Category Archives: Super Hero

The Debacle of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror; Or, When Should an Editor Tell a Writer That Their Work is Unacceptable?

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.

The Terrorists … and Michael Moore? Bush? Even Cheney?

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.

A small sampling of Holy Terror‘s main course

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.

A rain-soaked, angular example of the book’s aesthetic.

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.


[1] All quotes are from Miller’s blog which can be found at http://frankmillerink.com/

[2]  Both quotes from Canada’s Department of Justice Website and the Criminal Code. Available at  laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/page-150.html#docCont

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With Great Power Comes Something or Other: Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray

Reviewed by Joseph Frank

I want to be a fan of Daniel Clowes’s comics. In some ways, I am; in many others, I am not. I figured this out after approaching his work with acceptance and dispassion. Clowes has won multiple Harvey awards for writing and illustrating, a 2007 PEN award for Graphic Literature, and he’s been involved with more than one well-received film adaptation of his work. How could I not love such a celebrated artist? And indeed, there is much about his work I do admire, aspects which, on the aesthetic level, are beyond expert, are masterful. Mostly, my praise of Clowes’s art is for his uncannily simple but altogether unsettling illustration style. Narratively, however, I suspect Mr. Clowes and I would find much to disagree over.

Maybe the mistake is mine. I skipped his entire early bibliography. I have never read Ghost World, nor have I seen the 2001 film adaptation directed by Terry Zwigoff and starring Thora Birch with Scarlett Johansson. I’ve not read David Boring or Ice Haven or Wilson – one of Amazon.com’s nine Best Books of April 2010 – or Mister Wonderful: A Love Story. Rather, I jumped into the Daniel Clowes library at the point of its most recent addition: The Death-Ray. I was, after all, raised on Marvel comics and Spider-Man, and so how could I resist the aesthetic homage Clowes pays to Peter Parker’s iconic alter-ego?

The Death-Ray follows the life-story of a painfully banal teenager named Andy whose biography generally reflects that of Peter Parker: Andy’s parents are dead, he lives with an elderly relative (his Pappy), he is a high-schooler, an outcast, a pitiful romantic, the friend of a homely misfit, unpopular, morally adrift, and easily influenced.

When Andy experiments with smoking cigarettes his experience is much of what you would expect. He feels pretty cool next to his pal Louie, and then he vomits. That night, Andy wakes at 5 a.m., “groggy, but filled with superhuman energy” (9). He can hear the sounds inside his body, the blood in his arteries, and he is filled with absolute confidence that he’s able to do anything. Indeed, he effortlessly rips a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in two the way strongmen rip phone books in half – thick-wise. Outside, he lifts the rear of a car off the ground. The next day he proves his strength again, this time at school and to save Louie from a bully. He inherits a mysterious death ray left by his deceased father, who had been a scientist and is the person who genetically modified Andy to have such a reaction to nicotine – similarly, only Andy is able to activate the death ray; in the hands of others it may as well be a water pistol. And though Andy and Louie share visions of heroic grandeur, this is where Clowes departs from Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. This departure is, I argue, the narrative’s strong premise but also it weakness.

It’s relatively well-known that the iconic comic book impresario Stan Lee created Peter Parker/Spider-Man with one concern in mind: to imagine a superhero with whom real teenagers could identify. What would such a character be like? In 1962, Lee’s answer was Peter Parker, an intelligent but ostracized adolescent, insecure, awkward, and lacking physical prowess, opposite the Supermen and Batmen who dominate the super hero genre and comic book medium. The plot thereafter is familiar: Peter Parker develops superhuman abilities following a bite from a radio-activated spider. He dons a mask and flashy tights, and following the murder of his Uncle Ben – a murder Peter could have stopped before it occurred – he vows to follow his uncle’s insight that with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Man becomes an ostracized hero but a hero nonetheless, saving New Yorkers time and again from threats common and outstanding.

The problem with Lee’s vision is this: as decades passed and his adventures advanced, Peter Parker’s life eventually became more and more epic and thus more and more difficult to identify with. Perhaps, even, Lee’s vision to relate to the true teenage experience failed as soon as Parker adopted his uncle’s advice as his mission and became noble. True teenagers, the antithesis goes, are rarely so devotedly noble. How often do we think of teenagers and responsibility as co-existent? And more departures from the reality of banal adolescence developed gradually. Over time, Peter became better looking. He developed bigger muscles. He became more hip. He moved out of his elderly aunt’s house and into a Manhattan apartment (a setting at least marginally admirable no matter how drab). Following the death of his first true love, Gwen Stacey, Parker’s regular girlfriend and eventual wife became the busty red-headed vixen Mary-Jane Watson who, as she and Peter grew into adulthood, herself became a world-famous lingerie and swimsuit model. (Particular storylines differ per exact title – “Amazing…,” “Spectacular…,” et cetera – but the above is how I, a fervent Spider-Man fan through the ‘80s and 90s, recall the general and most popular plots.)

Well, The Death-Ray cries foul. Sagacity holds no place in the real world of most middle-brow North American teenagers (except, maybe, in their imaginations and sexual fantasies). Where Peter Parker’s sagacious rise to responsibility over power defines the Spider-Man books, Clowes’s main character Andy’s naïve ineptitude to rise to the occasion of his own great power, stumbling instead amid the countless pitfalls of teenage hubris, distinguishes The Death-Ray. ‘This,’ Clowes seems to announce, ‘is how it would really play out.’ And so Andy is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless, and then he becomes superpowered and with those powers he is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless.

Imagine if Stan Lee had handed the writing responsibilities of Spider-Man and a bottle of Johnny Walker to Raymond Carver and told him to get angry, then finish what Lee had started. The result would have been something like The Death-Ray. But only sort of. Because Clowes keeps going, writing as though Carver then mashed the manuscript into the hands of David Eggers, and this is where he loses me.

It may be a question of what narrative technique an author may use in an effort to control and even return the reaches of magic realism’s potential to realism. Or it may be that Clowes’s style is simply a product of its time and literary atmosphere. Either way, The Death-Ray becomes clunky and pedestrian and, after about the halfway mark, it becomes laborious to complete if only because this reader is impressed by fantastic illustrations for so long before quickly losing patience for whiny narrators who refuse shut up about how shitty everything has turned out. How does this come about? I blame it on what the literary critic James Wood calls magic realism’s next stop: “hysterical realism…characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…[bouncing] around in [a] false zaniness.” (“Tell Me How Does it Feel” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/oct/06/fiction).

Like many writers of his generation, Clowes mistakes dry wit as well as cynical and silly zigzagging between disparate scenes for character study. The book unfolds in thirty-three chapters, including monochromatic depictions of Andy as a grown man and divorcee living in a basement apartment (as if Clowes devised an algebraic equation for the concise depiction of a grown man in the pits of the pitiable), a section titled “What Do You Think of Andy?” in which a series of one-off characters offer their opinions of the protagonist, and letters written by Andy to his estranged sweetheart through which his naiveté is made painfully obvious (Dusty, the girlfriend in California, clearly does not long for Andy as deeply as he longs for her). The book’s paper-thin conclusion is a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Why? I just don’t understand and I’m saddened by what I perceive not to be a moment of narratological deconstruction but, in fact, an utter copout. This strange velocity, to use Wood’s word, is off-putting. Nowhere does one moment of story linger long enough, or shut up long enough, to allow the reader a clear view of Andy. Rather, the hysteria of The Death-Ray distracts. While it may be intended that each little vignette brings us closer to the study of Andy’s character, what results is an alienating collage of relentlessly mediocre and tediusly neurotic soliloquys about misanthropic self-absorption and moral malaise. I expect someone, somewhere, has called The Death-Ray introspective. But it’s the opposite. The Death-Ray is whiny. And narratologically, the reader is handed a lot of vapid noise.

On the level of the illustrations, the paneling is equally frenetic, often devoid of sequential lucidity – another instance of hysteria. But I can find no wrong, on the most basic level, with Clowes’ ability to draw, if that offers some redemption. He’s clearly a master illustrator and the purveyor of a unique aesthetic. But as with Clowes’ much-celebrated colleague Chris Ware, as well as novelists like the late David Foster Wallace and the aforementioned David Eggers, even ample evidence of outstanding talent is, to my mind, powerless against ceaseless tedium and false zaniness. I just can’t do it. Shouldn’t a story’s story trump post-postmodern gimmickry?

I suppose I should recoup and then, with renewed dispassion, revisit the work of Daniel Clowes. The Comic’s Journal discussion forum on The Death-Ray suggests this book bears more worth appreciating than I’m able to see, as yet, and so I suppose there are depths within this story to investigate further and to appreciate. Indeed, I do like his illustrations so much that I want to like more than just his illustrations. And can so many awards be wrong? What I need is some time. I put the book down feeling like I just smoked my first cigarette: nauseas, dizzy, as though it wasn’t worth it. But I can’t rip a book in half yet (I tried, and adding to the difficulty is the fact that The Death-Ray is hardcover). Until I feel well again I’m going to read some Spider-Man. Maybe this stuff works for some people, but with The Death-Ray in my hands, I may as well be Andy’s pal Louie, gripping the ray gun, aiming it, and pulling the trigger to find that though it looks cool nothing happens.