Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Marshal Law Takes Manhattan (one-shot)

"You just said the magic words" - Marshal Law

In 1991, a short-lived UK comic called TOXIC was launched by Pat Mills who wanted a comic that had some of the edginess he felt 2000AD had lost over the years.  It was pretty bad, a noxious mixture of bad art, lowest common denominator writing and the finances were so badly managed that many of the artists and writers quit stories before they were completed due to lack of payment.  I've dedicated a tumblr to it if you're interested in checking it out.  The comic folded in the same year it began after thirty-one weekly issues.  However during that period the publisher "Apocalypse"  released two Marshal Law storylines that followed on from the six issue miniseries published by the defunct Marvel imprint Epic, which I covered here.  These two storylines, the bleak "Kingdom Of The Blind" and the slightly dafter "Marshal Law Takes Manhattan" were published seperately in 1991 as 48 page one-shots and it is the Manhattan story I'm covering today (I'll be looking at "The Kingdom Of The Blind" later in the year). 

Marshal Law lived in a world were the US government had genetically engineered superhumans to serves as soldiers in an ongoing war in South America.  Joe Gilmore, the man who became Marshal Law was one of those soldiers.  He developed a deep hatred for other superheroes and in the shattered city of San Futuro (a renamed, earthquake devastated, San Francisco) he took on the job of policing the superheroes who returned home to find a society that had no place for them. 
Marshal Law doesn't pussyfoot about.
The original miniseries, which I covered last year was a scaborus attack on both US foreign policy, CIA dirty tricks and the concept of the superhero as a whole, and if it wasn't a huge influence on Garth Ennis's later series "The Boys" I'd be very, very surprised.  Helped by Kevin O'Neill's grotesquely beautiful art, Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing was a frantic tone poem of bile and disgust, a kick to the crotch of the superhero archetype.  Marshal Law Takes Manhattan however is a slightly lighter concoction thanks to its colourful array of Marvelverse parodies and humour at their expense.  It still, however, finds space to be absolutely enraged by the CIA's use of torture on foreign combatants and civilians.
Can you identify all the parodies?

The story begins with an Ant Man parody confessing that he is a superhero in the manner of a person attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He is welcomed to "The Institute" by "Mr Fantastic", he says they've been treating people who suffer delusions by superpowers for years.  The nurses then wheel out a trolley with all their medication on. "Thor", "Submariner" and "Captain America" all take their pills, but "Doctor Strange" resists and has to be restrained and sedated.  The nurse says a specialist will be coming to see them soon and we are introduced to Marshal Law.

He is talking to Commissioner McGland who is telling him about a superhero called "The Persecutor" who has been murdering Hispanics in his district.  McGland tells Marshal he has been accused of encouraging vigilantes by employing a certain "fascist thug".  Marshal saracstically commiserates.  He then goes on to say that if he doesn't get the cash to run his precinct properly others will have "to do the job for us." 
MacGland and Marshal Law.
He's learned that The Persecutor has been arrested in New York and is trying to escpae justice by getting admitted into The Institute  For Mentally Disturbed Superheroes.  "How big is this place?" snarks Marshal.  McGland says that superheroes are needed, they show the world what America is still capable of.  The general public however must never know what superpowers can do.

Marshal Law: "Because they don't want to know."

McGland: "Of course. That's the purpose of the asylum - to keep the American public's fantasies intact."

McGland wants Marshal to bring The Persecutor back if his application to The Institute fails.  Marshal says it will be a pleasure.  When he was a soldier in South America, The Persecutor was a CIA operative called Don Matrione, who demonstrated all different forms of torture to them.  When he returned home to his wife and two kids, he was attacked by two hit squads at once, one from Brazil the other from Uruguay.  Although he escaped, his family were killed in the crossfire. 
I'm surprised Marvel didn't raise a fuss, so on the nose the parodies are.
He refused to take the blame for their deaths and turned himself into a superhero, waging a one man war on terrorists, subversives and mobsters.  Or who he believed to be them at any rate.  He's basically The Punisher.

Marshal Law: "Mmm. You're my kind of hero Persecutor.  You're gorgeous.  I love you and want to have your babies."

We then cut to The Persecutor at The Institute.  "Who do I have to see about entering this nuthouse? " he asks arrogantly.  "Mr. Fantastic" tells him "us of course".  The Persecutor responds "but you're mad."  Who better to judge you worthy replies "Mr Fantastic" and he queries whether or not The Persecutor fits the criteria of superhero as he never had the surgery to give him superpowers.  The Persecutor points to "Hawkeye" and says he doesn't consider having a bow a superpower.  "Mr. Fantastic" says they've tightened things up since then.

The Persecutor: "I'm a serial killer!  Isn't that good enough for you?"

Not really says "Mr. Fantastic" they are all in The Institute because the surgery they underwent affected their minds as well as their bodies.  As they talk, two nurses are watching them.  One of them is from South America and is disgusted The Persecutor is even being considered.  The other nurse says she should be grateful for America giving her sanctury from her war-torn country.

Nurse: [thinks] "I would be if you hadn't screwed mine up in the first place."
Don Matrione, CIA thug.
The Persecutor begins to panic, saying Marshal Law is coming for him.  Meanwhile Marshal thinks back to when Matrione was demonstrating torture techniques to them.  It was in the guise of torture counter-measures. But Joe as Marshal was then, points out that it seems they are being taught how to carry out torture themselves.

Marshal Law: "No, none of that was ever taught or intended.  'Cos we were the good guys. Ha."

The superheroes of The Institute come to a decision and reject The Persecutor's application.  The Persecutor freaks out and disarms the cop guarding him, kills him and shoots a security guard.

The Persecutor: "Men are animals.  It is in our nature to kill.  Killing is beautiful.  Kiling is noble.  Killing is art."

The Hispanic nurse attacks him with scissors, but he guns her down.  While the Persecutor fights, there is a pisstake of the tendency to massively overwrite that makes Marvel comics of a certain vintage completely unreadable for me.
Ahahahaha, Pat you're a card.
The Institute goes into lockdown, but Marshal Law arrives and enters.  He is accosted by two orderlies but easily shrugs them off.  A doctor puts out an announcement that Marshal Law must be stopped before he harms any of the patients, and the assembled superheroes decide they'll deal with him.

The heroes trick Marshal into releasing the Human Inferno, a man tortured by being constantly on fire.  Marshal manages to escape him and starts to lay into the rest of the heroes.  "Mr. Fantastic" gets "Captain America" to join in the battle by telling him Marshal was responsible for the death of The Public Spirit (the original superhero from the miniseries) who was called Buck.  In revenge for "Bucky", "Captain America" helps overpower Marshal and they drop him down a liftshaft where he gets tangled up in a mass of sticky webbing made by "Spiderman".
The Human Torch Inferno.
Back with Commisioner McGland, he thinks about how he warned The Persecutor that Marshal was coming for him in the hope that both would take each other out as Marshal has become a bit of an embarrasment since the death of The Public Spirit.  He ruminates on how, when Marshal was a soldier, he punched Don Matrione for demonstrating torture on a civilian.  In retaliation, Matrione put him in a box with a hood over his head for days then water-boarded him.

Returning to Marshal, he is trapped in the webbing still and The Persecutor is torturing him with a live electric cable.  He tells Marshal he wasn't just some deranged sadist, he was a CIA operative acting with full authority and following proceedure.  It's still a crime what he did, says Marshal.

The Persecutor: "How can we be in the wrong?  We're the guardians of the world.  We really are superheroes!"
The anti-torture message is welcome if not exactly subtle.
This causes Marshal to rip himself free and he and The Persecutor set about each other on top of a lift.  The rest of the heroes head to the roof where the Human Inferno has broken the water tanks in an attempt to put himself out.  As Marshal brings the cuffed and subdued Persecutor out of the building, the heroes ride the water down and all end up splattered across the pavement.

Marshal Law: "What... what a terrible tragedy.  Can America ever recover from the lost of its finest superheroes who've done so much for our culture?  I.. I'm just glad I've a little left on my boot to remember them by."
Alas poor supes.
On the way back to the airport, Marshal decides The Persecutor isn't worth the cost of an air ticket.  He boots him out of the car, still bound, and the last we see of him is him being roasted on a spit by cannibals using the Human Inferno as a fire.  Marshal returns to Commisioner McGland and tosses Matrione's dog tags on the desk, and the story ends with a full page image of the messy remains of the superheroes.

Marshal law Takes Manhattan is a compact little story of quality.  I loved Marshal Law back in the day, he was my favourite comicbook character of that era by far.  By using a spoof of The Punisher, a psychopathic creation that already sits somewhat uneasily in the Marvel Universe of Fantastic Fours and Avengers, Pat Mills was able to cleverly blend a critique of the complicity of the US government in the torture of foreign detainees (that hits even harder today with what we know of Extraordinary Rendition, CIA Blacksites and Guantanamo Bay) with hilarious parodies of various Marvel characters.  Characters he rendered pathetic and delusional just to hammer home how immature he believes the superhero concept to be (note the barbed and meta "done so much for our culture" comment from Marshal). 
I don't agree with his view of superheroes, but man, Marshal Law is cool.  Yes, he's an unrepentant psycho who anticipated the worst excesses of comic's 1990's Dark Age, but thanks to Kevin O'Neill's fantastic design and the character's frank self knowledge  it's hard not to be rooting for Marshal as he deals with the menace the superheroes pose to the world.  This adventure I believe has been collected in the hardback Marshal Law collection along with the other one shots and the "Fear and Loathing" miniseries, so there is no excuse not to check it out.


  1. Im surprise marvel didnt sue lol! i think i need to get that marshal law collection it looks awesome frm what you have written about so far.

  2. Marvel probably thought it wasn't worth giving a comic from a small British publisher any extra publicity. I myself am saving up for the Marshal Law omnibus even though I own most of the stories!

  3. Does he go on to take Berlin?

    There's no such person as Saint Future. 'San' is just one letter away from 'sans', so I guess that that means that the city has no future, like all those bleak stories of urban decay in 2000 AD (e.g. Bad City Blue).

    Really neat parody of how civil institutions in the USA are saturated in the stars and stripes, plus more eagles than in Pontius Pilate's waiting room. All hail the neo-Roman empire!

    It's weird when you think that the US is still torturing people today, in Guantánamo Bay, which is somehow fine and dandy because it's not actually on US soil, or something.

  4. All the cities in Marshal Law seem grim, San Futuro is the worst because it got hit by an earthquake.

    Pat Mill's exposure of torture here and in CRISIS made me join Amnesty as a teenager. It's unbelievable frustrating that torture seems to have been made "cool" in TV shows like 24.