The following article was originally published here. I hope you enjoy.
In the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, comedian Barry Humphries remarked that there is always a part of the population that finds satire to be documentary.
After reading Frank Miller’s Holy Terror (2011), I wondered if the reverse was true, as well; when an author, in his own words, creates a “piece of propaganda” so over-the-top that the readers laugh at the banner it is waving.
I discovered the book only a few weeks ago, read it, put it down and then couldn’t stop thinking about it. Frankly, Holy Terror is one of the most exciting comics I’ve read in a great while. As in-your-face entertainment, a purely visceral ride, the legendary writer/artist delivered.
The hook of the project for me was that Miller, a New York city resident, was compelled by the horrors of 9/11 to craft this agitprop against the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, and originally envisioned Batman as the protagonist.
Miller allegedly was going to title his Caped Crusader versus Al-Qaeda story, “Holy Terror, Batman!”
Not that the 1960′s were an innocent, uncomplicated time, but Burt Ward’s expressive line readings of, “Holy (anything), Batman,” in the 1966 television show certainly give off the vibe of a more innocent era. Perhaps the choice of “Holy Terror, Batman” was to demonstrate the loss of that innocence in this age of terror.
That gallows humor pun would seem to indicate the author was establishing a satirical tone all along, though his subsequent interviews about the project at its various stages suggest otherwise; that Miller was so disturbed by the loss of three thousand of his neighbor’s lives, he thought it his patriotic duty to render his bloodlust against the jihadists in ink.
Other comic professionals were reportedly aghast at the idea of fictional Batman taking on real world terrorists, since contemporary super heroes and politics should not mix. Sure:
As Miller continued to develop the script over the next decade, he withdrew it from DC Comics, realizing this was not a tale of the Dark Knight. Batman, the creature of shadow this same writer so expertly penned years before, does not kill; a modern myth, with chivalrous values. In other words, a hero.
In the post-9/11 worldview Miller spreads across the page, the only way to defeat ugly, extreme violence is to repay it in kind. Thus, in Holy Terror, the central, moral theme of every Batman/Commissioner Gordon conversation, if we cross the line and kill, we’re no better than our enemies, is sidestepped in favor of Hammurabi’s law.
Miller’s signature black scratch white style is appropriately intense for the subject matter of a terror attack on the NYC stand-in Empire City, and the subsequent revenge that city’s protector, the Fixer, cuts swaths through the terrorists to exact.
In his early 50′s at the time of publication, some of the artwork betrays the master’s hand, while other pages show Miller’s prowess and powers on full display.
The book starts intriguingly enough with the Fixer giving lusty chase to his cat burglar quarry, Natalie, before the standard comic book scene is disrupted by an all-too familiar terror attack. Miller’s use of blank panels to visualize the death toll is inspired and quieting.
To break up the action, Miller employs vicious caricatures of millennial political figures and pundits in collages/sequences interspersed with images of terrorism, such as beheadings and dirty bomb explosions. These strips don’t tell a story, they effect the mood of the story, and tell of a time.
The moment where the Fixer gleefully engaged in torturing a terrorist, and assumed most Muslims were named Mohammed, was the moment I was jarred out of the book.
Then I grew up, and accepted that this was the world the author was reflecting/creating, where a racist vigilante engages in street-level Gitmo, before going that extra mile and outright murders his prisoner.
In the following days after reading Holy Terror, I realized that Miller’s insulated world of Empire City, this very specific story that he’s created, ultimately fails as propaganda, because you leave the book with no more than you came into it with. The work persuades you of nothing. If you’re a hardline right-winger, a neocon who believes in torture and the “American Sniper” kill ‘em all mentality, this book will only affirm your point of view.
I look at that torture scene and see the hateful bile of George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy and willful disregard for the Geneva Conventions. Surely, this book must be satire. Surely this is a commentary on the destructiveness that administration wrought.
The problem with this book is two-fold: One, as other critics have said, the delivery lacks nuance. My favorite part of Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns is the tragedy of Harvey Dent/Two-Face being unable to overcome his psyche once his physical scars have healed. There is only one scene in Holy Terror, the last, that reaches that kind of emotional intimacy with the reader, and by that point, it is too late.
Two, Miller exploring the full problem of Al-Qaeda, and how such terrorist cells continue to take root, and why are people drawn to them, and how do you stop them from gestating so you can avoid having to send soldiers to war… all of that is eschewed in the book’s second half - a return to the aforementioned “standard comic book” fare - where the protagonists literally delve into the underworld, into some Dr. No fortress, where the Fixer, in true Hollywood glory, cowboys up, rescues the damsel, and destroys the entire cell with their own weapon.
Surely this must be a satire of deranged hawkish egos that - despite the twin tragedies of Vietnam and the so-called War on Terror - still think any problem can be solved with enough firepower.
As a self-contained comic book adventure about vulgarians in an vulgar world, I cannot deny the storytelling intensity Miller brings to the page - nor should I have to. Few creators are at his level. His spreads, his silhouettes, the movement of his figures… it all crackles with raw energy, weight and power.
What’s unfortunate, though, is this story could have been so much more than a comic book adventure. Holy Terror promised politics, but delivered pulp.
Stephen Sonneveld is the award-winning writer and artist of Greye of Scotland Yard, available on Comixology, and Superman versus Cancer, which can be read for free at this link, and click on “Download original PDF file.”