I suspect Frank Miller’s new graphic novel, Holy Terror, is supposed to be gritty and profound meditation on the evils of terrorism, set in a superhero milieu. “Holy Terror chronicles [the] desperate and brutal quest of a hero as he is forced to run down an army of murderous zealots in order to stop a crime against humanity,” the back cover says.
But coming ten years after 9/11, the book lacks any urgency and offers nothing new to ponder. Terrorist commit terrorism and, weeks later, people are still terrified. At the end, a wide-eyed character realizes one middle-of-the-sleepless-night, “No wonder we call it terror.”
It’s not the faux profundity that bothered me so much, though. No, it’s that Miller, one of the godfathers of the modern comic book, has cobbled together what might be the most derivative thing he has ever created.
His main character, a superhero known as The Fixer, comes with his own utility belt and cape and bad-ass attitude. All he’s lacking are pointy ears on the top of his costume. His quarry at the start of the story is a “cat burglar,” spray-painted with leather and fishnets and catclawed gloves.
And yes, there’s sexual tension between them. They fight and grope, and she says things like “You are mine, you do-gooder prick” just before she plants a big one on his lips. It’s Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle all over again. (There’s even an underground secret lair with a T-Rex in it for real aficionados!)
If any modern artist has spiritual “rights” Batman, its Miller, whose 1986 The Dark Knight Returns (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) reinvented comic books. Miller can steal from Batman if he wants to, I guess. It’s just a shame that he fees like he has to.
Even at its best, though, Holy Terror is Frank Miller phoning it in. “It’s cold, this city is. Cold and wet and noisy and so very proud of itself. Empire City. Cold. Wet. Noisy. Haughty. Arrogant….Empire City. America.” From a guy whose Sin City took hard-boiled noir and stood it on its edge, we get that.
Empire City has, standing in its harbor, a giant Statue of Justice, complete with blindfold, scales, and toga. He apparently didn’t think the “Empire” reference was enough to help people get the NYC connection, so he had to create a giant, suspiciously familiar icon just to be sure.
The politics of the book feel equally hamfisted. While he doesn’t come right out and say anything explicitly, the book reads like a “Good Guys vs. Evil Towelheads” bedtime story for right-wingers. There’s lots of shooting and punching and splattering blood.
Miller’s artwork is, as usual, blocky and bruised and marvelously moody. Even on his worst day, his stuff is punch-in-the-face. This is more of the same—but that’s all it is. Previously, Miller’s ability to keep pushing himself as a graphic artist has kept his work relevant and powerful. Holy Terror offers more of the same.
The opening fight between the cat burglar and The Fixer takes place in a storm, which Miller seems to have created by streaking and scraping porcupine quills across the page. He tosses in some smudges here and there for good measure. This is probably the single innovative artistic technique Miller brings to the book. Its overall effect is cool, but it does muddy the storytelling at times.
Miller fans who might be coming to Holy Terror looking for the storytelling grit of Sin City or the visual lushness of 300 might better wait for a movie adaptation. One of Hollywood’s greatest powers, to create derivative spectacle from written source material, might make Holy Terror into something exciting and new.