Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Marshal law: Secret tribunal

"Secret tribunal" was a 1993 Marshal law mini-series, done by the character's original creators Pat ("Slaine") Mills and Kevin ("the League of extraordinary gentlemen") O'Neill, and published by Dark Horse. It is fairly unique in the title's history that it stands on it's own and is not a part of a crossover. By and large, it provides a very distinctive entry into the Marshal law universe, and functions as a complete story on it's own.

Of course, a working knowledge of the targets of this SF superhero satire will probably go a long way towards really understanding the goals of Mills and O'Neill. Specifically, the creator's targets in "the Secret tribunal" are DC's Silver age icons, "the Legion of superheroes", along with Ridley Scott's "Alien" and, to a lesser extent, even "X-Force". And while the science fiction set up does provide common ground for all of these ideas, the thematic connection probably has as much to do with their mash up in "Marshal law", as does the Zeitgeist when the work was created.

Obviously, following the third part of the movie serial, "Aliens" was arguably at it's most popular in the early 1990s, and Rob Liefeld's "X-Force" was the best selling comic of the moment, which made them perfect targets for Mills and O'Neill. Still, the blunt of their attack has to do with "the Legion", as seen through the lens of then-current genre hits. Although introduced as supporting characters in the 1950s "Superman" stories, the Legion of superheroes has arguably peaked in popularity during the 1980s. Assuming a soap opera approach similar to the X-Men and New Teen Titans, the most popular superhero comics at the time, "the Legion" went through various changes and reboots since, but by early 1990s, most of the fans of American comics had a working knowledge of the concept. Getting to the concept, O'Neill and Mills saw problems at even the most fundamental level, and don't even get to criticizing the other scattered details regarding the super team.

The mere fact that DC had decided to depict the "teenagers of the future" in such a way as they did, seems to offense the creators at such a level that they find it justified to spend countless hours in tearing the basics of this "Superman" spin-off down, while still never forgetting to amuse themselves along the way. Truthfully, it's hard to imagine a cruder and more offensive take on "the Legion", which i exactly the kind of lens through which to examine a longstanding somewhat conservative superhero property. This is also why it is very important that the satire wasn't done in a crossover with the actual DC title. By utilizing the obvious analogues, Mills and O'Neill avoid any kind of censorship and scrutiny by the traditional superhero publisher, and are free to unleash all of their criticism in the peculiar Marshal law way.

And that is an extremely offensive caricature that still has all the semblance of a superhero story in it's structure. It's just that the journal entries our point of view character makes are used to detail all the hypocrisy inherent with the genre, with the iconography being twisted and ridiculed in every panel. Kevin O'Neill seems to take Pat Mill's over the top script and shows no restraint, he ridicules the characters' every shouting facial gesture, and turns all of their iconic costumes into garishly colored pijamas, and that's only for a start. In fact, all of the trapping of parody are to be seen in "the Secret tribunal", but they never seem arbitrary. Each of the panels' not just filled with graffiti for the sake of occupying the creator's dwindling attention. Quite the contrary, all of the impossibly clunky armor painted in blood does serve to make a concrete point, illustrating layers of unreality that not only fail as escapist entertainment, but in turn offer all of the wrong underlying messages.

This is why it's important that so much of the comic consists of caption boxes and never ending dialogue which are the founding stones of superhero storytelling. Just like with the art, it serves to highlight the satire to recreate by creating the basic framing of a familiar story, but the creative essence is filled with negativity nowhere to be found in "the Legion of superheroes". And just as Kevin O'Neill couldn't be replaced with a generic superhero artist, and still make the relevant points, so is Pat Mills unique in his attention to detail and sarcasm he brings to the story. It would certainly be easy to have such an explosive comic devolve into an orgy of non-stop violence, carried by Kevin O'Neill's considerable skills as a cartoonist. Even now, it's possible that a lot of the casual readers wouldn't bother to see a broader point with a comic like "Marshal law". Still, Pat Mills had to find a properly balanced story for all of the vulgarity to be effective, and not to register as so much of the white noise that is so common when it comes to the superhero genre.

Because, for all of the science fiction concepts, it's the characters' emotions that reveal them for what they are, and this is exactly how Mills layers his satire. Amid all the chaos, the writer carefully positions three characters that are the closest the book gets to morality. Considered from the point of view of their personal systems of value, the all around carnage in an otherwise full to the brim cast gets the particular context that the story calls for. Because, for all their foul mouthedness and displays of graphic sexuality, Mills and O'Neill are portraying the real morality play behind the superhero offering that is "the Legion of superheroes". This is nowhere as true as in having the aliens literally burst from the skin of the idealized do-gooders, revealing the falsety behind their conception, provides in turn the visual attraction that earns it the "Marshal law" title.

Having Marshal law arrive at the team's headquarters with the thinly disguised "X-Force" mutants serves as a catalyst of bringing to fore all that is rotten behind the decades old DC superteam. The various other superhero conventions that get shattered along the line, seem to accentuate the unreality of the Silver Age story, and Mills and O'Neill are happy to reveal them for what they really are. Specifically, the slighted sexuality of superheroines is taken apart with a real fervor, by showing exactly how a sculpted vixen would behave if she had the facade of a naive girl easily falling in love at every turn. This is a particularly slippery slope, as the various sex scenes all border on insulting if taken on at face value, but again it's up to the reader to put them in context.

And that broader "Marshal law" picture is what colors every aspect of the project. Basically, by putting a Judge Dredd approximation against the superheroes the creators cheerfully boil down the differences between two schools of storytelling and make their point appear to be nothing more than British vs American comics. Coming from a nastier, more graphic and even more mature point than the average Silver age superhero comic, Mills and O'Neill have done their all to bring a black-humored story with horror overtones to "the Secret tribunal". The result is a layered microcosm with a clear line underneath the excess. For every obvious joke ridiculing the Legion's code names and arbitrary powers is actually needed to get the point across in the clearest and most offensive way possible. By doing so, "Marshal law" actually becomes something more than the sum of it's detailed parts, it clearly delineates itself from the bulk of unsuccessful superhero parodies, and makes it clear why the creators have stuck to the concept for so long.

For all of it's immaturity and manic energy, this is a comic that found a clear niche in the post-Watchmen superhero publishing, that of a cynical eye and a severe critic unafraid to take delight in taking it's victims apart. Looking at the comics landscape today, the closest thing to "Marshal law" can be found in the works of Garth ("the Preacher") Ennis. A 2000ad contributor himself, Ennis is responsible for the infamous "Punisher kills the Marvel universe" Special, which is perhaps the closest mainstream approximation to the character that ironically, had his first appearance in Marvel's creator-owned imprint. And while the writer's sensibility has lead to his repeatedly using the Punisher as a Jugde Dredd-like character that he likes the most out of Marvel's library, it is his current most ambitious project that ties in most with the ethos behind his colleagues Mills and O'Neill. "The Boys", published by Dynamite as an ambitious look at the reality of a familiar superhero universe recalls all the best parts of "Secret tribunal" and is perhaps the closest a fan could get to Marshal law in the current marketplace.

And even if Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's association with the character has come to an end, there still remains a large body of work done with their most successful collaboration, that can only prosper due to the announcement of the omnibus edition collecting all of their "Marshal law" work. We can only hope that in the future, more humoristic comics will as bald as "Secret tribunal", bringing a much needed insight and energy to the market.

1 comment:

Chad Nevett said...

I was just flipping through this story the other day... it's a fun little tale. Brutal and harsh like the rest. Not as focused the Marvel parody, but not as unwielding as the crossovers. I've always had a strong fondness for Marshal Law -- can't wait for the omnibus.