The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century

July 5, 2010

So I am cheating again, reviewing an omnibus edition and not the separate trade paperbacks that chronicle the adventures of one of comicdom’s most memorable characters. And why have I even bought this? I already own more than half the stuff included here, and the colour remastering is honestly negligible: I’ve been staring, and I still can’t tell the difference. But only this release can pay proper tribute to a masterpiece of science fiction that first appeared in 1990 and kept resurfacing until its definite end in 2007. Who at the beginning would have expected the title to turn into the epic it since became? My own love for the graphic novel genre practically got its training wheels from Martha Washington — soldier, patriot, rebel, explorer, and messiah, the Flash Gordon, Paul Atreides, and Ellen Ripley of comics!

Martha’s creators are famously Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, both of whom were right at the top of their game back in 1990. Gibbons then possessed an aura that trailed him since his acclaimed artistic collaboration with Alan Moore on the seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. And, while Miller has always been controversial, at the time he was a jolt to the brain in a more consistently positive sense. This was Miller of The Dark Knight Returns (not The Dark Knight Strikes Again), Batman: Year One (not All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder), and Hard Boiled (not Sin City). Does anyone even remember Hard Boiled, this plot that easily thrilled every Philip K. Dick fan in withdrawal through the 1980s? In short, both men were ready to make magic, and Give Me Liberty: An American Dream was a product of that fateful right time and right place in the office of Dark Horse.

The 4-issue Give Me Liberty had been Miller’s answer to Moore’s British dystopian fiction, V for Vendetta. His own satirical jab at modern American society — laying bare the gulf between the country’s founding ideals and its end-20th-century enslavement to the politics of late capitalism — is obvious. The title alludes to Patrick Henry’s historic “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, and its alternate America is crumbling under a new Civil War that is redrawing its terrains along radical-extremist lines. Martha, the low-born black heroine of the story, is herself named after the wife of the first US president, and her life repeatedly criss-crosses with those of the country’s various political leaders at every stage. What she fights for is simple freedom, freedom to survive, in a world spun mad by corruption, injustice, propaganda, and fanaticism and fuelled by pure military-industrial complex on steroids.

This universe invented by Miller and Gibbons remains curiously fresh today in part because of its correct focus on absurd social trends all those years back. The America it fixes its gaze on wages unnecessary grand wars, is sold to a simulacra of life generated by mass media, survives at the mercy of commercial exploitation, and has its sense of identity usurped by racists, feminists, technocrats, corporations, and a “peace army”. According to the book’s timeline, 2009 sees an abrupt end to the office of a corrupt incumbent US president and a surge of hope that comes with a mild-mannered Liberal leader. This new president seeks peace with the country’s enemies and takes the fight instead to big corporations and perpetrators of social and environmental problems. If the setting is already sounding uncanny when you consider it now, the depiction of realpolitik then proving too harsh for well-meaning idealists is devastating.

Along this winding journey across the contorting face of America, Martha collects an assortment of friends as she seeks to outwit and outflank her ideological enemies. In the 5-part sequel Martha Washington Goes to War that deepens our sense of worldly fracture, this protagonist re-learns how the Land of the Free is only as free as she will let herself be at every waking hour. Clarifying the notion of an individual’s right to civil obedience, Miller throws the character into the role of a revolutionary who must beat a path between her country’s president and his powerful opponents and win over both. All this is mere training for her greatest trial yet, her grand war in a second 3-issue sequel soon after, Martha Washington Saves the World, where she confronts a maniacal supercomputer bent on enslaving all of humanity in order to perfect it!

In sporadic years in between and after these series, Miller and Gibbons have released a few one-shots on key episodes of Martha’s turbulent but never-boring life. Some of her battles with men and monsters are told, and her off-world adventure is also detailed. Then, there is the record of her last days before she finally expires as a centenarian, the emblem of a century and its unending fight for freedom. 600 pages of everything on this inspiring figure are collected lovingly here between covers whose design template has become a hallmark of the series. Dark Horse — praise ye! — has produced a true classic with this edition, and its softback version even comes at an eye-poppingly affordable price. This is indeed the single concrete way to enjoy Martha’s uncompromising battle for a full life from the cradle to the grave. A big heartfelt thank you is in order for all who have been involved, from the writer and the artist to the very talented spine-gluer.

Give Gweek liberty! This is a hands-down 10-star compendium.


One Response to “The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century”

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