by Michael C Lorah
In 1990, shortly after creating seminal comics projects that include The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons united for a four-issue miniseries titled Give Me Liberty. Opening with the birth of a young, poor black woman named Martha Washington, Give Me Liberty explored a near-future world where corporate interest, and corporate conflict, had split the United States into warring factions.
Readers followed Martha’s life through this challenging new world, from life in the urban ghetto to her escape via the military PAX organization and her eventual impact on the world as a whole. The territory was so fertile that Miller and Gibbons re-united on several occasions, with one-shot comics Happy Birthday, Martha Washington and Martha Washington Stranded in Space. Miller and Gibbons also authored two extended stories, Martha Washington Goes to War and Martha Washington Saves the World.
After saving the world in 1998, Martha dropped out of sight and wasn’t heard from again.
That’s about to change. We talked with Dark Horse’s Diana Schutz, Executive Editor, to get the lowdown on Martha Washington Dies.
NRAMA: Diana, it’s been nearly ten years since the last Martha Washington story. What made Frank and Dave come back to her now?
Diana Schutz: Really, it’s Frank – he was the one who got things going again. It was entirely out the blue. At WonderCon in San Francisco in 2006, Frank got up on stage, he announced his Batman: Holy Terror book, and then about a week later, I got a script for Martha. Just completely out of the blue, with no forewarning, no nothing. So, what prompted him to do that? I think Frank was coming out the other end of a rough personal time, and he was just on a run work-wise! All of a sudden, he was back on track, with stories to tell.
NRAMA: There isn’t a massive amount of Martha back story, only 14 actual comics by my count, but being as it’s been nearly ten years and this being Martha Washington Dies, it has an element of finality to it. How familiar will readers need to be with her history to appreciate the new comic?
DS: Well, certainly, having the back story gives more dimension to this, but I don’t think you need to have the back story to read this. By the same token, in this issue, there is a back-up feature that will basically introduce readers to Martha if they are not familiar with the character – that will give them some grounding in the character.
NRAMA: Martha Washington Dies is just a one-shot, stand-alone comic, correct?
NRAMA: The title suggests that this is the final Martha story. Is there any possibility of Frank and Dave revealing untold tales, or another story that expands on the themes of Martha’s story and her world?
DS: This is comics, so the creators can do what they want! I don’t really want to give away something in this particular story, but Frank has ingeniously set it up to allow Martha Washington to continue.
NRAMA: Were there any problems getting Frank and Dave’s schedules aligned to make this book happen?
DS: Well, as I say, I had this script a year ago, and we waited for Dave’s schedule to free up for him to start drawing. So, yeah, there was a wait between receiving the script and when Dave could start drawing it.
NRAMA: But Dave was always on board. When he read the script, he wanted to do it?
DS: Oh, yeah, Dave is very close to Martha, and he needed some time . . . Actually – if I’m not mistaken – you know, Dave is under exclusive contract with DC Comics, and I think he squeezed in the drawing of these 17 pages in between the end of his previous contract and his renewal with DC. So I think that was part of the wait, too.
NRAMA: Does anybody involved worry about how readers will perceive the political and social elements of the story?
DS: Hell, no! No, we want people to question those political and social elements, as they reflect certain repressive elements in our own world. That’s part of what it’s all about.
NRAMA: Absolutely. I guess I should clarify that the landscape of the world has changed a lot in the time since Give Me Liberty, so I was wondering how that might’ve affected the creation of the story.
DS: True. The first Martha story came out of Reagan’s America, which was a really cynical sort of a time and witness to the rise of corporate power at the expense of individual freedoms. And though the landscape has changed, in some ways it’s gotten an awful lot scarier, so the time seems ripe for more Martha.
NRAMA: PAX was once mentioned in Hard Boiled, wasn’t it? Does Martha Dies have any inside references to Frank Miller’s other Dark Horse projects?
DS: I don’t recall. I wasn’t the editor of Hard Boiled. You know, you’ll find references… this is sort of a common thing, really, with any creator, it seems to me, where they will refer to different things throughout their work and not just keep it restricted to one particular series. 300 first showed up in Sin City, for example.
NRAMA: That’s true. Speaking of Frank’s other things, with him being so heavily involved in the Sin City movie sequel and The Spirit movie, and his Batman work for DC, is there anything on the horizon for any of his other Dark Horse series?
DS: He’s got some new Sin City pages in the works right now, but that’s all I’m prepared to say about that.
NRAMA: Okay. That’s fine. Back on topic, I’m a little bit curious about the evolution of Martha – do you remember how Frank and Dave got together to create her, and what their initial goals were?
DS: Again, I wasn’t their editor back then, and in fact, Give Me Liberty had even come out before I had started working at Dark Horse. So the answer is no, because I wasn’t really there at the time. I can say that Frank and Dave have been friends for a good long time, and what most often happens in cases like that is that writers and artists, comic book people, get together and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to do something together,” shoot some ideas back and forth, and the next thing you know, they’re off and running.
NRAMA: That actually kind of answers another of my questions, which was given how often Frank and Dave’s names are mentioned in the same breath when discussing the seminal comics of the medium’s history, but for different 1980s projects, namely Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, what brought about this collaboration in 1990?
DS: That’s probably exactly it. You just hit the reason right there. I don’t know exactly what prompted this particular collaboration though.
NRAMA: Does it surprise you that a series by two men with their pedigree hasn’t become a bigger touchstone in the comics world? It seems almost like an after-thought when discussing their careers sometimes.
DS: Well, I don’t think I’d characterize it as an after-thought.
NRAMA: Maybe the other stars just shine a little brighter?
DS: I suppose that if Frank and Dave were to do a new Martha series every year, then the character might have a higher profile, but I also think that Frank and Dave, being the kinds of people that they are, are more interested in flexing their creative muscles than simply revisiting something over and over again, just in order to revisit it. And I think that’s why, in some ways, we’re better served, because they come back together when they have a story to tell, as opposed to just putting something out there to satisfy the market. And judging by our orders, I’d say Martha shines pretty brightly, after all!
NRAMA: I don’t know how much you want to give away, but what can you give us as far as a tease about what to expect from Martha Washington Dies?
DS: I can tell you that before I first read the script, Frank had told me that I was going to cry when I read it. And I kind of scoffed at that – and of course, I read the script, and at one point, there’s a very emotional, poignant moment that struck me like a knife through the breast, and sitting at my desk, I started sobbing like a baby. So I called him up and said, “You bastard, you were right!” And before I could say anything else, he told me exactly where I had started crying! He was right. And he’d known it right from the start! So, yeah, without giving things away, I will say there is a point in the story that is killer – in many ways.
NRAMA: While looking up these old stories, I realized that the one-shot Martha stories are currently out of print, as is the trade paperback of Martha Saves the World. Is it too soon to ask about putting this material back into circulation in a permanent format?
DS: In 2008, we are doing The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century. It’s an oversized hardcover, slipcased edition, collecting all the Martha-related stories, along with some significant additional material, like preliminary sketches and designs.
NRAMA: Any final thoughts about working with two legendary creators or putting the finishing touches on Martha’s story?
DS: How lucky I am to work with Frank and Dave – and Angus McKie on the spectacular color! They do all the hard work and make my job very easy!
Martha Washington Dies goes on July 11.