Frank Miller has been producing some of the most visionary work in comics, so consistently and for so long, it's easy to forget that he was only a slip of a lad when he started out. Miller's attention-grabbing run on Daredevil in the early '80s (the one which introduced Elektra, reinvigorated the Kingpin and Bullseye, and formed the basis for the Ben Affleck movie produced 2 decades later) occurred when the writer/ artist was only 24 years old. The Dark Knight Returns and Born Again were also produced while Miller was still in his twenties. Shortly after this, Miller started collaborating with artist Dave Gibbons, who had also just been propelled to megastar status after the completion of Watchmen in 1987. Three years later, the pair produced Give Me Liberty, a four issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics, which marked the arrival of one of comic's best kept secrets; Martha Washington, soldier, freedom fighter and explorer.
The plot of the original series covers a time period from 1995 (the future, at date of original publication) up to 2012, and follows the young heroine Martha from birth in the squalor of Chicago ghetto Cabrini Green (where human rights have degerated to little more than that of a concentration camp), through puberty, and her escape from the Green into the Army which is fighting the second American Civil War. The multi-faceted story which unfolds is impossible to categorise, it comes across as a satirical sci-fi high-adventure wartime biographical vengeance epic with overtones of racial, sexual and class oppression, fierce patriotism, poverty, politics and environmentalism.
I personally didn't read these books when they first came out, although I was aware of them. My pre-teen attention was captured by the gorier and higher profile Dark Horse stablemates Aliens and Terminator. In fact, it wasn't until the early '00s that I decided to hunt out this series and it's sequels. It was around that time when I really started to try to improve my own drawing and storytelling techniques, and what I saw here had a significant effect on me. I realise now, that on my first reading, and ever since, I've always wanted to be able to draw just like Dave Gibbons in Give Me Liberty. Gibbon's artwork in Watchmen was deliberately constrained and underplayed in order to highlight the claustrophobia and sense of realism. Conversely, the storytelling in Give Me Liberty is a senses shattering blockbuster. The combination of dramatic lighting and uncluttered texturing in Gibbon's inks is fantastic. The portrayal of violence is brutal and shocking, although the storytelling quickly flips to poignant and character driven scenes with equal success. It's a style which is detailed without being complicated, and as cliched as it sounds, where not a single pen stroke is wasted.
Of course, Gibbons was given a hell of a script to work from. The breadth of ideas crammed into Give Me Liberty is amazing, and they are brilliantly interwoven to create an alternative reality which is both terrifying and hilarious, and more importantly to make Martha a completely rounded and entirely sympathetic heroine. In fact, Martha Washington is a completely atypical Miller creation, she's at odds with the cynical anti-heroes who usually populate the writer's iconic melodramas. Underneath the cynicism and sarcasm of the narrrative, there's a cautious optimism which runs through the whole Martha Washington saga.
There is a satisfying degree of closure to Give Me Liberty, although it's clear that the scope for further adventures of Martha Washington in the second American Civil War was huge. The first sequel mini-series, Martha Washington Goes To War, was published in 1994, and the second sequel series, Martha Washington Saves the World followed in 1997. I'm afraid to say, the law of diminishing returns was in effect here, and as Martha's adventures continued, the breadth of ideas within the tales became diluted. The social commentary and black humour became less prevalent as the stories continued, with several of the more colourful supporting cast being criminally underused, and by the end completely forgotten about. Still, the sequels do make for exciting and above-par Star Wars style sci-fi opera.
More succesful were the two one-shot specials which were brought out in respectively March and November '95, the period between the two sequel series. These both combined reprinted material from anthologies along with original Martha Washington short stories, set across all the time periods of Martha's adventures thus far. The first, Happy Birthday Martha Washington, was brought out to celebrate the fictitious birth date of the title character (she was born in '95). It's a neat conceit, as I can't think of any other mainstream comic character who has an unequivocal date of birth. Miller was clearly drawing parallels to any celebrated patriotic figures (American or otherwise) whose birthdays are publicly commemorated. The second one-shot was called Martha Washington Stranded in Space. This is notable since it contains a cross-over between Martha Washington and Big Guy, the titanic hero from Frank Miller and artist Geoff Darrow's collaboration Big Guy and Rusty, the Boy Robot. The reality-spanning tale is a lot of fun, whilst being respectful of Martha's overall character arc.
Throughout her fictional life, Martha is constantly challenged to overcome obstacles, to question authority and to rock the status quo of the establishment. Couple this with her drive to suceed and her ethnic origins, and it's clear to see why Martha has become a beloved inspiration to many. In the summer of 2007, Miller and Gibbons returned to the character for a final one-off special, Martha Washington Dies. It provides a fitting epilogue to all the adventures which came before it, and although it is essentially just one extended death-scene, this final chapter finally elevates Martha Washington to the status which Miller had originally intended; that of an American Dream.