Sep 29 2011 7:00pm

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller’s Holy Terror

Once Upon a Batman: Frank Miller’s Holy TerrorA 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.

Dave Thompson
1. DKT
To be fair, Miller also wrote All-Star Batman and Robin this decade (although Jim Lee provided the artwork, so maybe it doesn't qualify as a Miller work). I'd suspect the God-Damned Batman was the turning point for a lot of fans.

I appreciate your perspective with this review, Tim. That said, the idea of Batman (or the Fixer or whatever) vs. Al-Qaeda still sounds pretty draining, annoying, and uninteresting to me.

I know we had Captain America punching Hitler in the face 60 years ago, and that was important (see also Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). But I want to believe the medium's progressed, or can say something different.
Mike Phillips
2. Mike Phillips
Oh, there's definitely a Revenge Porn genre, and Inglourious Basterds is smack in the middle of it.
Mike Phillips
3. Patrick Watson
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and other films of its ilk would also qualify in the "Revenge Porn" genre.
Mike Phillips
4. dogeatdoug
Fantastic review, Tim. Summed it up perfectly. I adore Miller's work including this one. Was sad to see so many reviewers immiediately dismiss this novel.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
5. pnh
Evidently Holy Terror is more than it seems:

"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. "

But wait, maybe it's less than it seems:

"This isn't actually a political comic at all...It makes no case for right and wrong. It's a fable about violation and retaliation, that's all it is. "

What's really happening here is that the reviewer wants us to understand that there's more than meets the eye when it comes to Frank Miller's art, while at the same time he'd also like to convince us that Miller's genuinely vile politics are a mere passing thing, an arbitrary scaffold for Miller's brilliant fabulation. This is called Wanting To Have It Both Ways, and believe me, as a fan of Ezra Pound, I understand.

Where Callahan goes off the rails is where he says things that are patently false: it's not "political", it's not about "right and wrong." Yeah, that whole subplot about a mosque in lower Manhattan funded by evil Arabs that's secretly a base for terroristic attacks, that's just an artifact of Miller's creative, exploring, apolitical imagination, no political agenda there, perish the thought. Miller's Muslim superterrorists ("You Westerners slay me with your naivete") are just figures out of folklore; Miller, the unworldly artist, isn't remotely trying to encourage actual living human beings to hate and fear other actual living human beings. Pull the other one, Callahan, it's got bells on. If Holy Terror isn't "political", isn't "about right and wrong," it's completely worthless, except possibly as a work of fetishistic torture porn. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

"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." I'm sure it's a comic about what it feels like to be Frank Miller at the receiving end of a brutal city-wide etc. As it happens, I was also in New York City on 9/11, and yet my sense of what it "feels like"...varies from Frank Miller's. I'm willing to grant Miller all the artistic latitude in the world. But don't try to sell me this shuck-and-jive about Holy Terror being in essence a "fable" that's "not political." It's the very essence of political. Its entire point is to give certain people permission to torment and kill other people. It is a consummate piece of political art.
Saladin Ahmed
6. saladinahmed
"If there’s a genre called “revenge porn,” Holy Terror would surely qualify. But I don’t hold such designations against it."

Perhaps that's because you don't know what's its like to have your entire people demonized by extension again and again and again in popular media? It's easy to say "This isn’t actually a political comic at all" when Miller's tired love of bunched fabric isn't weaponized ("Ooh, scary - *turbans*!") against people who look like you.

Miller's writing racist garbage, as others have already pointed out. This isn't the first time, of course. But I guess even the hamfisted 300 was just too nuanced in its depiciton of the gloriously muscly west's triumph over the evil eastern fanatics. As the decidedly more talented Grant Morisson has implied, this is hateful, fake-ass bravado.

The analogy here isn't Supes punching out an individualized caricature of megalomaniac Hitler. It's the broadly racist comics caricatures of a bucktoothed slant-eyed Tojo that damned an entire people for the actions of a few. It's worth noting t that that sort of BS floating around in the culture was hardly unrelated to the detention of Japanese Americans.

"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."

There sure is...
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
7. pnh
And in case I didn't make it clear enough: I get that Tim Callahan enjoys reading Frank Miller. You know something, that's okay. I enjoy reading all kinds of people I consider toxically crazy in one way or another. That's one of the big wins of this "reading" game -- you can enjoy their talent without having to invite them in for dinner! My objection to Callahan's review is that he's trying to tell me that shit is Shinola, when I can clearly see the undigested bits that rarely occur naturally in hair tonic.
Mike Phillips
8. Simmered
Tim, I will say one good thing about your drooling fanboyish inability to criticize Frank Miller - at least it ain't your irrational love for Liefeld.
Tim Maughan
10. TimMaughan
"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."

Apparently created by someone without the emotional maturity to progress past these feelings - even after ten years. Sad.
Mike Phillips
11. JoeNotCharles
Wow, will I ever not be reading this.
Dave Thompson
12. DKT
Saladin: I appreciate the links, despite losing a coffee break to them. I guess now I can add "offensive" and "racist" to my list of draining, annoying, and uninteresting.

Had no idea Miller had put a Mosque as terrorist base in Manhattan. That's gotta be a new low.
Jason Henninger
13. jasonhenninger
I'm 100% with Saladin Ahmed on this one. "A fable about violation and retaliation" really only feels like a fable if you and yours haven't been considered the big bad wolf.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
14. tnh
Saladin Ahmed: Good comment. Good links. Extra egoboo for that last link, which is spot-on.

I won't claim I live in the same world you do -- yours is tougher -- but I recognize yours as existing in the same universe as mine, and having a lot of overlapping neighborhoods. Frank Miller's world is in Frank Miller's head. He no more lives in the city than Robert Moses did in his later years.

In the process of funking out completely, gritty, realistic tough guy Frank Miller has revealed that his worldview is about as well-informed as Mr. Magoo's. Here he is in an NPR interview on 11 September 2006:
For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die.
No kidding? It took the WTC getting turned into a Jerry Bruckheimer special effects zone for him to figure that out? We have never been universally beloved, and we're a hell of a lot less popular than we were a couple of decades ago.

Did he somehow miss the 1993 WTC bombing?

Apparently Miller was one of those people who were thrown into a permanent panic by the post-9/11 realization that the United States is not a uniquely safe place in an unsafe world. Okay, granted, not all of them were idiots before it happened. Maybe some of them were just extra-susceptible to PTSD. I should probably work on being more understanding, but it's hard to be sympathetic with the ones who went bugfck crazy, started seeing enemies everywhere, and in general have been coming off like a lost reel of Dr. Strangelove.
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.
Did Miller pick up everything he knows from Captain America and Sgt. Fury? I would have sworn that in his day, you had to pass Civics and American History to graduate from high school. Sensible policies, good international relations, effective and professional military and intelligence organizations, respect for the rule of law, and good citizenship at home and abroad will get you a lot farther and make you a lot safer than fear, incoherent aggression, and reflexive support for anyone who promises to attack your enemies.

Equating patriotism with "AAAARGH, WE GOTTA DEFEND OURSELVES NOW" makes me wonder whether Miller also managed to miss the bombing of the Murragh Building in Oklahoma City, or notice who was responsible for it.
Ben Franklin said it: If we don't all hang together, we all hang separately.
Hardly comparable. Franklin said that while signing a treasonous, high-profile document in a country that was still part of Great Britain. Nobody's going to hang Frank Miller. They're not even going to leave burning dog doo on his porch, ring the bell, and run away. He's afraid of an attack that happened in his local area a decade ago. God help him if he lived in Beirut, or Belfast, or for that matter London. On the other hand, maybe he'd have dealt with it better if he'd been more aware of the possibility. It's hard to tell.
Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back. So you've got to do what you can to help your country survive.
I don't want Frank Miller on my side in a fight. He strikes me as exactly the kind of guy who shows up with a can of gasoline, yelling "Where's the fire?"

Tim Maughan (quoting Tim Callahan):
"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."
Nah. I was here when it happened. It's a comic about what it feels like to be Frank Miller.

His work is visually reminiscent of parts of the New York City I briefly met in the 70s and moved to in the early 80s, but his city as a whole, how it works and what it means, exists only in his head. It's as much a work of fiction as Jack Kirby's Fourth World. I don't believe he's actually looked at New York in decades.

The "brutal, city-wide tragedy" was federal loan policies that deliberately excluded urban buildings in favor of new suburban residential developments, redlining, starving mass transit systems while pumping money into automobile infrastructure, carving freeways through working neighborhoods, a lot of what they were calling "urban renewal", and too many ego-driven architectural projects that are completely insensitive to street life and pedestrian traffic, which is to the urban environment what blood flow is to tissue. Also, Robert Moses, the one-man disaster.

9/11 was one day, one cluster of buildings, and assorted aftermath. It was a terrible day, and thousands of people died. It still hurts. But bad urban and social policy killed entire cities.
Apparently created by someone without the emotional maturity to progress past these feelings - even after ten years. Sad.
I don't think he's gotten far enough to notice that nearly as many foreign nationals died as American citizens.

I know a number of cases like this. I won't speak for Frank Miller's pre-2001 state of mind, but the people I'm most familiar with were reasonably sane and intelligent before the attacks. Now they're cursed with that same PTSD mix of terror and unfocused aggression that never goes away.

What's weird is that they don't just adopt the wack-a-loon far-right conspiracy theories about 9/11. They pick up the whole program, and start going on about stuff like Chappaquiddick, too.

I think it's the fear that comes first. Their PTSD-toasted nervous systems are constantly feeding them fear that comes out of nowhere, so they try to make sense of it by adopting a worldview that matches what they're feeling. When I think of it that way, it's easier to feel sorry for them.
Dave Thompson
15. DKT
"Did Miller pick up everything he knows from Captain America and Sgt. Fury?"

TNH, I'd like to think Steve Rodgers could give Miller quite a lesson on patriotism. (Miller might have to be flash-frozen in an iceberg for years first, though.)

Also, has someone drawn a picture of Frank Miller getting punched in the face by Captain America, Superman, Batman, or Nightrunner yet?
Mike Phillips
16. DocZ
Miller lost his mind a long time ago -- the last Sin City book was a deranged hallucination, and the All Stars Batman was more than unintentional self parody; it was insight into a broken view of the comic book world. Little wonder that when Miller ventures near the *actual* world, his vision is disturbed. And no surprise that this book is not, in any conventional measure, very good.

I keep reading this artist for the same reason I keep watching Mel Gibson or Quentin Tarantino movies. They have nothing to do with reality, not to mention morality. But the men do have a transfixing control of their craft.
Mike Phillips
18. seth e.
Miller has always been fascinated by violence as wish fulfillment, and attracted to "dark" and "gritty" and all the rest of it. But way back in the 80's, he used to suspect that he ought not to feel that way, and so he felt conflicted. The result was a couple of very interesting comics about the appeal of violence, and the ambivalent morality that implies; also the use of violence in American pop culture, and the degree to which we use fictional violence to depict identity. Individualism in the face of community identity, for instance, is a favorite Miller topic, and apparently a philosophical position that can only be validated by punching people really hard. This is part of a long tradition in American fiction, and Miller isn't, or didn't used to be, stupid in the way he used that tradition. I've always been surprised that I don't see more people talking about how Sin City is, in a lot of ways, just Dick Tracy taken to its logical extreme.

But then Miller spent 25 years getting heavily rewarded, not for the ambivalence, but for the violence itself. The result is that he doesn't feel bad about his fantasies any more, and so it's no longer possible to read any kind of perspective into his stories. 9/11 wasn't a trigger for him, it was just an excuse. The dull, self-gratifying, reactionary trashiness was already there.
Greer Hauptman
19. ryuutchi
I've never been a fan of Frank Miller, and pretty much everything said in this article struck me as a fanboy trying to justify his love of a guilty pleasure to people he knows have real, viable problems with the work in question. OTOH, the comment thread was beautiful.
Mike Phillips
21. north-exit
Reading Miller's work always made me feel dirty, it's a shame and very telling of the immoral times we live in, in that so many approve of and enjoy this man's debauched fantasies. Some good comments here.

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