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?by Sam Leith / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…