Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Superhero In The Age of Genocide:
The Adventures of Marshall Law Part One

Jesus Christ, this guy looks pissed.

I love Kevin O’Neill and Pat Mills’ Marshall Law. Of all the great deconstructionist superhero books of the 1980s, it is the only one that has resisted canonization. It’s been out of print for most of the years since it was originally published, but even if it had been steadily available, it could never have achieved the universal acclaim and popularity that Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Squadron Supreme all enjoy to greater or lesser extents.

The reason for this is very simple: Marshall Law is a wonderfully, irredeemably nasty book. Whereas all of the aforementioned books skated around the core concepts behind superheroic fiction in a very deliberate fashion, Marshall Law makes a point of bursting through the window and breaking the rhetorical furniture.

If you’re a superhero fan, its easy to love Watchmen. Sure, it ably deconstructs the genre, parsing the individual components until the resulting archetype was a rather frightening departure from the norm. And, of course, as with The Dark Knight Returns, at the end of the book the heroic status quo is pretty near restored. The moral imperative of the masked men is ultimately redeemed, and even if they are flawed, with feet of clay and giant batches of neuroses, they are still heroes. Everything that is so ably taken apart in the course of the narrative is symmetrically restored - for the most part - only without the nagging moral ambiguity that served as a crucial element of the plot’s catalyst. For all the talk of deconstructionism, none of these books really take the superhero as far as he could go: all of the above works end with the hero(es) moral imperative reinstated relatively intact.

There is no moral ambiguity in Marshall Law. The heroes in the book are flawed and corrupt, almost totally reprehensible. The title character is a violent thug who seeks out extreme pain because the ability to feel was taken from him in the same procedure that gave him his powers. He’s a super-hero too, you see . . . or, at least, a recovering super-hero.

Marshall Law is definitely a product of the 1980s. Whereas Watchmen’s political content seems, in retrospect, kind of moldy (Richard Nixon still president?), O’Neill and Mills had their eye very keenly on the very pressing issues of their day. The problems began when the government began creating their own superheroes for the purpose of carrying out their miniature “secret” wars in South America. This, as you can imagine, quickly got out of hand. The individual moral prerogative that has traditionally provided guidance for superpowered characters was totally absent. These were soldiers, many of them driven insane by their awesome power, and all of them complicit in any number of terrible, terrible deeds during wartime.

You figure out pretty quickly that you’re in virgin territory when the book opens in the ruins of San Francisco, patrolled by murderous gangs of sadistic “super-heroes”. Marshall Law is the only cop patrolling the earthquake scarred ruins of the once-great city, dispensing a very violent breed of justice to anyone who wants it.

Marshall Law has a mad-on against superheroes because he bought into the super-hero’s myth of moral prerogative hook, line and sinker. He signed up for combat in The Zone, volunteering to become a superhero for Uncle Sam, because he believed in the righteousness of his personal idol, the Public Spirit. Of course, the things he saw and did in The Zone scarred him horribly, and left him with an unshakable conviction that great power exerts an inexorable corrupting tendency. Just because you’re powerful doesn’t make you right, and the most powerful heroes have the greatest potential to go terribly, terribly wrong.

More than anything else, Marshall Law wants to believe in the moral absolutism of his heroes. He has been let down and disappointed in a profound manner, and his boundless rage is the frustration of the inescapably betrayed. When he sees the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the Public Spirit, he falls on it like a drowning man grasping for air. His feelings of personal betrayal can now be validated by the society at large.

I’m a cynic, I acknowledge this. I distrust power simply by virtue of the fact that it is powerful. History has proven time and again that this is a remarkably healthy impulse. The United States Constitution was even designed with the idea that that an independent and powerful government is a thing to be feared, which is why we were granted the concepts of the checks and balances and freedom of speech, and why our government remains blessedly inefficient in regard to certain manners. Problems in the American system almost always stem from instances where federal powers are used indiscriminately and without regard. This is why our history of extra-legal South American military “adventures” in the 1980s is a persistently disturbing national shame.

Of course, in the world of Marshall Law, the ability of American power to operate indiscriminately and without any check has been codified by decades of aggression. The super-hero has been reshaped by the government as an instrument of war, as immoral and as unstoppable as a bullet in a gun. These “heroes” don’t have origins where their terrible responsibilities have been explicitly laid out with defining moral boundaries. They were told to go and to kill, so is it any wonder that when they got home they were still wearing their necklaces of human ears?

The first Marshall Law is basically Chinatown with superheroes. There’s a series of crimes that eventually leads to a deeper rot in the status quo. Marshall Law isn’t particularly bright or particularly strong, but he is tenacious. He is the last honest man in a world gone upside down, where power is exercised indiscriminately and the privilege of ability is the perception of incorruptibility. Marshall Law can’t change the status quo, because the decay is set too deeply in society’s foundation, but he can certainly spend the rest of his life trying to expose every last hypocrite.

Hey, lookie who he caught...

Rejected Breakfast Cereal Mascots
(Number 11 in an ongoing Series)

Ice, Ice Baby.

Melvin the Methamphetamine-Addled Manatee

. . . >gasp< . . .

The kids liked Melvin until the focus group accidentally saw footage of him attacking three off-duty police officers outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Maryland. It took five officers to subdue him, and his collarbone was broken in the tussle.

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