Only three years after collaborating with Alan Moore on “Watchmen,” artist Dave Gibbons joined with another of comics’ legendary writers for a smart and biting, but ultimately hopeful, look at the future of America. Frank Miller, who had just come off “Dark Knight Returns,” tapped Gibbons to tell the story of a woman born into absolute poverty who nevertheless rises to heroic status in a country riven by internal divisions, beholden to corrupt or incompetent politicians and embroiled in wars it cannot (and possibly should not) win. Miller and Gibbons’s Martha Washington, through six volumes of comics beginning with “Give Me Liberty” and ending with “Martha Washington Dies,” explored the evolving contemporary culture through satire and over-the-top adventure, and in June, her entire biography is collected for the first time in softcover in Dark Horse’s “The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century.” CBR News spoke with Gibbons about Martha’s history, heroism and the life catching up with art.
“Martha Washington has been all sorts of things, as we say somewhere in the book. She has been a soldier, she’s been an explorer, she’s been a fugitive from the law,” Gibbons said. “What we try to do is follow the fortunes of a straightforward, very honorable girl from her beginnings in the ghettos of Chicago in Cabrini Green – which in our future world is extrapolated into a roofed-in sealed facility where nobody goes in or out – and we follow her through service in the army, then into space, then into the depths of the universe, and finally we bring her back to Earth again.
“Over the years, Martha has attained a kind of reality for me. Not all fictional characters you deal with do, but I think I speak for myself and Frank when I say that we really do have a sense of knowing Martha as a real person,” the artist continued. “I know Frank finds her very comfortable to write and I find her very comfortable to draw, so I think we were on to something.”
Over the course of the character’s run, the stories of “Martha Washington” and the ideas they explored evolved considerably, but Gibbons said there was also significant change to the concept behind Martha before the first story even saw print. “When we started with Martha, we were actually much more kind of serious, we wanted to do something grim and gritty, and grim and political,” Gibbons said, “but we actually both realized that we were more interested in doing something that had a bit of satirical edge to it and something that was, in many ways, absurd, because that can be more effective in skewering things than, you know, being dead on and very serious about it.”
Among the prominent subjects of Miller and Gibbons’s satire were rampant consumerism, Reagonomics (“Rexonomics” in the series, after perpetual President Rexall), and environmentalism. Reading that first story, “Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty,” now, though, there is an oddly prescient political entity – “Real America,” literally a new nation in the southwest between Texas (also a sovereign nation) and California (now split into Wonderland and parts of God’s Country). Though America is, in the present day of our real world, still united,Â the phrase made famous by Sarah Palin during the 2008 elections and Texas Governor Rick Perry’s blustering about secession coalesce into an unsettling new layer to the twenty-year old satire.Â “These ideas were ideas that were very much around at the time, just as earlier the threat of nuclear armageddon was one of the engines behind ‘Watchmen.’ But what is strange is that, as time goes around, these ideas kind of become current again,” Gibbons said. “Global warming is on everyone’s lips, although it seems to have assumed a more pressing importance. And there is the idea of American military being used to impose peace on other nations – I guess that’s what militaries have always been thought to do, but that seems a very clear idea at the present time. I feel that Martha reappearing now has a strange kind of resonance that it might not have had even ten years ago.
“What we tried to do is have a very accelerated pace of change, and do things that were quite outrageous – but somehow we haven’t even been as outrageous as the real world has,” Gibbons continued. “I always find that things change that are exciting and kind of scary at the same time, and I think that’s certainly true of the way the world has gone. I don’t know that we were particularly prophetic, but I think that Frank was very acute about trends that he could see unfolding. I think that many of the concerns that we had and that we extrapolated in ‘Martha’ have actually come to pass. Again, because it’s comics and because it’s a work of fiction, it’s kind of heightened, but I’m really pleased that we ended up with a real resonance between Martha’s fictional world and our real world.”
That accelerated change was spurred to even greater speeds by the extended periods of time that elapsed between volumes, with four years passing between the publication of “Give Me Liberty and “Goes to War” and a decade between “Saves the World” and “Dies.” The intervening years necessarily influenced Miller and Gibbons’s relationship with material, especially its more satirical elements. “Frank and I would return to Martha after some years to find that the world had changed, that our views had changed, that our enthusiasms had changed. So I think that actually what you see in Martha is a really accelerated change that sometimes goes in unexpected and quirky directions, which mirrors the way things happen in real life,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think, when you look back at history, there’s a smooth, organic kind of evolution. I think it was interesting that we, rather than at one sitting deciding to do the future history of the United States, we did some then came back and revised our views, then came back and revised our views some more. So I think it’s got a really interesting texture.”
The sporadic publishing schedule, however, caused “Martha Washington” to experience accelerated change in the tools of its medium, as well, notably in the coloring process. “‘Give Me Liberty’ was done in what used to be the most advanced old-time coloring method, which was blueline, where you’d take a photograph of the artwork, you’d have a copy of it in blackline on a sheet of acetate and a copy of it in blueline on a sheet of watercolor paper, and you’d overlay the black acetate over the watercolor paper and paint on the watercolor paper. Then, when the line was composed with it, you’d end up with a final colored image. All sorts of problems there, of registration of the line and color, and really, [it was] making the best of a bad job, as we say in England. Robin Smith, the original colorist, did wonders with it, and so did Lynn Varley earlier, with Frank’s work on ‘Batman,'” Gibbons explained. “But starting with ‘Martha Washington Goes to War,’ everything about Martha is being computer-colored, and there’s been a lot of help in the actual drawing and lettering of everything. Angus McKie, who colored most of our saga, was a very early adopter of computer technology and was always very enthusiastic about it. And I could see the way the wind was blowing. I first got a decent Mac in about 1992. It revolutionized the working method because Angus and I were able to shoot jpgs of the colors backwards and forwards to each other, and I found out that I could ask him to change anything without involving him in huge amounts of work. Previously, if you wanted a color changed, everything would have to be repainted and remodeled. On the computer, it was literally just a question of changing the hue of the color.
“We were also able to incorporate 3D models and computer textures and so on. Perhaps a little bit excessively at first, but that’s always the way with new technology – you go overboard with it. But it’s been a tremendous influence on the way ‘Martha’ looks, and also my own artistic process. I use the computer quite extensively for layouts and coloring and lettering. I just think, as an artist, you really need to use the best tools that are available, and although I do still get a lot of pleasure out of pencil and paper and ink and everything, certainly there are wonderful savings of time by using computers.”
Even as Martha’s epic reached toward the stars, it somehow remained firmly rooted in contemporary culture. One real-world event portrayed through the lens of “Martha Washington” was the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997, replicated on a colony on Saturn’s moon Japetus in “Saves the World” with nearly identical theological grounding. “I think Frank had had the idea of something coming from outer space probably before the Heaven’s Gate cult, I’m not absolutely sure. But certainly, once those tragic events happened, it was inevitable that you had to make reference to them,” Gibbons said. “And again, it’s a strand of human belief that has always been around, the idea of coming apocalypse and how you deal with it, and kind of religious mania and fervor. So I think it was entirely appropriate, and fit very well with the sort of general craziness you get in at Martha story.”
The final book in the saga, “Martha Washington Dies,” finds the title character at the end of a long life, having experienced many adventures beyond what Gibbons and Miller have shown. This, of course, lends an extra layer of mystery and mythology to her life, as she mentors a new generation fighting a devastating foe. “We’d always known that we would see Martha die. We’d seen her born, that was almost the first panel of the whole thing. So we were going to see her die, that was a given. But when or how, we didn’t know, whether it was in the far, far future, or whether it was going to be rather sudden and early in some stupid accident, whether she’d die in childbirth… we weren’t sure,” Gibbons said. “But when Frank came up with that wonderful little story – it’s a brief, brief coda to the whole thing – I think does so much, it implies so much that has happened. We’re not sure what Martha has seen, we’re not quite sure who the enemy are, but as always there are enemies. I hope one day we will arrive at universal peace, but I don’t think in the human lifespan that’s quite going to happen yet. And there’s a certain allegory about her rising to heaven. She clearly transformed in a spiritual way by what she’d seen out there, but had a different view of the universe and was perhaps rather enlightened and transcendent in her spirituality.”
In that last story, Martha is an inspiration to those she leaves behind, and Gibbons hopes she can inspire readers, as well. “I think Martha’s legacy is that she’s been an inspiration to the people in the story, that she’s always been straightforward and honorable, and brave, and a hero in the true sense. She’s just a decent, decent person, someone who I’d love to have as a friend, who I’d probably follow anywhere, and I think throughout her life she had an integrity that would be an example to anybody.”