Review: The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century

First published in 1990, The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century is a, now, less talked about entry into the comic cannon of the time by two huge creators of the time: Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons. While it does have moments that echo both Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, this alternative history series featuring an indomitable black female freedom fighter should be in the same discussions we have about their other great works. This archival volume contains the complete life story of the title character making this great for new readers along with many extras that established fans should be jumping at the chance to read.

Frank Miller tells the story starting with her birth and showing her whole life. It is an inspiring story as she never stops fighting for what is most important to her: liberty. The writing itself is filled with the clever world building aspects that Miller is known for such as including pages of magazines and commercials. This is a great approach that saves the reader from having to wade through heavy exposition. Similarly, Martha Washington is the same sexy kick-butt type of female character often seen in Miller’s work, but this is the closest that he gets to a feminist character. This could be said for much of this series. Miller has a very hyperbolic approach to issues that are important to talk about. This can be seen in the less nuanced giant penis shaped “space cannon” Colonel Moretti aims at Washington all the way to the map that shows the groups of people that have sprung up in this world including the Texans with their “Guns, beef, and beer”  and the First Sex Confederacy representing the women who believes that: “Everything wrong in the world has been caused by men.” Whether he is aware of the way in which his work encourages these conversations is another matter. This series makes me think that there might just be at least some awareness as the groups he identifies, for example, do echo real-life group sentiments. That said, I find some of the ways certain issues are raised to be problematic. An example of this is the sickened and greying Apache people painting their skin red as if it is their skin color that makes them Native Americans. It feels like the racial slur of redskin is doubled down upon in these moments instead of being interrogated. Still, many of the issues that he includes such as the rise of capitalism and consumerism along with the environmental concerns we very well handled and provide a solid backdrop to the stories he tells in this collection.

Fans of comic art at the time already appreciate Dave Gibbons’ work, and he certainly shines in this collection. His most important task in a book like this is to convey who Martha Washington is through her depiction and I love the way that her body is both feminine and strong. She does not pose, she survives. Her muscles are pronounced and her breasts look like her breasts should look instead of the standard comic female also seen in the collection in the form of the clones. His use of negative space is also simply top notch. The moments where it is just Martha in a borderless panel are some of the strongest images. I also really enjoy his take on Captain America. He pulls out the hyperbole that matches Miller’s tone in a way that highlights the way that Kirby was doing it as well. Gibbons also does a really good job of selling the consumerism in a way that feels both over the top and a perfectly natural extension.  The only problem is the way that the inclusion of the digital with the hand-drawn can feel really disparate. Sometimes the integration works quite well, but there are plenty of times that it does not mesh enough at all. This can really ruin what would otherwise be an impactful moment.

At this point, most people have probably read at least some the pieces collected here, making the extras included the real selling point. This collection takes its status as an archival piece seriously with many different types of extras. There is the expected cover gallery and chapter commentaries and there are even pencil sketched promotional pieces. Also included are Frank Miller’s introduction in the form of a letter to Martha Washington and “Give Me Liberty” by Gibbons, both of which provide all sorts of background information that any lover of the series might be interested in learning. What I thought was the strongest inclusion were the selected original black and white pages sprinkled throughout. Through these extras, a long time fan can find all sorts of new things to love.

This is 600 pages of Martha Washington goodness that provide everything a new reader needs to get to know the character and plenty for long time fans too. Regardless of any issues one might have, this is an important part of comics history and this collection shows that with its archival nature. Additionally, this collection is especially poignant in this era of  #ComicsHatesNazis. Finally, seeing a story about a woman like Martha Washington at all is indeed wicked awesome.

Author: Frank Miller
Illustrator: Dave Gibbons
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