This installment of “Palmer’s Picks” is a bit of an oddball. It’s the only time I broke format and wrote about a specific character, Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s superhero parody Marshal Law.
It was a strange little detour with some mixed results. I think Marshal Law is a fun comic and it was something that definitely fit in the “Palmer’s Picks” mold, but my writing here falls back into a lot of the old habits that I really should have grown out of. Most of this column is spent recounting the comic’s circuitous publishing history, which was one of the mistakes I made with a lot of the early columns I wrote.
With all of the space devoted to explaining where the various Marshal Law series appeared (which gets summarized again in the “Recommended Reading” section), I had very little room left to talk about what makes Marshal Law a great comic. And I think that the handful of paragraphs I actually did use to talk about Mills and O’Neill’s talents really don’t do the job. All in all, I should have taken another approach with this one or thought it out a little better.
The “Pick of the Month” this time is Diane Noomin’s excellent all-female cartoonist anthology series Twisted Sisters Comics, which made for a strange juxtaposition with the violent excesses of Marshal Law. This wasn’t the first comic to bear that name: there was the underground one-shot Twisted Sisters that featured comics by Noomin and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art, a mass-market paperback collection assembled by Noomin that paved the way for Kitchen Sink‘s anthology comic. All of these comics are definitely worth tracking down.
Marshal Law: Secret Tribunal, the last series I mention in “Recommended Reading,” ended up being the final “proper” appearance of the character. He showed up again in two more team-up series, The Mask/Marshal Law and The Savage Dragon/Marshal Law, and some illustrated prose stories, but to date there have been no more comics starring Mills and O’Neill’s anti-hero. There was some talk of a film adaptation, but nothing has materialized on that front. If you’re interested, DC Comics released Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition in 2013, a hardcover omnibus that collects all of the various Marshal Law series under one cover, minus all of the team-up comics.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
In the mid-’80s, a number of revisionist superhero comics appeared. Works like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ Watchmen, Frank Miller‘s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Rick Veitch‘s The One deconstructed the superhero myth and looked at it with an analytic and investigative eye. Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s outrageous and ultraviolent Marshal Law stands in stark contrast with those comics. If Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and The One dissect superheroes with precision instruments, then Marshal Law is a completely over-the-top examination of superheroes.
Epic Comics first published Marshal Law in a six-issue run which began in 1987. It shocked and offended just about everybody, since it featured scenes of destruction, mutilation, and drug use, with the occasional severed body part or nude figure thrown in for good measure. The original storyline, “Fear and Loathing,” introduced a world in which superheroes are dangerous psychotics, except for the title character, a slightly sadistic San Futuro police officer who kills just about every “hero” he meets. Against a post-apocalyptic backdrop, the Marshal investigates the sick crimes of Sleepman, a disfigured criminal who rapes and kills women dressed as the superheroine Celeste, and his connection to Public Spirit, America’s favorite hero.
“Fear and Loathing” was followed by the Crime and Punishment: Marshal Law Takes Manhattan one-shot, also from Epic. Mills and O’Neill turned their attention to the Marvel superheroes in this story, in which Marshal Law disposes of a group of heroes who bear more than just a passing resemblance to Mr. Fantastic, Thor, Captain America, and Dr. Strange.
Marshal Law next appeared in Toxic!, a short-lived weekly British comic anthology published by Apocalypse. Those serialized stories, “Kingdom of the Blind” and “The Hateful Dead,” were later collected and published as a one-shot and a two-part mini-series, respectively, by Apocalypse. Once again, Marshal Law disposes of “heroes,” this time a thinly disguised version of Batman in “Kingdom of the Blind” and an army of undead Golden Age superheroes in “The Hateful Dead.” Apocalypse folded before it could print the second part of The Hateful Dead, but Dark Horse published the conclusion to the story in Super Babylon.
Kevin O’Neill’s art for Marshal Law is truly disturbing and disgusting. In Marshal Law, he pulls no punches, filling pages with big guns and phallic symbols as well as brutal depictions of violence and destruction. His characters are rendered in a sharp, angular style, and the destruction is so exaggerated and extreme that the reader can only be disgusted.
Pat Mills’ writing is layered with both satire and parody. He exposes the ironic differences between the messages heroes give and the way their actions are actually interpreted. Superhero sub-genres and specific superheroes are parodied through harsh, abrasive situations and cruel jokes. Mills’ character is so versatile that he can be placed into many different situations and still be believable. Not only has Marshal Law gone up against superheroes, he’s also taken on the monster from the Alien films.
The Harvey Kurtzman superhero parodies from EC Comics’ original Mad had a strong influence on Marshal Law. Stories like “Superduperman!” and “Bat Boy and Rubin,” both drawn by artist Wally Wood, were full of throwaway background jokes and slogans written on characters and walls. Marshal Law makes full use of those devices, depicting characters in gaudy, ridiculous costumes, and featuring offensive and suggestive slogans like “Nuke Me Slowly” and “Fear and Loathing” scrawled on people, guns, cars, and buildings.
Revisionist superhero comics have spawned a host of “grim and gritty” copycats that seem to miss the point completely. Marshal Law is one of the original revisionist stories, and the main reason for its longevity and appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. All of the destruction and mayhem is done with tongue firmly in cheek.
Update: In the “Recommended Reading” section of “Palmer’s Picks” in Wizard #32, the first part of my look at minicomics, I mentioned the City Limits Gazette, a newsletter about the small press. Well, silly me, I forgot to mention that the CLG doesn’t exist anymore! If you sent any money to Steve Willis, the editor of CLG, don’t worry: he’s a nice guy, and will probably send you some of his comics instead. If you’re still interested in seeing a newsletter of some sort, check out The Poopsheet from Rick Bradford. Send a dollar (four will get you a subscription) to Rick Bradford,
P.O. Box 161095, Fort Worth, TX 76161-1095.
I’m still interested in letters of any kind (especially proposals for indecent acts), so send your stuff to Palmer’s Picks, c/o Wizard Press,
151 Wells Ave., Congers, NY 10920-2064.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a New Jersey-based writer who means the world to Keith, Bharat, Jamie, Bryan, Brian, Pete, and Peter.
Pick Of The Month
Twisted Sisters Comics: Diane Noomin is the editor of this diverse collection by some of today’s top women cartoonists, including cover artist Mary Fleener, Carol Tyler, Carol Moiseiwitsch, and Fiona Smythe. Twisted Sister is published by Kitchen Sink Press.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Marshal Law has an interesting publishing history. The comic has been printed by a number of publishers, so it takes a bit of work to track down.
Fear and Loathing: The original story was published by Epic from 1987 to 1989 as a six-issue series. The story was later collected with a new cover, an introduction by Clive Barker, and a new eight-page prologue.
Crime and Punishment: Marshal Law Takes Manhattan: This bookshelf format special was published by Epic in 1989. Mark Nelson inked over Kevin O’Neill’s pencils, and Mark Chiarello helped out on the coloring.
Kingdom of the Blind: Apocalypse published this story, which was originally serialized in Toxic!, as a one-shot. Toxic! and both of Apocalypse’s Marshal Law collections were distributed very spottily in the United States, so it might be difficult to track these books down.
The Hateful Dead: This is another serialized story collected by Apocalypse. Apocalypse went out of business before it could release the second half of this mini-series. As stated above, this comic was not widely distributed, so copies may be hard to find.
Super Babylon: Dark Horse saved Marshal Law from limbo by publishing this conclusion to The Hateful Dead. Since not many people saw the first part of the story, this comic didn’t make much sense to anybody.
Blood, Sweat, and Fears: To make everybody happy, Dark Horse published this trade paperback of the two collections from Apocalypse and the conclusion to “The Hateful Dead.” The book has a new cover by O’Neill, a selection of promo art, an afterword by Trina Robbins, and two rebuttals by Pat Mills.
Law in Hell: Marshal Law returned to Epic to take on Pinhead from the Hellraiser films. Surprisingly, the story works without diluting the concept behind either character. The story ran two issues, with coloring by Steve Buccellato.
Secret Tribunal: Dark Horse released the first part of this two-issue storyline near the end of 1993. The conclusion should be out by summertime.