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Marshal Law: Origins by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill

01/10/2008. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Marshal Law: Origins in the USA - or Buy Marshal Law: Origins in the UK

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pub: Titan. 237 page enlarged illustrated paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK), $12.95 (US), $14.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-84856-943-7).

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When I first read the comicbook of 'Marshal Law' back in the 1990s, my initial reaction was that he was essentially another Judge Dredd made for the American market whose justice was ultimately final in more ways than one aimed at putting ex-super-heroes out of their misery. Apart from the violence aspects, it was also extremely funny, providing you paid attention to everything in panel.

What essentially makes a comicbook work differently than a prose fiction is that like film, a picture can feed out a lot more information that the eye can appreciate and absorb quicker. If nothing else, it tells us something about how our brains react to images. It's also a sneaky way to slip in side-information that the reader can pick up on or ignore. In doing the reverse, that is changing a comicbook story into prose, there is already a problem of what to leave out. Likewise how much more can be put in. What makes prose fiction attractive is in allowing the reader into the characters' heads and sustained dialogue. If you did that in a comicbook, the dialogue would swamp the panels. Again, this tells a lot about how our brains absorb information and why some people think comicbooks aren't so fulfilling. Different mediums. Different ways to appreciate what you're receiving.

Although I read a few 'Marshal Law' comics back then, according to the bumf, the two prose short stories in this book are adaptations from the original comicbook which makes you wonder would you go for this book if you owned the original visual version? As I only have these two go on and can't recall reading the original, I can't draw an immediate comparison or tell if the double-page illustrations from Kevin O'Neill were taken from there or are new here. They do help to fill in some of the missing visual gap.

Marshal Law lives in a version of Earth where after a devastating earthquake, the super-heroes have turned out to be not so nice after all and are essentially street gangs out of control. All have been genetically modified with a variety of powers and physiques although the most common one is being unable to feel pain. Joe Gilmore was one of them but disgusted with his brethren adopts the identity of Marshal Law to bring those who abuse their position to justice or kill them in the attempt. As part of his costume, across his waist he has the words, 'Fear And Loathing'. Better believe it.

The first story, 'The Day Of The Dead' deals with live in San Futuro and Marshal Law takes on pliable Dough Face and Sucida who probably isn't that well-named but definitely has a death wish. We also meet Zip Code, a lady who can penetrate anyone's mind to get what she wants and knows where you live. In many respects, this is a street gang story that also reveals more about Law's alter-ego Joe Gilmore where the dividing line is more than the uniform. If anything Law/Gilmore is as unstable as any of them but he's in one mind when it comes to justice.

The second story 'Cloak Of Evil' somewhat ups the stakes now that you should be familiar with this world. Marshal Law's time is spent in working out who are the Secret Chiefs running the city and rescuing super-heroes trapped in an experimental camp in Russia.

The action is brutal and violent with the occasional bit of humour to balance things out. Whether it works as prose fiction is hard to say. I'm not even sure who this book is supposed to appeal to. Presumably, any 'Marshal Law' fan is going to have the original comicbooks this prose this was based on in their collection and might just want to sample this book to be completest. Others might be like me who used to buy the title and want to look around it again. Whether it will bring in new readers is harder to say.

Pat Mills, using work plotted by himself and Kevin O'Neill, carries it off by just pounding out the action. The nature of this reality limits it in providing any sense of true 'normality' let alone have any decent character studies or getting to like anyone here. Whether it would work with any more depth is hard to say. I think, given the choice, I would rather see both creators' work together in re-releases of their comicbook versions as volumes so impact of what happens can be seen rather than just read. Certainly O'Neill's art included here shows that more can be seen with pictures. Buy with caution, fear and loathing.

GF Willmetts

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