Lincoln Washington: Free Man #1

It seems unlikely that anyone would have guessed the missing element Benjamin Marra needed to deliver his first bona fide masterpiece was a dose of realism, but then again he does have a way of confounding expectations. After all, it was always a long shot that the most consistently excellent alternative cartoonist of the post-Kramers Ergot generation would be a purveyor of straight-ahead action serials whose style springs from Paul Gulacy and Todd McFarlane. That’s become the case, though, and now that Marra’s highly idiosyncratic comics have been around long enough to seem… acceptable, if still far from normal, his latest sets about topping the lot.

The Reconstruction-era narrative of a recently freed black man “possessed by the power of a million souls of slaves eternally suffering from lifetimes of racial injustices” (cue trip exclamation points), Lincoln Washington: Free Man features Marra’s signature dynamic plotting and overdriven action, but benefits immensely from its basically factual milieu. Even if the events of this former slave-fights-KKK story are massively amplified for dramatic effect, they all most certainly happened at to someone some point or another, from rapes real and faked to virulent, systematic racism. It’s well and truly impossible for even Marra’s typically over the top plotting to overstate the horrors of slavery and the Jim Crow South, and the sense of legitimacy the setting lends to the book’s explosive conflicts give every squeezed-out eyeball and ripped-off arm a strange gravitas. For the first time, we root for a Marra hero for a reason beside vicarious bloodlust -- everyone who gets dismembered, beheaded, or I-don’t-even-know-if-there’s-a-word-for-getting-the-spine-torn-from-your-living-body-ed richly deserves whatever happens to them, and even worse.

With its literally black-and-white presentation of good versus evil, Lincoln Washington is a superhero comic in all but name, and the book’s artwork entrenches it deeply in American comics’ most popular idiom. Never have Marra’s anatomical distortions looked more Kirbyesque, or his action sequences moved with such speed and vigor, or his panels communicated their content more simply and forcefully. The meticulously detailed renderings of Marra’s early comics are long gone --  the excess is all in the content, and it's the professionalism of hero comics, the craftsmanlike command of form, that's being imported here. But neither measured construction or genre riffing is the most noticeable aspect of the book. Where superhero comics use Nazis as their fallback impossible-to-overstate villains, Marra here continues his streak of using American white racists. It might be just-add-water controversy-baiting, but it also gets at a fundamental truth of violent comics: we read these things to see people who need to feel some pain get got, and the fact that so very few comics feature this type of content makes it all the more urgently necessary.

But as ever with Marra, the masterstroke is in the violence. The strange realism and the ideological legitimacy of the book are both handily matched by career-best action scenes whose scorching brutality go well past anything else the artist has mustered up previously. The remote mechanism of weaponry is almost completely left by the wayside here: the violence featured is obscenely, gloriously hands-on, an orgy of bloodletting that might be the most accomplished reading yet of the age-old “what if someone with superpowers got really fucking pissed and just lashed out” chestnut. It's only after finishing the comic that it emerges as a think piece. While it's going, all a reader can do is grip the newsprint pages with slowly tightening fists.

Underneath the considerable surface thrills of seeing a dude use one Klansman like a baseball bat in order to swat another’s head off, though, is the cold fact that Marra is probably the best there is at what he’s doing right now -- that “alternative comics” may very well be handily beating the mainstream at its own roundhouse-throwing game. Marra’s made a note-perfect choice of subject matter, but the truth is that when an artist is creating something this purely effective, watching their work in motion is consummately satisfying no matter what it gets up to.


5 Responses to Lincoln Washington: Free Man #1

  1. Marra’s Gangsta Rap Posse #2 was a fascinating piece of work, playing up racial caricatures to an extremist degree in some alternative universe where everyone was an utter cliche. Seeing him take on a slightly more, “realistic,” work should be interesting as he attempts to tamp down his being completely over-the-top for just being somewhat absurdist in his exaggeration of people’s behavior and belief structure. Plus violence, lots of awesome violence.

  2. Blake Sims says:

    Great review, I was already pumped to read it, now I can’t wait.

  3. Four Eyes says:

    It’s an interesting review, but there are a few things that I think need a little critical perspective.

    At the end of the third paragraph you state an idea that there is a fundamental truth, and legitimate validation, for extreme violence in comics. You say we love violence because it satiates our inherit need to see villains “get what’s coming to them,” a moral resolution to all evil trespasses. True, a good story demands a resolution that reflects a message, a creator’s vision of morality. However, I think it is impossible to ignore the nihilistic experience of gratuitous violence on an audience already over-saturated by violent media. I mean, does eye gushing good times really speak to a greater understanding of racism, or is it just a flimsy excuse to create an indulgent gore-fest for generation of readers who can only enjoy material in an ironic, meta-modernistic way? And that’s not to say that these current conditions and tastes aren’t valid, but I hardly think we can condone violence for boredom’s sake as being ground breaking, ingenious, or righteous. But I guess the irony in that makes it more ironic which makes the work more wonderful? The infinite loop makes my head spin.

    I just picked up a copy of this and as a woman reader and newcomer to Benjamin Marra’s work (both which seem to be the minority of his audience for this comic) I wonder if I will be won over. I subscribe vaguely to Clement Greenburg’s idea that the mannerisms of an artwork should serve its meaning, and so I wonder after reading this comic if I will find the violence as serving purpose, or only purely self-serving.

  4. Four Eyes, I would wonder what a woman would make of Marra’s Gangsta Rap Posse #2 with its extreme objectification and sexualization of women–but in a context of satire that fits along with its racial caricatures of the black men themselves, and the white men out to get them. Still, it’s worth ruminating over. If I may completely whore myself out, I did write a long piece about Mara on my blog once where I compared his past work, Gangsta Rap Posse #2 to a book I read. I swear I won’t self-promote this blatantly again but genuinely think people might find this interesting:

  5. Andarte says:

    Did…did you really casually toss in the expression “completely whore myself out” after talking about the extreme objectification and sexualization of women?

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