Sunday, 9 January 2011

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


The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Dave Gibbons


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

If you haven't already realised it yourself - then let me just say: dystopias (especially those based around the ascendancy of the American right wing) provided they're well-written enough (so aren't just ripping off Brave New World or 1984 (you know: again)) are probably (and sadly) always going to be relevant and are always going to touch (and electrify) that nerve hidden at the back of your neck (it's called the "ooh: that touches a little bit close to home" nerve and - yes - that is the medical definition).

I mean obviously it's better with more context (but just go with it): "It's up to you to eat a little less. To work a little harder. To live a little cheaper." was first written sometime back in 1990 when Frank Miller (who you may know from such comics as: Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and Elektra: Assassin) and Dave Gibbons (who you definitely know from Watchmen) basically thought it would be fun to team up and gift the world a young, brave, plucky and resourceful warrior called Martha Washington (who - for all intents and purposes - is the American Dream made flesh (Female. Poor. Black - like one character remarks: "She's perfect.")) - but that particular type of disdain it captures (yes - I'm still talking about that line at the start of the paragraph) and the fact that - well - yeah: thanks to the collapse of the housing market and the never-ending recession (etc etc etc) it could so very easily have been written by someone yesterday should (I hope) make you realise that - well - (at the very least): this book is all sorts of hot stuff (and hell - the line I've quoted is kinda just tossed off on the back cover of Issue 3 of the the first book [1] on a fake "Save Mount Rushmore" advert so - you know - it's not even that pivotal: so just think how cool the rest of the book'll be!).    

But please don't get the wrong idea as the point of Martha Washington isn't really to score any political points or make some socioeconomic insight into the nature of man [3] - nah - it's pretty much just an excuse for some hot future war action, not-so-subtle Verhoevenian-style satire ("There's a lot of loose talk these days about radiation. A lot of scare talk.") and sharp snappy dialogue (Miller sure knows how to repeat a phrase, repeat a phrase, repeat a phrase) - if you like cool and crazy perfectly-crafted nonsense - then you are in for a treat my friend.

Opening in 1995 (which back then was still the future: ho hum) the first story "Give Me Liberty" is basically (like I say in the footnotes) one of the best action adventure science-fiction comic books ever written: it's funny, scary, exhilarating all mixed up together and served with some of the sweetest flowing artwork you'll ever have the pleasure to read. You know when you see a trailer for a film and it just makes your heart beat faster and your guts kinda all swirl around and you think - wouldn't it be cool if someone could make a whole film that felt like a trailer does? Well: Give Me Liberty is (in a sense) that film - it's like everything's on fast-forward and you only ever see the good bits. I realise that maybe that sounds confusing or undramatic - but what's so genius about it is even tho it races through so many fantastical ideas so quickly: going from the slums of Chicago all the way to outer space in the blink of an eye - it never feels rushed and it never feels like you're being short-changed - it just feels (I dunno) gripping: like riding a the world's fastest roller-coaster.

[1] The first book in this collection is: Give Me Liberty and - really - it's the best thing by a pretty far margin. All the rest that come after (that would be: Happy Birthday, Martha Washington; Martha Washington Goes to War; Martha Washington Stranded in Space; Martha Washington Saves the World and Martha Washington Dies) are only really worth checking out if you like to see the corrupting influence of digital colouring and want to witness Frank Miller trying to sell the philosophy (so called) of Ayn Rand to unsuspecting readers (I wish I was joking here - but sadly I'm not). I will admit here that I was the person who first ordered this copy for Islington libraries - basically I read Give Me Liberty back when I was just a kid and thought it was one of the best thing ever (hell - for what it is - I guess I still do) and didn't really realise that this deluxe package (600 pages!) had all these extra stories. The best way to describe it would be to say - imagine if you ordered Robocop and instead got a DVD that not only included Robocop but also had the two sequels [2] and the television series (live action and animation) - well - that's what The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century is: a stone-cold classic surrounded by a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't come close and whose whole reason for being seems to be to prove the existence of the law of diminishing returns.

[2] And yes I do know about Frank Miller's involvement in the Robocop sequels (If you don't then: well - "RoboCop 2 was directed by Irvin Kershner, rather than Paul Verhoeven, due to Verhoeven's commitment to directing Total Recall. It was based on a script by Frank Miller and Walon Green. Edward Neumeier, one of the screenwriters for the first film was originally planned to write, and had even written a first draft, but was forced to drop out of the project due to a writers strike. After the success of The Dark Knight Returns (comic book mini-series), Frank Miller was contacted by producer Jon Davison about writing the sequel. Miller enthusiastically accepted the offer, eager to make an impression in Hollywood the way he had in comics the past decade. However, Miller's script was labeled "unfilmable" by producers and studio executives. His script was heavily changed through rewrites, and drastically re-written into what became RoboCop 2. Even when his tenure as screenwriter was officially over, Miller showed up on set everyday, eager to learn all about the filmmaking process from start-to-finish. He was even given a cameo as "Frank the chemist." and then: "Still optimistic that he could make an impression in Hollywood, Miller accepted the job of writing RoboCop 3, hoping that some of his excised ideas would make it into the second sequel. Major themes of the plot were taken from Miller's original (rejected) draft of RoboCop 2. Disillusioned after finding that his work was even more drastically altered than before, Miller left Hollywood until the 2005 adaptation of his work Sin City. “[Working on RoboCop 2 and 3] I learned the same lesson,” Miller said in 2005. “Don’t be the writer. The director’s got the power. The screenplay is a fire hydrant, and there’s a row of dogs around the block waiting for it.”" (although he did - at least - manage to slip in a freedom fighter character called "Bertha Washington" so that's something?)).

[3] Although I will say - for someone who gets accused an awful lot of being a right-wing fascist - the way he decides to portray the President is pretty interesting to say the least.... (and - ha - the idea (un-knowing prediction) of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to an American President was only off by one year - Obama won his in 2009: in the book it's 2010).


Further reading: Elektra: Assassin, Watchmen, Hard Boiled, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Heart of Empire or the Legacy of Luther Arkwright, Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin CityDaredevil: Born Again.

Profiles: Frank Miller.

All comments welcome.

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