Marshal Law: Fear Asylum
Writer(s): Pat Mills
Artist(s): Kevin O’Neill
US Publisher: Epic Comics and Dark Horse Comics
Set on the imaginary city of San Futuro, in a near future, Joe Gilmore is tasked with the quasi impossible mission of reigning in all of the superheroes who break the law, or go rogue, in a city where obtaining superpowers is just a hypodermic needle away.
(Written from NYC on the evening of Evil Irene hitting us hard)
I’ll explain something beforehand: This is review is on a body of work comprised to the date of 3 or 4 graphic novels, not just a single graphic novel. I did choose to use one for the sake of the rating system, but the general commentaries found on this review will pertain to all the graphic novels of this character.
There are so many reasons why these books should be on your shelves, that maybe this could turn into the longest comic book review ever. It won’t be.
The Marshal Law saga is told in a series of publishing miss-adventures, filled with changes of publishers and delays on printing, lack of continuity, lack of publicity and many other unwarranted burdens.
Years before Warren Ellis started telling his tales of The Authority, and Garth Ennis started setting up a team to deal with rogue superheroes, Pat Mills had penned these amazingly well rounded stories about a lone self-deprecating crusader with barbed wired on his arm who will provide us with one of the most infamous quotes in superhero comics that ever went unnoticed:
“I’m a hero hunter…I hunt heroes…haven’t found any yet”
Pat Mills is one of those quintessential comic books writes that proves with his craft something that I don’t get ever tired of trying to convey to all the young potential comic books writers who think they have the greatest next idea for a superhero comic, and that is:
You can’t just read superhero comics. Heck! You shouldn’t just read comics, if you want to be a writer. Because a comic book writer is first and foremost a writer. And a good writer should be able to embrace and cover many topics, not just one.
I know that some comic industry icons got away with not writing a decent script in their lives (Stan Lee, I am looking at you) but those were other times and the industry was quite different. The only way to escape writing a good script is if you have a good symbiosis with the artists, or you yourself are the artist and have mulled the idea in your head over and over enough to know where it goes and how it gets there.
Because when you read Marshal Law as written by Pat Mills you are guaranteed a journey through philosophy, economics, sociology, pop culture and current affairs among many other poignant topics and themes. And unless you are very well versed in general knowledge you will miss the boat on the majority of his inferences and references.
Which gives me a great opening line for the next important topic: How underrated and unappreciated is this comic book series. One of the two factors that contributed to this piece of work remaining so unappreciated is that like many works of art ahead of its time (Read my review on Bratpack by Rick Veitch) it remains under the radar because the audiences were not ready for it when it was published. This series is unapologetic and unflinching when it comes to criticizing American popular culture, and most of the biases and preferences we demonstrate in the US towards heroes and messianic figures. And it was published in 1987, when Reaganomics were in full swing, and America was experiencing the “benefits” of trickle-down economics.
Like I said before, the wrong comic for the wrong audience.
The other half of the coin is the fact that as a superhero comic, it is by its own merits pretty bland and boring, and with not very high production values. But as a critic and satire on superheroes, as a unrelenting lens through which criticize and make fun of economic system and societies preferences and mores, it is a fountain of delight that just keeps giving with every panel, and gets better with every read.
The part that leaves me in awe is that The Dark Knight Returns sees light of day in 1986, Watchmen in 1987, so Marshal Law can’t be dismissed as a derivative work, something that appear under the influence of the previously mentioned works. Marshal Law is one of those rare synergistic works that appears in the comic book panorama from time to time, bringing together similar themes and events, and while the works of Miller and Alan Moore get all the spotlight (justifiably so) due to its innovating themes and storytelling, the masterpiece of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill lingers in popular ignorance and indifference.
It is doubly astonishing taking into account that Garth Ennis 20 years later would produce (with a good degree of success) The Boys, were a group of superheroes act as secret police of other heroes. Very similar themes are touched here, sex, abuse of power, abuse of authority, government conspiracies, etc, and the work is received with a good deal of success. I guess the audiences are ready, now, 20 years later.
If you read these collections of graphic novels, you should do it putting yourself in the context of 1987. Otherwise you are risking having these works coming across as dated, and unoriginal.
When you imagine yourself reading this in 1987, you also realize that this work, although it may have come out at the same time of other seminal works, it must’ve been conceived, written and plotted at the same time!
Kevin O’Neill started as an uneasy choice for me as the artists elected to illustrate a comic about superheroes. But after the few pages, when the reader gets comfortable and familiar with his stylized art, you realize that it strikes the right balance to allow the writing to take the driving seat, and the reader gets to enjoy in full the complete impact of the social commentary. It is somewhere around there that you realize that you are not reading a book about superheroes. You are reading a wonderful social critic of human condition, and life on the twentieth century as represented by pop culture.
And thus, Mills gives us unforgettable moments, such as the splash page with the plane and the superhero messiah; the name of the creator of the superheroes, Dr Shocc, is a not subtle reference to Shot Therapy, a treatment developed in the field of psychiatry in the late thirties. Or it could have political connotations referring to Shock Doctrine. The admiration that Marshal Law expresses for Public Eye (another psychotic vigilante, parodying Bruce Wayne’s alter ego) is a call for self reflection for all comic book readers who ever wished they were The Dark Knight, in order to impart their own brand of justice.
If you happen to be among the blessed ones who finds all the TPB and has to choose one to start with, you should pick up Marshal Law: Fear Asylum, where you get to see our favorite self deprecating anti-superhero, taking the entire Marvel and DC cadre one way or another, sometimes letting them take themselves out.
There is a fairly decent rumor going around that DC has picked up the rights to publish an Omnibus Edition of Marshal Law and we may get to see it in November 2011
If I were rating this comic on the “underrated masterpiece” category, I would give it a rating of 10 stars.
But as it stands
So, on my Critics rating, Marshal Law: Fear Asylum gets