Scenes of graphic violence

In a new graphic novel, two superheroes take on al Qaeda. The artist and writer Frank Miller depicts violence very well—but does he have anything insightful to say about terrorism?
October 18, 2011
A page from Holy Terror, in which al Qaeda sets off a huge explosion in Empire City (a fantasy New York) and threatens further carnage

In December 1940, Captain America Comics #1 hit the newsstands. Its cover bore a classic image of funny-book wish fulfilment: Captain America, Nazi bullets spanging off his shield, planting a spectacular right hook on the chin of Adolf Hitler.

Until now, the “war on terror” hadn’t produced anything so straightforward by way of response from the world of comic books. But at the end of September the writer and artist Frank Miller had a stab at it. His new work Holy Terror [watch a trailer for the book here] sees a brutal costumed vigilante “engage in postmodern diplomacy” (BLAM! SPUK! SHUK! BLAM! KUNCH! SPUK!) with Islamist fighters in a fantasy New York. Miller—who never did much of an impersonation of a bleeding-heart liberal—has described the book as “not to put too fine a point on it, a piece of propaganda”; something that would “really piss people off.”

For those who don’t recognise his name, and are wondering why I’m troubling Prospect with an article about a comic book artist, I should position him. Miller is a big deal in comics, pulp/noir fiction, and super-heroic pop culture generally. When the first great wave of hype broke about comics growing up, Miller was at its centre: visceral where Alan Moore was cerebral; iconographic where Moore was iconoclastic. Miller wrote the comics Sin City and 300, both of which became films, and Christopher Nolan’s juggernaut-like Dark Knight movies would not have been possible without him.

His early success was primarily as a writer, but his trajectory has been away from that. His hard-boiled crime series Sin City was all about the visuals: blocky, black-and-white tableaux with an atmosphere somewhere between Japanese manga comics and Raymond Chandler. It’s as if he has become less and less interested in words. His present-tense narrators share an idiom, and inasmuch as he includes dialogue, he recycles and retools.

Given that he’s an artist interested in working with atavistic stereotypes—violent, hulking men; lithe, improbably constructed women—this could be seen as part of an aesthetic. He’s moving the simplest possible narrative units about: creating a visual myth-kitty; breaking dialogue into a handful of heroic set-phrases. This is comics pushed as far in one direction as they can be taken. The question that Holy Terror raises is: has that direction any place in the conversation about terrorism?

As Holy Terror opens, we meet Natalie, a cat burglar complete with catsuit, claws, and cat’s eyes picked out in splashes of green on the black-and-white page. She’s fleeing across the rooftops of Empire City from The Fixer—a generic Batman-style vigilante with stout boots, arms like ham hocks and a leather S&M mask. (This was originally planned as a Batman story—and the title is a prankish allusion to Robin’s catchphrase in the television series, “Holy [whatever], Batman!”)

The Fixer catches Natalie, they fight, and then—sex and violence apparently working like that—they are suddenly overcome by mutual attraction. They’re on the point of embarking on a bout of urgent rooftop fornication when a huge bomb goes off. Al Qaeda has hit the city and our two super-people are at war. “Not on my watch,” he says. “Not on my turf,” she says. The traditional comic-book criminal/crimefighter divide—which, it’s suggested, is little more than erotic play, anyway—collapses when presented with the existential threat of Islamist terror.

Among the comic’s most effective sequences, in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, is a three-page fade. The left-hand half of the first page is a five-panel by four-panel grid. Each panel is a portrait of a nameless individual. The right-hand side has, as it were, zoomed out: it’s a six-panel by five-panel grid. But the contrast is starting to slip. The sharp delineation in the top-left frames dissolves down towards the bottom right—like photographs fading.

Turn the page to the next spread. Another six-by-five. A woman’s face, ever so faint, occupies the top left panel. She looks anxious, or distracted. All the other panels are white. The right-hand side of the page is an eight-by-six grid. Every panel is white. Turn to the facing page. Another eight-by-six. Another complete white-out. And beside it, a sixteen-panel-by-ten-panel grid. Every one is blank.

It’s eerie, well-orchestrated and effective: violence as white-out; mass murder as an orderly, fractally-scaling series of grids. I wonder if it wasn’t influenced by, or intended to evoke, the “Portraits of Grief” series that the New York Times ran after September 11th: every day, the newspaper published thumbnail photos of victims accompanied by a short biographical sketch. That series was an attempt to shore these portraits up against death, their quiddity against the deindividuating effect of mass killing. Miller’s retooling of it is annihilative. He shows the process backwards.

It’s significant, I think, that the book’s central act of violence—the one adapted from our reality, the civilian mass-murder—is presented as un-violence. Paradoxically, it’s the only place in the comic where violence disappears from the page. It’s also the only place in which violence has any weight. Because, of course, in the context of comics in general and Frank Miller’s in particular, the violence of goodies against baddies and the violence of baddies against goodies is affectively identical. Good violence and bad violence are equally violence, equally alchemised into spectacle and therefore equally thrilling. What is most powerful in this book is what carries it furthest away from what it is trying to achieve in terms of engaging with the world.

The problem is that, to give a larger-than-life superhero something to punch, Miller has had to burlesque the enemy. To call his al Qaeda cartoony would be to exaggerate its accuracy. It isn’t a loose confederation of jihadists but “a tiny part of an organism vast beyond belief.” It demolishes the Statue of Liberty with fighter planes and has built (upside-down, because its members couldn’t read the instruction manual) a giant warhead in a Lovecraftian undercity below sea-level, accessed through a Manhattan mosque. The Fixer and Natalie kill their way through any number of evil-eyed villains in dish-dashes before neutralising the device and (temporarily) saving the day.

Miller seems determined to test the limits of offence. At one point The Fixer tortures a captive (“So Mohammed—pardon me for guessing your name, but you’ve got to admit the odds are pretty good it’s Mohammed”), snaps his spine then blows him up with his own bomb-belt: “Yeesh. That’s a lot of chunks of terrorist.” The chief baddie later gloats: “We come right out and call ourselves al Qaeda—the cell—and you don’t stop to consider what that means.” But—and it’s not clear Miller has bothered to find this out—al Qaeda means “the base,” not “the cell.”

It is possible that Miller’s purpose is to treat terrorists with ostentatious contempt—the book is dedicated to the memory of the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a Muslim fanatic. But it seems strangely thin, strangely childish: a misfire that takes it into the realm of a fantasy of an avenger fighting a fantasy of a menace. It ends up treating the whole fight, rather than just the enemy, with contempt—leaving you, in Miller’s admittedly spectacular artwork, only the empty sugar rush of biff, bang and pow.

Holy Terror points up the limits of what The Fixer can fix; the limit of what superhero comics can do. It doesn’t quite work as revenge fantasy, or satire, or propaganda, or allegory, and its currents of anger and of burlesque humour run at cross purposes. So, yes. I think it will piss a lot of people off. Those people, alas, are Frank Miller fans.

“Holy Terror” by Frank Miller is published by Legendary Comics, £22.50