almost exclusively by racism.

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One imagines an earlier, more focused Mills/O’Neill collaboration could wring some good blood out of the Greatest Generation – I’d recommend the ’79 Stephen R. Bissette/Rick Veitch/Allan Asherman comic of Steven Spielberg’s 1941 for a superior rendition of similar themes – but Super Babylon is aimless and lightweight, lingering on goofy, shallow parodies of the sort Mills smartly used as mere garnishment for Marshal Law Takes Manhattan; here, they’re too much of the main event, inadvertently demonstrating the value of Moore & Gibbons succinctly catching Dollar Bill’s cape in a revolving door. The only bright spots are O’Neill’s dazzling visions of dozens of characters swarming across certain pages, and Mills’s amusing evocation of the Golden Age Wonder Woman as only hanging around with these clowns for some decent BDSM.

Yet even she is pulverized for that crime. Mary Marvel too, but for being too modest. Wasn’t there a feminist subtext in this comic at some point?

You’d hardly guess from Super Babylon’s denouement, a full-scale panic attack at the prospect of cuckolding, in which a betrayed Marshal grimaces in terror at the horrid true face of Lynn’s liberation: a desire to live life… without him! I suspect Mills means to criticize the Marshal via Lynn, as he did at the end of Fear and Loathing. But there is no detail anymore, no argumentation. He merely shows an angry man murdering a barely-dressed woman for choosing another lover, presumably trusting in his readership to understand that this comic isn’t so retrograde, that we’re all enlightened souls, we’re not terrified of sexual women, we don’t collapse emotionally at the first sign of countervailing attitudes, we’re not like that, we don’t need our messages belabored, we just like having fun. Not like those superhero readers, right? We’re better than them, right?

mlsb01-41I remember when there was something deeper and sadder to this concept. I remember a suspicion of superhero fun. Truly, the Marshal had become what he had hated, just as predicted.

And that was all. The self-sustaining Marshal Law was finished. It was time, I think, to be laid to rest.

ME: It falls to me, then, to point out that the sexual subtext comes roaring back for Super Babylon, as subtle as ever: check out the bulbous purple phallus of the Tesla gun, the big dick that finally vaporises Lynn and her undead lover. Or that every member of the Jesus Society has a hidden perversion and that this is the only characterisation they get, the shiny-clean surface and the filth-spattered truth. Or that in flashbacks, the heroes are shown to be nothing but regimental whores and bumboys, brought to the troops in trailers to clear them of lust for anything but combat, the real use of all those bulging muscles and barely-contained breasts laid clear.

And then there’s Lynn. Why the feminist post-modernist student returns as a ravenous monster determined only to destroy her lover, when everyone else seems to come back kind of the same, is never explained. Because that’s the way the plot bends. The sexual humiliation scenes are as lizard-brain as you say, offering no variation on the standard action movie template. But I think it’s worth mentioning Lynn’s brief reinvention as superhero Vindicta, with a red-V theme on her collar, her boots, her belly and the nipple-areas of her corset. Perhaps I’m reaching, but it seems to me she’s really intended to be not Vindicta but Vagina with an implied Dentata, the Marshal’s love for her a homosexual weakness conquered by that love turning to hate and her second death by retrotechnocock. Remember all that analysis of the Public Spirit at the end of Fear & Loathing, pulling apart the language of the Cold War? Lynn doesn’t, and Pat Mills doesn’t want to.

mlsb01-19There are moments to enjoy in Super Babylon. Lightning Streaker nude, vibrating his genitals so they’re just a blur and he doesn’t need a costume anymore. Victory Girl’s poker-faced lust for domination. The Black Scarab inexplicably put in a Pope’s hat. The room full of filed-away heroes, including shelves of bird-themed vigilantes and a rainbow of Hornets. Billy Batson getting zapped as an afterthought. The six-panel page where the idiots each gets their own line about what they’ll contribute to the assault. The punchline about grinding them beneath the tank treads, even though it’s the same punchline as in Takes Manhattan.

Mills does attempt to land an ideological blow on the Golden Age, first with a page of exposition about what a useless sideshow they were and second, and more effectively, having them torn apart by reanimated GIs who took the bullets that won the war while the propaganda heroes of the Golden Age made it all look clean. It’s not much of a point and doesn’t really justify the effort spent on them, but it’s something. There is, however, a decent thematic point being made in the background. After the lifted-from-Toxic! prologue, the first appearance of Marshal Law is in Doc Weird’s vision of “A SUPER-NAZI… A MONSTER IN SS UNIFORM WITH BARBED WIRE WRAPPED AROUND HIS ARM,” immediately followed by Victory Girl’s more sexual vision of the same. The climactic spread in Law’s massacre of the Golden Age is that wonderful one of him in the driver’s seat of a giant Nazi tank, mowing down the pulpy cannon-fodder that should have faded away when their newsprint did. Marshal Law’s been called a fascist, has admitted being a fascist, but this is where it’s made explicit that he’s a Nazi. The squeak-and-glisten look, to quote Martin Amis on the shiny boots of leather worn by Hitler’s and Stalin’s men, isn’t just a surface. He’s not a good guy under that uniform. He’s exactly what the uniform denotes, a killer ideologue without the compassion for humanity that we call humanity.

That’s a first. Because in outing Law as a fascist and a Nazi Mills and O’Neill are tarring all superheroes, the leather-clad no-mercy types popular at the time and the clean-cut ones of the Golden and Silver Ages, with the same brush. They’re all fascists. They’re all bullies who use their strength to follow orders from their leaders, and no one set of leaders is much more moral than any other. Like Superman in Miller’s Dark Knight, upholding the American Way by overthrowing foreign governments, any supposed hero does as much good for the world as any other weapon. Marshal Law is what we’re proud of ourselves for having fought against, he’s our secret fantasy of brutal power and he’s the empty centre of any colourful superhero. Which were, in 1992, erupting in a new wave of amoral, nonsensical pin-up violence. Where would we go from here?

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Marshal Law: The Hateful Dead and Marshal Law: Super Babylon by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill are available in the collection Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition.

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