Thursday, December 15, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: MARSHAL LAW; FEAR AND LOATHING (1987-88)
(Note: I'm using the graphic novel designation for the untitled six-part story as originally released by Epic Comics. I have not read any additional materials within the TPB collection.)
I've referenced the Pat Mills-Kevin O'Neill creation MARSHAL LAW in various essays, like this one, but this essay is the first one I've devoted to its status as a mythcomic.
It's nearly impossible to imagine this project having been published without the influence of the 1986 WATCHMEN. Like the Moore-Gibbons work, MARSHAL LAW conforms to the mythos of the irony, but the Mills/O'Neill approach to satirizing superheroes diverges from many of the Moore/Gibbons strategies.
For one thing, the WATCHMEN superheroes evolve in much the same way as normative American superheroes: assorted characters who possess independent origins. The superheroes of the MARSHAL LAW world share the same origin, aligning them with the "one-gimme" rule propounded by prose science fiction-- which, so far as I can tell, seems to be a rule Pat Mills usually followed in the serials he wrote for British comics. Most if not all superheroes in the LAW world are created by the technology of the U.S. government in a near-future timescape, and all for the purpose of making "supersoldiers" to serve in foreign wars. Some of the super-types merely have enhanced strength or endurance, while others have more exotic super-powers, like flying or "pumping ions."
For another comparison, whereas WATCHMEN only devotes one narrative thread to the employment of super-types as the tools of American imperialism-- mainly, the character-arc of the Comedian-- this is the primary focus of MARSHAL LAW: that supersoldiers exist so that the U.S. can ride herd on other countries. FEAR AND LOATHING does resemble WATCHMEN in that the reader barely encounters any reference to political situations or technological advancements in the world outside the U.S.: both are clearly focused upon portraying America as a thousand-pound gorilla that no other nation can oppose, and that can only be challenged, if at all, from within.
Mills and O'Neill also diverge from WATCHMEN's acknowledgement of the existence of American crime and even super-criminals, for in MARSHAL LAW, all the criminals are superheroes home from foreign wars. A few super-types have attained the lofty heights of public celebrities, usually because they function as mouthpieces for the government. But most of the retired supersoldiers have deteriorated into costumed, ultraviolent gangbangers, while a few others are simply shell-shocked basket cases.
Joe Gilmore is the only veteran seen in FEAR AND LOATHING who isn't either a basket case or a gangbanger, though everything he does is still in a sense determined by his former military service. Loathing what the modern superheroes have become, he somehow becomes a special police operative in the city of San Futuro (a bombed-out version of San Francisco). As the masked officer Marshal Law-- who wears something like a policeman's fancy dress-uniform crossed with fetish-wear-- Gilmore is able to use his special powers, and even a special superhero hideout, to monitor the activities of rogue superheroes when they cross the line and break the law. The narrative makes it clear that Gilmore hunts superheroes-- and no other criminals-- because he hates their perversions of morality, and possibly because he himself, as a former supersoldier, did things in wartime that he's not proud of. More than one character remarks that Marshal Law's outfit looks "gay," though any gayness Gilmore may possess is laced with sado-masochistic elements (Law's mask looks like bondage gear and his bare arms are encircled with lines of barbed wire).
WATCHMEN's events are triggered by one murder, but the narrative of FEAR AND LOATHING spring from the serial rape-murders of young women. All of the victims are killed while wearing the costumes of Celeste, a cape-celebrity whose sole accomplishments come down to being born with huge knockers and being affianced to America's greatest superhero, the Public Spirit (patently Mills' derogatory take on the original superhero, Superman). Marshal Law has no proof that the Public Spirit is the serial killer-- eventually identified as an ulcerous-looking "Batman type" called "the Sleepman." But for years the Marshal has borne a grudge against the Public Spirit for being the respectable face of America's imperialistic policies, and also suspects that years ago the Spirit murdered his previous fiancee, a cape-celebrity named Virago, to keep his name clear of scandal. I won't discuss the Sleepman's true identity, except to say that from the first it's plain that he's not going to be Marshal Law's most hated super-type, since there wouldn't be any suspense to such an easy resolution-- though the script comes up with a valid reason for the "hero-hunter" to go after his most loathed opponent as well.
The simplistic political outlook wouldn't give FEAR AND LOATHING any status as a mythcomic, but its psychological myths, heavily indebted to Freud, do display the necessary complexity. Marshal Law, the Public Spirit, the Sleepman and two other major characters are locked together in a complicated "family romance" that I won't attempt to lay out here. It's perhaps enough to note that one of the principal characters remarks on the "Oedipal" nature of his conflict, and then promptly tries to claim it doesn't mean that much. I take this to be the author's own process of disavowal: he wants to be able to evoke the emotional charge of Freudian tropes and patterns, but he has one of the characters distance himself from said patterns, as if trying to proclaim independence from his destiny as an authorially determined figure. While I've said many times on this blog-- even this very week-- that I don't think Freud counts for much as an observer of human nature, his tropes and patterns still possess great power within the expressive world of literature. Indeed, the Freudian matrix is perfect for this level of irony, as it helps Mills and O'Neill consistently depict a world born "inter faeces et urinam," between shit and piss.
An unintended irony of MARSHAL LAW is that the only time Mills seeks to place any positive value on anything, it's devoted to human beings who are safely deceased. After the dubious hero of the story has vanquished all of the evildoers-- and has even found himself implicated in the same evil of the Freudian "authority-figure" that takes in the Public Spirit-- he visits the gravesite of his girlfriend, one of the victims of the Sleepman. He mentally repeats his catchphrase-- "I'm a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven't found any yet." Then for the final panel, the camera shows him walking through the cemetery, surrounded by gravestones and monuments, and finishes by thinking, "But I know where they are." This implies that there is some nobility to be found in the departed, implicitly the deceased soldiers with whom Gilmore served. And yet, the satire of Mills and O'Neill has shown nearly every other aspect of human activity to be fraught with hypocrisy and concupiscence, so it seems a bit of a cop-out to give special dispensation to the dead-- particularly those who willingly served in imperialistic wars.
I'll note in closing that though FEAR AND LOATHING shows that Marshal Law is implicated in the evil he fights, most of the other installments in this erratic series don't follow up on this trope. Thus the series largely devolves to assorted scenes of the hero finding new and increasingly repetitive ways to destroy superheroes, with very mixed results in terms of scoring satiricial points.