Give Me Liberty
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Dave Gibbons
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I’m pretty much convinced that Give Me Liberty is one of the most unrated comics of all time. Basically it’s an all time classic and pretty much perfect in every way and well yeah… no one ever really talks about it? Yes I know that nowadays the idea of a canon doesn’t hold as much pull as it used to (which is probably all in all a good thing?). But still – Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returnsare both all time seminal essential comic classics like Citizen Kane crossed with Ulysses crossed with Pac-Man only with well you know – with more punching and super-heroics (feels like there’s somekind of joke I could make here about canon and cannons but whatever): and yet – no one ever really talks about Give Me Liberty. Which well yeah is like a dream-team team-up with the writer from one getting together with the artist from the another and together creating this brand new super amazing thing with the strength and skills of both. Imagine if back in the day Steven Spielberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger got together and made a film… and then no one ever really talked about it. That would be weird right?So yeah well – let’s maybe talk about it a bit and see what happens…
For those of you who don’t know – Give Me Liberty is the story of Martha Washington who’s basically this poor kid who grows up in a shitty future ghetto called The Green (well – it was future when Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons wrote it in 1990 but now it’s all in our past which actually I think just makes it all better somehow better?). It’s basically a science-fiction war comic with extra delicious toppings of satire and absurdism so crazy that you can actually imagine it coming true (fast food companies fighting in giant robots in the Amazon rainforest? Sure. Why not).
The obvious thing that really struck me reading it this week tho is how for such an outlandish high octane adventure style comic it is (the type of thing that most people who just roll their eyes at – and I’m guessing most of you looking at that picture of Big Boy above had that exact reaction) is how incredibly political the whole thing is.
I mean even now in the Year 2019 (and LOL Give Me Liberty actually ends in 2012 so you know – that means we’re winning right?) I’m struggling to think of any mainstream heroes who are black women. Like: there’s those people from the Black Panther movies, Storm from the X-Men and Riri Williams (Ironheart) and erm – anyone else? (Maybe I’m not the best person to ask tho). And yet nearly 30 years ago – these two white guys were giving the world this cool character who ticks all the right boxes (bonus round: she’s poor too!) and well – no one ever really talks about it…
Maybe that’s the reason why? Maybe Give Me Liberty was too far forward for it’s time and all the grubby little comic book readers couldn’t bear to follow the adventures of a character that didn’t look them. It’s possible (although doesn’t that mean it’s time for a revival?) But there’s other possible reasons why this comic never got the mainstream love it so dearly deserved… I mean: apart from the fact The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen both have lots of straight white (and blue) guys in them – they’re also both superhero comics and even now the comics landscape is mostly saturated by characters with superpowers and amazing abilities. The closest comics character that I can think of in the same area as Martha is Halo Jones (written by that guy that did Watchmen) but is also an another that is resolutely ordinary and normal whose only real special power is determination and perseverance (which I guess would help to explain why they’re both heroes of mine).
Also well – The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen both came from DC which means they had a lot more power behind them – while Dark Horse comics is merely – well: Dark Horse comics who are only really known for Hellboy and Sin City: both of which came later…
But hell: all of that stuff is by the by. Basically: in terms of what it sets out to do: in my eyes this is one of the most perfect comics of time. The way it’s crafted. How it looks. The beautiful rhythm of it and the way it knows how to use images to make points that other books can’t even get close to…
I wish all comics could be this smart. I wish all comics could be this good.
What do you think?
Wow, how had I not heard of this? Like you said, it’s weird that it isn’t one of the classics. It reminds me a lot of Judge Dredd with the political commentary under the thinnest-possible veil of action-comic. And Transmet, of course, but without the 90s-desperately-trying-to-be-cool.
I really loved the ending, how shades-of-grey it was. There’s no way you can call re-instating a dictator a happy ending, but one of the main themes I got from the book was that things are never all-good or all-bad. I guess things came out OK for Martha? Ish. Maybe. At least The Green is gone. For the minute.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Reckon there’s a good point to be made that “political commentary under the thinnest-possible veil of action-comic” is the best type of comic / story there is. You know: lots of BANG BANG POW to keep all the kids entertained and your lizard brain happy with explosions and guns and heroes saving the day and then underneath the paint harsh truths and ugly lessons about the way the world works and lessons about power. I’ll take that over black and white and badly drawn Guardian-reviewed-comics which show nothing but people sitting in kitchens talking about how sad they are any day of the week.
Hmmm maybe it’s because stories about narcissistic personal issues aren’t really a threat to power?
And in terms of iconography this is my favourite panel ever and I demand that someone makes it the cover to an album.
But well yeah I wish that the language of comics criticism had more words because there’s things that I want to say about Give Me Liberty but I don’t know how quite to say them.
So yeah this book originally came out in 4 issues and I love them all – but it’s the first one that I love the most and leaves me completely slack-jawed in how masterful and precise it is in all the ways that a comic book can work (well ok – maybe not all the ways but still…). Like: I’ve always thought that comic books and music are way closer than most people think. Not to say that a good piece of music is like a comic book (sorry) but definitely in how a good comic book will have a beat and a rhythm in how they move and carry you forward. And yeah it feels like Frank Miller knows this a lot more than most. I’ve never read any James Ellroy but I imagine it’s the same kinda thing in how he uses language in this rat-a-tat sort of way (lots of short sharp sentences that always. Get. To. The. Point.) but especially especially in the repetition (“I don’t give him any shit” etc). Reading it just kinda makes you feel like you’re bouncing from one panel to the next – constantly pushing you forwards and onwards to more and more outrageous things.
Just to take an example at random:
I mean: this is almost perfect. The way that the messages of the protesters have been condensed so that their only slogan is “No” is a subtle form of genius (and obviously calls back to the panels of the President being elected again and again where all the main placards of “Yes” slowly turned into a single background character holding up a solitary “No”). The way that the guy is saying “Bastard” but he’s already been smacked in the face with a truncheon and the contrast between the exposed faces versus the cops under their visors is good too. But then that perfect one two of the final panels where you have the shadow of the arm about to come down and then the shot of the gravestone is… *chef kissing fingers* yeah I know that even transition between panels plays like a movie in your head but this is so brutal and so brilliant because of how elliptical it is – you don’t even see Martha’s Dad’s face in that penultimate panel just the shadow on the way which somehow just ends making it feel more chilling – like it’s not even the arm of a cop but instead death itself… It even takes half a second to realise you’re looking at it because instead you’re paying attention to the CABRINI GREEN sign instead.
Am I blabbering? It feels like maybe I’m blabbering? Point is well yeah – this is a really good comic. It bounces. It sings. It’s music.
Reading Give Me Liberty the question that keeps ringing my head is: how seriously are we supposed to be taking this?
Or: in other words – how political is Frank Miller being? Or is it all just… stuff?
This week there was a big thing about how Disney has cast a black girl in the lead role of their new live-action (yawn) The Little Mermaid remake. And so yeah of course there was a big outcry about all the internet trolls and deplorables were losing their minds because they’re all racists and couldn’t cope with the idea of anyone messing with their white supremacy or whatever. Of course because I don’t follow racists and anyone of that ilk all I saw was lots and lots of people losing their minds at the people losing their minds and posting stuff like well – I’m sure you’re already seen it yourself.
I could be wrong but it feels like this is only way that culturally we can understand something as being politically right-on nowadays. If the main characters are women or an ethnic minority etc then it’s morally good and everything else is just noise.
Please don’t cancel me for saying this but: I can’t help but think there must be more to politics than just… not being a racist?
As opposed to acclaiming a Disney movie (and a remake no less lol) as being at the forefront of the political resistance I wonder what would happen if someone decided to turn Give Me Liberty into a live action movie (I know Martha Washington is pretty young but maybe they could use special effects and de-age Beyoncé so she could play the lead?).
I mean partly people would think it’s cool right because there are actual Nazis that she could fight. Except oh wait – all the Nazis are gay? Well that messes things up a little. I mean Nazis are made but Pride is good and so now I don’t know what to think. And then there’s this evil President Erwin Rexall guy and it starts off with him being really bad and fascistic. So we know he’s a shit.
Except then he’s a brain in a vat and he seems much more kinda swell and homely (I’m getting traces of… Reagan?) and then by the end we get this and I don’t even know what to think anymore.
(I think there was a part of me that was cheering? Was I supposed to be cheering?)
And omg don’t even get me started on President Howard Nissen. I mean he’s supposed to be a liberal wet-dream right? And when he first gets into power it seems really cool and that the future is going to be ok and he’s going to turn America into like a socialist utopia and then well… He’s drinking and murdering and turning into the most unpopular President America has ever seen…
Let me ask again: how political is Miller being with all this stuff? I mean the way we’ve be taught to understand our stories and entertainment is that there are good guys and bad guys and a political point of view but in Give Me Liberty everything feels like it’s been put into a blender and then someone presses fast-forward… What is it that the news anchor says at the start of Issue 4? “I hate it when things don’t make sense and right now they don’t make sense.” (The rallying call of our age no?)
Give Me Liberty takes all of your pre-conceptions and ideas about things are supposed to work and laughs at them all before it sets them on fire. I guess you could call it nihilist if you wanted to but I don’t think that’s quite right – the reason it’s so powerful and so completely entertaining is that it knows exactly what the right moral stance is and then spends it’s whole time bouncing off against that. I don’t know about you but I wanted President Nissen to be the great shining hope and make everything ok which is why it hurts so bad to watch him slip further and further away from his promise. And well yeah – that’s what a good story is all about now? Not acting as a role model and not showing you the proper moral way to behave but just giving you all sorts of thrill, spills and chills.
Even Martha herself. I mean – yeah she’s a cool unflappable badass that’s also a secret panther and one of the best action heroes the world has ever seen but then – holy fuck – it ends with her giving the bad guy a belt so he can hang himself in front of her and she can sit there and watch which well is all kinds of fucked up (If it helps – imagine if it was Batman giving Joker a belt so he could hang himself. Altho maybe some of you would cheer at that?) but hell the story has worked it’s twisted magic so much that the first few times I read it I’m not sure it registered how actually well – bad it was because I was too busy going: oh wow. This comic is so great.
Hell yes – Give Me Liberty.
I’m quite new to comics, so I can’t speak to whether or not Give Me Liberty is the best sort of comic, or if it belongs in the canon, but I read this book, and I liked it, and I’ve been trying to decide to what extent it is prophetic, and what insights one might glean from its prophecy.
As I read Give Me Liberty my brain created the following rough equivalencies:
Moretti ~ Trump (privileged, comfortable with inequality, questionable respect for the rule of law, possibly worthy of the descriptor: treasonous entitled douchebags)
Rexall ~ George W. Bush (also privileged, also comfortable with inequality, maybe with slightly more respect for the rule of law than the other guys? Maybe? I’m actually not sure on this one – in what way is Moretti any better than Rexall? Moretti commits outright treason by helping the baddies destroy the rainforest, but Rexall’s the guy who presided over decades of government consolidation that let the FAT BOY guys get so powerful in the first place. I don’t really get a Reagan vibe from Rexall – Reagan was deeply moral, pro gun-control, and very committed to the rule of law – he didn’t understand economics, but frankly most presidents since Reagan haven’t either…)
Nissen ~ Al Gore/Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren etc (yes Joel, the liberals’ nocturnal emission) – he’s brokering peace around the world, making reparations to Native Americans, getting rid of ghettos and redeploying the American military to defend the environment, only he loses the war with the FAT BOYs, so everyone hates him and he gets coup d’etat-ed (I know that’s not a word, sorry, what word goes there?) but I’m not sure I understand the implication here. Is it that it doesn’t matter how great a president the Americans get, and how desperately he tries to fight inequality and protect the planet, because if we don’t first wrangle in our rampant capitalism/corporate greed/wealth inequality we’re going to be screwed anyway? Is the restructuring of Western capitalism a prerequisite for world peace and committed environmentalism? Joel is probably right, the story works better when the guy we’re all hoping is the hero/savior is actually kind of a fuck up, and we’re forced to watch as all of our armchair ambitions for saving the world don’t work out as we planned.
This book plays out the notion of corporate powers somehow translating themselves into an organized militia powerful enough to defeat the American military in an armed conflict. My first reaction to this was WTF?!? I found this a bit shocking and also slightly ludicrous, but actually history has seen this sort of thing before with both the British and Dutch East India Companies (both started as corporate entities and then amassed armies and waged wars on their own behalf), and in the modern era the American private military industry is worth a few hundred billion USD – these guys perform all kinds of military services, most of them administrative, but they also command millions of soldiers around the world, effectively for hire as mercenaries (interesting reading on this can be found here and here). If corporations decide they want to wage war we now have ready made armies ready for them to purchase, so maybe this premise isn’t so ludicrous after all…
A few other prophetic ideas that pop up include Nissen shouting about fake news, and although surely just a bizarre coincidence, Martha’s being renamed Snowden!!! In fact, while we’re on the topic of Martha, why is she called Martha Washington? The real Martha Washington was a powerful slave owner; our protagonist is more like Oney Judge, one of the real Martha Washington’s slaves who escaped and became educated. Is the function of this moniker simply to inject a bit of irony, or is something more subtle going on here that I missed?
I suspect there’s a whole feminist reading of the recurring “I don’t give him any shit” motif, but I’ve probably talked enough nonsense for now.
There were initial plans for a Martha Washington movie. ‘From the creators of Watchmen and 300’ had cache. I am told that it faltered because studio people kept asking if Martha could be white. And production would not be greenlit unless she was. So that was that.
Weekend at Arnie’s
I think the point about The Little Mermaid is somewhat unfair; people like Disney movies, people like to see themselves or their values reflected in pop culture. I don’t think it necessarily follows that they believe Disney is some kind of revolutionary vanguard. Nor do I think that the dominant mode of criticism or even reception right now is as simplistic and woke-Manichean as you suggest!
Anyway, fun as it is, I don’t think I got as much as the rest of you did from Give Me Liberty. It’s a bit ‘Time Trumpet, but grimdark’.
Alright: I got more than that. The art is genuinely good though I’m personally not crazy about the style – the scenes of the Amazon in particular have a completely different quality to the rest of the book in a way that’s astonishingly beautiful. It’s interesting as what reads like a swan song for the United States, but written at the end of the 80s with the aesthetics of the 70s, this bizarre world of personal gyrocopters, soldiers in football helmets, Big Boy mecha… And part of me likes that, although the USA seems to have completely dissolved at the end, don’t the impression that’s such a bad thing. Greece was destroyed, Spain was destroyed, why not America?
It surprises me a little that Joel felt any kind of happiness when Rexall is brought back! I only got the kind of numb disappointment I imagine I’d feel in real life, like “really? This guy? After all that’s happened, after all that possibility, you put things back pretty much the way they were?” Nissen may be a lying, corrupt, genocidal, egomaniacal autocrat, but so is Rexall; Nissen reads more like a well-meaning politician warped beyond repair by the monstrous needs of state power. He at least tears down the Green and rebuilds the Amazon. It’s kind of interesting that Martha herself says she’ll always love him for that; I’m reminded of the way certain dictators are remembered fondly after their deaths by the common people while the rich strike their names from the history books. Rexall, on the other hand, is never shown to have any redeeming features whatsoever. Maybe this is Miller saying “better the devil you know, careful what you wish for” – but I’m not so sure. It reads more like the end of Tintin and the Picaros, where the good General Alcazar replaces the bad General Tapioca but nothing has actually changed because nothing ever really changes, amiright?
Except everything has changed. The USA has broken up into independent nations (I think – I was a little unclear on this), the Amazon was restored, the slums were at least liberated if not rebuilt, the Apache nation was massacred, Rexall now has a robot body and thus can presumably run for a third term. So Give Me Liberty isn’t quite as nihilistic as it appears, even if I’m not sure what it’s actually trying to say. And Martha wins in the end, for a certain value of ‘win’ – her mom has a better house, her nemesis is dead, she’s recognised as a hero. I didn’t see that scene with the belt as badass, incidentally; it’s a mercy kill, one soldier to another, even if Moretti doesn’t deserve a Roman death.
There’s something Joel keeps bringing up/hinting at – the idea that Give Me Liberty is somehow radical or threatening than certain other kinds of comic. I’m not sure the case has been adequately made for that! Yes, Give Me Liberty does nuance surprisingly well given how absurd so much of it is. Yes, there’s something to be said for showing these small victories in the teeth of history’s relentless churn. But neither grittiness nor nuance are radical in and of themselves! Okay, the space Nazis are gay, so what? Yeah, power is ugly and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, what else is new? The fact that a few small things do improve (or at least don’t change for the worse) makes Give Me Liberty marginally less small-c conservative than all the other meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss stories, but I don’t know. It does not, ultimately, feel to me like a story with an interesting thesis. The story might be good – I enjoyed some of it, found some of it tedious (the whole Surgeon General section) – but it never felt to me like it was getting at anything very much beyond this story of personal survival. IMO that’s the big difference between this and Watchmen. Everything in Watchmen is about the need for human connection, for the acceptance and even the celebration of the chaos of human life even (especially) when the world is cold and cruel and nothing makes any sense, even when there’s no hope at all. Give Me Liberty felt more like a bunch of stuff that happened.
(Incidentally: I’d argue Rexall is pretty obviously based on Reagan – and it’s not a compliment. An elder statesman, implied to be Republican, slashing social welfare, turfing the mentally ill out onto the street, invading half the globe; then there’s that hair, that smile, that little laugh, the folksy persona, the authoritarian tendency… his wife even looks like Nancy.)
I definitely missed the Nancy doppelganger, but now I wonder if we’ve both got Rexall wrong. How did I miss this?
You mentioned Martha’s name before – I figured they were doing a 1984 thing – part of the name from a national hero, part as everyday as possible – Winston Smith, Martha Washington.
I don’t read the politicians as any single person, but more an amalgamation, a type – a lot like the masks in Watchmen. The Nixon salute is pretty much shorthand for ‘scumbag politician’, I don’t think it means Nixon in particular here.
“It’s up to you to eat a little less. To work a little harder. To live a little cheaper. To go a little further into debt. So you can give.”
Yeah ok so I know that maybe this makes me sound like a dick: but it feels like while most people have been horrified and confused by life in the early 21st Century everything that happens (no matter how horrible) mostly just makes me nod my head and go “well yeah of course.” Which obviously isn’t the proper response but I think is what happens when you spend your childhood growing up on Frank Miller comics and Paul Verhoeven movies? A Reality TV show star becoming President? Protests on the street threatening to rip America apart? A corporate media that no one can trust? And giant world-bestriding unchecked corporations fighting in the… wait… where was it again?
Oh yeah. The
And yeah ok we can talk about how much Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons predicted and which President is like which President etc but the actual scary thing is that I don’t think it even crossed their minds that the real world would echo their comic in so many freaky ways large and small.
There’s a thing that Dave Gibbons wrote where he said that apparently the early version of Give Me Liberty was much more “dark and depressing” and apparently he phoned Frank Miller and said he didn’t want to do it anymore so after doing some talking they decided to approach the whole thing from a new direction – “From then on, Martha’s bleak young life was tempered by satire and absurd, yet scary situations. Giant hamburger company robots, gay Nazis in space, the president’s brain in a bottle – we’d finally hit our stride and, despite Frank’s disconcerting habit of adding pages and changing the order around, we were set for many years of fun and adventure with Martha.”
I don’t know if this is me reading too much into things or seeing things that aren’t there – but maybe this explains why Issue #1 has such a different feeling to the other 3? Martha’s life in grim and gritty detail but every panel being played like a note in a string quartet and then everything just gets a little bit more… well… kinda basic (not that there’s anything wrong with that LOL)
(I wonder what Alister would have made of Give Me Liberty Version 0.1? If the version we’ve got is the light fluffy one – and even that is too “grimdark”?)
Do agree that I’m not quite sure what this book is trying to say beyond just – the world is crazy so hold on tight and try not to die? And yeah ordinarily that lack of a clear point would be something that rankles with me but Martha is such great company and her adventures so compelling that I’m not sure that I even noticed that much? Altho there is quite a lot of stuff there. Proton mentioned “the notion of corporate powers somehow translating themselves into an organized militia powerful enough to defeat the American military in an armed conflict” which is a whole thing in and of itself and “Nissen reads more like a well-meaning politician warped beyond repair by the monstrous needs of state power” is spot on.
But yeah I guess mostly it’s just about the fun and the thrills?
This is the comic 2019 doesn’t know that it needs. And frankly I’m not sure it deserves it.
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