Friday, July 2, 2010

the life and times of martha washington

Is Casey a precursor of Martha Washington?

My interest in comics has waxed and waned in several waves, but the first major wave came in the late 80s when I first saw Frank Miller's Ronin. This was a little after it first came out, and I vividly remember the excitement I felt when, finally in the know, I walked away from the comic "shop" (barely more than a kiosk) with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3 and Watchmen #11, hot off the presses.

After Dark Knight and Watchmen set the bar so high, where to look next? An obvious choice was Give Me Liberty (1990), a four issue miniseries written by Dark Knight's Miller and illustrated by Watchmen's Dave Gibbons.

Now Gibbons' line has always seemed too clean and sterile to me. In fact, I was not that big a fan of his reading Watchmen, but his sheer connection to it (plus the obvious subtlety and detail with which he'd realized that complex project) made me enthusiastic for his work on the collaboration with Miller.

At the time, I had mixed feelings about Give Me Liberty. The story was over the top, the imagery was crazy and powerful, and Miller and Gibbons brought their distinctive personalities together into an explosive synthesis. Nevertheless, something felt unfinished, unsatisfying about the story. It was so sprawling, I felt something was left behind, even if I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

Miller's distinctive personality: gay nazis.

I had a vague sense more stories featuring the hero of Give Me Liberty, Martha Washington, had been published. But this was a period when my interest in comics was waning, and I never really followed her saga after the initial series.

Now, finally, however, the entire story (birth to death!) of Martha Washington, originally told in three miniseries and a handful of special issues, is collected in one place, the 600+ page The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century.

Martha is born in 1995. After a difficult youth in the ghetto, she joins "PAX," the near ubiquitous US government peace-keeping force. By the end of the first miniseries, the inevitable corruption of US economic policy, environmentalism as facism, state-instituted medicine as facism, the war on red meat, the oppression of the Apache Nation, and more have all been explored to satiric effect.

Martha had a rough childhood.

The second miniseries, Martha Washington Goes to War (1994), begins during the Second US Civil War. Martha defects to a utopian organization of the intelligent and competent, who have removed themselves from the totalitarian system which has taken over the former US. (Apparently, this story line is based on Atlas Shrugged.) Weather satellites, invisibility technology, giant golden pyramids, evil robot surgeons, and a omnipowerful super computer all play a part.

The third miniseries, Martha Washington Saves the World (1997) goes even farther over the top, pitting alien technology against a worldwide conspiracy. Finally, in 2007, Martha Washington's death was depicted in a final one-shot.

Reading Give Me Liberty again after all these years I've been reminded of just how exciting bizarre the story and its imagery were. I definitely have a greater appreciation for Gibbons' penmanship, and the color is extremely elegant. The same lingering feeling of unease, or of too much craziness and not enough depth in the characters / story remains. Nevertheless, the initial miniseries stands as a remarkable achievement.

Reading the rest of the story, its hard not to be distracted by the dramatic evolution in the coloring style. The second miniseries was a testing ground for a palate of new coloring techniques made possible by the digital computer, including even the flagrant pasting of photographic images into the backgrounds of some panels.

Coloring as digital photo collage.

Here, Washington discovers the utopian hideout and the lush green imagery literally pasted in creates a surreal effect and sharp contrast with the postapocalyptic wastelands we've seen so far in the story. Although tree photos are clearly pasted in to stand for trees, some of the pasting clearly plays a textural role, like the grass image pasted onto the hill, but not matching in scale or feel with the inked outlines of tufts of grass.

The use of digital techniques is even more extravagent in the third storyline, as a rogue asteroid and various astronomical structures are generated completely digitally, with no inked line at all. Here the final confrontation with the omnipresent intelligent computer system takes place within an entirely digital environment.

90s style digital playground.

Frankly, I prefer the colors and look of the first series (airbrush? watercolor?) to that of the later ones. Still, the digital excesses in the art are strangely appropriate to the narrative excesses of Frank Miller—in Martha Washington's epic, we can see the terse social commentary of the early Miller evolve into the carnivalesque self-parody on display in, for example, Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In the case of Batman, however, the "world" at stake (Batman's Gotham) was not really large enough to contain Miller's excess. In contrast, the world of Marha Washington is free to expand along with the style in Miller's sequels, consequently these work much better than DK2.

Ultimately, I think Martha Washington is one of the those characters loved a little too much by its creators (the deep affection both Miller and Gibbons feel for the character is attested repeatedly in the volume's liner notes). This makes certain features of her saga overly self-indulgent for my taste. Ultimately, however, the saga is deeply satisfying—perhaps some of their love rubs off on the reader. Or maybe the global vision presented is thought provoking enough to forgive some gaps in motivation or character.

More than that, however, the grandiose vision laid out of the future is so lighthearted and good spirited (despite the dark satire, it's always fun), that one can't help but play along, allow M&G their indulgences, and applaud an epic that manages to be grandiose and silly, brutal and lighthearted, frustrating and entertaining, all at the same time.


darlarosa said...

I found this review by accident, but reading it certaintly made me want to pick up a copy even more than before.

I always find myself feeling like Frank Miller's work is somehow unfinished...Whether Watchmen or The Dark Knight. Part of me thinks thats his style but another part of me wonders...

Efe said...

darlarosa, Watchmen's writer is Alan Moore, not Miller.