I started this column
figuring hoping I’d write entries in it building up to election day, then use it to look back at the reality we narrowly avoided. That didn’t exactly go as planned. Instead, I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that I now live in a dystopia and decide whether it’s worth it to push myself towards further malaise by writing about art that looks uncomfortably similar to the world we find ourselves in. Like a lot of people, I’ve struggled with maintaining focus since election day, there are too many looming disasters to keep track of and too many attempted erosions of democracy every hour and the Trump presidency hasn’t even started yet. But there has been one work that has been on my mind throughout this last, most mindblowing turn in the Year of Failure: Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’ devastating dystopic epic The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century. And that’s not just because of how prophetic many elements of it now seem, but also because in its own weird way it’s a work about hope and refusing to give in no matter how dire the situation is.
Despite being an extremely successful commercial work, and arguably the series that really put Dark Horse on the map as a home for adventurous comics creators bored with the Big Two, the Martha Washington epic is curiously underrepresented in comics criticism, generally liked but not held in anywhere near as much esteem as the creators’ other contemporary works. The character of Martha Washington will occasionally pop up in lists about strong women characters, or POC representation, or bleak sci-fi, but it’s treated as almost a footnote in the careers of Miller and Gibbons. For Gibbons, it serves as a personal and ambitious attempt to stand outside the shadow of Watchmen before the artist shifted towards more commercially inclined series. For Miller, it’s the exact line of demarcation between his classic Formalist Auteur Era (Daredevil, Dark Knight Returns, Ronin) and his hyper masculine Abstraction Auteur Era (Sin City, 300, Holy Terror). Martha Washington is the most human character Frank Miller ever wrote and the last time you can see him caring about a character more than experimentation and style, and not coincidentally it’s one of the last times he would share basically equal creative autonomy with someone.
As Gibbons and Miller both explain in the introductory text in the complete Martha Washington collection, Miller convinced Gibbons to work with him on the series by pitching him the story of Martha “on a mission to prevent an evangelical Elvis clone [from] nuking the rest of the United States from deep in the Arizona desert.” For Gibbons, this offered a giddy respite from “our recently successful dark dissections of superheroes,” so he started working on designs and plans based on that treatment. But when Miller’s script finally arrived, Gibbons was horrified by how dark and gritty it had become, missing the surreal humor and absurdity that had first caught his eye. Miller admits that the project would have been “stillborn” if Lynn Varley hadn’t convinced him to take Gibbons’ concerns into consideration and rework the entire project. The work that Miller and Gibbons eventually created is an incredible hybrid of these two spheres, brutal and unflinching yet curiously warm and tender and goofy. Not unlike life itself, in other words.
What’s especially clear throughout the series that make up the Martha Washington epic is that Miller and Gibbons and their various colorist collaborators truly love Washington as a character. And it’s not hard to see why. Washington is an epic hero with all of the tragedy and none of the hubris. If she has a tragic flaw, it’s that she has hope for humanity, but that’s also the ingredient that makes her continue long past the point her many enemies expect her to fall. As Washington herself puts it in a survival mantra, “When things get bad like this, you just keep telling yourself ‘This won’t kill me, I won’t die here, this won’t kill me.”
Washington’s survivor instinct is so well-honed because her entire life has seen her rise up out of tragic circumstances, surviving the prison-like conditions of doomed Chicago housing project Cabrini Green only to land in the middle of a convoluted conspiracy when she enlists in the military force PAX. Yet that survivor instinct doesn’t define Washington nor do Miller and Gibbons turn her into an unfeeling character who forgets her origins and trauma. At several points in her life story, Washington is forced to make hard, brutal decisions and though she bravely moves on from each, she is never able to forget them and unlike the action stars of her era, she emotionally reacts to them in believable and human ways.
This is why Washington is such a uniquely potent dystopic protagonist. Gibbons draws her not as a cold superhuman brute or insensitive sex warrior (and notably Washington encounters and defeats characters who represent both of these tropes) but as a bold and powerful black woman with a wide emotional range to reflect her equally wide array of physical talents. Many of the most memorable scenes in the series are simple one page depictions of Washington crying in solitary peace after making a difficult decision (like her first foray in the senseless Amazon War between PAX and the rogue Fat Boy Burger corporate state), or multi-panel sequences showing her reaction to a trauma shifting from shock to acceptance to strength (the killing of a basically nonverbal bully who had just slain her adolescent mentor). So many dystopic and post-apocalyptic works gives us protagonists who are blank slates or emotionally cold, indicating that survival is only possible if you shut down everything that makes you human. But with Washington, Miller and Gibbons reject this premise and provide an emotionally open yet brave and strong woman who survives because of how much she values that which makes her human.
As that anecdote about Martha Washington’s gestation shows, a huge amount of Martha Washington’s humanity is due to Gibbons’ vision for what would make this project work and ability to weave that into even the most ambitious of Miller’s ideas (as well as minimize the tone deafness of Miller’s worst concepts– the less said about the gay Nazi terrorist group, the better, though it’s hard not to think of them as predecessors to the dreaded Nu Fascist icon Milo Yiannopuolos). Gibbons rightfully continues to get acclaim for the patterns and precision focus he brought to Watchmen but while that series and Washington share dystopic themes, Washington also serves as a foil to the unfeeling, repetitive nature of that landmark work. Washington is still just as ambitious and epic but there’s a chaos and looseness to it that makes it far more exciting and filling. Miller’s script gives Gibbons ample opportunity to show off his range as an artist, with issues taking place in locations as diverse as the densely overcrowded urban centers of Chicago and New York, the equally claustrophobic but less populated world of the Amazon and the far more desolate realms of the southwest and outer space. But beyond that, it also pushes Gibbons’ talent for realistically rendering human expression to new extremes, with many of its climaxes getting delivered via small panel beats and compressed close-ups of reactions. It’s a detailed work that never feels overbearing, that demands innumerable rereads but never makes that feel like a chore.
And those details extend to textual inserts and mock-magazine sections a la Watchmen. This is where many of the work’s most prophetic moments pop up, whether it’s a headline discussing the “new fashions of the KKK” or tidbits about New York’s rising water levels due to melting icecaps. Miller and Gibbons fully flesh out the world Martha Washington inhabits and that makes it feel incredibly realistic even if terrifying portions of it didn’t match up to what’s happening in our reality. That said, the main plots of Martha Washington are almost cartoonishly extreme and convoluted. Washington comes of age in the time of President Rexall, a mixture of Reagan schmaltz and Trump hyper capitalism. She is born a year before the first term of his first presidency, her father dies protesting his election win and the fall of his entire cabinet to a revenge attack by Saudi Arabia after an “accidental” laser assault on their country allows for the rise of President Nissen, the man whose environmental war against a McDonald’s-esque company first establishes Washington as a hero.
The bulk of Washington’s career happens between the rise and fall of Nissen and the new rise of the reborn Rexall and though she operates within the realm of these larger than life presidents, her first chief foil is her commanding officer Moretti. The polar opposite of Washington in every way (a rich mediocre white man), Moretti’s rise to the top and use of that rise to stomp down Washington is seen as one of the major tragedies in the series, but a major part of Washington’s appeal is that she approaches this with no real bitterness; if anything, she seems to keep hoping Moretti will improve and when he finally gets his comeuppance after kicking off a military coup and pushing America into neverending civil war, Washington’s enabling of his jail cell suicide can be read as a sympathetic gesture, one last chance to atone for all the pain and suffering he caused out of a need to be treated as a precious, special man.
Equally tragic is the humiliating fall of President Nissen, one of the only figures Washington expresses love for. A Bernie Sanders-esque liberal figure, Nissen manages to accomplish a number of great things when he is thrust into the presidency after the assassination of Rexall’s entire cabinet but like Moretti he’s undone by his own desperate need to rise above his limited abilities. Where Washington is able to survive every aspect of her dystopic world, Nissen aims for too much and spreads himself so thin he crumbles, descending into alcoholism and liberal egotism, his stubborn refusal to compromise becoming a weight rather than a crutch. He becomes what he most hated and Washington ends up having to save the floating brain of Rexall, a man she openly despised, in order to bring some kind of stabilization to the republic.
The Washington series is at its best when it focuses on these personal, human tragedies and how they spark the larger, more apocalyptic events filling out the background of the series. Though every Martha Washington release is worth reading, there is a significant difference in mood, tone and aesthetic in the initial Give Me Liberty series and what followed in its wake. The clearest difference comes with the departure of masterful colorist Robin Smith, who was brought on to the series to give it a more “European” feel. Smith’s coloring recalls 2000 A.D. and Heavy Metal but it also fits perfectly alongside the adventurous work Gibbons and Miller’s peers were doing at DC in the same era, particularly Tim Truman’s Hawkworld and Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow: Blood and Judgment, both of which utilized their painterly textures to depict grimy urban decay and freakish figures in ways that felt raw rather than realistic.
There’s a tactile element to Smith’s coloring that disappears when the team self-admittedly attempts to match the glossy, bombastic approach that was making Image’s comics stand out so much in the early ’90s. As interesting as it is to hear Gibbons explain his excitement over working with Angus McKie and being at the forefront of digital color innovations, Martha Washington Goes to War feels shallower than its predecessor. Gone are the hyperdetailed backgrounds, gone are the sickly green and yellows, gone are the grungy tones and off-kilter framing. Instead, everything is slick and shiny, a match for the malfunctioning mechsuits and rebellious electronics Washington is testing for PAX when the series opens.
But beyond the disappointing aesthetic change, Goes to War also suffers for the way Miller and Gibbons hamfistedly pillage Atlas Shrugged, making Washington investigate a “brain drain” of the best talent remaining in America, a creative theft was pulled off more effectively by Gibbons’ previous collaborator Alan Moore in Watchmen. Washington may have been mostly a lone wolf in Give Me Liberty but in Goes to War the Randian elements make Washington come across as lost and aimless in a way that seems at odds with her first appearances. Its follow-ups Stranded in Space and Saves the World brought back the more hopeful, humanist side of Washington but still feel aimless, and the appearance of a Dr. Manhattan-like all-powerful naked being also forces comparisons to Watchmen and not in a flattering way.
Yet the conclusion of the series, Martha Washington Dies, brought Miller and Gibbons full circle, reuniting them with the fearless and eternally optimistic Washington on her final birthday. A century old and still stoic, Washington knows death is on the way and what surprises her most is that she isn’t alone but surrounded by people she cares about. She chooses to spend last day inspiring them, not holding back about how dire their situation might seem in yet another apocalyptic scenario but focusing on the human capacity to overcome hopelessness. And in her final moment, Washington transforms into a literal beacon of hope, dying and then immediately being reborn as a lightwave leading on the troops. It’s not exactly a happy ending but it’s a perfect ending for the type of warrior Martha Washington is, eternally focused on overcoming all challenges and abiding not by law but by what’s best for humanity. In times like these, that’s perhaps better than a happier story or an unrealistically revolutionary text.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover