20 February, 2009

Review: Give Me Liberty

A young woman survives deprivation, war and political machinations in this bleak and charmless work.

‘Black humour’ must be among the most over-used, mis-represented descriptions of creative failure; usually it is heavy on the blackness and low on humour. ‘Political satire’ falls into the same category and few works have the political insight to justify the claim.

The comics industry owes Frank Miller a debt of gratitude. Miller's noir stamp on Daredevil and then Batman, in the 1980s, breathed fresh air into stale franchises and ushered in a new ‘gritty’ era of comics.

DC published Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, the same year as Watchmen. Liberating and fresh, these works seemed to demonstrate the potential of the comics medium to express adult ideas and stories. Unfortunately, the industry's vogue for ‘dark’ and ‘mature’ themes led them to fill their comics with gratuitous violence, cynicism and exploitative misogyny.

These qualities, always nascent in Miller's stories, came to dominate them. Miller's work never again hit the heights of Dark Knight and has increasingly come to parody itself.

Set in a dystopian near future, Give Me Liberty follows the adventures of Martha Washington, a black girl from a violent Chicago slum, who joins the US army and
becomes a war hero. Martha's story provides a through-line for the degeneration of the US government and the internal political struggles.

Give Me Liberty is replete with gags.
For example, Martha takes her name (presumably) from George Washington's wife. The US Army is renamed PAX - latin for 'peace' - ironically recalling the Pax Romana, the 'Roman Peace', a period of relative tranquility during the time of the Roman Empire.

There is no shortage of ideas - the title comes from Patrick Henry's famous insurrectionary quote 'Give me liberty or give me Death!' - but quite what Miller wants us to take from them, beyond the obvious 'irony' is unclear.

And if Miller’s work is not particularly nuanced or insightful of politics, at times it is very funny. The space-station occupied by ‘Aryan Thrust’ - a group of militant extremists, who assert that ‘the future is white, fascist and gay’ - takes the form of a gigantic phallus. Miller seems to want to say something about men, but what?

Indeed, apart from Martha there are almost no women in Give Me Liberty. With the exception of Elektra, Miller often conforms to the comic industry’s exploitative portrayal of women. Martha is no sex object, but nor is she much of a woman; her value lies in her malleability to the ends of power and her effective use of force.

The world of Give Me Liberty is not quite a Hobbesian war of all against all, but force is the idiom of society, power its highest value. Miller wants to say something about men, but he presents again an assemblage of ideas, without a strong organising principle.

Martha Washington herself is kept in a kind of developmental stasis. We learn little about her, or her motivations, other than her facility for killing and surviving. Martha is the still point, around which the chaos of the story revolves. It is tempting to see this as a kind of Forrest Gump move on Miller’s part; while
Moretti, the ambitious military man, manoeuvres himself into power Martha fights and survives his wars.

It seems that Miller wants to have his cake and eat it. Power is shown to cruelly brutalise and instrumentalise, but Miller relishes in the violence which is Martha's sole purpose in life.

On the plus side, the storytelling in Give Me Liberty is expert, in particular the pacing, which moves along slickly. And Dave Gibbon's charismatic artwork evokes Watchmen. If only we could remember the brilliant visual style and storytelling Miller introduced to comics and forget what he has to say.