While the world awaits the Watchmen movie, another 1980s classic comic series from two British creators that took a new look at superheroes is trying to make a comeback. Twenty-one years after his first appearance, how does Marshal Law measure up to today's superhero-saturated culture?Titan Books' new release Marshal Lew: Origins collects two novellas that has been written for defunct website Cool Beans at the start of the century by co-creator Pat Mills (The second is actually co-written by Mills and the character's other creator, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's Kevin O'Neill), and it's a book that will thrill old fans of the comic, while most likely leaving everyone else entirely cold. Given that the stories in this book are eight years old, it seems unfair to complain that the book seems dated, but that's the first thing that sprung to mind when I was racing through it the other night - Mills (who's one of the most important figures of the British comics scene, having co-created 2000AD and many of its characters, including Judge Dredd)'s prose may be almost comedically to the point, but it's also a quick read - that, and the fact that, since the stories were written, superhero culture has entirely passed the dull, ham-fisted satire of the character by. It's ironic to see Mark Millar's blurb on the back ("I love Watchmen, I love Dark Knight Returns and I worship Will Eisner, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but Marshall Law is still my favorite comic book of all time"), because he's made a career out've the the cynical take on superheroes as not just everyday people but flawed people that Mills brought to the table with the original Marshal Law series, and you can see what influenced Millar (and, to a lesser extent, Warren Ellis) all throughout this book. The problem is, of course, that the success of things like Nextwave, The Ultimates, Wanted and the like have completely mainstreamed - and, really, killed - the subversive edge that made Law interesting in the first place... and without that, there's very little to recommend it.
It doesn't help that Mills (and O'Neill, in the latter story) has a particularly adolescent take on the world - A superheroine gives Marshal a blowjob under the table at a party! Shocking! Or, really, not so much... Especially when Mills can't actually bring himself to write that sentence himself, and instead relies on innuendo that any self-respecting 13-year-old would decide is too childish ("Joe wriggled, red-faced, in his seat. 'Plums? Swollen... plums.'"). Plot and characters get the same treatment - There's no problem that can't be solved with some good old fashioned violence (Preferrably punctuated by catchphrases that get repeated over and over again; the serialized nature of the stories is really obvious when characters keep saying the same things multiple times. Apparently going through for one last edit wasn't on the cards for Mills), and characters are either psychopaths or perverts (if they're male, or superheroines) or comedically pure and chaste (if non-superpowered and female). It's a shorthand that worked in the comics, where O'Neill's over-the-top visuals drove the unreality of the world home, and also distracted the reader from the stereotypes Mills used in world-building, but given the space and format of prose, it's embarrassingly obvious how limited a writer Mills actually is. In the end, it's almost a mystery why the book was published - Marshal Law hasn't appeared in comics for over a decade (aside from reprints), and there can't be enough die-hard fans to make something like this a sound business decision - until you revisit a comment that Mills makes in the introduction to the book:
There was a time when our Hero Hunter stood almost alone in his fight against the men-in-tights; but today he is one of a sub-genre of characters who take on super heroes, and that is a good thing as he no longer baffles some Hollywood film producers. They finally get it.
Is this book is less a book in its own right that a glorified pitch, then I wouldn't be surprised... but I wouldn't expect it to be that successful, either. There's nothing in Marshal Law: Origins that we've not seen before, and done better.