Skip to content

Remembering Marshal Law

A tribute to comic book artist Kevin O’Neill

Tempest’s Hank Kennedy pays tribute to the radical comic book artist Kevin O’Neill, who died last November.

Acclaimed British comic book artist Kevin O’Neill passed away November 3, 2022 at the age of 69. O’Neill was well known for his work with Alan Moore on the popular series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which featured a team of adventurers made up of characters from Victorian literature. He had humble beginnings in comics, his first job being to erase the page credits for creators in order to keep them anonymous and subservient in the companies they worked for. But later, O’Neill illustrated a wide array of British series such as the ever popular Judge Dredd and co-created ABC Warriors, Nemesis the Warlock, and Ro-Busters.

Infamously, O’Neill’s style of cartooning was rejected by the censors at the Comics Code Authority for a Green Lantern short horror story written by Alan Moore. O’Neill asked what could be done to ensure the story passed the requirements of the Code. He was told, “Nothing, it’s the whole style.” The story was not published for a year before eventually being released without the Comics Code seal of approval. While O’Neill’s whole career is admirable, this article will focus on a series he worked on that has many things to say of interest to the Left: the dystopian superhero parody Marshal Law.

Writer Pat Mills claims that the impetus for the series came from Kevin O’Neill’s idea for the title, as well as his sketches of the character. As soon as he heard the title Grant said, “We both knew we wanted some kind of fantasy cop of the future. There are many ways it could be done but I can’t think of anybody I’d like more whose job it is to hunt down superheroes and give them what they so richly deserve.”1 Superhero parodies have existed since MAD Magazine’s “Superduperman”, but Marshal Law was something altogether more vicious. Marshal Law originally appeared from 1987-1989 as a six-issue miniseries published by Marvel’s Epic imprint, a line of titles for more “mature readers.” The series came out shortly after the “grim and gritty” superhero deconstructions Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. However, problems of censorship appeared shortly into the series when a company doing production work on the title refused to handle the second issue unless the over the top violence was toned down. Epic also lost a distribution deal with Waldenbooks due to complaints from a parent who had bought their child an issue of Marshal Law.

In addition to its criticism of superhero comics, the series was also fiercely political. Much of Pat Mills’ work has been praised by elements of the political Left. The anti-war comic Charley’s War was praised by both the Socialist Party’s Socialist Standard and the SWP’s Socialist Worker as offering an accurate portrayal of World War I. In the Socialist Worker interview Mills claims, “I know first hand that the strip [Charley’s War] influenced many young men not to join the army.” The Young Communist League’s Challenge recommended the later series Third World War saying, “The world painted by the comics matches the emancipatory imagery of neoliberalism with the harsh repression of the state and the multinational corporations.”

Mills was a speaker at the 2017 Marxism conference, during which he laid out the politics of 2000AD. Marshal Law’s politics run in this vein. Mills bragged, “Kevin O’Neill and I have explored the true cost of U.S. military interventions (Fear and Loathing), the darker side of the C.I.A.(Marshal Law Takes Manhattan), the real motivation of the super-rich (Kingdom of the Blind), and corporations who trade with the enemy.” (Super Babylon).2

The plot of Marshal Law takes place in the then-future 2020s in the metropolis of San Futuro (as rebuilt after a devastating earthquake). The United States has been engaged in an imperialist conflict in “the Zone” (virtually all of Latin America) against Marxist guerillas. The U.S. has employed ex-Nazi scientist Doctor Shocc to create a new race of superhumans through genetic engineering, both to act as more efficient soldiers in the war in the Zone as well as to serve as pro-war, pro-American propaganda. Our protagonist is a veteran of the war, Joe Gilmore, who serves as a secret policeman called Marshal Law, working in the service of the totalitarian government. Law has a visceral hatred of superheroes, viewing them as debased hypocrites.

Three comic book covers, each titled ‘MARSHAL LAW’ overlaying a gun outline filled with the American flag. The character Marshal Law dominates every cover, wearing leather pants and shirt that reads ‘FEAR & LOATHING’, a leather face mask with red highlights, and a hat that looks like it has Nazi symbolism. He is carrying comically large guns has very large arm muscles. The left cover includes text that says ‘CRIME $ PUNISHMENT’ and then ‘MARSHAL LAW TAKES MANHATTAN.’ The right cover shows Marshal Law fighting an American patriotic superhero.
Covers for the Marshal Law series. Photo Credit: MARVEL [database]: Left / Middle/ Right

This attitude was not the only thing that set the character apart. Law dresses like a combination of leatherman and Nazi officer, carries comically huge guns, and, along with the other superpowered characters, has grotesquely huge musculature. Comic artists in the 1990s would adopt these artistic tropes with no acknowledgement of their origin or meaning, but the idea was to shock readers and make them laugh at the absurdity of an over-the-top superhero character.

The political critique of Marshal Law begins with its logo, which is a gun with the colors of the American flag. This image draws a connection between the “American way”and violence. Many of the superheroes are depicted as members of an underclass, used and discarded after their service in the Zone. They are depicted as suffering from mental illness and live in slums, some resorting to degrading work or gangs to make ends meet. The antagonist of the first story is not like these superheroes. He’s a Superman-esque hero named Public Spirit, an obvious analogue for then-President Reagan.

Mills admitted as much in a 2002 reprint of the story, writing, “He’s got a bit of ex-President Reagan in him; Reagan as a young man was a hero, an athlete, a figure of virility.” Like the real-life Reagan, Public Spirit avoided military combat while encouraging others to sacrifice their lives and limbs. Public Spirit is a xenophobic super patriot, a homophobe, and a raging hypocrite, making him the perfect Reaganite punching bag. After Law has exposed that Public Spirit attempted to murder his pregnant girlfriend, the “superhero” flips out and yells, “That’s what’s wrong with this country today … the feminists and the pinkos and the faggots are trying to take over … spreading subversion like AIDS!”

The second Marshal Law story, “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan” (1989), combined an attack on C.I.A. torture with lowbrow, cruel parodies of Marvel’s superhero characters. The publication of this parody was all the more surprising given that Epic, which published the book, was an imprint of Marvel. “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan” pushes the portrayals of Marvel stars’ derangement to the extreme in ableist caricatures of mental illness. “Mr. Fantastic,” famous for being married to the Invisible Woman, is depicted with an imaginary wife that he only thinks is invisible. The normally introspective “Captain America” is so absorbed in his own thoughts that he’s catatonic. “Thor” believes the delusion that he’s a thunder god. “Spider-Man” is a compulsive masturbator, shooting his “webs” all over New York. Most pointedly, the Punisher parody known as the Persecutor is a sadistic fascist, complete with swastika tattoo, who used to get his kicks torturing South American dissidents for the CIA. Law dismisses them and, by extension, the superhero genre’s dominance of the comics medium as “exotic variations of nothing.” The story ends with the remnants of the superheroes splattered all over the New York sidewalks with the Marshal scraping them off his boots.

“Kingdom of the Blind,” the third Marshal Law story, aims its satirical barbs at probably the most famous comic book superhero of them all: Batman. The version of Batman is called the Private Eye, but all the trappings are there: billionaire industrialist, orphan, nocturnal crime fighter. Private Eye fights criminals because he fears that  the underclass of society will take away his wealth. As the Marshal puts it, “The only reason a billionaire becomes a vigilante is to hold onto his money.” Most gruesomely, Private Eye harvests the organs of his young sidekicks to prolong his lifespan and his pathological war on crime (shades of Peter Thiel here). When Private Eye meets his gory end, it feels generally subversive (given Batman’s iconic cultural status) akin to someone burning the American flag.

Contemporary reception of these stories was generally positive. In a Comics Journal interview Alan Moore 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. I think that’s great… Pat and Kevin do it so well, with such style and with such obvious malice; that’s the fun thing about Marshal Law. They’re not just kidding, they really hate superheroes.3

Artist Phil Foglio praised Kevin O’Neill’s art writing “Each issue looks like Halloween in Hell. I love it.”4 However, a reviewer in Escape magazine was not so kind, saying, “No matter how deliciously subversive Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s fetishist futurecop is, why create yet another exposé of the underlying sickness of superheroes? OK, give them an indecent burial, but let’s get it over with and move beyond genre demolition.”5

However, subsequent Marshal Law stories failed to live up to these highs. The “Hateful Dead” story was serialized in the British title Toxic for British publisher Apocalypse Comics. As a serial, it suffers from pacing issues, and the story ended on a cliffhanger when Toxic was canceled and Apocalypse went bankrupt in 1992. Apocalypse was also notorious for not paying its creators on time, and this provoked a group of comics professionals, including Pat Mills, to occupy the corporate office until they were paid what they were owed.6

The storyline was concluded by Dark Horse comics as “Super Babylon,” and here many of the satiric barbs seem misaimed. The story satirizes the “Golden Age” of superheroes, but many of those characters had already fallen out of popular favor. It’s like kicking a person while they’re already down. The creators also depict these characters as moralizing born-again Christians, something with no basis in older comics, especially given how many creators in the Golden Age were Jewish. The only biting sequence comes when Law expounds on how the United States government turned a blind eye to corporations trading with the Nazis and utilized Japanese war criminals to further the military’s biological weapons program.

After “Super Babylon,” Law appeared in a number of crossovers with the Hellraiser franchise, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and The Mask. The story “Secret Tribunal” was originally meant to be a crossover with the Aliens franchise, although, for whatever reason, that plan fell through. While O’Neill’s and Mills’ stories were never bad per se, none of these crossovers arrested the decline of the Marshal Law series, and the crossover with the Mask was the final comic appearance of Law in a comic book. Tellingly, the Marshal at one point says, “I’m just going through the motions.” Later, he did a cameo for a page in 2000 AD 1280  (February, 2002) mocking the similarity between himself and Judge Dredd, another no nonsense law man from a dystopian future.

Despite being included in the books 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die and 500 Essential Graphic Novels, Marshal Law is less well known today than are those that it inspired (e.g., Garth Ennis’ The Boys). Part of the problem lies in the nature of its release, as the series bounced between several different publishers, including Epic, Apocalypse, Dark Horse, and Image. This, combined with long gaps between releases, impeded the title’s ability to build a following. Unfortunately, DC Comics, which holds the reprint rights to the title, has allowed the trade paperback of it to go out of print, further hampering new readers in picking up the series, although a digital version is still out there.

As stated previously, most of Marshal Law has a great number of themes of interest to the Left. The story is against war and militarism and displays a strong element of class consciousness. The stories also critique the idea of reforming the political and economic system from within as a means of making lasting change.

Although every story ends with Marshal Law having dispatched whichever superhero he is opposing, the world never gets any better and remains a dystopian nightmare. There is no real catharsis for being a footsoldier for the establishment, no matter how many deserving scumbags get beaten up. However, some of the series has aged poorly, such as the treatment of the mentally ill in “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan.” Some reviewers, like Publishers Weekly, have also criticized the series for its excessive violence, although the absurdity of the violence is part of the series’ darkly comedic tone.

Another issue is the series’ treatment of women. Law’s love interest is horrifically raped and murdered near the beginning of the series, and she’s about the only woman main character of note. Characters also engage in casually homophobic dialogue that was all too common in the late 1980s. That said, other content has aged better. Superheroes still dominate American culture, the ruling class still lives at the expense of the working class, and the CIA is still up to no good. The best tribute we could give to Kevin O’Neill would be to make his prescient work less relevant.

Featured Image credit: Marvel Database; modified by Tempest.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Hank Kennedy View All

Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.