Frank Miller’s ‘Holy Terror’: A Propaganda Comic That Fights Faith Instead of Evil [Review]
Frank Miller’s post-9/11 propaganda comic Holy Terror has been through a few changes. In 2006, it was announced as Holy Terror, Batman!, and was due to be a piece of DC comic that pitted Batman, one of the most popular comic book heroes ever, against Al-Qaeda, perpetrators of 9/11 as well as other terrorist attacks all around the world. Miller’s logic was that since Captain America and other heroes had punched out Hitler and killed Nazis during World War II, what we needed was a superhero to punch America’s new enemy in the face. Partway through the story, Miller realized that he’d “taken Batman as far as he can go,” and moved the story outside the DC Comics Universe. Batman became The Fixer, Dirty Harry in a costume, and the character who had been Catwoman became Natalie Stack, a cat burglar. Holy Terror is out this week, after five years of waiting and it’s… complicated.Holy Terror is tough for me to wrap my head around, because propaganda is a tricky beast. It requires convincing everyone of the righteousness of your country’s cause, turning your enemy into something other than you, and simplifying matters to an almost absurd level. In World War II, propaganda was easy. There was a clear enemy, notably the Nazis, who had committed clearly hateful crimes. And even then, the otherizing aspect of propaganda gave rise to a metric ton of racism and bigotry, which was nonetheless seen as justified or even acceptable in the face of the atrocities that had been committed.
So, a propaganda piece about Al-Qaeda, an entity that is fractured and spread all over the world, is a strange and possibly (probably) terrible thing. The conversation about terrorism and Al-Qaeda in the United States has too often drifted into a critique, or worse, of Islam itself. How do you define your villains as being Al-Qaeda first and Muslims second? Their beliefs are an integral part of their motivations and actions, but they don’t represent Islam as a whole. Is it possible to walk that fine line without being offensive?
I think that Al-Qaeda is as worthy of being fictionalized and turned into a comic book villain as any other real-life entity, but there’s a very fine line to walk there. Without care, you run the risk of portraying Al-Qaeda not as a radical Islamist terrorist organization, but as representative of Muslims as a whole, a factually incorrect position. I personally benefitted greatly from the guidance or teachings of Muslim men and women as I grew up, so I’m always wary of conversations that are framed as “Us versus Them,” where “Us” is a nebulous notion of “Americans” and “Them” equates to “Muslims,” because that is a false divide.
At the same time, I’ve enjoyed Frank Miller’s work on several different levels ever since I was a child. There’s a part of me that’s inclined to give him a break, to believe that one of my favorite cartoonists of all time couldn’t possibly be putting out what amounts to a hateful piece of propaganda.
But: The Fixer is openly bigoted towards Muslims; torture is portrayed as something that is thrilling; Islam is explicitly and exclusively depicted as something out of the Dark Ages, and the word “Al-Qaeda” isn’t mentioned until something like eighty-five pages in. As a result, the enemy in Holy Terror is not so much the terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, but the religion of Islam. Miller fuels the fire when he portrays an ex-Mossad agent, David, as an ally and galvanizing force for The Fixer. David has a blue Star of David tattooed on his face. That was around the point where I wanted to put the book down forever and pretend like it never happened, to be perfectly frank.
The story for Holy Terror is thin, but still enough to hang a graphic novel on. It opens on The Fixer (not-Batman) chasing Natalie Stack (not-Catwoman) after Stack steals a diamond bracelet. They run, fight, and eventually, make out on a rooftop. An explosion takes them by surprise, and an interlude reveals that the explosion was the work of a suicide bomber. Several more explosions rock the city as they watch in horror, and then, in one of the most comic book-y moments in the entire book, the Fixer and Natalie stand up, broken and battered. “No. Not on my watch,” says the Fixer. “Not on my turf,” says Natalie. And their war against Al-Qaeda begins.
Except the war isn’t against Al-Qaeda, not really. The suicide bomber was a young girl named Amina, a Muslim exchange student from an unspecified country. She thinks about the decadence of Empire City and describes its skyscrapers by saying, “Its towers stab into the sky like sharpened sticks aimed at the eyes of God.” When a young man offers her a drink, she takes it and says that its her “first alcohol. Ever.” They don’t use alcohol where she comes from, she explains, and when the man asks if she’s from the Dark Ages, she says, “Maybe the future. We’ll see.”
The slurs against Islam continue as the book goes on. The Fixer nabs a terrorist and calls him “Mohammed,” because “you’ve got to admit that the odds are pretty good it’s Mohammed.” They call him “Moe” throughout the rest of the book. The terrorists are viewed as something sub-human. One page contrasts Americans watching a Transformers-style movie on a big screen with Arabs stoning a woman buried up to her neck in the dirt while calling her an infidel, slut, and whore. A generic man in a suit takes his wife, wearing an Afghani Burqa, beats her, and then leaves the house. And finally, when Natalie infiltrates a mosque, she thinks, “the night wind blows away seven centuries.”
The constant bashing of Islam as a throwback to the Dark Ages is stupid, ugly, and tiresome. It’s also factually incorrect. While Europe was in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, the Arab world was in the middle of what was essentially a golden age of enlightenment. They made vital discoveries and advances in science, math, medicine, art, architecture, and several other areas that had a profound impact on the rest of human civilization.
Al-Qaeda is treated in the text as something that is representative of Islam, rather than something that is a twisted, rotted off-shoot. Conversely, the Ku Klux Klan are terrorists are nominally Christian, but they’re never portrayed as representative of Christianity or whites. Again and again, Miller hammers home outdated and bigoted assumptions. The Fixer and Natalie Stack approach torture with glee, Natalie sends a terrorist off to his “seventy-two black-eyed virgins,” and on and on and on.They’re fighting Islam, not Al-Qaeda, and the book suffers greatly for it.
There are several other weaknesses in the story, too, including structural ones. The plot unfolds fairly quickly once things get going, but Miller makes a habit of creating outlandish scenarios and then immediately knocking them down. A Macguffin is introduced at the exact moment it’s needed, which makes for an extremely confusing scene at the end of the book. The Fixer shouts that the terrorists have Stinger missiles into his two-way wrist radio one page before the terrorists use those missiles to destroy a helicopter. Where were they hiding that they knew where the helicopter would be? Who knows? They just do. What’s important, apparently, is the drama of the scene, not the logic.
The terrorists somehow scramble fighter jets (several of them) to blow up a thinly veiled Statue of Liberty (because they hate us for our freedom) in American airspace (presumably because the government is useless and/or in cahoots with them). The first-person narration skips around and doesn’t always do a good job of establishing who’s speaking, especially late in the book.
All of this makes for a particularly unsatisfying reading experience. Despite a fairly strong start, Holy Terror devolves from high-octane action to slipshod plotting. Things just happen the closer you get to the end, and that’s not the way to write comics. I mean — a secret city built by a race of madmen below Empire City? Really? Miller tries to have it both ways, realistic and fantastic, and the result is that the book falls apart on both levels.
I’m much happier with the art side of things, though there are major flaws there, as well. You can tell which pages were done back when it was about Batman, and later when it was the Fixer. In fact, on certain pages, you can actually still see where there used to be Bat-symbols and Batarangs, and Catwoman’s ear is visible in a shadow despite being erased from Stack’s figure on one page. A lot of the art comes across entirely too busy and outright indecipherable, such as the page featuring what I assume, for some reason, is a toy car and a mother’s shoe. Some pages are just extremely rough.
But Miller’s skill on others is undeniable. He’s still one of the best at rendering cities and locations with a minimal amount of detail, and the king of rooftop chases. Natalie infiltrates a mosque at one point, and all we see are five windows and a few stairs, but it’s immediately clear what’s going on. The filthy, ink-spattered pages that comprise the first portion of the book are a beautiful mess. They’re as good as anything he’s ever done, full of kinetic energy and with a city that screams right off the page. Natalie falling off a building, with a punctuation-less “help” floating in a word balloon, is one of the most beautiful pages in the book, not to mention his amazing full spread of a masked terrorist. Natalie and the Fixer look fantastic swinging around the city, particularly the sense of motion evoked when Natalie uses Fixer’s cape to help her maneuver.
The worst part about Holy Terror isn’t the bigotry or slipshod plotting. It’s that this is clearly a man who is still pushing his craft forward on every level (Dark Knight Returns featured a 16-panel grid, and Miller breaks out a 24-panel grid here), a guy who is still synthesizing his influences (If Dark Knight Strikes Again was hardcore Jack Kirby, this feels like Kirby meets Steve Ditko), and who still has the drive to draw a 120-page graphic novel about something he cares deeply about. The worst part is that the result of all that was this: a hateful, ill-considered, simplistic, ugly, nasty little book.
When I finished reading Holy Terror the first time, I was confused. I didn’t hate it. I felt gross, but I dug the art. Then I read it again, and my feelings crystalized. I like how this book looks, and if you’re a fan of late-era Miller, there’s a lot to enjoy here, but I absolutely hate how it reads and what it represents. It isn’t even as successful as propaganda because it’s poorly thought-out and has nothing but weak reasoning as its foundation.
There’s a line from a poem that’s been running through my head ever since I finished Holy Terror: “When she was good, She was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.” It applies very well to Holy Terror. The last page is a stinger as good as anything ever seen on The Twilight Zone. The rest of it? It’s depressing. It feels almost like a betrayal. Miller has done many things that were forward-thinking or intelligent, whether exploring the ideals of black beauty in Sin City or blowing the hinges off what comics could be with Elektra Assassin. For him to do something like this, which is stupid at best, is… let’s call it disappointing. He’s punching far below his weight class. I’m still looking forward to the 300 sequel Xerxes, but my desire for it has definitely been tempered, if not nearly annihilated, by Holy Terror.
Miller’s best statement on 9/11 remains his contribution to 9-11: Artists Respond. It was short, mean, and honest. Holy Terror is none of that.