Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller’s Holy Terror

A decade ago, when comic book creator Frank Miller was drawing the long-awaited sequel to the seminal Dark Knight Returns miniseries, the World Trade Center towers fell, and everything changed.

Miller, one of the pioneers of Modernist superheroes in the 1980s — with his staccato-sharp crime stories in Marvel’s Daredevil, his fusion of samurai manga and European sci-fi in DC’s Ronin, and, most influentially, his take on Batman in all of its bleak, celebratory, yet gorgeously drawn, fascism – has carved out a unique career in comics. Unlike other prominent writer/artists, Miller has created dozens of memorable characters (or recast old characters in new molds), and yet he is known primarily for his style, above all else. In the way that we might talk of a Rubenesque figure or a Hemingway hero or a Shakespearean tragedy, there’s a distinctive, immediately recognizable Frank Miller aesthetic. We know what to expect when we read his comics, visually and narratively.

Frank Miller heroes will be relentless, uncompromising. They will pose symbolically but bluntly ignore any sense of their own pretension. They are built partly on legend (Hector would have made a good Miller hero, but not the petulant Achilles) and partly on 20th century tough-guy archetypes. Miller is a Spillane guy, and so are his heroes, with an underbelly of desperate Romanticism.

Frank Miller women are strong, defiant, and sexual. They are just as likely to be whores or strippers as they are to be soldiers or nuns. They are Aphrodite and Athena combined into a hard candy coating. It’s no surprise that Frank Miller created the assassin Elektra.

Frank Miller villains are vile and disfigured. When the heroes and heroines are so ruthless it takes a considerable level of evil to stand in contrast, and that’s something Miller villains have running through their veins. You won’t see many nuances to a Frank Miller character, but the villains, in particular, are a distinctive kind of one-dimensional fabrications. You’ll find no sympathy from Miller towards his own villains. They exist for one purpose, to give the heroes and heroines something to destroy, or die trying.

Frank Miller comics have such a strong graphic look — not in terms of on-the-page violence or nudity, though both of those are embedded in his work — that when it came time to adapt his Sin City series to the big screen, Robert Rodriguez chose to replicate exact comic book panels on film. And Zack Snyder did the same with the Spartan-era spectacle of 300. Frank Miller comics are stark blacks and whites. Silhouettes and shadows. Blocky, bulky figures against a water-tower drenched skyline or a craggy mountaintop.

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller's Holy Terror

As he’s aged, all of these qualities of Miller’s writing and drawing have become exaggerated versions of themselves. There is no hint of subtlety left. It’s unfiltered Frank Miller, without the pretense of following some preconception of what a comic book story should be, or how humans actually behave. And there’s only one Frank Miller. He puts himself on every page.

So when the towers fell, ten years ago, Frank Miller rewrote the final portion of Dark Knight Strikes Again to reflect the sense of loss and tragedy we all felt during that time. But coming from Frank Miller, it was Loss and Tragedy as physical forces, in an almost medieval mystery play style. And Hope, too. Primal Hope, and the idea that we can rebuild, but we will never forget.

Most readers of Dark Knight Strikes Again ignored the 9/11 allegories in the final chapter, or quickly dismissed them. They were too distraught over how far Miller had moved away from the pinnacle of human achievement that was the original Dark Knight Returns. They were too distracted by Lynn Varley’s gorgeously primitive computer coloring. Too incensed at Miller’s increasingly squat figures and heavy-handed satire. They wanted that thing they read 15 years before. The one that came out when the mainstream comic book industry was shifting from occasionally stunning juvenilia to surly adolescence. The puberty of a corner of the medium, in other words.

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller's Holy TerrorDark Knight Strikes Again is still widely-reviled for not being Dark Knight Returns, though, like any work given enough critical distance, you will find more vocal supporters of Miller’s sequel now than you would have only a few years ago.

It doesn’t help his reputation that his only full-length work in the decade since Dark Knight Strikes Again is not even a work in the comic book medium. It’s his movie version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Frank Miller’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit (and that mouthful should have been the title on the marquee) has all the elements of the Frank Miller style, minus the actual drawings of Frank Miller. Thus, it is a failure in almost every conceivable way. For it’s one thing to have the Frank Miller bombast on the comic book page, with declarative, but usually sparse, dialogue spoken by Frank Miller-drawn characters set against a Frank Miller drawn backdrop, but it’s quite another thing to replicate that on celluloid, with real human actors, no matter how artificial the soundstage. Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder barely pulled it off — some would say they didn’t — but at least they had stronger core Frank Miller stories to work with. Frank Miller’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit didn’t even have that. It was all Miller style thrown onto the screen, and without ink and Bristol board to stick to, it dissipated into insignificance.

But now Frank Miller is back, with a book-length graphic novel from new publisher Legendary Comics. Miller’s new project, Holy Terror, may hold the record for the longest-awaited yet least-anticipated comic of all time. Miller has been talking about it practically since he completed work on Dark Knight Strikes Again, and it was even conceived and partially drawn as a Batman book, for at least the first 100 pages, before Miller renamed Batman as a character called “The Fixer” and cut off his pointy ears shorty after his long-time editor Bob Schreck parted ways with DC Comics.

When Miller first began talking about it, Holy Terror was his version of Batman vs. Al-Qaeda, in the tradition of Golden Age comics, when old-timey characters would punch Hitler in the face or throw exploding pies at Tojo. It may have sounded like a good idea to Miller — it must have, as he continued to work on it for years — yet almost everyone else in the world reacted not with a “well, I’m sure Frank Miller can pull it off,” but rather a “okay, that’s a thing that might exist someday.”

The world, in general, has soured on new Frank Miller products, as rare as they are this century.

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller's Holy Terror

But here it is. Holy Terror has been released into the world. Starring Batman and Catwoman, only they aren’t called Batman and Catwoman.

And it turns out to be a love story at first.

I have to admit that I didn’t expect much of Holy Terror, yet I expected it to be one of my favorite comics of the year. Seems like a paradox, right? Or, a case of extremely low standards.

But let me explain myself.

I knew Holy Terror would be Frank Miller’s mythic, confrontational take on the events of 9/11. I knew it would feature a thinly-veiled Batman analogue. I knew it would be, basically, Batman punching terrorists. Everyone who listened to Frank Miller mention this project knew these same things.

While I don’t particularly care about anyone’s “take” on 9/11, or have any desire to see any superheroes, analogous or otherwise, punch terrorists out of some sort of gleeful revenge fantasy, I do want to see Frank Miller’s ink on the page. He’s an unparalleled stylist. The story, as simplistic and underdeveloped as it is, is just a delivery method for his visual storytelling. For his page compositions. For his lines and inky blackness.

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller's Holy Terror

This is Frank Miller’s self-proclaimed slice of propaganda. An anti-terrorist screed, in graphic novel form. But it does manage to become more than that. It’s about lives interrupted by chaos and destruction. Instead of planes flying into towers, Miller gives us suicide bombers and nails and razor blades flying through the air. He provides visual symbolism instead of the literalization of events. Sure, he clumsily inserts silent panels of Condoleezza Rice and Michael Moore and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as some kind of mute Greek chorus, but this isn’t actually a political comic at all. It’s a comic about what it feels like to be at the receiving end of a brutal, city-wide tragedy. What it feels like to want to take revenge.

It makes no case for right or wrong. It’s a fable about violation and retaliation, that’s all it is. But that’s all Frank Miller ever said it would be. And sometimes that’s enough. Not because it provides a dream-like analogue for the horrible real-life events of a decade ago, but because it’s Frank Miller men and Frank Miller women living in a Frank Miller world. It’s an artist being true to his style, giving us page after page of scratchy, chiseled, inky linework, coming straight from the gut. This is an artistic response to 9/11 that, regardless of its narrative simplicity, is a pure response, a genuine response, filtered through a unique artistic sensibility.

You won’t see anything else even remotely like Holy Terror from anyone else this year. Maybe that’s not enough for you — unique doesn’t automatically equate with “good” — but, coming from Frank Miller, it’s enough for me. I’ve read the book twice, and I’m unlikely to read it again, but I am likely to flip back through its pages many, many times.

If there’s a genre called “revenge porn,” Holy Terror would surely qualify. But I don’t hold such designations against it. Because is aspires to be exactly that, the only way Frank Miller knows how. Messy, grand, confrontational, and muscularly poetic.

Tim Callahan has read some comics. Thousands of them. And the ones with Frank Miller listed somewhere in the credits are the ones he keeps returning to.


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