The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I heard of this book during a Black Tribbles podcast. I never heard of it before, but reading it now, I’m blown away by it. It’s a Frank Miller/Dave Gibbons collaboration, same dudes that did Sin City and Watchmen. It’s not so dark and grim as those graphic novels, but definitely gritty. There’s still violence, there’s still bloodshed. But it’s a fascinating look at an alternative United states, and it’s all done through a black woman’s viewpoint.
Life and Times starts off with Martha being born with Cabrini Green reimagined as a maximum security housing project. Right off the bat mixing unfamiliar with familiar. People sleeping in rows of bunk beds behind locked bars. Living quarters the size of closets. Dirty sidewalks, and rampant crime. The shift of years of the same president, his continuous reign marching from cautiously cheering crowds to arm guards and tanks with guns.
We follow Martha as she goes from Cabrini Green survivor to mental institute patient, to soldier. Interesting that for all her life, She’s not shown with relaxed hair. No black women are. Can’t tell if this is deliberate. But We see Martha with an afro, a buzzcut, cornrolls, locs, and no hair at all.
And the other thing we see–Martha has faith in God. This is something that’s never shaken from her, even though she is sent to war and sees atrocities and wrongs, her belief in God, and her sense that she was put there for a reason, never shakes.
The way Martha is drawn is interesting. Most of the time, she’s drawn unsmiling, a snarl if she’s fighting, or just the badass stare. She’s drawn as a mature woman, and most of the book, you forget that by the time she joins PAX, she’s only a teenager. A good chunk of the story is her as a teenager, and yet she goes through stuff that makes her age quickly into a gritty war veteran.
There’s this one picture of her standing in full uniform, bald and confident, with a slight smile. It is the youngest I’ve ever seen of her. She almost looks…optimistic. Cheerful. Turn the page, and she is shooting a huge gun, muscled arm, gritted teeth, chiseled, torn jeans, a ripped bandanna tied around her head. There’s nothing sweet about her now. She’s got a job to do, and she does it, not with pleasure, or with hate. It’s a job and it needs to be done.
That’s how her story is. Martha makes for a good soldier. Rising up the ranks for her is slow, not because she is incompetent, but because mostly her superiors are corrupt. She keeps her mouth shut and she does her job. Unless it interferes with her values. And Martha’s values are strong. She protects the Brazilian rainforest from being napalmed and is placed under the corrupt sergeant’s contingent, who tries to rid her any way he can, but dang it, she keeps on surviving. She refuses to take blood from an alternate Captain America. And when the people she work for become utterly corrupt, she turns traitor in order to cleanse it, then turns traitor on her allies when they turn corrupt.
Here and there, there are little bits to soften up the hard story. Martha looking down at the Brazilian rainforest and her face going soft. How Martha always treats her mother. How she manages to win over one Valkerie enough for her to become devoted to Martha, developing a crush and always fighting by her side, even though she knows Martha doesn’t feel the same way. There’s even romance, sort of. She meets up with Wasserstein, the only Navajo left. They have adventures along with an enigmatic psychic named RaggyAnn. Too bad RaggyAnn drops from the story with no explanation. She’s an underutelized character.
Miller and Gibbons gives us a United States that fractures, and it’s believable. The Pacific NW is governed by the New Calvinist Initiative, California becomes an Evil Wonderland, Colorado and Arizona are ruled by Fat Boy Burgers, in league with the Mexican terriroty. Texas beccomes an entity of its own (that’s frightening), while Florida is being taken over by Cuba. The east coast is splinted into a bunch of groups that tear each other apart, and the midwest is…well…still considered the united states. Go figure.
At times, the alternative timeliness seemed too insane. The Nazi Gays, for instance, seemed goofy. There also appeared to be a thing where the Ku Klux Klan was populated by blacks. Going for too unbeleiveable. But the constant warring between the states was intriguing. There’s one story where Martha leads her troops over Texas lines into Fat Boy territory to get her and her troops burger and fries, because the sell of red meet is forbidden by the 94th amendment. There’s also the breakdown of technology, which turns into a plot point in itself. Fighting suits break down. Transports blow up.
The only story I felt lacking was the last one, simply because it raised a lot of questions for me. It appears Martha lives to be 100. She explored a bunch of worlds. Supposedly she met God. And yet…who is the black dreadlocked woman with the scar? Why does she call Martha ‘Gannie?” (A play on raggedy ann, perhaps?) Why did Martha go back to earth? What happened to her husband and sons? Who is the enemy they’re fighting against? Why is there a nun when there are no more churches?
Are the dreadlocked woman, and the two other black folks Martha’s Grandchildren? I really, really, really wanted to see that story. And that’s why I’ll only give it four out of five Pax helmets.
And if Siri starts taking the form of a blue skinned woman, we might be in serious trouble.
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