Comic Book Review
Give Me Liberty
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Shortly before he published the first of what would eventually become his career-defining work, the Sin City stories, and long before he lapsed into his current phase of outrageous self-parody, Frank Miller wrote a four-issue mini-series for Dark Horse Comics featuring a young black girl from Chicago named Martha Washington, a teenaged soldier in a dystopian near-future who saves the United States from evil corporations and, eventually, civil war. She proved popular with readers, and with Miller himself — for the rest of the 1990s, Miller rarely published a non-Sin City story without Martha as the hero.
The Martha Washington stories are a major part of Miller’s output that I’ve never had a chance to get into. I found the paperback of Give Me Liberty, the original Martha Washington mini-series, at Borders the other day. Having read it, I think I get why Miller liked writing about Martha so much. She is, in many ways, the perfect Frank Miller hero: a tough, gutsy underdog who finds herself at the center of history in the making; a film noir protagonist in the middle of an Outer Limits episode.
Give Me Liberty opens in 1995, five years in the future when Miller was writing it. The President of the United States is Erwin Rexall, a glad-handing dictator who somehow repealed the 22nd Amendment and is on his way to a third term. The poor have been sequestered into fenced-in ghettos, but, Rexall reminds the people during a benevolent televised Christmas greeting, everyone has a job and there is a turkey in every pot. Young Martha’s father is killed during a political protest, and she lives in a tiny apartment with her mother and brother in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. When Martha’s favorite teacher is murdered by a homicidal bodybuilder, Martha kills him in retaliation and is committed to a mental hospital. She escapes and joins the Peace Force, or PAX, a government military force so desperate for troops that it offers a full pardon to any criminals who sign up. Despite only being a teenager, Martha distinguishes herself as a soldier and is soon promoted to sergeant.
By this time, President Rexall has been rendered comatose by a terrorist attack that killed virtually the entire executive branch, leaving only the Acting Secretary of Agriculture, Howard Johnson Nissen, left to assume the presidency. Though initially touted as a savior, who ends America’s many wars around the world and redirects PAX to save and preserve the Amazon rainforest from the depredations of fast food corporations, Nissen quickly snaps under the pressure and becomes a pathetic drunk who gives press conferences with a bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. Martha is shipped out to Brazil to fight in the Amazon, and things get even stranger from there.
In between skirmishes with the evil hamburger industry and their giant killer Bob’s Big Boy robots, Martha discovers that her commanding officer, Lieutenant Moretti, is a traitor planning to burn the rainforest to the ground. Martha foils his plot, nearly killing him in the process, earning herself an enemy for life, or at least for the rest of the story.
As the scan of the Big Boy robot testifies, this is a very broad, blatantly satirical story. Other than Moretti, the major villain is the evil Surgeon General, perpetually dressed in surgical scrubs, who eventually declares the Pacific Northwest to be a sovereign territory under his control. Characters have names like Cargo, Sphincter, and Placebo. A major front of the civil war is fought against a rebellious Apache nation, another against a faction of gay white supremacists called the Aryan Thrust. Mount Rushmore not only includes the face of President Rexall, but also his predecessor, Dan Quayle. When deposed President Rexall reappears late in the story, it’s as a disembodied brain in a tiny, R2-D2-like mechanical body. The panel showing the victory parade following the election of Rexall’s brain is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a comic in a very long time.
So it’s funny. But what makes it more than just a goofy political satire is Miller’s ability to inject genuine emotion into key scenes. When Martha finds her murdered teacher, or finds the government-exploited psychic she named Raggedy Ann trapped aboard a space station about to explode, there is real feeling despite the silliness. There’s also Miller’s knack for letting loose with brutal violence at precisely the right time. Moretti’s fate is particularly grisly, doubly so for how low-tech it is, coming at the end of such a fantastic story.
I’m spending so much time praising Miller’s writing, but that’s only half the reason to check out the book. The artwork is by the great Dave Gibbons, who returns to the sort of bleak alternate-future he handled so exquisitely alongside Alan Moore in Watchmen. He does tend to draw Martha as a bit older than 16, but he also avoids the all-too-common practice of rendering his heroine as a Victoria’s Secret model. I also loved some of the designs Gibbons came up with for the flags of the various U.S. splinter factions, especially the combination swastika/male symbol of the Aryan Thrust, and the modified Confederate flag used by the ultra-feminist First Sex Confederacy.
With all the great work to Miller’s name, it’s understandable that The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil, and Sin City get more attention than the Martha Washington stories, but if Give Me Liberty is any indication, Martha deserves a spot right next to Batman and Marv as one of the defining characters of Frank Miller’s career. Check this one out, if you’ve never read it.