Much of my discussion of Grant Morrison’s work has been about how he reacts to Watchman and Moore’s take on superheroism. Watchmen is superheroism as tragedy, and its grim, sorrowful understanding of superheroes has become a mainstay of superhero comics. But in Batman, Inc., Morrison begins to show a world where being a superhero isn’t the antisocial, quixotic, and ultimately self-destructive obsession of a deviant human being, but rather is part of a serious and effective attempt to process one’s own traumas and better the world. There’s a second strain Morrison is reacting against, though: superhoerism as satire, and this begins with Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill.
I had only heard about it second-hand until recently. Moore once said, “If Watchmen did in any way kill off the superhero – which is a dubious proposition – then Marshal Law has taken it further with this wonderful act of necrophilia, where it has degraded the corpse in a really amusing way.” Morrison has supposedly said he prefers its deconstruction of superheroism to Watchmen (I haven’t found a source for that yet). When I finally read it, it became clear how influential and how prescient it was.
It’s set in a dystopian future in San Francisco. The government has used genetic engineering to create a large number of superheroes, one of whom is Marshal Law.
His job is to hunt heroes who have turned bad. The thing is, it seems that all heroes are depraved. Some of them, like Marshal Law, dress in S&M gear and do not hide their deviance, but the one Marshal hates the most is a Superman analog, Public Spirit, who is the most popular and famous of the superheroes.
Marshal thinks that Public Spirit is a murderer and a rapist, and when Marshal’s girlfriend is raped and killed, he thinks that Public Spirit must be the culprit. He pursues him relentlessly, and at least some of his charges prove to be right. In the world of Marshal Law, no superhero – not even Marshal Law himself – is really a hero. Marshal Law, the superhero who is the most honest and has the most developed sense of morality, tells the whole story: he’s obsessed with hurting and being hurt; with taking vengeance at any cost; with killing superheroes. He has a secret identity, but being that other self is a struggle and he eventually abandons it.
The superheroes aren’t good or normal. Marshal Law dresses like a gimp and likes to fight other superheroes rather too much (his hate for them has a part in turning his side-kick into a murderer) . Public Spirit shoots up with anabolic steroids so he can look so buff. One superheroine, She-Beast, injects monkey pituitary gland.
They’re jokes – ridiculous and absurd in their excess. Who would want to be one of those people? Who would even want to read about them week to week? Lots, of people, it turns out.
As I mentioned, Marshal Law is a satire of superheroism. The funny thing, though, is how popular similar but unironic portrayals of superheroes would become as the ’90s went on. I’m thinking of characters like Cable and Shatterstar, whose distinguishing features are that they are weirdly excessive in their weapons and muscles, and they pretty much have no purpose aside from fighting and killing.
They don’t wear gimp costumes, but they might as well. We don’t see them shooting up monkey pituitary gland, but they’ve got to be shooting up something to look like that. Unlike the characters in Marshal Law, they’re meant seriously and unironically, even though they are ridiculous on their face. That makes them grotesque. Just look at this:
(I’ve shamelessly stolen both of these scans from a Progressive Boink article on Rob Liefeld’s art; look there for further commentary)
It’s one of the greatest quirks of the industry that during that same time when Cable was the main man in comics, Lobo was fantastically popular. I never cared much for the character, but he was meant as a parody of the gritty, violent superhero that had become the standard. Even in his appearance, he seems a little like Marshal Law, given his leather, chains, and scars.
Fans ate up both the satire and the satirized. Maybe the less astute ones couldn’t tell the difference. In any case, the masterminds behind Lobo gave their fans one of the biggest Fuck Yous in comics in the form of the one shot The Wisdom of Lobo, which was only available in a bundle with two other already-published Lobo books in the Lobo Slipcase Collection.
I remember hearing about it when it came out, and I couldn’t believe it. Fans who sprung for the set found that the The Wisdom of Lobo was sixty-four blank pages.
But that was about twenty years ago; the modern legacy of Marshal Law and its take on superheroes as satire can be found in three writers: Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and Garth Ennis.
In the world of superheroes, Warren Ellis is best known for his work on The Authority , a book whose excesses sometimes edge into the absurd and laughable. On its face, though, it’s a pretty serious reimagining of a premise first developed by Roy Thomas’s Squadron Supreme: What if a team like the JLA took matters into their own hands and really tried to change the world? Ellis’ most satirical and critical take on superheroes comes in No Hero.
The book’s tagline is “How Much Do You Want to be Superhuman?”and it follows Josh Carver, a young man who has tried all his life to get noticed by and inducted into the one superhero organization that exists in the world. They eventually tap him, but the treatment that transforms him into a superhuman has some grotesque side-effects: he sloughs off all of his skin and loses his genitals. He must dress in a full body suit and mask. It also turns out that the organization of superheroes is corrupt and aims at controlling and exploiting the world instead of saving anybody. Indeed, in his first foray as a superhero, he rescues a crashing plane – a plane that’s crashing because his colleagues have killed its pilots. The idea is that he will prove his credibility to the public by saving it.
But Josh doesn’t care about any of that, neither about the lost skin and genitals nor about the sabotage of the plane. He just wants to be called a superhero and to have all the trappings. In No Hero 5, after saving the plane, he turns to the superheroes who killed the pilots, takes his mask off, and says:
As in Marshal Law, being a superhero means being grotesque, disgusting, and ridiculous. It means being more interested in flying around, being violent, and reveling in a misshapen body than standing for anything. The book’s title is, of course, it’s message: No Hero.
Marshal Law satirizes superheroes and the sado-masochism that’s intimately connected with them by having its most honest heroes dress in S&M gear. The way No Hero satirizes the way superheroes fetishize violence is even more explicit. It turns out that Josh is a double agent, sent to infiltrate the group and destroy them. He’s actually much worse and more violent than the superheroes he’s trying to take down, and in issue 6, he fights Ben, the only good superhero and the only person in the book who ever shows Josh any kindness. Ben actively opposes hurting innocents, wants to help people, and doesn’t even have a secret identity because he feels he has nothing to hide. Of course, he’s the first one Josh fights and the one Josh brutalizes the most. After a gory, one-sided fight, Josh kills him. Then, he tears out Ben’s spine and uses it to fashion a phallus to replace his lost one.
A part of a dead body is his penis; killing is how he gets hard. At the end of the book, the way Josh deals with the organization of superheroes exploiting the world is by killing them all, including himself. In a world like that, that’s Ellis’ happy ending.
Mark Millar’s foray into the world of critiquing and satirizing superheroes begins with Wanted. Wesley’s running narration at the beginning is so reminiscent of Fight Club that we’re primed to take what follows as satirical and ironic, and the book’s premise is set up to allow extreme depravity even from the protagonist: the supervillains long ago killed all the superheroes, and so the book’s hero is a supervillain. When Wesley is inducted into a gang of supervillains and discovers his superpowers, the way he explores his newfound status and abilities is by killing anyone who ever wronged him and raping celebrities.
But as the book goes on, it’s easy to forget how ridiculous and depraved Wesley is. Wesley is the book’s most heroic character, and most of the story follows his campaign against even worse villains. One might begin to accept Wesley as an anti-hero and take the book seriously as a superhero story despite its set-up, but the last page of the last issue of the series reminds us what we’re really reading. Mark Millar gives a giant Fuck You to whatever readers made it that far, and especially the ones who took it seriously, forgot it was satire, or actually liked the main character.
Millar’s treatment of superheroes in The Ultimates is rather more subtle. They’re all fallible, flawed characters, and some of them, like Henry Pym, are particularly loathsome. But the book is for the most part well written, and the characters and team are familiar and enjoyable. Millar has clearly borrowed much from Ellis’ style on The Authority, and it’s hard not to get a rush as the team kicks some ass. But there’s the occasional moment that goes over the edge, draws attention to the superheroes’ absurd excess, and calls the reader out for taking it seriously and enjoying it. These moments are like toned down versions of the last page of Wanted, like muted Fuck Yous for liking a little too much characters and actions that are ridiculous and even horrible.
For me, at least, the scenes that are the most notable involve Captain America’s jingoism. Maybe that’s by design, since Millar, a Scotsman, is writing an extreme, even satirical, version of the quintessential American patriotic superhero. In any case, when I see a panel like this, it makes me realize the extremities of the character and hate him – and myself for having enjoyed reading about him.
The final writer worth mentioning is Garth Ennis, who in The Boys has followed most closely on Marshal Law in its deconstruction of the superhero. The book follows Billy Butcher and his team of hero hunters. Billy hates all superheroes, but the one he hates the most is the Homelander, a Superman analog. Billy hates the Homelander so much not only because he’s famous, degenerate, and hypocritical, but also because Billy thinks the Homelander raped and killed his wife. Sounds an awful lot like Marshal Law and the Public Spirit, doesn’t it?
But Ennis is more prolific in creating excessive and repulsive analogs to popular superheroes. There is a pretty close JLA analog, who are all drugs addicts and whose male members force a female inductee to give them oral sex. There’s an X-Men analog, whose Professor X is a creepy pedophile. There’s a Teen Titans analog, who frequent brothels and abuse prostitutes. There’s even a Stan Lee analog, the Legend, who tells Billy the superheroes’ real origins (the origins released to the public are pretty much fabrications, and the truth is always more sordid).
Billy and his crew are, of course, ridiculous and depraved too; one of their allies is a former Soviet hero who has a giant cock for some reason (actually, there is a reason – Garth Ennis is writing it).
They all are fantastically violent, and one member of Billy’s crew routinely kills people for the mafia. Billy himself likes to degrade women, and he’s trained his dog to rape other dogs and people on command. The differences between them and the superheroes is that they’re not hypocrites; they don’t claim to be superheroes; and presumably they think the world would be better off without all metahumans – including themselves.
There are only two innocent characters: Starlight, who is inducted into the JLA analog and raped by its members, and Hughie, who is inducted into Billy’s crew. They are supposed to be the book’s real heart and its true protagonists, but it’s always painful when they appear, since they’re routinely brutalized and humiliated. But that’s Garth Ennis’ take on the superhero: the superhero and his world are depraved. Being well-meaning and innocent is stupid and callow. It’s just asking to be degraded.
This has been, I know, a rather perfunctory discussion of Marshal Law and its successors. Truthfully, I really dislike several of these books (I find No Hero and The Boys especially odious). But I’ve tried to sketch the significance and influence of Marshal Law’s attempt to satirize and critique the superhero by exaggerating and highlighting the excesses that traditionally accompany superheroism.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Batman, Inc. is a response to the strategy of deconstruction begun in Watchmen, but it is also a response to this strategy that began with Marshal Law. Marshal Law and its successors all describe superheroes that are more about indulging obsessions and reveling in depravity rather than standing for something and changing the world. They enjoy and are good at fighting, killing and being superheroes, and not much else. And there is substance to these criticisms: the way most superheroes and their costumes look manifests some deviant obsession, and we’ve discussed a few times here that superheroes are phenomenally bad at solving real problems. The only thing they excel at is fighting supervillains and spouting superheroic rhetoric, and many (most?) heroes have given up on trying to do anything but that (and many don’t even bother with the rhetoric anymore). By showing us superheroes with these faults writ big, Mills et al. are trying to make us see them in our actual superheroes.
As I said last time in discussing Batman, Inc., though, Morrison is trying to show us a world where being a superhero means something more than wearing those costumes, spouting that rhetoric, and fighting those villains. He shows us that the transformation into a superhero isn’t that repulsive, physical metamorphosis that Josh Carver experiences in No Hero. Nor does becoming a superhero require association with a corrupt cabal, as it does in so many of these books. For Morrison, becoming a superhero is essentially a psychological transformation – it’s developing the ability to process and transcend personal trauma and then, having improved or even perfected the self, to try to better the world. This is true of Superman or Spiderman, for instance, but their powers obfuscate the issue; powers aren’t what make a superhero. The nature of superheroism becomes clearest from Batman, who’s not from another planet and wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider; he’s a human being who is nearly killed by his traumas until he figures out how to overcome them, transcend them, and perfect himself. Then, he’s tried to rid the world of what causes its traumas and perfect it too.
Mills, Ellison, Millar, and Ennis are chastising us for liking the big, flashy stuff too much: the costumes, the muscles, the sex, the violence, and the superpowers, as well as the allure of belonging to a small group of special people who control the world and are accountable to no one. None of those are essential features of superheroism, and that’s exactly the kind of stuff that leads to characters like Josh Carver or Cable.