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Holy Terror: Frank Miller’s Fever Dream of 9/11 is Unintended Satire


#1

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.”


#2

It’s so amusing to me, that we still live in an age where Captain America fights Nazis (Hydra), with no apologies (I mean, the Red Skull is about as subtle as a jackhammer), and when Frank Miller made a comic book about fighting radical Islam, because he was personally affected by 9/11, fans say the result is part of his creative decline. I mean, do we forget Sin City so easily? Do we forget 300? What else would you’ve expected from Miller? Ballet?


#3

The use of politics, satire preferably, isn’t something new in the comics field. Some writers tackled the subject seriously, some less, like Miller in TDKR. Jim Starlin did something similar in his Batman run in late 80s, in storylines such as The Cult, Ten Nights of the KGBeast, or A Death in the Family (where Joker becomes ambassador of Liban). Personally, I am against of use of politics in superher comics. Any sort of political bias should be spared from hands of average reader. The reason why TDKR is not of my personal favorite (Batman) books is exactly that. As I understanded, a satire of life in USA 80s is soemthing I am totally ignorant of.
As for Holy Terror, I’d say it may be the worst and most detestable Miller work I ever read. Story is incomprehensible mess and the artwork is terrible (why in b/w?).


#4

I can’t help but suspect if Miller now did a series about Nazis, it likely would take the view that every German was one.

I think the problem with Miller’s work is that his later style diverges so much from his earlier one that it practically appears to be the outout of two different writers. Yet, if treated as the work of one writer, the earlier shows that he certainly was capable of telling stories with tools other than a sledgehammer. It probably could be said that, for some, Miller has not so much improved but diminished as an artist over time, with respect to the talent he has.


#5

Which is fine, actually. This isn’t a documentary; it doesn’t have to be true to life. YoungDuke makes a point in that just as few people really felt the need to criticize THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS for its attitudes on vigilantism and gang violence. Does SIN CITY really tell you anything about the reality of crime?

It’s clear is the original post, too.

My thought, though, is that this idea is essentially incorrect.

It could never be more than pulp. No comic book or movie really has changed minds of the readers in regard to the real world. Not WATCHMEN, not GIVE ME LIBERTY and not even THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Not CHINATOWN, TAXI DRIVER or THE GODFATHER. At best, they can change your mind about comics and movies, but the people drawn to them already agree with the points of view they take.

I mean, maybe Frank Miller and fans think HOLY TERROR delivered on the promise of politics AND pulp (are the two mutually exclusive?). Sonnenveld disagrees. How can you tell who’s right? Depends on your point of view.

I actually think it is delivering more on the political front than it superficially suggests. This isn’t about Islam at all, but an individual committed to a very individualist idea of social order fighting an invasive almost “hive mind” of assailants who’ve given up their individuality to this hateful ideology. The villains in it might as well have been Hydra agents. Like all pulp fiction, it works better on the level of passion than reason or realism.


#6

To quote Frank Miller himself


#7

Honestly, HOLY TERROR was a bit too political for me, and not pulp enough.

Coulda used more WHORES

EDIT: I’m reminded of this from a recent interview.

One of the things that led you to create Dark Knight Returns was a series of muggings. What happened?

There’s something demeaning about the first time you’re knocked to the ground and punched in the stomach and have a gun waved in your face and realize that you’re completely at somebody’s mercy. And they can take your life. And at that point, you’ll do anything. There’s something so humiliating about that. And to me that made me realize that Batman was the most potent symbol DC had in its hands. Sure, Superman can fly, but Batman turns me back into that guy who is scared and at the same time the guy who can come and save him. It’s a perfect myth.

What makes him so mythic?

Batman isn’t interesting because he has a cool car. It’s great that he has a cool car. But he’s interesting because he straightens the world out. And he brings order to a very chaotic world. Especially when you’re a child. You need somebody, even if it’s a fictional character, to tell you that the world makes sense and that the good guys can win. That’s what these heroes are for.

Fear of being at the mercy of violent men seems to be at the heart of much of Miller’s work and working that fear out with fisticuffs is what he does.


#8

Bwahahahahahaha!!!

I don’t want to completely rubbish Frank Miller. He has done some of my favourite comics.

My attitude to his comics changed when I realised that he wasn’t actually trying to do a new ironic Mickey Spillane taken to the Nth degree.


#9

Say what you will, but the first part where Not-Batman and Not-Catwoman are chasing each other is pure Miller cheese.


#10

I think that’s a big part of the ongoing controversy around Miller, it’s pretty much: “You did all this, now how the hell could you then go and do that?”


#11

To quote 30 Rock.

Now that I have my Oscar, it’s time to do real art. Enter Snow Dogs Phase.


#12

Holy Terror still contains some flashes of the old Miller brilliance, especially when it comes to the techniques he uses to tell the story with his art. There are some clever, well-crafted pages in there.

Unfortunately it’s wedded to a fairly repellent story that plays on the worst kind of lowest-common-denominator ideas and prejudices.

Miller is smart enough to know what he’s doing and what buttons he’s pressing, and I have no doubt he set out to create a controversial book (it’s easy to see why DC didn’t want Batman anywhere near it). But unfortunately there isn’t the additional dimension to the book that it needs if it’s to stand as more than what it appears to be at face value.

He said he wanted the book to be “propaganda”, and it is, in the worst way.


#13

Like above, I think you can trace it down to the trauma of 9/11. If getting mugged inspired THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS - that’s a personal attack on his idea of himself that he’s focusing on that story. Then imagine how the guy who wrote DKR after a mugging would respond psychologically after 9/11. This is another attack but one that traumatizes the whole nation and especially New Yorkers.

But when Miller was thinking of the Mutants in DKR, he had a specific personal event to draw from. He had the asshats who attacked him. With 9/11, we just had this impersonal idea of a satanic group of fanatics that pretty much became the “Shadow” containing everything “America” fears.

What’s interesting in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is that the Mutants become The Sons of Batman. It’s kinda scary to think about. They are no less violent, but they are now inspired by a completely different ideal. I agree with Sonnenveld in the sense that HOLY TERROR probably should’ve reached for something similar as far as the progression of the plot. What I didn’t really like about HT is that it never actually progressed the way that even Miller’s least nuanced works, like SIN CITY, actually manage to do.


#14

From what I understand of Miller’s response to 9/11, the event hit close enough to home for him that it felt like a similarly personal attack on him and his neighbours.

That doesn’t excuse the mindset that’s advanced by Holy Terror, but it does help explain it to an extent.


#15

911 fried his brain. I can empathize with it. As a writer I think he’s lost his way a bit, but as an artist he is still brilliant.


#16

Of course, this isn’t unique to Frank Miller, ask Cerebus readers their opinion of Dave Sim prior to issue 186, and again after. Or how one feels about Dilbert in the light of Scott Adams’ recent political statements. And even moving outside of comics, Orson Scott Card’s work took a hit in the aftermath of his anti-gay activism, and Dan Simmons’ last couple of books have been little more than anti-Muslim screeds.


#17

Oh, and I have to say, Holy Terror, Batman! would have been the best comic title ever.


#18

Though with that title, you would think Robin woulda played a big part.


#19

Doesn’t really help that ISIS today even seems to fit the villains of Holy Terror than Al Qaeda or Hamas ever did.


#20

Just imagine it’s Yoda saying it. :wink: