Review: Holy Terror
I had an incredibly difficult time deciding where to begin in writing this review. So I’ll start where Frank Miller started. The epigraph of his newest graphic novel, Holy Terror, is this: “If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel. – Mohammed.” I did some searching but was unable to find where that exact phrase is located in either the Qur’an or Hadith. Sure, there are some variations and translations that sound similar, but that exact phrase? Nope, not there. And Frank didn’t provide us with a citation, either. We are left with zero context for this phrase, a context that would entirely change its meaning. And that ends up being the greatest issue for Holy Terror – the lack of context.
I will give you a bit of context that may help you understand how this book happened. Frank Miller originally wanted to write Holy Terror, Batman!, a graphic novel in which Batman would fight Al-Qaeda. He had been working on this book since at least 2006 when he first announced it. Frequently over the next 5 years, the name changed, and so did the main character – Batman was eventually dropped completely. Miller decided that the character “was no longer Batman,” and that this would no longer be a DC Comics book. So the book was picked up by Legendary, the main character was dubbed The Fixer, and Holy Terror was sent out into the world this past Wednesday.
Legendary did a decent job with the production of the book: the format is nice and wide, the paper and printing is great. This was one of those books that was pleasing on a purely tactile level. But the title logo of Holy Terror looks like someone decided to just find the middle ground between two of Miller’s other popular works, Sin City and 300, and settle for that.
The art style is also highly reminiscent of Sin City. Most of the book is entirely black and white, with occasional objects rendered in color to stand in stark contrast. This effect is striking, if not entirely original, and occasionally used quite well. There is one panel in which a teenage girl’s outline is rendered almost entirely in scrawls of pink ink – it’s rather pretty, if a bit cliche. For some of the panels, Miller uses blatant finger smudges both inside and outside the frames to either create effects of smoke, bruising on the characters, or simply to highlight the physical roughness of the fighting being depicted – the latter example being mildly clever. But there are also frequent instances in which the art, quite simply, could be better. Indistinct anatomical outlines, unclear narrative flow among panels, odd color choices – there were also occasional oddly placed animals in the same frames as the characters, with zero explanation as to why they’re there. Sure, some of it was definitely for a contrasting metaphor with the character in the frame, but it’s weird, and infrequent, and not always coherent. As the guy behind the counter at my local shop said while he flipped through it briefly, “This is not premium Miller.”
Now, to introduce the characters. First we meet Natalie Stack, the cat burglar being chased in the opening scenes. She has green cat eyes with the narrow vertical pupils, fishnet stockings, a leather bodice, and a leather skull-fit mask. She makes references to having nine lives. Is this Catwoman? Basically. We also eventually meet Captain Dan Donegal, a hard-nosed detective on the Empire City police force with square glasses, a square jaw, and conventional hair tussled away by the briskness of his movement. Is this Commissioner Jim Gordon? Yeah, it basically is. And finally, we have The Fixer, who, to not put too fine a point on it, is Batman without the ears, in red, and carrying guns. What all this means is that, when Frank Miller said he wasn’t doing Batman anymore, he lied – he just wasn’t calling it Batman anymore. True, The Fixer is much more accepting of violence and killing – he shoots a lot of Al Qaeda operatives, and even tortures one to the point of breaking the guy’s back. Payback for Bane a few years ago, maybe? This is Batman without the rules; in other words, a poorly-done Batman. This was where I wondered if Frank Miller was a victim of a last-minute decision to cut Batman from the book, or just a victim of his own laziness.
The Fixer and Natalie start referring to an Al Qaeda operative that they torture as “Moe,” short for Mohammad. This is after The Fixer makes a crude joke about the chances being “pretty good” his name is Mohammad. The Fixer also responds to a terrorist who shouts “Jihad!” as he activates the trigger to his body bomb by saying “Gesundheit!” and kicking him away to explode at a safe distance. The oath “Jesus Christ!” figures rather heavily in the book, and I don’t think that’s an accident. If this seems like a simple laundry list of problems, that’s because there’s no way to find an organizing principle for this mess.
Several times in this book, the narrative stops following the action of the story, and we are presented with page after page of depictions of people, mostly real. They are often world leaders or political players, and recognizable ones. President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Michael Moore, President Bush, Dick Cheney, Kim Jong Il, all depicted in frames with no text, surrounded by frames depicting scenes of agitation, violence, and terror. The message seems to be fairly clear: all of these people stand silently by as these things happen. They do nothing. Who is it, then, who does something about it? Apparently The Fixer does. He and Natalie head to the secret base of Al Qaeda’s operation: the oldest mosque in Empire City, paid for by the Saudis. Natalie describes the place as “scarier than hell.” She also describes how, as she secretly enters the mosque, “the wind blows away seven centuries.” Now, is it true that there have been Saudis who supported Al Qaeda? Sure. Is it true that some elements of Saudi society, specifically the policies regarding women’s rights, are medieval and wrong? I don’t think many would argue against that. But here, Miller is vague enough that he lets these specifics, these elements of context, be brushed aside. Basically, all mosques become terror centers paid for by the Saudi government.
This is where things get weird, because Natalie, as a standard sidekick, is captured after entering the mosque and brought below the structure. Apparently, the building has an entrance to the Old City below Empire City. Natalie describes it as having been “built by long-forgotten ancients. Archaelogists have only been able to shake their heads, bewildered by its ornaments, its architecture. Some say it was built by a race of madmen.” It’s a medieval dungeon crossed with an M.C. Escher painting, covered in gargoyles and animals and strange cartoonish faces. Clearly we have left the realm of the realistic, where Natalie and The Fixer are intended to exist in our world. It would seem that Frank Miller is unable to conclude his story and set the final battle in any historically real location, and so it must occur in a place of pure fiction.
Miller goes on to have the Al-Qaeda leader say that the very name of the organization, meaning “the cell,” is a clue to the fact that they are only a tiny part of a massive plan. This plan is of course not described – there are no names named. But we should be afraid of the shadowy “true” masters of Islamic terror. Again, Frank: context? Or are you having too much fun letting our own imaginations fill in the blanks and make your antagonists so much better than you ever could?
I find it necessary, given the lack of logical reasons found in this work to have written it, to turn to comments Frank Miller had provided prior to publication. As part of NPR’s “This I Believe” series, in 2006 Frank Miller said:
“For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years. Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival.”
Is it possible that Miller was aware that this entire book is essentially a rendering of the irrational and extreme survival instinct he described? Does he intend, with the lack of context and nuanced presentation in this book, to simply say to us, “This is how I saw the world in that moment”? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: eventually we have to place this work among the greater majority of our experience and understanding. It cannot remain isolated; this book means nothing if it stays isolated. But as soon as we try to give it a spot in the bigger picture, it becomes useless and silly. So, if you want, let The Fixer and Natalie fight Al Qaeda in that ancient and mad world underground. But eventually you have to make a choice: either leave them there, or remain there yourself.