SLUGFEST: Holy TerrorA comic review article by: The Firing Squad
Geoffrey D. Wessel:
It's always interesting to see what path big creators take when they've become successful enough that they can pick and choose the projects that they care to work on. Someone like Todd McFarlane might reduce his comics output and work on building a multimedia empire, say, whilst somebody like Mark Millar might decide to focus his efforts on creator-owned books and film projects.
Frank Miller's path has fallen somewhere between those two examples. Although he's turned out a fair share of personal projects (such as his Sin City and Martha Washington books), he's also branched out into working as a director on more than one Hollywood film project, whilst still finding the time to turn in company superhero books like All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder.
His latest project, Holy Terror, falls somewhere between a personal project and an old-fashioned superhero adventure. Originally conceived as a Batman story in which the Dark Knight seeks out and punishes Osama Bin Laden for his terrorist activities, the book seems to have been overtaken both by a decision to remove DC's flagship character from the story and by real-world events that make Bin Laden less of a tangible threat than he might once have been.
So, we instead get a newly-created Batman analogue -- the Fixer -- fighting faceless Islamic terrorism alongside a pseudo-Catwoman: although I'm sure that anybody aware of the history of the book won't be able to help reading it as an Elseworlds-style Batman and Catwoman story.
The story, such as it is, involves a nailbomb attack on a fictional American city, which drives Batman (I mean, The Fixer) to hunt down the terrorists responsible. Unfortunately, the characterisation is so sketchy and the book's plot has so little meat on its bones that there's virtually nothing to give readers a reason to invest in the story, or to have any interest in its outcome.
The most human moments of the book are connected with the romantic subplot between the two lead characters -- but even this is conveyed in such a typically broad and macho fashion (through pages and pages of fighting, lots of bloody violence, terse, truncated, standoffish dialogue, and repeated phrases that seem simultaneously intensely emotional and oddly detached from reality) that it comes off as more silly than sentimental.
Also, it seems that Miller's main interest in the romance is that it gives him the chance to depict two freaky costumed characters having freaky costumed sex on a dirty city rooftop.
Which would, of course, seem more shocking and outré if DC hadn't just last week published a comic featuring the "real" Batman and Catwoman doing almost exactly the same thing. And more graphically.
In fact, there's a sense throughout the book that Miller thinks he's more shocking and subversive than he really is. I'd go so far as to say that his take on the book's core subject matter is so cliché, and stereotypical as to be almost quaint, never challenging the popular conceptions of what extremist Islamic terrorism is or how extremist Islamic terrorists might look or operate.
For example, a scene introducing the nail-bomber might have been more thought-provoking and unsettling if Miller had chosen to reveal that it's the scene's caucasian male teenager, rather than the young Muslim girl, who is behind the attack. As it is, it feels like a crude and unimaginative stereotype which doesn't even really make sense on its own terms (would a Muslim girl who's so devout as to kill herself in the name of her religion really stop for a quick swig of an alcoholic beverage immediately beforehand?), and which doesn't provide anything to deter the overwhelming sense that Miller has scribbled out the story's outline on the back of a beer mat without any real thought or consideration.
It's even more frustrating, then, that moments of insight and depth do occasionally threaten to break through the book's crude veneer. A series of pages that attempt to convey the human cost of a terrorist attack uses a rather effective technique involving countless panels depicting individual human faces, which eventually fade away into pages full of increasingly numerous empty white boxes. And the story's final page -- in which Miller explores the idea that the effect of terrorism goes far beyond the simple bodycount of the initial attack -- is a suitably chilling thought to end on, and one that suggests that he's actually given the subject a certain amount of thought.
However, the meat of the book is just as crass, pandering and borderline-racist as the sort of propaganda that Miller has stated he intends to emulate.
It's also worth noting that the book's pacing feels wildly unbalanced. There's a point about two-thirds of the way through the story at which you can almost hear Miller thinking “Oh Shit! I'm running out of pages and the story has barely got started yet! I'd better make sure to cram as much dialogue as possible into the next few pages to make sure I don't run out of space!”. The story then rockets forwards into an absurd climax which demands the kind of explanation that Miller simply doesn't seem to have space to deliver.
There are always going to be some people who will buy a Frank Miller book sight unseen, and who will relish his exaggerated, highly stylised art and dialogue regardless of the weaknesses in the story. If I'm honest, I've been one of them for a long time. But personally, I'm now starting to wonder whether those stylistic touches are worth suffering through an otherwise weak story for.
I can't deny enjoying some of Miller's techniques. For example, his high-contrast, sharp-edged artwork is still fantastic at conveying the scale of some of the story's biggest moments (such as the destruction of a major landmark), and his use of flat light and shade to imply complex form is still impressive no matter how many times we've seen it.
Also, some of the writing is pretty well-judged: the rhythmically repetitive captions I mentioned earlier -- which we've seen in so much of Miller's work, especially recently -- become almost like hypnotic poetry as the book goes on, tapping into a certain primal energy that really suits the story. But it's also overused, to the point at which I start to wonder whether Miller even knows how to write in any other way any more, and whether he feels that he needs to use such heavy repetition to fill the gap that's left by the lack of any truly well-crafted text.
My disappointment in this book is profound enough that it's even starting to make me reconsider and re-evaluate Miller's previous work that I've enjoyed (was Sin City really an exaggerated pastiche of hard-boiled noir stories, or just Miller's attempt to write a macho noir story of his own? And did All-Star Batman really have its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek, or is that just how Miller thinks a Batman comic should be written nowadays?), which is a sure sign that the creators strengths are simply unable to outweigh his weaknesses here.
At best, Holy Terror is an interesting failure of a story that doesn't seem to be able to decide whether it's a parody of propaganda, whether it's real propaganda or whether it's an extreme superhero story that simply happens to feature a cliché Islamic villain. At worst, however, it's a mess that will only add more fuel to the fire of those who believe that Miller lost touch with how to create a satisfying comic a long time ago.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could -- occasionally -- be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it's something he really likes. Maybe one day he'll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.
Geoffrey D. Wessel:
Hoo boy, where to begin with this utter mess?
I think we're all pretty aware of the history of this book, how it started out as a Batman book, how delayed it was, and how it was more famous for a while not for Frank Miller's own efforts, but for Grant Morrison delivering an absolutely golden quote slamming the project.
I think we're also all pretty aware that Frank Miller since the turn of the millennium has been, well, Not Good. At all. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a garish mess that really didn't follow The Dark Knight Returns very well, in the true sense of "non-sequitur." And All-Star Batman & Robin was just awful, and if you go for the whole "satire of superhero comics" excuse, then get yourself and that bullshit the fuck outta here. It was a steaming pile of shit, and you oughta be ashamed of yourself for liking it if you did.
Holy Terror accomplishes the same effect, of course. But let's face it, "Batman in a revenge fantasy against al-Qaeda" was doomed for failure pretty much right from the start. But of course, this isn't Batman anymore, it's The Fixer. So that makes it all okay, then. No, it doesn't.
First off, for being such a statement work about terrorism, we're a quarter of the way through the fucking book before we even get to the whole "Terror" part of Holy Terror because we are subjected to a 30-page, mostly-splash-paged version of the ending to Catwoman #1 that caused such a controversy earlier this week. Yeah, seriously -- 30 pages of Batfixer chasing Catburglar all over the rooftops of Empire City in extended foreplay which culminates in some pretty rude al-Qaeda-prompted coitus interruptus via nailbomb, so you know it's war now.
So then this is followed up with a few pages of "common people" shots, in a desperate attempt to, you know, make us care about what happens to regular people like you and me because of these vile Mohammedans. Except there's no emotional tie whatsoever, to anyone, or anything, up to and including Batfixer and Catburglar, or why Batfixer even cares that much about what's going on.
And really, it just gets all ridiculous from there. From Jim Gordon analogues, to non-sequitur shots of the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, President Obama & Vice-President Biden, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Kim Il Jong, various and sundry other personalities and regular folks… for what? To show how they all stand around while only Batfixer can save us all from Al-Qaeda? I just don't fucking get it. I mean, what is Miller trying to say, exactly here?? What the world really needs is Batman to get Osama bin Laden? OOPS.
And lest we forget, the art. Seriously, this art is sloppy and lazy. We know Miller's a busy man what with all his Hollywood juice and all. All that said, anatomy, form, perspective, clarity, straight lines, all get thrown out the window in Holy Terror. But for all the chiaroscuro splash pages, I seriously have no idea what is actually going on in half the pages of this book. And for so many of them being splash pages, that's not exactly a good track record. Mind you, there are a few pages where Miller goes all Chris Ware with a seemingly infinite number of panels… but they're blank. You know, to show how these foul Muslins can just wipe people out like that. You know, the same thoughts we all had... 10 years ago. When it actually happened.
For all the fuss about the big political statement of the book, there isn't much of that either. A specious quote allegedly from Mohammed opens the book (Here's a hint: I Googled the quote. There were some that came close, but I seemed to get more death metal hits than Quran-related ones), but beyond that… not much. "They have no respect for human life!" Well neither do any other comic book terrorist groups in the history of ever. When we finally get to the Al-Qaeda stronghold in a nonsense "secret underground ancient city," the first terrorist we are greeted to is... an Irishman. Um. Great. So, is Islam evil Frank, or much like every religion and philosophy, did it get hijacked and subverted by people with an extreme and violent point of view? We don't ever get an answer to this, instead we just get revenge fantasy.
Which is sad, because Miller made his statement a Hell of a lot better in his two-page, three-panel contribution to the Dark Horse/Image 9/11 book. It was powerful. It stuck with you. And there have been plenty of other 9/11 related comics since then. There have been plenty of better 9/11 related comics since then. There have even been plenty of other anti-Islam comics done since then (Bosch Fawstin, please stand up). What's so ultimately frustrating about Holy Terror, in the end, is its irrelevance and pointlessness. Maybe years ago, when announced, as a Batman comic, this would have been something worth a closer look. As it stands, it's a monument to how far one of the greats of the artform has fallen. Maybe Xerxes will redeem him, but for the time and effort and controversy behind Holy Terror, in the end, absolutely none of it was warranted.
Geoffrey D. Wessel was born in New Jersey, raised in Chicago, and has spent most of the last 20 years in the cultural desolation known to most mortals as Indiana. That’d be enough to drive anyone crazy, wouldn’t you agree?
A bit of an admitted late-bloomer, Geoffrey somehow makes time to write despite working two jobs and being a domesticated animal (read: married with children) in "real life."
He has several comics projects simmering, the end result of a lifetime of slavish devotion to punk rock, industrial music, comics, Doctor Who, and football, all being taken out on you, the lucky reader. If you're really masochistic, you can also read Geoffrey's work on his Dexter meets Fever Pitch webcomic Keeper or at the online anthology site Hadron Colliderscope.
I know a lot of you have already made a judgment against Frank Miller's Holy Terror without reading a single page of it and really, that's fine. This is a work that was in part designed to spark a certain amount of controversy, and to get people even more riled up over a subject that we in America tend to automatically get riled up about. It's also a work that comes with a hefty amount of industry baggage as well, since it began life as a Batman story. Better yet, it's getting released a week after a comic that notably also features violence as foreplay between a superhero detective and the cat burglar he has a weakness for.
But I can tell you right now that not only is Holy Terror probably not what you expect it is, it's also (mostly) less offensive than that other book with a heavy dose of super detective on cat burglar action.
Now, this isn't to say that Holy Terror is a great work. It's not. It is deeply flawed in many ways and is full of irrelevant elements that weight it down. But it is almost certainly the most impassioned, energetic work that Frank Miller has done since the Sin City days. Not only is it obvious that the subject of this work is one that Miller has a deep interest in but its two main characters, the Fixer and Natalie Stack, have a fantastic chemistry that spreads to Miller as well.
Which serves to make the coupling of the two that opens the book much more powerful than the similar scene in Catwoman; by focusing on the athleticism and power of both of these characters rather than, ahem, their isolated assets, Miller creates a highly charged, mostly dialogue free scene that's still kinky and frenzied. Yes, you read that right: Holy Terror starts as a work that is more sexually progressive and effectively eroticized than a book that was pitched to people using exclusively the word "sexy."
It's in these early portions of the book that Holy Terror is most successful on the whole, with some phenomenal art from Miller and even more phenomenal choreography. Miller utilizes the confusing abstraction of his inks to ramp up the tension of the chase, only giving readers refuge in moments of profoundly minimalist close-up panels. It's cinematic yet perfectly symbolic of what makes Miller first and foremost such a master of the medium of comics. And when we get to the explosions that really drive the plot, framed by architecture that looks like poster art and clouds of smoke created by Miller's own inky thumb prints, it's sheer comic glory.
And if Holy Terror had ended there, it might have been a perfect story.
But instead, Miller has a different story to tell, one that's less like a prequel to Dark Knight Returns and more like the mash-up of 300, Sin City and Dark Knight that no one asked for. Miller's love for his characters, and the Gotham stand in he's created for them in Empire City, remains apparent throughout, but it's at this point that the plot and the dialogue begin to drag everything down. It's not that the presence of terrorists in the story is an issue, it's just that Miller's often laughable dialogue choices ("It's war, darling. It's war." and "Let's get us some killing done." are just two standouts) and the clumsy treatment of the issue cause the story to lose momentum and fall into Reefer Madness territory, except with Al-Qaeda instead of dope fiends.
The Fixer turns out to be a bit of a psychopath who hasn't just prepared for a terrorist act on Empire City, he's spent his entire life anxiously waiting for it to happen, like it somehow proves his worth as an individual and gives him the path to glory he's always wanted. He teams up with some kind of Jewish uber mensch named David, complete with the eponymous Star Of on his face and two sexy Asian assassin apprentices in tow, who drafted Fixer into this cause. There's even a Planet of the Apes like scene, with the terrorists I guess standing in for the apes as they take down the Statue of Liberty referencing Blind Justice.
As if that's not odd enough, Al-Qaeda also turns out to be less of a terrorist organization and more like something out of Casanova, with a base of operations that exists underneath Empire City in some kind of mythical archaeological site that is described as "an ancient city built by a race of madmen." Weirder yet, they're partnered up with a "highly verbal" Irishman and some kind of dwarf. Before that scene, Miller does engage in some cringe inducing torture scenes (more torturous for the dialogue than the content) and there's plenty of talk about suicide bombers not reaching those "72 black eyed virgins," but with the third act it's almost like Miller has decide to forgo the campy propaganda of the second act in favor of high concept espionage work in the vein of Jim Steranko. He even sort of suggests at this point that the frontline members of Al-Qaeda are as much victims as anybody, misled by power hungry murderers who are as likely to hail from Ireland as Saudi Arabia.
And then it all just...ends.
If Holy Terror was just propaganda, this work would be easier to dismiss. But it's not. It's an at times beautiful, at times glorious and at times immensely troubling and poorly thought out work. It veers wildly between any number of extremes and the morality of it is at best misguided, but it's also a work you will not forget, that takes extreme risks with form and content that don't always pay off. Without dialogue this could have even been a masterpiece, but instead we've got a beautiful fiasco. But damn if it isn't interesting, and isn't that alone worthwhile?
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.