When Words Collide

Mon, October 5th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 5th, 2009 at 5:32pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE TROUBLE WITH MARTHA

Martha Washington, Absolutely

I bought Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons's "Give Me Liberty" when it first came out, and I read "Martha Washington Dies" a couple of years back, but I completely missed everything in between.

I never really spent too much time thinking about the Martha Washington saga. It was a story that didn't click for me, as much as I was fascinated by Frank Miller's other work, and as much as I thought (and still think) that Dave Gibbons is one of the best artists to ever grace the comic book page.

Let's face it, part of the problem was that "Give Me Liberty" still looks like a strange follow-up kick to the revolutionary one-two punch of "Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen." An environmento-policical urban space epic with a young, unglamorous, black female protagonist? It was like Miller and Gibbons took everything we expected from them and gave us the opposite.

In the recently-released "Absolute Martha Washington," (actually titled "The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century"), Miller addresses that point in an open letter to Martha: "We hit a crisis early on," Miller writes, "puffed-up with self-importance after the success of 'The Dark Knight Returns,' I mischronicled your first adventure as something too on-the-nose political, too self-consciously serious and, in a word, dreary."

Miller goes on to say that Gibbons quit, and if it weren't for the influence of a trusted companion, Martha Washington might never have been born: "It took Lynn Varley to straighten my brain out and advise me to reconfigure your story, to bring absurdity and sarcasm and adventure and boyish joy to it."

And from those words from Miller, we can see where many of the problems with Martha Washington originate. Even after Miller's reconfiguration, Martha Washington's story is a self-consciously serious tale with bits of absurdity and sarcasm and adventure grafted on. Sometimes, within the pages of the 600-page "The Life and Times of Martha Washington" (which reprints, as far as I know, everything), the absurdity and the sarcasm and the adventure actually work, and the massive hardcover earns its spot next to the other Absolute editions, and not just because of Gibbons beautiful pages.

Classic Gibbons Composition

Other times, well, "Secret Wars" has an Omnibus and "Batman: Hush" has an Absolute, so I guess it belongs on the shelf no matter what.

But even when "The Life and Times of Martha Washington" falters, it's because its trying to say something -- perhaps trying too hard -- beneath the layers of absurdity and not-at-all-whimsical adventure. What it's saying isn't always clear -- or isn't consistent -- which isn't really a surprise considering that Martha Washington's life has been chronicled over decades in which comic book trends (and the political bent of their authors) may have changed as well. Still, I will take a mostly-failed attempt at "saying something" over an equally-long exercise in pure entertainment and escapism almost any day. Particularly when it comes with a 600-page dose of Dave Gibbons.

It seems like I spend half these columns -- and half my CBR reviews -- praising some comic book artist and talking about how great he or she is. Listen, mainstream superhero comics have never looked as good as they do now, at least not consistently, and it's easy to praise the artists for producing such quality. Folks like Ivan Reis, Steve McNiven, Alan Davis, Doug Mahnke, J. H. Williams III, Amanda Conner, John Romita, Jr. -- these are artists at the top of their game, and there's no doubt that they make whatever they work on read a whole lot better than it might have otherwise been. And certainly the recently-concluded "Wednesday Comics" was a showcase for some wonderful superhero comic book art. There's a lot of good stuff out there.

But I think you could make a case that Dave Gibbons is THE best mainstream comic book artist of the Modern Era. I'd be willing to make that case.

"Watchmen" alone is probably enough to clinch it for him, even if the accolades tend to go toward Alan Moore roughly 99.7% of the time. But "Watchmen" only works because of Dave Gibbons's attention to detail, his mastery over visual storytelling, and his ability to take superhero iconography and blend it with a sense of the spectacular mundane. I may have been one of those readers who didn't appreciate the amazing skill of Dave Gibbons when I read "Watchmen" the first few times. As easy as it is to see how masterful he is, it's just as easy to take him for granted. He's so good, so confident in every detail, that he doesn't have to be flashy. And the comic book reality he creates is so fully-formed that he seems to merely chronicle what's happening.

The Image Influence

But, of course, that's his genius. And that's why "Watchmen" works, regardless of Alan Moore's poetics, regardless of its structural fanciness.

And yet, Gibbons also drew the best-looking "Green Lantern" comics of the 1980s, and also illustrated the single best Superman story of that decade as well, with "Superman Annual" #11. That stuff, coupled with "Watchmen" and a career's worth of "Doctor Who" and "2000 AD" stories -- not to mention various one-shots and fill-ins over the years -- certainly earns him a place near the top. At the top, I'd feel safe to say.

His only real artistic misstep was his original graphic novel, "The Originals," which was crafted -- from what I understand -- using a computerized "posing" program, and therefore lacks a lot of the typical Gibbonsian flourishes.

This artist, this guy who is arguably the best of the best, is the guy who draws every single Martha Washington story, and, man, he's good.

He's at his best in "Give Me Liberty," probably, though the stuff in the back half of "The Life and Times of Martha Washington" is quite strong as well. Hell, it's all very good, although "Martha Washington Goes to War" shows Gibbons straying from his comfort zone. As he explains in one of the text pieces in the collected edition, the Image guys had exploded onto the comics scene by the time he got to work drawing (or redrawing) "Martha Washington Goes to War," and he tries to make his own work more dynamic to fit in with the then-popular style.

It's not like he gives Martha gigantic muscles and popping veins and tons of pouches and cross-hatching (and gritted teeth!), but he does open up his normally tightly-controlled pages in "Goes to War." You'll find more splash pages in there, and more three-to-four panel pages with a large figure or close-up as the focal point. Gibbons normal, highly effective style, might be characterized as one in which each panel matters. Each panel presents a tableau. Each page captures form and movement through space. But in his amped-up Image style, Gibbons breaks the panel borders more often, shows characters leaping toward the reader, highlights the dramatic moment.

I suppose it's fourth-generation Kirby finally influencing a very British artist.

Martha's Final Rebellion

And maybe it's that change in style, and maybe it's that Frank Miller takes "Martha Washington Goes to War" in more absurdist, somewhat nonsensical directions, but that series -- that section in the collected edition -- seems to be where the Martha Washington saga gets derailed. It seems a bit more hollow than "Give Me Liberty," a little less resonant than even the brief "Happy Birthday Martha Washington" pieces.

Gibbons never goes back to his tighter, less bombastic page layouts in the remainder of the Martha Washington stories, but he seems to have more control over the effects by the end. And it helps that the story is less about sleazy political maneuverings and more about Martha Washington's heroism.

It's always nice to have a strong hero, using her wits against impossible odds, and when the story boils down to that -- as it did in the early days of "Give Me Liberty," and as it does in the final chapters of "Martha Washington Saves the World" -- the Frank Millerisms slide away and the story sings. With a more than able accompaniment from Dave Gibbons.

And in the end, "The Life and Times of Martha Washington" does say something. But what it says rests in the power of the individual over the system, and that's a story always worth telling.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, frank miller, dave gibbons, martha washington

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