The phenomenal success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man not only speaks to our ongoing craving for heroes during troubled times, it signals a public willingness to accept deeply flawed heroes; Batman is painted as equally destructive (if not quite as unbalanced) as his nemesis, the Joker, while Iron Man is a robotic looking figure encasing a war profiteer. Now, the long-awaited Watchmen is testing the blockbuster potential of characters and concepts that further challenge traditional (and possibly outdated) notions of what superheroes are—beings of enhanced abilities and unquestionable morals and motivation—and what they should do for us. Watchmen is also an unprecedented test of whether the substantial fan base for the graphic novel will embrace a film version of the material. The transition from graphic print form to any other has rarely been extremely successful for superheroes.
Marshal Law: Origins is an effort to take a character with a long publication history in comics and make it work in prose, (though commonly billed as a graphic novel, Origins collects two novellas and a handful of illustrations). It’s not that novelizations of comic book superheroes are new. This approach dates back at least to 1968, when the Bantam paperback, The Great Gold Steal, attempted to broaden the audience for Captain America, who was depicted brandishing a sidearm on the cover, with a somewhat darker, more adult tone, and additional depth to the character than in the comics.
Like the venerable captain, Pat Mills’ and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law is a scientifically enhanced “super-soldier,” but otherwise the two characters are polar opposites. Captain America was created in 1941 as an invulnerable, infallible figure of strength, an expression of the creators’ support of the country’s involvement in World War II. Mills has stated that Marshal Law was created in the 1980s in response to their belief that today’s superheroes are, “mainly phony, a travesty of the meaning of the word, ‘hero.’” Since then, in sporadic releases from a number of publishers, the character has voiced and acted out Mills’ and O'Neill’s extreme antipathy toward the superheroes.
From his black leather costume, fetish facemask, and “Fear and Loathing” emblem, Marshal Law is the anti-hero made literal—a secret policeman “superhero hunter” who Mills and O’Neill use to subvert the genre and its conventions. All the heroes sharing Law’s dystopia have the inability to feel pain, and a corresponding loss of human empathy, but he represents an entry-level model; most others seem to possess a range of other abilities the marshal lacks. That he is able to overcome their superior strength and abilities indicates the degree of his contempt. In addition to being products of the same procedure, the heroes also apparently all share Law’s experience in the Zone War, a protracted South American conflict that was characterized by torture, atrocities, and an eventual, winless withdrawal when “the cost in heroes’ lives proved too much for the American public.”