Comic Review: The Life And Times Of Martha Washington In The Twenty-First Century

There are quite a few controversial comics and comic creators out there.  So, why not look at some work from those guys?

So, we’ll start CONTROVERSY WEEK with a really thick book by Frank Miller.

The Controversy:  In the 80s, Frank Miller was probably the hottest writer and artist in comics.  He remade Daredevil for Marvel and Batman for DC in ways that stood for years for both characters.  His later work on more creator-owned projects like the various Sin City stories or even 300 made quite the impact.

But Miller does have a reputation when it comes to how he writes female characters.  We’ve probably all seen this comic strip.

And that’s not even getting into both his Dark Knight sequel work or Holy Terror.  Frank Miller might be the ultimate “What the hell happened to that guy!?” in comics.

The work:  So, I thought I’d take a look at one of Miller’s few prominent female protagonists, and that would be Martha Washington.

Martha Washington was a co-creation with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons.  My edition was an omnibus from publisher Dark Horse Comics that includes all of the Martha stories, all of which were written by Miller and drawn by Gibbons.  Miller also wrote an introduction, but each individual story also has an introduction from Gibbons, all the various bits of promotional art, and Gibbons’s own sketch book.  The end result is a 600 page book with a lot of stories that are mostly good.

Yes, Martha is a pretty good protagonist.  There’s nothing of the whore to Martha.  She has only one love interest for the duration of the book, and rarely does she appear as anything that might be considered seductive.  True, the book also has a lot of Miller’s more trademark characteristics like weird bits of advertising and political satire that isn’t all that subtle.  Of course, these stories were done back when those Miller touches actually worked.  Plus, I get the impression that Gibbons was a good moderating influence on the work as he explains in his first introduction that the basics of the story was something the two of them worked out before they went to work, and when Miller’s eventual script went off in directions Gibbons didn’t like, Gibbons threatened to walk unless Miller went back to the original concept, an idea Miller agreed to.

So, who is Martha Washington?  She’s an African American woman born in a closed-off ghetto neighborhood on March 11, 1995, a date that was in the future at the time of the original publication.  A Ronald Reagan-type conservative has been elected president, and due to various legal mechanisms, he gets re-elected many, many times and becomes more and more of a tyrannical despot.  Martha’s neighborhood is actually closed off from the rest of the country where the only way for anyone to ever be allowed to leave is to join the ironically named military organization PAX.  Martha does just that and goes on to fight in a never-ended series of conflicts in the Second Civil War.

Martha’s world is a real craphole of a place.  Little that anyone does makes things better.  And Martha?  She keeps fighting and sometimes even winning against adversaries like fast food company mechs, anti-male feminists, and the Surgeon General, a mad man who thinks crime and immorality are diseases that needs to be combated as lethally as possible.

I really liked this book.  Martha is a compelling character, tough and compassionate.  True, there are a few weaker stories, most notably Martha Washington Saves the World, a story that pushes the sci-fi elements of the series to a point I thought was a bit beyond my own suspension of disbelief for Martha’s setting.    But this is mostly a lot of over-the-top weirdness with a central character who plays it all straight and keeps surviving.  Plus, the way the book is set up, the reader essentially sees Martha’s whole life.  The first story covers her birth and childhood up to and including her early days in the army and the last one is her dying of old age.  Martha isn’t so much of a world changer as a witness.  She sees the weird stuff that is going on all across a fragmented United States in a dystopian society where nothing seems to work, and Miller and Gibbons even managed to take ideas from a book I hate (Atlas Shrugged) and made a compelling story out of it…mostly by dumping the philosophy I can’t stand.   So, yes, Miller can write a woman protagonist that isn’t a whore…or at least he used to be able to do so.

8.5 out of 10 treacherous clones and computer programs.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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