Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh
It came as a surprise to me when I heard Frank Miller’s shocking comments concerning the Occupy Movement a few months ago. He called the movement “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness” claiming that the movement is no “popular uprising. This is garbage … Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy.” What came as a real surprise to me were the words that followed:
“Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.
And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently – must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh – out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.
In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft.
Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.
They might not let you babies keep your iPhones, though. Try to soldier on.
Having discussed these comments with Joe and coming to a consensus dismissal of Miller’s rant as nothing more than a late-night vitriolic rant that should never have been published, I thought this was simply an aberration in Miller’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While 300 and Sin City’s heavy use of graphic violence and ambiguous morals left me somewhat cold, I couldn’t help but admire the artistry of his work. He has a distinct style and is capable of writing a good narrative to match his art.
Then I picked up Holy Terror from the local library. I’m not entirely sure how this book was published in the first place given its blatant demeaning and derogatory stereotypes of Muslims as hell-bent fundamentalists all foaming at the mouth for the chance to destroy “America.” Here in Canada, the criminal code says anyone who “incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” is guilty of public incitement of hatred, aka hate speech or hate literature. An identifiable group means “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” A quick read-through of Holy Terror shows how Fixer and his new sidekick, the cat burglar Natalie Stack, work together to put a stop to a vast Al-Qaede conspiracy to wipe Empire City off of the map. The villains are all identifiably Muslims and all practically spit anti-American hatred at the heroes before the heroes vindictively wipe them out. Holy Terror has no qualms about labelling all Muslims as crazed terrorists and makes no attempt to separate mainstream Islam from its fundamental sects like Al-Qaeda.
Estimates vary for how many Muslims there are in the world but a reasonable estimate records at least 1.5 billion of them in the world. To define this many people by the actions of a small portion is akin to defining all Christians by the actions of the witch-hunting Puritans in Salem, New England. Holy Terror also conveniently conflates Muslims with Arabs despite the fact that the Muslim population is quite ethnically diverse. According to a quick Wikipedia search, the United States does not have hate literature laws, so I can see why this book has not been labelled as such, but it seems awfully close to hate literature in a Canadian context.
Moreover, what was particularly appalling to me was the way that the heroes endorsed torture and the right of might in their attempt to end the “terrorist threat.” Of course, this is nothing new for comics as most superheroes are given an implicit licence to treat villains as they see fit (usually with violence). This seems to be a part of the superhero genre, but Holy Terror crosses a line for me. Miller’s graphic portrayal of a torture scene involving a captured terrorist is a step too far. In an eerie way, it condones the American government’s use of torture in their own war on terror, utilising 9/11 as a carte blanche for their own military goals. Miller calls his heroes’ vigilante quest for justice “postmodern diplomacy” showing panels of Fixer and Stack shooting and killing hordes of Jihad-crazed villains.
The violent panels of terrorist killing action all seem crafted to condone the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just giving them a taste of their own medicine, right? They started this thing, and we’ll finish it. Don’t forget to conveniently overlook the fact that Americans have had their hands involved in Middle Eastern politics for several decades before 9/11.
In what can only be unintentional irony, Fixer bemoans the loss of the “lady.” An allegorical Statue of Liberty for Empire City (what I read as a explicit version of New York City), she holds aloft a set of scales and is blindfolded, and Fixer is upset about how the terrorists have attacked her first.
This seems an obvious attempt at painting the terrorists as crossing a kind of imaginary line in warfare into new lows. Of course, let’s not remember that the United States has been using torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, or that civilian casualties are quite high in these places despite the US’s insistence that they are waging a highly-targeted war meant to minimize friendly fire and civilian deaths. What follows this scene is the bloody and violent quest for justice, all justified by the terrorists’ own symbolic trampling of justice. If we take this fictional world as an allegory for the United States and its response to 9/11, a leap to be sure but one warranted by the amount of flags and identifiable locales and events scattered throughout the narrative, then America is a just country waging a war against an unjust and despicable foe (look again at his comments about Occupy). However, there is an unintentional historical irony in this stance as I cannot help but ask who has this blind lady of justice served? The American continent, Canada included, has been marked by 350+ years of colonial injustice in the dispossession, displacement, and eradication of its indigenous peoples by European colonizers. Then again, historical amnesia tends to forget such facts as the polarizing politics of post-9/11 have revealed: you are either with us or against us (and with the terrorists). There is no in between.
There’s a way in which the book also borders on conspiracy theory and its accompanying paranoia. In the penultimate scene, a devious Al-Qaeda leader reveals that his cell, currently blowing up Empire City, is “scarcely a microbe, a speck, a tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief” inciting a the spectre of a vast Islamic army. An bogeyman that justifies any actions taken by the heroes, including using biological weapons against the terrorists, and by a little conceptual leap any actions taken by the Americans overseas. In an earlier post on his blog, Miller calls his own book “naked propaganda” and this is indeed what it is. He cites a comics lineage of Superman “punching out Adolf Hitler” but this doesn’t quite line up as Al-Qaeda and Hitler are not quite the same thing. Yes, both have committed atrocities and I don’t support either. However, Al-Qaeda is much more diffuse than the Nazi Party, and in a way, less immediately dangerous than the Nazis were in the 1940s. While the Allies were certainly not innocent in their war time conduct (the relentless aerial bombing of Germany in the closing year springs to mind as does the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan), the US today in no way holds a moral high ground. Hence, the need to inflate the threat of Al-Qaeda into an ominous looming menace, always just out of sight and out of reach so that we need to be on our toes at all times (kind of like the cold-War commies …).
There is an interesting conversation to be had about the role of villains in the superhero/comic genre. Must they always be cardboard characters acting with very little emotional depth or complexity? Must they always be punching bags for heroes to kick around? Part of what made Alan Moore’s Watchmen series an interesting read was the complex villains behind it all. They weren’t simply monomaniacs hell-bent on destruction, but characters who were far more human. If comics are to be taken as an artform, and I for one believe they are, then we need to talk about issues of characterization, depth, theme, and so on. This not to say that we need to import discussions from literary criticism wholesale but having a 150 page book of two rather flat characters, Fixer and Stack, kicking, shooting, and vindictively punishing interchangeable, identifiably Arab villains is not really a compelling narrative. It might be fun reading if this is your thing (at least for a few pages), but it is hardly a narrative worthy of attention. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had plot and narrative depth, this does not.
I’ve tried to do justice to Miller’s work but I found it very hard to take it seriously as anything but an ill-thought out rant bordering on Islamophobia. This is a real shame as the artwork is quite unique in places and I would much rather have discussed this rather than rant about politics. Yet the blatant repulsiveness of the narrative (not too mention its crude simplicity) simply dragged down any consideration of this.
All of this goes back to my title, is the role of an editor to tell a writer, in this case a firmly established icon, that his latest work is not acceptable? That if anyone other than Frank Miller submitted it, it would not even be glanced at? This is not to say that we should censor publications, but it is to suggest that some level of responsibility is necessary in our artists, writers, and visionaries.