Looking Back at Martha Washington

A column article by: Zack Davisson

People say you have to be the right age when you first read Atlas Shrugged. As for me, I was in the perfect stage of identity-quest when I read it, and Atlas Shrugged became one of those books-that-changed-my-life. A few years older and I would have been too cynical; a few years younger and I wouldn't have understood it.

The same can be said about some comic books. I was just the right age–fourteen–when I picked up The Dark Knight Returns, using cash from my paper-route. I remember it with photographic clarity. I almost didn't buy it–it cost more than most comics–but the cover ultimately convinced me, so I bought it and I read it. And my world changed. Then came The Watchmen. And my world changed further. I grew up a bit, right then and there.

Given their modern status, both The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen arrived on the comics rack with little pomp and circumstances. There was no sound of thunder, no clarion calls announcing the end of one age and the start of another. They were just sitting there, tucked next to the latest issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man and Rom Spaceknight.

Conversely, the first Martha Washington adventure Give me Liberty arrived with far more hoopla. This comic was the marriage of the by-now-legendary The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen. This was FRANK MILLER and DAVE GIBBONS working together. Unlike my trepidations with buying The Dark Knight Returns, I was more than willing to shell out the cash from my now "real job" as a lifeguard. Expectations were high. Surely these two titans together could produce nothing less than perfect genius!

So I bought it. And I read it. And I liked it. But the effect wasn't cataclysmic. It was just a good comic.

Re-reading the entire series in the Dark Horse collected edition The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty First Century, I realize I was just too young when I first read Give Me Liberty. Twenty years older and with new perspective and experience, it was like reading it for the first time. I saw all of the political nuance, all the homages and ideas packed tightly into the series.
And it helped that I was reading Kenneth Davis' refresher course on American history, Don't Know Much About History, at the same time. Along with comic book and science fiction, Miller and Gibbons commented on politics and American history. I just didn't have that background. Before I saw only the surface, and now I was finally seeing the depth.
Here are a few things I missed the first time around.

The Tragedy of President Nissan

One of the statements in Davis' history book is that America is always looking for easy answers to complicated problems, and I could see that in the story of US President Nissan. A lowly cabinet member, Nissan is thrust into the Oval Office through line-of-succession after an assassination takes out the long-term President Rexall (a creepy combination of Richard Nixon and FDR) and all his senior staff. At first his ascension seems like a gift. Rexall was a corrupt politician who projected a folksy and "common man" image while he used his office for personal power and gain at the expense of the American people. Nissan, on the other hand, is the ultimate bleeding-heart liberal. Among Nissan's first acts are making peace with warring nations, moving to save the rainforest from greedy hamburger concerns, and even tearing down the slum/prison Cabrini Green where Martha Washington was born.

But Nissan's solutions are too simple, too idealistic. With the burger shops ravaging the rain forest, Nissan responds with prohibition banning the sale of meat. When the Apache nation leads an insurrection, he restores the lands that were once theirs, without realizing those lands are now a wasteland. Slowly, the pressures of the office get to him; it takes more than good intentions and ideals to retain power in a sea of sharks. Reduced to a slobbering alcoholic, he falls Caesar-like to a military coup lead by Martha's commanding officer Colonel Moretti.

Moretti's military dictatorship is no better and soon loses control. Nissan, it turns out, was doing a better job than anyone knew, and America is soon embroiled in the Second Civil War. And people were starting to remember how good they had it under Rexall.

This is all classic American politics, a game that has been played since Washington–well, without the White House assassinations and giant Fatboy Burger robots. We are a schizophrenic country, selling our allegiance to whoever promises us the easiest answer or gives us a good sideshow issue to distract us. And the president in office is always the villain, while the ones from the past just keep looking better and better. Miller is famous for his tough-guy hard-line politics ("Holy Terror, Batman" anyone?), so it was a surprise to see such a balanced portrayal. I don't think we would see that from him now.

Atlas Shrugged

I am so shocked that I didn't get this at the time. Martha Washington is Atlas Shrugged. Reading it now, the allusion is inescapable. The fading technology of the people in power. The mysterious disappearances of all the world geniuses. The hidden paradise where everything actually works. Gibbons and Miller even admit that they lifted the plot. But I just didn't make the connection. For science fiction fans, Martha Washington is also Rendezvous with Rama and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But it is mainly Atlas Shrugged. Without the 100-page speeches.

Dave Gibbons Saved Martha Washington

Aside from collecting all of the various Martha Washington stories, the best part of the Dark Horse collection is Dave Gibbons' commentary. He writes a few introductions and asides to the various stories, and each one is a charming revelation.

The most shocking of these revelations is that Dave Gibbons quit Give Me Liberty before the first issue was complete. He had agreed to work on the series, but he found Frank Miller's story too heavy-handed and serious. He was sick of the "grim and gritty" style he had helped to create. He didn't like it, so he just quit. In order to keep his artist, Miller was forced to go back and rework the story entirely, taking out some of the more cynical aspects and adding in a sense of absurd humor—which accounts for the giant Fatboy burger robots that Martha Washington fights in the Amazon jungle.

Gibbons offers up some other fantastic behind-the-scenes stories. I enjoyed his honest admission that Miller and he were full of swelled heads and self-importance following The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen. They had bought into their own press. So the lack of real success for Give Me Liberty was somewhat humbling, although they kept the story going.

Gibbons also talks about why the Dark Horse Legends imprint was created as a direct competition to the Image imprint. And he admits that it was a failure as a concept, only really bringing about the two cross-overs found in the collection, with Nixon the Tax Collector from Hard Boiled and The Big Guy from The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. His reason for the imprint's failure is just as honest.

The guys at Image were young and hungry. They were gambling everything they had and were fighting fiercely for their chunk of the pie. Although infinitely more talented and experienced, the elder statesmen who made up Legend were neither young nor hungry. And that made all the difference.

The Life and Death of Martha Washington

Looking back now, the Martha Washington series was a bold choice for Miller and Gibbons. They were both at their most prestigious moments in their careers and probably could have commanded any project from Marvel or DC. But instead they decided to do a political-themed non-superhero project for a smaller company, Dark Horse, starring a black girl named after the wife of the first president of the United States. And they kept at it. For twenty years. That is a long collaboration for a comic like this.

Of course, they didn't put out of lot of issues in those twenty years. Martha Washington came out sporadically, if at all, and the two only published when they had something to say. But in those issues Martha Washington got a complete story.

Alan Moore once remarked that a problem with superhero stories is that they never end. Endings, he says, are as important a mythological element as beginnings. You don't have Sherlock Holmes without his eventual retirement as a beekeeper. Robin Hood has to be buried where that arrow fell. Heracles has to ascend to Olympus. Gotterdammerung must come. Miller and Gibbons gave that to Martha Washington, opening the series with her birth and ending it with her death a century later.

I don't know if Martha Washington will ever join the ranks of classic heroes, or if her story will stand the test of time. I do know that I am finally old enough to read The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty First Century and grow up a little bit more. What an excellent comic.

Community Discussion