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“Assholes, Assemble!” Comics! Barbed Wire Laffs Inside!

John Kane

Before I start blabbing about a guy who hunts heroes but hasn’t found any yet here’s some advice I know wish I’d had when I was a teenager:


Wise words there, kids. Some not so wise ones after the break…

You know who hates super-heroes? No, not Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis! Their hatred of super-heroes is more like when you you’re 15 and you see your best mate down the shops with his girlfriend and when she’s looking in a window he rolls his eyes and sticks his tongue out before snapping to attention and putting his arm back around her when she turns round. It’s more like irritation that they have to write these capes things to pay for their more personal masterpieces consisting as they do of New Scientist articles espoused by the same snippy character in a number of different wigs or rape and dismemberment jokes legitimized by industrial levels of sentimentality. No, that’s less like hatred than the low level resentment of any thermo-dynamic miracle who spends their life behind a desk having to actually work for a living. Pat Mills, however, Pat Mills has a hard-on for super-heroes as big as a Riot Squad Cop’s night stick and he knows how to swing that sucker to inflict maximum dental reconstructive surgery. Swing away, Pat Mills. Swing away!


By Kevin O’Neill/Mark A. Nelson (a), Pat Mills (w), Mark Chiarello, Dave Stewart(c), Phil Felix, Bill Oakley & Elli DeVille(l)

(2003,Titan Books, £14.99/£24.95)

Marshal Law was created by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill in 1987 for an Epic (Marvel) Comics series which has been much discussed by many great minds. The character then ping-ponged around various publishers teaming up with various characters retaining its relentless signature mix of super-hero satire, socio-political commentary and good crude fun. The latter volumes don’t get nearly as much attention as it’s generally agreed that they slide into formula and become one-note one-joke (like me!) affairs with decreasing returns. So rather than dissect the first far more seriously intentioned volume I’ll be turning my watery eye on the final collection. Because that’s where I swim, pal, in the shallows. Also, I just happened to pick it up while I was rearranging the deceased goldfishes’ bowl in The Archive. Anyway the good news is there’s still meat on the bone although it does get a bit grey and gristly towards the end. But, hey, maybe that’s to be expected given how ML comics work? Let’s me and you have a looky loo!


MARSHAL LAW TAKES MANHATTAN (1989) has many notable aspects but none, I think, more notable than the fact that it was initially published by the now entirely humourless Marvel Comics. Almost entirely humourless, I guess, since Marvel has given us the joy of the Marvel Architects photoshoot:


“Blue Steel!”

In this one-shot Pat Mills explicitly recasts super-heroes as products of metal illness. Having already steamrollered over the heroes of The Golden Age in the previous volume (SUPER BABYLON, Dark Horse, 1992) this story focuses more on the Silver and Bronze Age heroes. All your Mighty Marvel favourites are here with the dysfunctions and disabilities inherent in their origins made plain. The whole thing has the air of an issue of NOT BRAND ECCH that has spent a traumatic time in borstal and returned to wreak revenge armed with a ball peen hammer and a roll of duct tape.


“But, but whatever can you mean?!?”

Captain America sucks his thumb while holding the flag and conducting interminable monologues before occasionally leaping into action and describing his actions (“Aiee! Now we are going up the stairs!”), Mister Fantastic talks to his invisible wife (who is patently a delusion), Doctor Strange is a hebephrenic and Daredevil wanders about in the background bumping into things. It’s obvious, brutal, funny and all the more obvious, brutal and funny since Pat Mills is also, in his patented Pat Mills-y way making a point.


“Better than the wink at the end of WHTTMOT anyday!”

This Millsian point is embodied by The Persecutor (remarkably similar to The Punisher) who the good Marshal has been dispatched to bring in by his odious boss McGland. A former CIA Specialist in Enhanced Interrogation Techniques The Persecutor is a wholly unsympathetic turd. He’s used by Mills as an example of where the psychosis of super heroes leads a society. Mills argues that the acceptance of such practices is only possible in a society which holds the default position that it is The Good Guy. Because if you are The Good Guy then nothing you do is wrong.


Interestingly, at least to me, Pat Mills maintains that the concept of the super-hero has been absorbed into Western culture in a damaging way as it, along with numerous other factors, allows the West to casts itself as The Good Guy in an internal cartoon narrative that reduces complex and dangerous real world issues into ones of childish simplicity. If only there were some recent examples of that. If only there weren’t. If only there were not. And so, for Mr. Mills, super-heroes are fully worthy of the shock treatment he is dispensing.

Which is okay as far as it goes. I mean I’m a long time cape fan so I’m not unaware that the first response to this is that, yeah, but, super heroes embody all the good qualities in humanity, “With great power must come responsibility” and all that trad jazz, dad. Which is true but I think it’s also true that the tendency is to ignore the “responsibility” bit and just focus on the “powers” bit and I think that’s where Mills has a point. But that was a long time ago when people read cape comics in their hundreds of thousands and the heroes actually meant something other than a stepping stone into TV.

Okay. So it kind of yells at you like an angry hobo but it’s a hobo with a point and also a hobo with a killer sick sense of humour and, since the hobo has been designed by the Gaudi of the Grotesque Mr. Kevin O’Neill, the whole thing ends up being diagnosed as VERY GOOD!

The second story collected here is SECRET TRIBUNAL (1993) which basically takes the Legion of Super Heroes and feeds them to the movie Alien while pausing to spit on the excesses of the Nineties. A case of, “In space no one can hear your voice break, dude!”



Now, Pat Mills’ work probably gets called a lot of things but it’s probably rarely called sweet and touching. That’s “touching” in the nice sense, not the one that  involves years of therapy and mental anguish. Despite the body horror, gore, expletives, pouch festooned bosoms, crude innuendo and typical strident delivery SECRET TRIBUNAL manages to actually be both sweet and touching. The focus of the story is Growing Boy who is seeking entry into the League of Heroes but fears that when the time comes he will fail to perform, he will fail to, um, grow. This is really quite a clever way of addressing teenage fears and insecurities while at the same time appearing to mock them. It’s all the cleverer for combining it with the gyno-horror of the Alien movies. Of course you may think this is just stone obvious in which case you are not me, and that, pal, is your reward; not being me. Trust me, that’s better than diamonds. There’s also another layer of intelligence since quite early on Growing Boy becomes experienced at the fluttering lips and silky limbs of Super Sensitive Girl.


“Hands above the covers, Paul Levitz! Hands ABOVE the covers!”

He recalls that “I can still see her face now…congested, panting like an animal…making suggestions I never expected to be uttered from female lips” and I’m pretty sure they aren’t things like: “Why don’t you go down the pub and have some time to yourself.” so where the beast with two backs is concerned Growing Boy is sorted for “Eee!”s and jizz but still he fears being unable to “perform”. This of course is, I believe, because in cape comics the fight scenes are analogous to the fuck scenes in a porno. And since Growing Boy’s money shot is illustrated by Kevin O’Neill it looks like this:


“Do you remember the first time…?”

Ah, yes, the aliens. Obviously the League of Heroes, being as they are a bunch of peer pressurized hormone crazed teens, are outmatched from the off and even the venerable Marshal might not tip the scales in their favour. Luckily our beleaguered heroes are powered up by the presence of The Secret Tribunal! Oh my, what a lovely distillation of Nineties nonsense they are too. Here are their names: Lichenstein, Anti-Man, Vrilla, Ragnarok, Breathless and Rune! The ridiculousness of the time when people who drew like disturbed 8 year olds ruled the roost is channeled to fine effect by Kevin O’Neill. A more garish collection of pouches, shoulder-pads, wasp-waists, big honkers, cigars and headscarves can rarely have been seen. Well, outside of the original travesties, natch.



The dialogue these badly designed buffoons spout is delightfully stilted. Breathless, who is basically a male sex-fetish with pouches for nipples, delivers the following wonder, “It’s so hard to find men to help me gain my explosive energy. They find me repulsive…”. It’s the seamless combination of these high-impact idiots with the more restrained old school stylings of the League together with the warped and turbulent textures of the Aliens which is Kevin O’Neill’s greatest achievement here. Not once do the differing styles chafe against each other and not once do they lose their distinctiveness. Also the League’s spaceship looks like a cock with four balls. That’s never not funny in fact it’s VERY GOOD!


“Cliches unbound! Well, bound with barbed wire but still cliches!”

Alas, things take a bit of a stumble with THE MASK/MARSHAL LAW (1998) on the second page of which the sweet Marshal declares “I’m just going through the motions.” It’s hard not to take this literally as Mills and O’Neill struggle to bring some of the old magic back in a tale in which the charming Marshal goes on One Lat Mission against his original nemesis The Sleepman who is now ridiculously over-powered due to his wearing The Mask. Oh, it’s fun enough stuff but nowhere near as psychotically entertaining as its predecessors. Mills struggles to make a Mills-y statement with the material falling back on the old stand by of masks allow people to behave without inhibitions which isn’t original or terribly interesting but does allow Kevin O’Neill to bust his nuts all over the pages in a series of flagrantly unsettling S/M scenarios.


“It isn’t THAT bad!”

The biggest problem for the series is the very nature of the series. Due to its parasitic nature Marshal Law only really works when it has something of substance to nail to a cross. By this time Mills and O’Neill have eviscerated all the old familiar favourites and are having to hunt and peck the sterile ground of modern comics for sustenance. Marshal Law’s catch-phrase is “I’m a hero hunter. I haven’t found any yet.” Judging by the much remarked upon lack of invention and creativity in the modern North American Super-Hero genre he’s got no chance once he hits the noughties. But there is hope in the last page that ML will find cape comics worthy of hating again. When the book ends they aren’t even worthy of that. Because they don’t mean anything now, not even anything bad, just…nothing. Even Marshal Law can’t fight nothing. But he tries and God loves a trier (also keen on: sacrifices) so in my book this one was GOOD!


I just love this panel, thats all.

So the scores on the doors seem to indicate that MARSHAL LAW: FEAR ASYLUM is VERY GOOD!



Hey, I’m looking for a few good people. Well, actually I’m looking for about 5000 people with more money than sense and a retailer with no sense of self-preservation. I think that’s doable. I’ve seen the sales figures for NEW AVENGERS so there’s way more than 5000 people out there drunk in charge of 5 dollar bills. What we do, right, is take up Marvel on their “Order 5,000 copies of this dreadful ULTIMATE FALL-OUT comic we can’t shift and you can have a free advert in a Marvel comic guaranteed not to reach any new customers.” Yup, in times of economic hardship Marvel are always there for the retailers. I’m sure you can see where this is going: we order the copies via our retailer and send in an advert consisting of this:


We might also put some words on it. We could put “Jack Kirby (August 28, 1917 – February 6, 1994). The Original Marvel Architect.” Or “The man who paid for everybody involved in this comic to go to Hooters on expenses.” Or Stan Lee got his, where’s Jack’s?” Or “Those mediocre movies whose box office performance and merchandising revenue you’re all so puffed up about? Totally down to this pipe smoking high-waisters wearing dude. His name’s JACK KIRBY in case you forgot!” I don’t know, we could work on it a bit. What? Oh, what do we do with 5000 bad ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN comics? Build a career, baby. Build a career and then go into TV! Sheesh! Tough crowd!


Have a nice weekend all and if you go into your LCS buy some COMICS!!!

17 Responses to “ “Assholes, Assemble!” Comics! Barbed Wire Laffs Inside! ”

  1. Where do I send my $5.00? That will be money well spent to stick a hot poker up Marvel’s stingy ass.

    There would be no Marvel Comics or Marvel movies had it not been for the King.

  2. They couldn’t get the HELLRAISER x-over for the collection? That’s bizarre but not superfluous – it really takes the body horror of the Marshal Law concept and the Rob Liefeld school of gross anatomy to its logical conclusion.

  3. @RobertG: 4,999 to go! This is how the world changes – 5 dollars at a time!

    @Tim O’Neil: Hmm. Very good point about the MARSHAL LAW/PINHEAD (1993) contents. I recall that beauty had die-cut embossed covers too! But, nope, it’s not in it. Neither is the B/W SAVAGE DRAGON/MARSHAL LAW (1997)team-up. Which is a shame because they are both crucial parts (IIRC) of the Marshal Law Gets a Sense Of Perspective character arc that ends with the MASK issues.

    I have heard tell that DC are going to publish an omnibook of all this lurid greatness so, if that’s true, they should be in there. Whether this will include the two text novellas (with illos by Sir Kevin of O’Neill)is also unknown to me.

    My thanks and may you both have a lovely weekend!

  4. I haven’t much of intelligence to add, I just want to say that John’s reviews have the ideal mix of genuine hilarity and real insight that all other comics reviews should aspire to. Your description of the work of Ellis and Ennis beautifully crystallises what I feel about their stuff, but could never have phrased so pithily.

  5. Morning JohnK(UK):-

    Have you ever, by chance, read the 4p text feature “A Man With a Pencil” in Kamandi #32?

  6. @JRSM: Well, I can’t say as I deserve such fine words but I’ll take ’em! I’m a grabber, me! In fairness any insight is due to the fact that Pat Mills tells you exactly what he’s on about all the time. No mistaking that guy’s intentions!

    Any and all comments always welcome. Even if it’s just “All Limeys stink big style”, “Yes, Marshal Law is good eatings” or scans of your AUNTYMAYMAXXX:PENILE DEMENTIA fan art. Okay, maybe not that last one.

    @J_Smitty: And a good morrow to you too, sir! The only KAMANDI I own are the two Archive volumes which stop at #20, so that’s a “no” to having read “A Man With A Pencil” in #32. Is it good? Is it one of Jack Kirby’s usual, erm, enthusiastic text pieces? They are always awesome and life affirming. Like Jack Kirby. What is it? I gotsta know!

    Best to all and thanks for your eye time!

  7. Aw, they’d never let you get away with it, but I’m willing to help you try! I’ll buy two, or maybe three or more!

    If you can get a retailer, let us know where we can divert some monies, Mr. K (UK). Could you do it on Kickstarter?

  8. I only ask because the kirby phoro you frequently use reminds me of it in a big big way. I will try to scan and post to my tumblr. link will be provided here when availale.

  9. wow my phone’s touch sensitivity and my lack of proofreading are something to behold, yeah? In order that’s photo and available.

  10. @A.L.Baroza: Heck, I was just spitballing! You keep your money and buy your partner something nice. Golly, I hope you never get an E-Mail from a Nigerian gentleman wishing to relocate his funds. Still, it would have been pretty bloody tittersome wouldn’t it?

    @J_Smitty: Hark at you all wired-up to the Info-Now! I wouldn’t worry about proofreading where I’m concerned, sir.
    I, um, appropriated the photo from Google so it’s someone else’s and it now occurs to me that that might be wrong? I don’t know. Is it wrong? Have I done wrong. I thought that was acceptable. I won’t sleep properly now. I’m too pretty for prison. I look forward to seeing your Jack snap!

    Cheers to all!

  11. I believe there is a fair use exemption for photos of anyone who can look that goddamned confident and cool while rockin’ a plaid sportcoat and a turtleneck. The king, here, looks like he’s just decided not to steal your job, your apartment and your best girl, but only because it’s too much hassle. And he does this while dressed like Jimmy Olsen. Imagine what he could have done in a charcoal pinstripe …

    Then you match the photo to the actual achievement behind it and, well, that photo has a moral imperative to be spread far and wide. It should’ve been laminated on the side of the Voyager probe and sent out to meet the great cosmic neo-deities that will one day come to Earth and destroy it because there will be no one like Jack Kirby for them to sit down and have a beer and a natter.

  12. One could not invoke the spirit of Jack Kirby as you do with the intent to defraud, John, so I was never in danger. It’s an impossible idea, but still, a good one. But still, impossible!

  13. @BrianMc: You, sir, made me laugh.

    @A.L. Baroza: I clicked on your name and you appear to be blessed with alarmingly fine skills in the art department. I hate you. (Not really.)

    Sorry about the late response but, hey, better late than never and thanks to all again!

  14. I was about half-way through reading this, when I thought of an amusing joke – instead of saying something nice or truthful like ‘Now I wanna get that omnibus’, I’d criticize you for not being able to work that awesome Jack Kirby photo into the article.
    And you’d only gone and bloody done it.
    Congratulations. I’m pretty sure you’re well on your way to the deification Kirby with that one. All you need is one of those black bordered inter-net photo things with white text under it: ‘He never gave up on us’. At the very least there’s the chance of a meme.

    It’s a heck of a photo – you just don’t doubt that Kirby fought in a war, created the best superheroes, designed a theme park, invented romance comics, and once rolled up his sleeves without hesitation to go fuck up some Nazi sympathizers who didn’t like his work.

    ““Hands above the covers, Paul Levitz! Hands ABOVE the covers!””

    You’re insane.

  15. @Ben Lipman: Jack Kirby he did do all that! He did! That man! That wonderful man!
    Insane? That’s good right?
    Cheers and my very best to you and yours, sir!

  16. “Insane? That’s good right?”

    Most definitely.

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