The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century
Written by Frank Miller
Illustrated by Dave Gibbons
Colored by Robin Smith and Angus McKie
Published by Dark Horse Comics
There’s a strange irony in this massive, back-breakingly heavy tome of a book coming out when Frank Miller’s star, in the comic book community anyway, seems to be at an all-time low. I mean, this book is huge, and incredibly expensive, and it drops during a time when Frank’s name seems to inspire a torrent of bitter bile.
As you may have read, or at least guessed since I bought this thing, I don’t share the sentiment of the current Frank Miller backlash crowd. In truth, All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder may be my favorite Batman comic ever; I think Frank’s doing something very interesting, exploring the humanizing influence of young Dick Grayson on not only Batman, but all the world’s greatest heroes. Also, I halfway believe that, despite frequent narration by Batman himself, the extreme behavior is reflective of a ten-year-old boy’s vantagepoint. Dark Knight Strikes Again, I will agree with the majority, was a misfire, a collection of intriguing ideas that pulled in too many directions, scattershot with cross-purposes. But nobody’s perfect.
Anyway, The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century, that’s what we’re discussing, right? In 1990, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, hot off the successes of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, respectively, decided to collaborate. The result: Give Me Liberty, a miniseries chronicling the splintering of America under the weight of corporate interests, black and white politics, and miles-wide economic gulfs, all told through the eyes of a willful, spirited young black woman named Martha Washington, who rises from the ghetto to prominence in the PAX Peacekeeping force. Several short stories and sequel series followed, leading up to 2007’s one-off comic, Martha Washington Dies, in which, well … she’s born on the first page of Give Me Liberty, and the circle completes on the penultimate page of Dies.
The Life and Times compiles it all, every single short story, and pretty close to all of the pin-ups, advert artwork and whatever preliminary illustrations Dave Gibbons still had handy. The result is 600+ pages, over-sized, hardcover, slipcase, and it’s just amazing to behold. I got a workout reading this thing.
Now, I’m a reader at heart and not much interested in these indulgent oversize book-objects. My personal library remains, happily, Absolute-free, in line with my preference for small, portable (but high in page count) volumes that I can read on a bus, or at least without needing to shift my entire self when I go from the top of a page to the bottom. The Martha Washington collection, however, came in only size, and with my Amazon.com discount in hand, I decided to take the plunge. (And it’s Miller and Gibbons; I wouldn’t make this sort of exception for just anything!)
I have significantly more understanding of why people like these oversize volumes now. There are still very few comic artists I’d like to see in this format, but the humongous pages showcase Dave Gibbons’ prowess beautifully. The book is packed with full-page and two-page spreads, and the scope of the work is literally jaw-dropping. Colorists Robin Smith and Angie McKie make every page to pop, exploding into the reader’s eyes and mind, and Gibbons is such a perfect illustrator. His layouts allow pristine visual storytelling, and his page compositions provide all the important details in a clear, naturalistic style, without a hint of the unnecessary clutter that mars many other artists’ pages. His future world breathes palpably, and the characters designs showcase Gibbons’ excellent ability to capture the range of humanity.
Frank Miller is a bombastic writer, a longtime exerciser of terse, hardboiled, extremely stylized dialogue, and Martha Washington shows his love of that old pulp. In Martha’s world, you’re either good or evil, or just plain inept, which is perhaps the worst option, yet there’s a sense that people are good and well meaning throughout Martha’s hundred-year journey. Each installment pits Martha against greater and greater odds, and her leadership becomes more and more vital to the future of mankind’s freedom. Sure, she survives a seemingly impossible number of aircraft crashes, explosions and puncture wounds, but it’s that dogged relentlessness, taken to ludicrous degrees, that makes Miller’s heroine so fun to read about.
The political and cultural backdrop adds some context, but it’s really just spice for a series of heart-racing, full-speed adventure stories, pitting one resourceful, hardheaded girl against the ultimate government conspiracy, the second American Civil War and ultimately, a world-controlling A.I. It’s relentless, and a whole lot of fun. The omnibus collection has commentary from Dave Gibbons on each story, plus a few asides from Frank Miller. The short stories that appeared in Dark Horse Presents are presented in full color and their original black and white versions. It’s a great story, and a great package. The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century has shown at least one reader that there is (some) merit in books that are a huge pain to read or handle.