When executed with creativity and gusto, satire can transcend its subject matter and move into a realm of unexpected thoughtfulness. Characters who perhaps were intended to be broad strokes instead take on surprisingly sympathetic aspects. While the whole affair seems absurd on its face, something about the world inexorably pulls you into the whirlwind of ridiculousness and leaves you wondering just what the heck happened.
This was my experience with Marshal Law, written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.
You might remember Pat Mills as one of the brains behind the British cult series, 2000AD, and you might also recall that Mills was a co-creator of Judge Dredd. The similarities between Dredd and Marshal Law are readily apparent; both are super-cops, both happen to patrol and protect a post-apocalyptic super-city, and both violently dispense their respective forms of justice. Whereas Dredd is a more straightforward exercise in dystopian science-fiction, Marshal Law is a riff on super-heroes and the comics that worship them.
Marshal Law is Joe Gilmore, former super-soldier and veteran of “The Zone,” a war spanning across Central America and most of the Amazon. After returning home to San Francisco, all that Joe wants is a normal life but his city has been overrun by gangs of superheroes developed by SHOCC (Super Hero Operational Command and Control), the same organization that gave him his own superhuman powers of strength and speed. After a massive earthquake leaves half of San Francisco devastated and terrorized by pillaging superhero hooligans, Joe Gilmore realizes he must become the thing he despises in order to protect honest civilians. Operating out of a secret police precinct, Marshal Law takes to the streets to punish the capes and make the city safe for everyday people.
Marshal Law is one of the driest and one of the most provocative satires I have ever encountered. The titular character is an anti-hero’s anti-hero. Marshal Law’s world is full of decay, graffiti (slogans like “No Pain, No Gain” and “Nuke Me Slowly” are plastered on nearly every surface conceivable), destructive sex, and ultra-violence. While circumstances and imagery often veer to the ludicrously grotesque, the violence is most often employed in the expert delivery of black comedy. Kevin O’Neill’s art on this title is a near perfect marriage to the text; the skinny, angular lines, the intense characters, and the lurid colors all evoke a sense of supreme, ruinous discomfort. I’m personally convinced that Kevin O’Neill is Jack Kirby’s long-lost, punk step-child. Ultimately, what made this book work for me were the sympathetic characters. Marshal Law himself is tragic, understandable, and clearly motivated. While some satires can seem to fall short on commitment, Pat Mills unflinching devotion to maintaining consistency of tone is what ultimately makes Marshal Law succeed.
The deluxe edition of Marshal Law includes the first 6-issue mini-series, as well as an array of one-shots published between 1987 and 1993. Coming on the heels of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, this series is an exemplary product of its time, as well as a clear influence on titles such as The Boys and Kick-Ass. Any readers versed with the above titles would do well with Marshal Law.