Monday, January 30, 2012

Holy Terror

Originally pitched as Batman versus al Qaeda, Holy Terror is Frank Miller's response to the 9/11 attacks and the resulting conflicts since. It references events such as the World Trade Center bombings and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and it caricatures major political figures. These depictions highlight a range of feelings about the situation, from denial to outrage to sheer horror to, most distressingly, a thirst for revenge. Miller makes disturbing moves, depicting the Arabs in the story as relics of the Middle Ages and questioning if they are even human because of their actions. I was disgusted by the cavalier racism and ethnic stereotyping.

Because he balked at having Batman involved in such an adventure, Miller transformed the main character into a generic superhero named The Fixer. He also had to shift his fighting partner from Catwoman to a slinky cat burglar named Natalie Stack. The story begins with The Fixer chasing Stack after a heist, as part of a frenetic and rough mating ritual. After their daliance is disturbed by a series of escalating bombings, the duo set out to stop the terrorists from obliterating Empire City.

Placing superheroes into world events is nothing new. Captain America #1 famously showed Cap punching Hitler out, and Superman and others advertised for war bonds all throughout World War II. The Punisher was originally a Vietnam War veteran who was disillusioned with the US justice system. However, it is easy to see why DC would not have published this story with Batman in it. In the space of one night, the Fixer tortures a captive terrorist for information, shoots dozens of generic Arab terrorists, and detonates a weapon of mass destruction beneath Empire City. He behaves in thoughtless, vengeful, ultra-macho fashion. He does and takes whatever he wants, from sex with a cat burglar to bloody vengeance on the nameless terrorist fodder who fall in his path. Instead of a hero, The Fixer seems like a hyper-steroid version of the Abu Ghraib prison guards.

The book ends with an echo from his classic The Dark Knight Returns, focusing on the police commissioner. Only instead of a happy ending where he needlessly worries about his family who are ultimately safe, this time he experiences the real terror that comes from the vacuum left by their deaths. This possibly poignant scene seems forced after so many pages of mindless, macho violence. If this graphic novel is to be called successful in any way, it seems to be in capturing the maelstrom of sensations and emotions that terrorism evokes as well as the seeming futility in determining a feasible course of action.

It is difficult to believe that Miller would downplay the sacrifice of so many soldiers and civilians in the wake of 9/11, not to mention that long, hard hours actual people have worked to respond to countless conflicts, to elevate the insanely unrealistic actions of a superhero. Perhaps this book is a commentary on the ultimate inability for superhero narratives to deal with such serious and complex issues, but Miller seems to relish the action, sex, and violence too much for me to credit him that intention. He speaks about his intentions with this comic in this interview.

In terms of art, the book progresses from some dynamic and detailed layouts to increasingly sketchy and rushed artwork. It appears that Miller sacrificed the rendering to get the book finished, which seems strange for a book the publishers claim was "ten years in the making."

Most reviews I have seen are mixed at best, but some call the book terrible. David Brothers found much to dismay him in this graphic novel, summing up that Miller is "punching far below his weight class." Ryan K. Lindsay wrote that he found some parts stunning and that the book works well as a piece of propaganda but not always as a comic. Sean Kleefeld wrote that the book is full of what Miller does well "but none of it of any real substance." Johnny Destructo called it "Sloppy, arrogant work by an arrogant bastard." J. Caleb Mozzocco summed up his take on the book, "It’s beautiful artwork, in service of an ugly story and uglier still politics. I guess that’s what happens when a genius cartoonist gets terrorized, and puts pen to paper while still in a state of fear." In contrast to many of these reviews, Bob Temuka wrote about liking the art, the visceral thrills of the book, and its potential therapeutic value for Miller at least.

Holy Terror was published by Legendary Entertainment, which is owned by Warner Brothers, also the owners of DC Comics. They provide a video trailer here.

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