Martha Washington – one for the history books, or one for the comic books?
Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot from Frank Miller. We’ve gotten a Matt Murdock worth cheering for, a permanently altered set of expectations for what can be achieved in the comic book medium, some wildly controversial public statements, and a whole bunch of food for thought (is Batman actually a fascist?). Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. In fact, Frank’s given us so much that it’s hard to keep up with all of it, and as a result, some of his best stories have ended up among his least well-known. One of those is the story of Martha Washington.
The Martha Washington comic debuted in 1990 in Dark Horse Comics‘ Give Me Liberty, a four-issue miniseries written by Miller and drawn by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame. More of her story was revealed in 1994 in a five-issue run titled Martha Washington Goes to War, and more still by virtue of four subsequent one-shots that spanned over a decade, the last being published in 2007. While Martha’s story may not be as undeniably riveting as Watchmen or as openly disturbing as Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it’s every bit as entertaining as either. A good story isn’t enough to land a comic on this site, though. For that, it also needs to contain a cornucopia of science fiction. Naturally, the Martha Washington comic delivers the goods.
Frank Miller: Futurist?
The setting: a dystopian future in which high-level politics are choked by corruption and the U.S. military – rebranded as a “Peace Force” – is engaged in numerous conflicts around the globe (and no, I haven’t gotten to the fiction part just yet). The protagonist: a poor girl from the projects, who, after being forcibly placed in a psychiatric facility, becomes aware of genetic experimentation being performed on her fellow patients.
After making her way clear of the psychiatric hospital and one set of unfortunate circumstances, Martha quickly finds herself in another when she naively volunteers for the Peace Force. In fits and starts, she goes on to uncover more than a few grand conspiracies, display an inordinate amount of courage and heroism, and of course (as comic book characters have a penchant for doing), save the world on more than one occasion.
If you’re picky about exactly what type of science fiction you ingest, rest assured that anything with Martha Washington on the cover pretty much runs the gamut. At one or another point in time, Martha teams up with a telepath, gets brainwashed (by music, no less), is blinded by a laser cannon (temporarily), stops a clone from acting as president of the U.S., and sees the actual president go back to work with his brain transplanted into a robot body – and that’s just what happens in the first four issues.
In fact, the Martha Washington comic saga just gets more sci-fi as it goes along. In Martha Washington Goes to War (which doubles as comic book homage to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), we see, well, spaceships, for lack of a better description, as well as a radioactive desert, civil conflict in the U.S.A., robot clones (because what else can you do after robots and clones?) ray guns, and all-out war aboard an orbiting space station.
Moving on, in 1995’s Happy Birthday, Martha Washington, the heroine briefly dons a mechanical suit of armor, and later finds shelter from the bullets of neo-Nazis in the arms of a genetically altered super-soldier named Captain Kurtz (and yes, he is absolutely a
rip-off of tribute to Marvel Comics’ Captain America).
Then, an inexplicable anomaly in that greatest of final frontiers sets the stage for Martha Washington Stranded in Space, which sees Martha dabbling in inter-dimensional travel. A few pages later, she’s faced with the stark realization that Earth is in fact controlled by an artificial intelligence which gets its giggles from conducting human psychology experiments. Did I mention that this series got a broad stroke of sci-fi?
But that’s not all; far from it. Martha was back in 1997 for a close encounter with some more off-earth types; namely, a species with sufficient technology to get the best of that pesky AI still bent on world-domination. With that task complete, what next but a little casual space exploration? You can find those chapters of Martha’s life chronicled in Martha Washington Saves the World.
I discovered the WildStar comic miniseries when I was about 18, and it was a total accident. The truth is, if I had seen WildStar on a rack at the local comic shop (and coming from rural Georgia, when I say “local comic shop,” I naturally mean county flea market) I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at it. That was back before I understood that if you see great penciling, inking, and coloring (like Al Gordon and Jerry Ordway did for WildStar, which, incidentally, was their creation), then chances are you have a good story on your hands as well.Anyway, as chance would have it, a friend [Click to read more…]
Even if it spans multiple dimensions, it might still seem a bit one-dimensional.
Really, though, if the series is as fun to read today as it ever was, it’s not because of the sci-fi alone. As much as anything else, its high entertainment value owes to Miller’s uncanny ability to deliver the serious and the satirical in equal doses, seamlessly and side-by-side, from front cover to back. The story of Martha Washington is well-grounded in the life-blood of comic books – absurdity – but confidently tackles a range of timelessly important topics. On top of that, David Gibbons’ penciling and lettering has the power to legitimize just about any writing, and when paired with Miller’s storytelling, packs a powerful punch.
Martha Washington might not be Frank Miller’s most famous creation. As for being his best – well, who can really say one way or the other? At least in one reader’s opinion, though, it’s worth a read, or two, or three. Undoubtedly your local comic shop has a few issues collecting dust. Or, for the true fan or Frank Miller (or Dave Gibbons) devotee, check out the super-nice, slip-cased hardcover edition that collects all Martha’s adventures in one volume, titled The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century. Moral of the story, if you’re looking for a way to refuel the ol’ sci-fi tank, the one way or another, get your hands on a copy of the Martha Washington comic, sit back, and enjoy.