| Martha Washington Dies
By Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
Dark Horse Comics – saddle-stitched, $3.50
I figure it’s impossible to spoil a comic actually called Martha Washington Dies, so I feel fine saying that it delivers exactly what it promises. It’s not so much a story as a 17-page death scene. Martha, now 100 years old in the year 2095, gives a final oration to a group of fighters, then collapses. Her followers fulfill her last wishes for her body and the war continues.
Of the 17 pages, five have multiple panels. Four are splash pages. Eight make up four double splash pages. It is essentially a single scene, with dialogue only from Martha and narration from a young woman who is presumably her granddaughter (she’s a dead ringer for the younger Martha). And yet, Miller’s script conveys so much in these few pages. Martha’s speech about “the hour of the wolf” sums up her life and the circumstances she’s been through, and her death is moving. The weight of every Martha Washington story that has preceded this one is in that moment. Even the existence of the ones I didn’t particularly like adds to the impact of her final words.
Miller also suggests so much that has gone on since we last saw Martha, not the least of which is the beginning of a new, endless war. This brings to mind the current ongoing war, more-so the implication that the enemy are some form of religious fundamentalists. Here a minor problem emerges: The word “barbarian” is deeply loaded coming from Miller, who used it to describe the 9/11 hijackers and those who share their goals. Given Miller’s comments about religion in general after 9/11, it’s tempting to read its use here as referring to a vague religious threat, but the presence of Catholic iconography surrounding Martha and those around her suggests that the “barbarians” are in opposition to Christianity, with which Martha and her forces are implicitly aligned. It’s hard, in the current climate, to imagine them as anything other than Islamic. The apparent jingoism was a bit off-putting, but I admit to being fascinated by the circumstances, wondering how things had come to today, with Martha and her group of followers huddling in a church for shelter from this new onslaught. Miller moved me past politics and sucked me into Martha’s world all over again.
With all those splash pages, it’s crucial that Gibbons bring the necessary gravity to each of them. He succeeds admirably, saying so much in Martha’s face and those of the people listening to her. The sense of place is wonderful, even though so much of it is only suggested in the shadows of the shattered church. You can hear the silence of everyone focusing so intently on her, making the inclusion of the sound of a lighter part way through jarring as a result. At the same time, tiny glimpses of smoke and debris in the background illustrate the continuing battle outside, contrasting the stillness inside. The colors also add a lot. I didn’t think that the ‘90s computer colors worked with the second and third Martha books, but they’ve come a long way since then, and the glow of the fire is felt in each panel, adding to the atmosphere of the scene.
Martha Washington Dies provides a surprising amount to think about in its small package. It’s a landmark in the history of creator-owned characters, of which Martha was one of the first from creators with so much mainstream success, and it wraps up her story movingly and appropriately. The importance of it might not be apparent to Martha newcomers, but it should be a satisfying read to anyone who’s enjoyed a previous Martha yarn. The backup material, notes and drawings on Give Me Liberty, the original Martha Washington story, was also a pleasure to page through.