The bile no longer rises in my throat

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Rereading Marshal Law vs Pinhead: Law In Hell, Marshal Law: Secret Tribunal, Marshal Law & Savage Dragon and Marshal Law & The Mask by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill.

The final 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: The good news is that the Marshal gets some. Oh yeah. In these final volumes, our leather-clad hero gets his freak on not once, not two times but thrice. He even has a proper girlfriend, maybe two. Why is that good news? Because, logically, now there’s actual sex in Marshal Law me and Joe can stop going on about the sexual subtexts. That’s how this critical analysis business works; when there’s no sex it’s all about sex, when there’s sex then it’s not about sex at all. You never read Freud?

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The bad news is… well, like many a Pat Mills project, the back end of Marshal Law continues and cements its decline in quality. The point that got lost is never refound; indeed, at the series’ nadir there’s a concentrated effort to pretend that was never the point at all. And there’s a lot of it. If you divide Marshal Law into three volumes, the first being Fear & Loathing, the second the superhero parody-murder one-shots and the third these crossovers, the last volume is both the worst and the longest, by a hundred pages or more. It’s never hard to get through, but you find yourself wincing at the contrast between what it was and what it became.

I was on the sidelines of the comics industry through most of the 90s – I was Vertigo Kid – so I missed out on the whole crossover boom. I bought Batman vs Grendel, at the same time reading some news story on the counter about a comic called Youngblood which was set to sell a million, but that was it. I was aware that Batman was versusing Judge Dredd and Judge Dredd was vs Aliens and Aliens vs Predator and Predator vs Tarzan and all the rest. I just never read any. I skipped the whole scene.

But Marshal Law didn’t. His entire third act is vs stories, though Secret Tribunal wasn’t allowed to be the vs Aliens story it was planned to be and is instead a thinly-disguised vs Aliens story. It’s a strange artistic choice, to progress the story of your lead character with a succession of co-headliners, and I can only conclude that it seemed to make sense commercially, that the fluctuating career of Marshal Law was to be boosted by his high-profile guest stars. If that was the plan, it didn’t work for me. Despite being a habitué of several decent comic shops when all these came out, I saw only the first issue of Secret Tribunal. I lost track of the Marshal.

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And, next in my confession of ignorances, I’ve never seen Hellraiser. The only contact I’ve had with the franchise was a friend who was involved with special effects and came round wearing the head of the Chatterer. So my assessment of how it matches up with Marshal Law is based entirely on these comics, and that assessment is: pretty well. A man with a bagatelle of nails in his face and a man who wraps barbed wire around his arm turn out to dance passably together. More importantly, a Hell full of creatively-mutilated demons who worship pain and live to torture is a dream for Kevin O’Neill to draw. His art hasn’t been this electric, this uncorked since Book One of Nemesis the Warlock, freestyling hate-driven monstrosities across an infinite space of diabolical architecture. Termight or the Empire of Tears left to fester and grow forever. The plot, complete with the convenient invention of a superheroine girlfriend for the Marshal and a flashback to Charley’s War for Pinhead, is nonsense but in a wryly wheel-spinning way, recognising that nothing important ever happens in these interuniverse crossovers. Razorhead, the deputy from The Hateful Dead, makes his final appearance, a load of superheroes get killed, and the same point about imaginary heroes hiding the bloody reality of Tommy in the trenches is made that was made in Super Babylon.

The swipes made at superheroics, by Law and by the comic, are pretty weak. But it’s a world so well-suited to its artist’s pen that these two issues, while inarguably infinitely weaker than the killing bite of Law at its peak, are impossible not to enjoy. Never have hooks tearing into diseased flesh been drawn as often and as joyfully, or black abbeys of sin imbued with such blasphemous enthusiasm. Pinhead starts off on model, photographic reference employed, and ends up as plastic and expressive as any other O’Neill creation. The symphony of suffering is played by an artist who has that kind of tune in his head all the time and doesn’t get to cut loose very often.

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Secret Tribunal, the one that should have been vs Aliens, has none of that verve. Law In Hell’s heavy-handed presentation of the Marshal in a vacuum, a capsule reintroduction for the people who’d buy anything with a chromium cover, was forgivable as a one-off. For the follow-up to do much, much less is not a good sign for the character. There’s a Legion of Super-Heroes parody that doesn’t have any viciousness or conviction, there’s the Secret Tribunal themselves that could be mocking Image characters but do it so tiredly it’s hard to be sure, and there’s a plot which just about connects those elements, Marshal Law, and the aliens. From the examples I’ve seen, vs Aliens stories work because the aliens can be implanted in any universe and exist only as a threat to be defeated; there’s no chicanery necessary. Barbarians, future cops, superheroes, hunters who carry sound-mixing equipment, they’ll fight them all. In a comic that mocks superheroes, however, that just puts the protagonist on the side of the superheroes which is not an interesting place for him to be. Apart from the debut of Public Spirit Jr and some silly suggestive fun with Growing Boy the two issues are memorable only for some sexual stuff which returns to the series’ nasty roots. Do we need to see Public Spirit Jr attempt to rape a naked teenager and leave her bleeding, screaming and unremarked on by the narrative? Do we need the Marshal screwing Breathless while calling her “the ugliest damn superbitch I’ve ever seen”?

Yeah, I lied when I said we were done with the sex.

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JOE: It’s funny, my personal enjoyment of the two is exactly reversed. I should note that Secret Tribunal is apparently the ‘first’ of these works in the Marshal’s continuity (as it is): it directly follows Super Babylon per the plot, and its first issue was released by Dark Horse (home of the Alien franchise) in September of 1993. The second and final issue did not arrive until April of 1994, and in the interim an ailing Epic (by then a glorified license house attempting to attract the superhero audience through its Heavy Hitters line of action books) released the entirety of Law in Hell in the final months of ’93. I don’t know the details of the two books’ production, but given that O’Neill is working with an outside colorist (Steve Buccellato) on Law in Hell, it is probable the art was finished in much shorter order.

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I really prefer the richer look O’Neill brings with his own paints on Secret Tribunal; it’s probably not as immediate or anarchic as Law in Hell, but it affords an uncertain grandeur to all those dimly-lit corridors and thrumming machines. Even an image as silly as the introductory panel of the Tribunal’s giant cockship takes on a delicacy not a million miles away from Moebius, perhaps because O’Neill is confident enough to dial down the energy and detail in his drawings when he knows exactly what to do with the colors. There’s a wonderful panel with one of the Liefeld/Lee parody mutants blasting the head off an alien, where the sonic shriek from his mouth is formed from unoccupied white space, while the rest of the frame is cloudy with differing layers of watercolor blood. You don’t generally associate O’Neill with that kind of subtlety, but it’s enough to make you regret the man never colored anything longer than a page again, save for some scattered work in the august pages of Penthouse Comix later on in the ’90s. But that’s gonna be our *next* collaboration, right?

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Moreover, Secret Tribunal tries, at least, to have a little fun with its subject matter. The Legion of Super-Heroes track may not be as cruel as usual – hell, the Marshal even allows one of the chief assholes to live along with the designated sympathetic one! – but Mills gets a little amusing mileage out of the horror movie origins of Alien, underlining the commonalities between the Ridley Scott original and popular slasher movies by having the all-teen Legion become horny, obnoxious tools having sex and getting themselves killed. The (non-)Aliens, of course, are also busy breeders, and Marshal Law in general has never shied away from sexual content, so everything seems apropos.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t go much of anywhere. The dark secret of the Legion’s origin feels like a reheating of better content from Kingdom of the Blind, and Mills genuinely doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Image Revolution parody track, falling back instead on jabs at the Marvel mutant concept. Even here, there’s some amusing work done with the glaring discrepancies between the notional ‘discrimination’ metaphor at the center of X-Stuff and the actual in-story mechanics of living a life of magnificent power and thrilling adventure according to superhero cliché, but I think the whole thing is unfortunately best embodied by the confused ‘sexualized’ superheroine character who doth protest waaaay too much about her loathsome nature, only to be clumsily revealed as a victim of childhood sexual abuse and then ignored for the rest of the story. I presume Mills’ point is that designing female characters with heavily sexualized attire inevitably reinforces an objectifying, patriarchal environment, but again: (a) this is something that was covered with much more grace all the way back in Fear and Loathing; and (b) plopping this revelation into the midst of the no-nonsense Real Talk Marshal getting his rocks off is problematic (as they say on Tumblr) to a worrying degree, because it denies the heroine any sexual agency.

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(Plus, is Mills seriously going to draw an equivalency between designing a crudely sexualized heroine and said heroine being “psychologically and sexually degraded by the scientists who gave me my super powers” in a comic drawn by Kevin Fucking O’Neill? We’ve mentioned a few times the peculiar energy Marshal Law derives from the push and pull of its creators’ personal impulses, but there comes a time when such interesting contrast crosses the line into simple disconnect – and that’s deadly if you’re slinging polemics.)

Law in Hell, meanwhile, devotes nearly half of its first-of-two issues to parodying New Age self-help dippiness, mainly via the Marshal’s (now standard-issue) fuckbuddy-of-the-series, a good-intentioned but rather flaky superheroine. “Are you taking the piss?” indeed. Frankly, the whole thing comes off as less a studied and incisive critique of genre implications than the cock-swinging sex fantasy of a Real Talking hard man enamored with his own gritty wisdom. Mercifully, the gates of Hell then open, there’s a really cool drawing of the American War Machine (while Razorhead begins to look tellingly similar to Mr. Hyde from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Mills at least manages to conjoin his own superheroes-as-soldiers motif to Pinhead’s own origins in the profound despair of the Great War, which doesn’t exactly amount to anything more revelatory than the series’ earlier variations on the theme, although it does, at least, rescue this stretched-out project from seeming completely arbitrary. Then, the Marshal breaks up with his girl and literally leaps into an orgy full of hot babez. It’s Okay: This Shit is Totally Feminist!

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After that, the American comics industry imploded and the Marshal vanished for more than three years, while the creators labored on a never-produced movie adaptation. By the time the character resurfaced, per O’Neill, the publisher couldn’t even afford to hire a colorist for the project. That publisher was Image – still a bit disreputable back then – and the means of the Marshal’s entrée was through the signature creation of co-founder Erik Larsen: the Savage Dragon, a fellow superhero cop, and, incidentally, a cornerstone of my own Chromium Age reading as a very much NON-Vertigo Kid. (Ask me about Shadowhawk sometime.) Speaking as an expert, I can assure you that O’Neill does a really nice job of drawing the Dragon in such a close approximation of Larsen’s style in certain panels I’d swear the man himself was sitting in for a jam.

And now that I’ve detailed all the good qualities of The Savage Dragon/Marshal Law, aka “Ten,” which… aw, I mean, I shouldn’t *really* harp on Mills for transparently knocking off the plot of Seven, it’s not like magazines like Action and 2000 AD weren’t bolstered by doing weirder, rawer riffs on their popular surroundings. It’s just that Savage/Law (as I’ll now call it) is lacking in adequate thrill-power, instead falling into one of the hoariest superhero traps of all: alternate future syndrome, where inordinate space is occupied by the would-be shocking deaths of previously invulnerable-by-way-of-serial-necessity superhero characters. Worse, many of the deaths (and not a few of the supporting cast) are Savage Dragon characters, imbuing all these Earth-shaking events with a Johnsian weightlessness, should you somehow not be intimately familiar with Mighty Man and the like. A tiny bit of interest is raised by making the killer a mad, anti-grim, old-school genre purist, but even that idea was done better in Rick Veitch’s Bratpack from years prior – a troubled, flawed book that stands nonetheless with the meanest of the old Marshal Law.

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In other words, while prior Marshal Law crossovers at least seemed to click with the series’ thematic concerns, Savage/Law is just a superhero crossover, serving up a tepid mystery on the basis that both of the title characters are cops. Any weight afforded the series comes from critical shifts in the Marshal’s own motivation and the disposal of several lingering characters from Secret Tribunal, which – god, it’s a superhero comic now, right?! I mean, it always was, that was the heart of the ambiguity so powerful in Fear and Loathing, but now it’s JUST a fucking superhero comic, and not an especially good one because it’s doing what not-especially-good superhero comics do, ie load an otherwise disposable scenario with unconvincing events critical to continuity.

And, you know – I understand the industry went to shit. It’s still hard out there for creator-owned stuff, and heaven knows it was harder back then in the dog days, the worst times since the mid-’70s, and I certainly don’t begrudge Mills’ & O’Neill’s attempts to revive one of their biggest successes, but – the texture of the work that I’d liked so much is totally absent now. Not tortured, or diminished: just gone, vanished into the incantations of costumed men.

Image15On the plus side, at least everyone had the sense of consistency to continue to do what superhero comics do, and reverse all of the changes as soon as possible. The Mask/Marshal Law arrived the year after Savage/Law, back at Dark Horse and back in color. “I’m just going through the motions,” the Marshal sighs, preparing to throw the keys over to his Carrie Kelley-like sidekick/designated-fuckbuddy before the return of the Sleepman from Fear and Loathing coaxes him back out for one last mission… “MY FINAL HUNT!”

Did Mills & O’Neill know they’d never do another full-length comic with this character again? Even if not, the awareness we have of this series’ place in Marshal history offers a certain sweep to the proceedings, which begin to carry the air of a valedictory: here again are the sex freaks in the vice clubs on the city streets. Here’s the old gun motifs at SFPD HQ, here’s the final evolution of Suicida. Here, at last, is another worthwhile cross-property commonality, as the Mask becomes representative of all superhero masks as justifications of violence. And here, at the end, is one last joke, winking at the futility of continuing on with this character who needed to accept the idea of failure to shatter the cycle of pain to begin with. Oh well, Batman’s heart started up again at the close of his story too, and at least these guys aren’t *pretending* changes will keep in a superhero world.

ME: I was so far removed from the whole Image revolution that I didn’t even understand what Doom Force, the Grant Morrison artist jam parody of them, was even parodying. I’d given up on X-Men back when Marc Silvestri was a poor man’s John Romita Jnr, and when I went to the comic shop I was busy buying old issues of Shade, The Changing Man and Justice League Europe. I don’t know how I missed it so completely. There must have been an awful lot I wasn’t seeing.

But, contextually, it changed the entire industry. These comics were selling millions of copies. The hindsight view of the speculator boom and the cover gimmicks and the collapse of the industry wasn’t common currency then. There was no reason to believe that the Image characters, WildCATS and Youngblood and Spawn and of course the sensational spine-cracking Shadowhawk, weren’t a new generation of icons. This was Marvel in the 1960s all over again, a thirty-year cycle creating a new crop of heroes which would be cartoons and action figures and movies. And even post-crash, after Rob Liefield had been kicked out of the company he founded and Image had become a byword for lateness and sales of everything had collapsed, the industry continued chasing the glossy-muscled dragon, because what else was there? Even Alan Moore, jobbing on various Image projects, kept trying to work out how to follow the founders in hitting, to paraphrase Martin Amis on Barry Manilow, that one awful note that gets you uncontrollably rewarded.

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This context is crucial in understanding Savage Law. Because the Marshal, who hates superheroes, who repeats the same internal monologue about hating superheroes with slight variations in every story, who just at the end of Law In Hell chose hate over love, is suddenly giving superheroes ‘nuff respect. He works with one – though the Dragon is at least a cop – and, most sickeningly, he looks after them. The guy who used to chit-chat with deputies while dragging hero corpses about his secret base to mount on stakes now weeps for them, feeds them, cares for them.

There’s no motivation for this change, this reversal, within the story. It’s actually a Photoshopping of the character’s circumstances: Law was Joe’s job, his secret identity being everything he did outside of the nine-to-five of his specialised line of policework. Now he’s working two jobs, as a medical orderly for poor, poor damaged superheroes who he hopes he can one day heal. The Marshal Law reader can only rationally respond: what the fuck? But in context, in the context of an industry reeling from massive, game-changing superhero success, it makes sense. Who can afford to diss superheroes? When the mature boom you came from is lying dead on the road and the superheroes are making it rain, then there’s an attitude shift. Marshal Law, and I say this using the sexual connotations for the term that Lynn taught us all that time ago, has gone soft. He’s a limpdick. And, as Mills and O’Neill knew when first posing the paradoxical question of Marshal Law, if you’re a superhero then not fighting doesn’t elevate you above the fray. It makes you a loser. It finishes you.

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It’s hard to decide which of the three lowest points of Savage Law is the absolute nadir of the series. Is it when Law rails against himself for “thinking the worst of superheroes”? Is it a few pages later, when the Dragon gives Law an end-of-act-two pep talk that restores his self-belief and makes him believe that maybe he can be a hero, after all? Or is it the final page, where Law – who, as Joe says, spent pages raging about New Age bullshit a few issues ago – says: “I hunt heroes. And I finally found one… Myself.” Each one a betrayal of the series original intent, a dollar-sign scar on the creators’ souls, and an acquiescence to commercial reality, to the fact that after the death of the superhero, the autopsy, the brass-band funeral and the Danse Macabre with their bones, the fucking things are still the only thing that sell.

I never read the Savage Dragon. For the purposes of this crossover, there’s no need to. Anyone could turn up in a future city, team up with another hero without either questioning the other – there are just ten panels between the Dragon and Law’s first encounter and the Dragon being invited in on the case – and, Inspector Morse-style, fail to catch the killer for another five victims. Mighty Man had the air of continuity, a sense of pre-existence, but I had no idea any of the other characters, just suits and codenames really, were from the series. It doesn’t matter. This is a team-up in the worst sense, a suffering character trying to catch another’s sales wave, the Dragon appearing out of nowhere and disappearing in an adventure that doesn’t matter to him, his creator or his fans while the Marshal goes through major life changes. It’s embarrassing. And, in case it’s not clear, the story sucks. Weak serial killer plot so diverting of the reader’s attention I didn’t even spot it was a Se7en steal, none of Law’s humour because of the newfound deference to superheroes, and no colour. O’Neill can do black-and-white, as most of his 2000AD work shows, but as early as Book III of Nemesis the Warlock he wrested the comic’s two colour pages from Dredd because his art so evidently benefits from it. The art here was clearly meant to be coloured and, especially in the big splashes, loses clarity. It’s hard to tell who’s shooting who.

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The Image influence is less direct in Marshal Law & The Mask, a swansong which at least aspires to heal some of the damage done. It’s in the art, in the lack of texture and the reliance on (computer?) colouring to model, the glossiness of every surface. Perhaps it was done on more of a deadline. Perhaps low sales meant it wasn’t worth putting the same effort in. Certainly there’s a feel that you’re not getting the full O’Neill here, that his mind’s already somewhere else on another project.

In terms of story, we pick up where we left off with the Marshal over himself – over the self-loathing, the hero hunting – and ready to pass on the mantle to the lazily named Gale Force. I quite like the acknowledgement that all superheroism is personal, that the masked vigilante isn’t out to help the world but enacting their own personal psychodramas on others. But that’s been done better in this comic before. The other sign that this is the final act, that Marshal Law is having his limbs straightened and his gun placed in his hand before being put back in the box and replaced on the shelf, is the return of the Sleepman. Way back in the last chapter of Fear & Loathing he was shown to be alive and obsessed with Law. Now, for reasons cheerfully left unexplained, he’s given the transformative power of the Mask and proceeds to fuck up San Futuro.

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The saving grace of these closing chapters is the return of the black humour; bludgeoning, rather than slicing with a keen edge, but at least recognizing that to take violence further than the mainstream of comics has already taken it is to make it into slapstick. I like the Mask’s heroic disasters, saving children and stopping bank robbers and in the process slaughtering hundreds, a trace of the original critique of unthinking superheroism surviving. I like the sheer idiocy, the cliché-inhabiting glee, of Joe becoming Marshal Law again by ripping barbed wire off a fence and wrapping it around his arm. There are three decent splash pages – Genocida, Wire Mother, and the final page of Marshal Law himself – and the concept at least lets O’Neill go crazy one last time.

But there’s no percentage, for the readers, in examining the concept of the Sleepman or of Marshal Law. They’re the tools of examination, not worthy of being examined. And this focus on itself forces the realization that this comic lost its way a long time ago, that it couldn ‘t really answer the question it posed itself about superheroes and that it was always destined to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that it’s better off over.

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JOE: I never read the prose novels Mills later wrote. There was one last comic, though: in 2002, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary issue of 2000 AD, Mills & O’Neill contributed one b&w page to a big jam comic celebrating the magazine’s history. Toxic!, as we’ve noted before, had no small impact on 2000 AD in the ’90s, and so who should push his way past forgotten Prog 1 headliner M.A.C.H. 1 than Marshal Law, who commiserates with Judge Dredd himself (the two Joes initially confused for each other), and eventually hooks up with a crew of Mills’ other creations from the pages of Crisis and elsewhere – escapees, then, from 2000 AD, though none are freer than the Marshal, who gets the benefit of a big fat TM and C notice down the right side of the page.

As happy an ending, then, as pragmatists might hope.

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Marshal Law: Secret Tribunal by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill is available in the collection Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition. None of the other stories have yet been collected. 

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