Holy Terror original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Frank Miller
Editor: Bob Schreck
Publisher: Legendary Comics
Price: $29.99 US
Frank Miller is one of those rare talents from the world of comics whose name has managed to pierce the invisible wall of awareness between those with an interest in the medium and the larger pop-culture consciousness of mainstream society. And it’s not just due to the faithful film adaptations of projects such as Sin City and 300. The Dark Knight Returns was a work of such importance in the 1980s and has had such a vibrant, healthy life in print in the years since its original publication that people who don’t read comics have actually read it. I’d guess more people know who Frank Miller is than, say, Jack Kirby or Will Eisner (don’t ask me for supporting evidence — it’s pure supposition on my part). Given his profile and his past penchant for crafting benchmark works in the medium, whenever Miller delivers a new project, people in the industry pay attention. Holy Terror‘s origins as a Batman-versus-al Qaeda story shines through here, but freeing the story from the corporately owned intellectual property has allowed Miller to explore more than the notion of terrorism in the 21st century. He’s also able to sound off on super-hero genre archetypes, and honestly, that’s the more interesting aspect of this book.
The vigilante known as the Fixer pursues a thief across the rooftops of Empire City, and Natalie Stark provides him with quite the chase… and quite a fight when he finally catches up with her. There’s clearly more than an enforcer/criminal relationship between them, but before they can explore it fully, the world all around them starts to explode. The night air fills with nails, razors and other deadly debris. The city is under attack by radical Islamic terrorists, and the Fixer sets out to hunt down those responsible, to stop them and to destroy them for their assault on his beloved city and American ideals.
Miller offers up some visuals that boast the impact, striking contrast and gritty power we so often see in so much of his work. His vision of a Lady Justice statue in the place of New York’s Lady Liberty is quite mesmerizing, and the vast scope and intricate detail of the underworld beneath an urban mosque is a sight to behold. But as strong as some pages are, I was surprised to find others fell victim to technique. Miller sometimes sacrifices storytelling for style. For example, the Fixer’s pursuit of Natalie in the opening sequence in the book is quite difficult to make out at times. It looks as though Miller is trying to create a rain effect with white, liquid-paper-like streaks on black backgrounds. It’s an intriguing approach, but sometimes, it’s even hard to pick out the characters’ forms amid the streaks.
One of the strongest visual sequences in the book is the one in which Miller draws nothing at all. In a scene clearly meant to pay tribute to the innocent victims of terrorism, Miller draws grids featuring the headshots of regular people. The numbers of squares in the grids multiply, giving the reader a sense of the massive numbers of casualties, and at the same time, the faces fade, eventually becoming empty panels. It’s a powerful sequence that makes the most of the strength of the medium of comics.
There’s a scene early in the book in which Miller approaches the notion of terrorism from the perspective of one of the perpetrators of the attack on Empire City. For a moment, I was riveted, as it seemed as though Miller was going to explore a suicide bomber’s psyche, that he would try to delve into her character. It’s a fleeting moment, though, and ultimately, I think he portrays her as a hypocrite. The Muslim woman abandons her religious belief forbidding sex, forbidding alcohol. One interpretation is she’s trying to experience things she’s been denied in her life in the minutes before she ends it and others’, but instead, I was struck by the notion Miller is trying to say the act of violence is wholly pointless, that the twisted religious ideals that drive these people aren’t really of as great importance to them as they claim.
Obviously, there are larger concerns at play that factor into terrorism and anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. Miller is silent on those factors — and I mean literally silent. Interspersed throughout Holy Terror are select pages without dialogue that feature caricatures of real-life political players. And the fleeting visages aren’t just those talking heads we saw on TV in the aftermath of 9-11. I noticed Barack Obama is among them. I would imagine it’s Miller’s suggestion America and the West continue to make moves that foster hatred and resentment in the Arab world. Whatever his meaning is, I’m surprised he opts for a subtler approach in that commentary as compared to the rest of the book.
Maybe the most interesting thing about this graphic novel is Miller’s commentary about the symbolic link between the violence of the super-hero genre and sexuality. Given this book was released just a week after the controversial Catwoman #1 and features a protagonist modelled after Selina Kyle, I can’t help but compare how the two book deal with the notion of sex between the vigilante hero and the thief. Miller demonstrates the pair are deeply damaged, and their extreme adventures are a substitute for sex. The transition from pursuit, a violent melee then to passion is seamless for them. Miller’s choice isn’t a gratuitous one, as it speaks to character. Writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March, handling the same subject matter, instead set out to titillate. Their work didn’t speak to the characters; it was meant to entice an adolescent audience. Also interesting is the fact Miller — unconstrained her from corporate concerns and content limits — nevertheless is far more restrained in how he depicts the sexual appetites of the main characters. I would have imagined he could’ve shown his readers a lot of “skin,” but he realizes he doesn’t need to do so to make his point.
What’s unsettling about Holy Terror — or at least about my understanding and interpretation of what Miller offers as commentary through his extreme characters — is how the writer/artist seems to paint all facets of Islam and its believers with the same, blood-soaked brush. Having read the man’s work over the years, I know he’s an intelligent man, and I have my doubts he could fall victim to such a patently false generalization. But that’s how this book reads. Maybe his intent is to demonstrate how the Fixer (and by extension, Batman) sees everything in black and white, how his distorted view of the world fails him. But then again, Miller portrays a mosque as a gateway to a huge, hidden world of violence and conspiracy, so I’d have to contend the impression with which I came away from the book has, at least, a certain degree of validity to it. 5/10
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