Give Me Liberty
Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons o-o-o-o-c
Rotterdam, 2008 — I was an artist-in-residence at Stichting B.a.d, where one of the residents and founding members was also a reader of comicbooks. Taking note of my interest in the form, the fellow showed up one day with what he said was his favorite graphic novel of all time. It was credited to Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons on the cover, both names I instantly recognized, but the title was one I'd never heard of: GIVE ME LIBERTY. Despite much being written about both authors and their oeuvre, this one seems to have slipped through the cracks somehow. At least as far as my reading pertained. Upon reading it, I really couldn't understand why this work wasn't at the very top of reading lists everywhere alongside works like WATCHMEN and [the very overrated] DARK KNIGHT RETURNS because right then and there it probably made it somewhere in my top five list (I'm really bad at ranking). I recently decided to give it a reread and was thoroughly surprised how influential it's been on me from that one initial read alone. So much so that I could see how it might've insidiously informed some of the DNA that went into my own THE SOLAR GRID. But personal influence aside, I would regard GIVE ME LIBERTY to be the absolute finest writing by Frank Miller, with the work of Gibbons being right up there with his work on WATCHMEN if not a hair or two better even (only because it's really hard to top). And I say better because Gibbons is able to do some wonderful things with page layouts in relation to storytelling that he couldn't at all do within the confines of WATCHMEN's nine-panel-grid. Which of course was essential to WATCHMEN's narrative, and which indeed Gibbons was able to make sing in ways no one can, but reading GIVE ME LIBERTY makes it clear that Gibbons might've been somewhat shackled by the grid (who wouldn't?). He really goes all out with pages that are as beautiful as they are effective.
The book is divided into four parts in a format not so dissimilar from Dark Knight Returns. If ever there was a thinly veiled critique of Reaganomics in comix form, Part 1: Homes & Gardens would most certainly fit the bill. It kicks off with the birth of Martha Washington in “The Green”, an enclosed lower income housing facility that is akin to a city within a city, somewhat along the lines of Kowloon Walled City or the Jewish ghettos orchestrated by Nazi Germany. In fact, the latter example is more apt given that The Green is heavily guarded and enclosed by barbed wire. President Rexall is voted into office for the first time a year later and the nation gradually slips into fascist dictatorship over the course of the next 13 years. Yes, you read that right, 13 years because Rexall manages to repeal the 22nd Amendment. This is communicated in one of the most efficient strokes I've ever seen utilized in graphic storytelling.
Ever since WATCHMEN introduced the use of non-comix worldbuilding backmatter in 1986, we've seen this sort of thing pop up in other works from time to time (THE SURROGATES by Venditti and Weldele published as late as 2006 comes to mind) but GIVE ME LIBERTY may just be the first to have that sort of thing sprinkled throughout the narrative rather than exclusively at the very end. This gives its impact an entirely different effect, because the timing of the information introduced by this stuff in the relation to the usual comix narrative makes all the difference in the world. I honestly thought I was being new and inventive by doing the same in the pages of THE SOLAR GRID, having entirely forgotten that I'd seen it done before! Like I said, GIVE ME LIBERTY is so clearly baked into the DNA of my work in ways that are even surprising to me.
Martha eventually manages to make it out of The Green and join P.A.X. (The Peace Force for America) shortly after which is one of the most viscerally intense war scenes I've ever seen depicted in a comicbook. When Martha's sent out to join the front lines in Brazil for the first time. Holy shit. She's just dropped in the middle of the action with very little prep or explanation and its page after page of utter fuckery and confusion. Really intense shit.
Part 1 ends with the implication that Martha is due to become a decorated war hero, but not before playing ball with some very nasty people. Goodness, what a way to end, and talk about a transformative character arc in a mere 48 pages!
And if that weren't enough of a transformation, Part 2, titled Travel & Entertainment, takes Martha on a mission to outer fucking space! Now Miller's work almost always has a problematic edge to it: excessive machismo, blatant sexism, and what might be considered arguments in favor of fascist measures. What makes GIVE ME LIBERTY different though (and what made it shocking to me when Miller came out against Occupy Wallstreet with seething rage), is that it is one of the most obviously left leaning, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pro-environment works I've ever read. Except for the baddies Martha is off to face in space: The Aryan Thrust; a gay Nazi group who take over a penis-shaped space laser and point it directly at the White House. Gay Nazi group, Frank? Really? And how Gibbons can allow himself to draw this shit and put it out in the world is also beyond me.
That bit aside, Part 2: Travel and Entertainment is as thrilling and nerve-wracking as Part 1. I'm deliberately leaving many details out to avoid ruining it for future readers, but the thing that cannot go unmentioned is the involvement of the Apache Nation at some point, who look to have been screwed over yet again by the U.S. government. A situation arises that has Martha making frenemies with some of its members.
Gay Nazi villains aside, this thing is filled with powerful sociopolitical commentary almost completely absent from most American action comics. Not just then, but even to this day.
Part 3: Health & Welfare is completely off the rails insane. The Surgeon General is a madman with a hygiene fixation and independent military force situated in the Pacific Northwest. Martha Washington, blinded and a little messed in the head, is in the Surgeon General's custody and having her entire memory wiped out. The United States falls apart with rebel groups forming left and right, White House obliterated, and most states secede from the union. Everything goes batshit crazy and the stakes are higher than ever.
Must avoid saying much about Part 4, titled Death and Taxes, because it does constitute the grand finale wherein every other page would contain a spoiler of some kind, but I will say that Martha's memory is retrieved, and she's got a whole lot of weight on her shoulders if she's going to save herself and subsequently the entire country really. By the end of Part 4, Martha's character arc makes the astounding arc of Part 1 seem negligible at best. The entire experience of reading GIVE ME LIBERTY is one of thrill and excitement, but it's the beautifully tied ending that really brings the ride to a smooth landing, and makes it clear that what you've just read is one of the most meaningful and inspiring works of literature (graphic or otherwise) that you've ever read, presented in the guise of a mean-ass balls-to-the-walls action piece. And if nothing else, it is certainly the very best work of either Frank Miller's or Dave Gibbons' entire career. There, I said it. The very best.