Martha Washington Keeps Busy


Martha Washington Dies came out this month and, while I don’t have my copy yet, I’ve read most everything that says “Martha Washington” on the cover and reviewed it, so, to start this blog off, a re-presentation of the Wright opinion on the Martha Washington trilogy.

The Martha Washington Trilogy
by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons
Dark Horse Comics

1: Give Me Liberty

Frank Miller’s return to comics after his first tenure in Hollywood sees his satirical leanings as sharp as ever. The tone here is Robocop-esque, an over-the-top future of the early 21st century full of ridiculous but vaguely plausible ideas, on-the-nose visuals, and lots of violence and explosions. We’re introduced to Martha Washington, a young black girl growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, a low income housing development that Martha describes as “prison for people who haven’t done anything wrong.” Since it’s surrounded by barbed wire and people trying to get out are shot, she’s not exaggerating.

Through Martha, we get a lot of information very quickly, as she describes her world, framed around the many electoral victories of President Rexall. The changing times are economically shown in the background of Rexall’s inaugural parades, as each identically composed frame includes fewer supporters, with more police and, eventually, military presence. The current two-party system seems to exist, but is made obsolete by geography and strange new ideologies that represent extreme versions of some of today’s beliefs.

Martha eventually escapes from the Green by joining PAX, the Rexall-mandated Peace Force (a clever oxymoron) and this is where the real adventures – and the funnier satire – begin. In Miller’s vision of the future, private corporations are as powerful as the government, to the point that they can challenge it militarily if they disagree with government policy, and all kinds of new separatist and fascist movements have sprung up. One of Martha’s early missions takes her to the South American jungles to fight in the Burger Wars (giving new meaning to “Big Mac Attack”) against Fat Boy’s war machines, shaped like giant fast food mascots. Another pits her against the Aryan Thrust, a hilarious skewering of social conservatives’ worst fears about the “homosexual agenda,” who declare that “America’s future is white — and male — and gay.”

Structurally, a lot of interesting things are going on. Even after the compressed early section of the book, the story spans several years, and this allows different kinds of threats to rise or recede. Surprising, after President Rexall is built up as the Big Brother-type villain, he is dispatched within the first chapter, when an explosion puts him into a coma and kills everyone in the line of succession (though Miller forgets to include the Speaker of the House), except for the acting Secretary of Agriculture, a Liberal Democrat (Rexall is presumably a Republican). Turning out to have problems of his own that push him toward semi-villainy, the new president is only the first of several additional antagonists, including Martha’s nemesis, Colonel Moretti and the bizarre and seemingly autonomous Surgeon General, to appear during the course of Give Me Liberty, each with an apparently separate agenda.

Several villains working at cross purposes provides much of the political intrigue of the book, and Martha, who always follows her orders, is never able to oppose all of them at once. Ultimately, she ends up defending the very President Rexall that she hated in the beginning (in his very funny return as a brain in a cute, but bulletproof R2D2 shell) from Moretti’s attempted coup. Martha’s opposition to some villains while taking orders from others at any given time adds complexity to the plot and maintains a fine line between her portrayal as “good soldier” and appropriate hero in dystopian future.

Another structural choice that deepens Give Me Liberty is the inclusion of magazine covers and articles, letters and advertisements within chapters of the story. These serve to fill in details that are important but expository enough that they probably could not economically have been included otherwise. Dave Gibbons does just as good a job of designing these as he did in Watchmen, the difference here that they are integrated into the story rather than appearing between chapters, something less common at the time than it is now.

Gibbons’ work here is generally great, depicting each character uniquely, making each expressive and aging Martha convincingly throughout (though he seems no more convinced than I am that she is only 16 by the end, as she’s not written or drawn that young, despite the occasional claim that she’s “small for my age”). He draws the world believably, integrating futuristic technology and outlandish props like the Fat Boy and extremely phallic satellites with many settings that look contemporary. Gibbons’ storytelling is clear and he makes the many splash pages count.

Miller’s writing is pretty much what you’d expect, lots of terse first-person narration and tough talk, with over-the-top dialogue and character names (such as Attorney General Sphincter). Characters’ voices and motivations are well done, though as Martha’s love interest, Wasserstein could have been given more background and development. The Surgeon General is genuinely frightening and mysterious, never seen without his surgical mask and obsessed with cleanliness. There are some repeated tropes from earlier books, like the schizophrenic Raggyann, whose frequent outbursts of “No lunch!” bring to mind Dark Knight. The most glaring excess in the writing is the metaphorical representation of Martha as a panther, which she first sees in the South American jungle. This doesn’t seem to add much and takes the reader out of the story each time it’s invoked, usually in splash pages.

Overall, while it’s not Dark Knight, Give Me Liberty is a clever and funny satire that finds political intrigue in presenting not a future in which one leader represents all the evil of the world, but in which a broken and factional America presents many dangers.

2: Martha Washington Goes to War

As Give Me Liberty came to an end, Moretti was defeated, Rexall was reinstalled and a new Civil War was underway. Since the sequel came five years later, it’s hard to be sure if it was planned all along, but the ongoing war at the end of the original presented an opening, and the thematic progression feels organic enough. However, the drop-off in quality is noticeable early on. The satire doesn’t hit the mark as well, the structure is weaker, the dialogue is more overly mannered, and the early computer coloring does Gibbons’ art no favors.

None of this is to say that there are no interesting ideas in Goes to War, because there are. However, some of the better elements and biggest flaws of the story come from the same source. In the afterward, Miller writes that he was inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to “eschew[] the much-used totalitarian menace” and focus on “issues of competence and incompetence, courage and cowardice, and… individuals with individual strengths and individual choices.” Certainly, the brain drain that America and PAX are dealing with presents great opportunities for social commentary, and I enjoyed details such as the contrast between the failing military equipment and Martha’s personal computer, where the most attention seems to have been paid to its friendly personality.

Still, Miller achieved the goal of replacing a Big Brother figure with several antagonists with opposing goals better in Give Me Liberty, and Goes to War is hampered by a plot that requires someone giving orders and themes that demand those someones never be shown. The weather-controlling satellite, Harmony, has been repurposed as a weapon, but by whom? The Surgeon General claims the authority to fire Harmony over staff objections, but its unclear who they answer to. The fake President is being controlled by someone, but who that is never comes up (the scene, in which the anamatronic Rexall malfunctions, is similar to the one in DK2 in which the President goes pixellated momentarily, though without either a public reaction or a line as inspired as “Reformat the president.”).

That the president has been replaced with a robot feels off as well. After he was brought back right as Give Me Liberty ended, it feels wasteful to have killed him between books. It’s also ironic, considering that everyone else has returned, albeit in less interesting form. The Surgeon General in particular has been stripped of character and purpose. In the first book he had a bizarre ideology; here he seems to exist solely to behave malevolently and use two word sentences. One new element is that there are now dozens of him, but this receives no explanation and doesn’t appear to affect anything.

Miller definitely deserves points for trying something different with Martha this time around, revealing a resistance movement and repurposing her as the seditionist that she never became in Give Me Liberty, but the results simply don’t seem as well thought out as the world of the original book was. Miller’s done away with experimentation this time as well. Gone are the text pieces and most of the talking heads’ commentary from the first book, making the world of sequel seem much smaller, since public opinion and the views of anyone beyond Martha and her friends no longer get any attention.

Gibbons’ art in both of the sequels is essentially the same as in Give Me Liberty, maybe a bit less detailed in Saves the World. Unfortunately, the overall look is a letdown after the original. The colors in Goes to War are way too garish after the understated tones of Give Me Liberty and the computer effects are terrible. Saves the World is a bit better, but still lacks the depth of the original and the computer effects, while improved, still mesh poorly with Gibbons’ art. Both look disappointing.

If you want more Martha, there are worthwhile moments, and some of the satire still works, but it doesn’t live up to the original.

3: Martha Washington Saves the World

I had a harder time finding things to like about this third installment. While the second book is arguably a continuation of the first, this one feels tacked on, even though it attempts to bring some of the original themes to their conclusion. After the new America has gotten up and running, Martha has to save it all over again, this time from the computer that coordinates the new world order, Venus, which has now decided it’s a god. I suppose this is meant as a metaphor for new rulers becoming corrupted and simply using a different justification for the same old oppression, with a whiff of the supposedly liberal disdain for self-reliance. But it’s all too on-the-nose, to the point that Venus actually explicitly claims self-reliance as Martha’s flaw. Naturally, it is that self-reliance and Martha’s indomitable will that overcomes.

Another flaw with the Venus plot is that it represents the single, all powerful villain that Miller has been admirably avoiding for the rest of the series. Miller’s focus continues to get smaller in Saves the World, as he gets rid of the outside world altogether. We’re repeatedly told that the new movement is large, but it never seems that way, since the story never strays from its small cast. Continuing the trend of Goes to War, outside commentary is gone completely and the story is told exclusively through Martha’s POV, so that, even though this adventure is supposedly the largest in scale, it feels the smallest.

In the middle of it all, a second plot involving the alien race that created life on earth emerges, but doesn’t quite fit with the battle against Venus. Thematically, the revelation of the force that may be the actual God puts the lie to Venus’s claims, but it is poorly integrated into the plot, and the conclusion allowing Martha to live her previously unmentioned desire to be an explorer essentially results in dropping her efforts over the last two books to improve the world.

As a stand-alone story, this may have had potential, but as the finale to Martha’s story and in the context of dangling circumstances from the previous books, it provides an unsatisfying conclusion.


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