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Q&A: Writer Pat Mills on 25+ years of superhero hunting with “MARSHAL LAW”

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Originally launched in 1987, MARSHAL LAW was a gob of spit in the face of superhero comics; a gleefully violent satire of the genre. The titular character was a superhero hunter, a war veteran living in a dystopian future city, tasked with hunting down the array of superpowered criminals and psychopaths created and then discarded by the US Government. In the words of the Marshal: “I hunt heroes. Haven’t found any yet.”

Whilst forerunners such as THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN had helped usher in an era of ‘comics growing up’, both of them still took a somewhat elegiac attitude to their superheroes. MARSHAL LAW, on the other hand, took a blunt instrument to them.

None of this will come as any surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Law co-creator Pat Mills. Often called the “godfather of British comics,” Mills’ writing is distinguished by its radical, anti-authoritarian attitudes, furious pulp energy, and very often, its no-holds-barred, in-your-face violence.

All of which is certainly true of MARSHAL LAW, now being collected and republished in a deluxe hardcover edition by DC Comics. In our current superhero-obsessed times, the comic is perhaps more relevant than ever, so it seemed appropriate to check in with Pat Mills and see whether he or the Marshal had mellowed with age…

FANGORIA: What was the genesis of MARSHAL LAW?

PAT MILLS: [MARSHAL LAW artist] Kevin O’Neill came up with this amazing looking future cop and we then searched for a story for him. Initially we trod the MAD MAX road.  Then, I had a plot about future crime in a TOUCH OF EVIL world.  We sold this to Marvel.  But then I felt that the guy really was some kind of superhero and the story should reflect this.  But I hated superheroes!  So I thought: What about making him a superhero hunter, where I could vent my spleen on them, a story I am supremely qualified to write. I tentatively suggested this to Kevin who added a future war context and we were away. So Marvel didn’t actually get the character they commissioned, but rather the same story with a whole new dimension.  I’m not sure they were altogether happy about that, although they never said anything.

Marshal1FANG: You clearly have a deep and abiding loathing for superheroes. Which, in the age of THE DARK NIGHT and THE AVENGERS, must be fun for you! Do you feel superheroes have moved on at all since you first started putting the boot in during the 1980s?

MILLS: Nah. They seem more self aware and pretentious now, but the 21st century so far is hardly a time of creative progress.  I read some highly-rated Superman origins book by Grant Morrison a couple of years back, expecting some new Scottish insights into the character and was surprised by how deferential it was. Well, I guess that’s what the fans want.  Don’t blame us. If they want the forelock tugging approach it only reflects the wider world.

My loathing is more for what they represent—nothing wrong with a hero with special powers, if he isn’t just a tool of the establishment. So I did an Indian super hero once–BLACK SIDDHA–who originally didn’t want to be a hero (like they do).  He said, “I can’t be a superhero. I’m not American.”

Well, it amused me!

FANG: Grant Morrison is actually fond of comparing superheroes to the ancient gods, arguing that they fulfil a similar mythological need in our modern psyche. Is it this sort of deification that bothers you? Should we have moved past myths and gods by now?

MILLS: Yeah, I think the deification of superheroes is rather worrying.  The neo-Christian elements,  e.g . Messiah Syndrome, have been written about before, although not in a critical way to my knowledge.  Abdicating our power to messiahs is a dangerous business.

FANG: Any specific superheroes you particularly loathe? If you had free reign to do any crossover, who would you ideally like to see MARSHAL LAW take down?

MILLS: Many aspects of LAW actually transcend known superheroes. In fact, Kevin and I were talking about this today and a Law story we’d love to do (but won’t happen because of our other commitments) and it had nothing to do with any of the heroes around today.  I think we cherry-picked the best and others might come in an incidental fashion.  What we were both firmly against was being formulaic, working our way through the universe of heroes. Not sure there’s one I particularly loathe.  It comes down to the writing.  DARK KNIGHT is superb–even though I don’t like the politics—it’s incredibly well done.  I found the deification of Superman uncomfortable to read, not least because I think the original superhero stories were more human in scale and motivated by personal agendas which I recall relating to.

FANG: It’s often demanded of writers that they create ‘sympathetic’ characters. Yet in MARSHAL LAW, your protagonist is a coldly obsessive borderline fascist, who might only be considered heroic when contrasted against the array of superpowered psychopaths that he goes up against.

MILLS: I’m worried because I actually think Law is a good guy!  Doing a great job!  He’s unemployed, or a hospital orderly, which kinda gives him some sympathy and he feels  guilty for the crimes American soldiers committed.  Am I persuading you?

I do buy into the accepted wisdom of sympathetic characters, possibly more now than before. Although the sympathy isn’t always apparent because of their looks, their title or similar.

FANG: Superhero comics are notorious for their pandering to adolescent sexuality. As well as satirising that approach, you also push the subject matter further into the realm of sexual violence. What were your aims here, and did you have any qualms about taking that sort of material on?

MILLS: Sexual violence?  Sleepman raping Law’s girlfriend?  He’s a bad guy and it was in character. Public Spirit Junior was pretty foul to girls. Again, in character, I think

FANG: MARSHAL LAW is clearly an angry, uncompromising comic; containing not only the aforementioned sexual violence, but also vicious satire, anti-authoritarianism, and a distinctly left-wing agenda. Was the series controversial at the time, and did you run into any censorship issues?

MILLS: It was fairly controversial. No censorship that I can recall. I remember a Texas comic shop banned LAW because we had a supervillain drop kicking a kid from San Futuro to Santa Monica.  It’s this prissy attitude to comics that keeps down in the depths of juvenilia.

Marshal2FANG: And yet the comics audience has supposedly grown older. So what’s at the root of this juvenile attitude? What changes would you like to see in the industry?

MILLS: I’d like to see comics aimed at the original popular culture audience of 8 – 14, male and female. Essentially they’ve been hijacked by older readers. (Mainly our fault for letting it happen.) This would broaden the base again and then there could be more fruitful commercial exploitation of the variety of sub-genres. It’s becoming increasingly male (no girls’ comics, for instance), niche and elitist.  The majority of professional writers, publishers and editors don’t actually like or understand  working for the original audience.  What do they want?  Any computer games shop gives us a good idea.  They understand that market. Hence the high number of classic pro-active heroes.  It can still be built on and taken into sophisticated areas.  And look at the difference in sales between games and comics. That surely has to be worth looking at, but it won’t be.

FANG: To a large extent, you’ve steered clear of US comics, preferring to write for European audiences. So was there a sense that MARSHAL LAW was the Pat Mills comic that the US deserved?

MILLS: Oh, yeah! There was so much more I’d like to have said.

FANG: Such as? Where would you have liked to have taken the character/comic?

MILLS: Trashing political figures, in particular. I wouldn’t want to say more because I’ve seen at least two comic series which have been clearly influenced by MARSHAL LAW and I wouldn’t want to give them any more ideas for free.  There’s a way that it can be very entertaining, thankfully dependent on Kevin’s brilliant art, so it probably couldn’t be pulled off by any other creative team, but I’d rather not take a chance.

FANG: The comic started at Marvel/Epic, then appeared in the UK weekly TOXIC! before going to Dark Horse and then back to Epic, and is now being collected by DC. What can you tell us about this somewhat tangled publication history?

MILLS: We weren’t making enough money at Marvel, so then we had a chance to be part of a start-up company on Toxic where British creators finally had rights etc. So we moved to Toxic. That didn’t work out—long story—so we then went to Dark Horse. Didn’t make enough money, so did cross-overs and then had to stop for economic reasons. Recently sold the reprint rights to DC. Yeah, it is tangled, it confuses me sometimes!  Somehow it suits Law’s character!

FANG: Do you think the Marshal is still relevant 25 years later, and are there any plans to put him back on the streets?

MILLS: Probably more relevant now than back then, because we live in such a beaten down world today where there is little social change and idealism has been crushed.  I’d love to see him back, but it feels problematic because Kevin’s on THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and I’m on other things. But I do need the outlet to attack heroes, so I do a bit of potshotting at them in DEFOE (Mills’ current 2000AD steampunk zombie series) where there are the 17th century Vizards, smug establishment superhero  bastards who Defoe–the last Leveller–wants to kick their heads in.

See, it’s still in me!

MARSHAL LAW: The Deluxe Edition will be published by DC April 23, 2013. Creators Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill will be doing a signing session at London’s Gosh! Comics on April 20th between 2-4 p.m.

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About the author
Sean Hogan
Sean is the writer/director of LIE STILL and THE DEVIL'S BUSINESS, as well as a segment of the anthology film LITTLE DEATHS. He recently co-wrote and directed the portmanteau horror play THE HALLOWE'EN SESSIONS, which enjoyed a sell-out run in London's West End. He is currently at work on a number of projects. Although not too many, as it tends to interfere with his drinking.
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