Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holy Terror: In which comic books do not reflect reality

Holy Terror
By Frank Miller
Published by Legendary Comics

The general consensus in the past few years seems to be that Frank Miller has lost his mind, and this book could be seen as evidence in support of that notion, if one is so inclined, what with its apparent view of Al-Qaeda as a highly-organized terrorist network capable of mounting assaults on American cities with missiles, fighter jets, and nuclear bombs constructed in bizarre underground catacombs. It's pretty hard to take it seriously though, even as the propaganda Miller has described it as; he might have opinions about the "war on terror", but if his concept of the terrorist threat is anything like he presents it here, he may well be as crazy as everyone says he is. As a reworked Batman comic in which stand-ins for the Dark Knight and Catwoman fight a convoluted Islamic terrorist plot  (bombs filled with nails and razor blades, followed by jets shooting down a stand-in for the Statue of Liberty, and finally a nuclear bomb that would seemingly render all the other attacks moot) that all takes place over one night, it's certainly an over-the-top spectacle, full of sex and violence, hard-boiled, Miller-style narration, and increasingly messy artwork that speaks of either a dedication to an aesthetic of purposeful ugliness or just plain laziness.

Whatever the case, it's a weird-ass comic, lurching from a protracted scene in which The Fixer (not-Batman) chases Natalie Stack (not-Catwoman) across some rooftops, with the pair fighting violently and then making out for several pages, to a series of explosions that are hard to make out, to scene after scene of the pair attacking and brutally killing the resourceful bad guys and torturing the survivors for information, and then rushing to a finale in which they have to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated, all set to a badass tone, exactly the tough-guy, "not in my city" swagger one would expect from Miller, yet occasionally interrupted for mourning of the dead and half-hearted political commentary. As propaganda, who knows if it's effective, since anyone with a grasp on reality will roll their eyes at the idea that this is meant to be a reflection of real life. It could be seen as an attack on the entire religion of Islam, rather than the actions of some fringe extremists, but aside from the opening quote of "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel" attributed to Mohammed, these terrorists are mostly from Central Casting, bearded Middle Eastern types with either anger or terror on their faces, generic bad guys of the type that have started to be pointed out as offensive as Americans expand their horizons to realize that not all Arabs/Muslims/brown-skinned people are the religious fanatics seen in entertainments like this.

The one exception to this standard terrorist portrayal is a young woman who, in an odd scene, hangs out on the roof of a club in the rain, flirts with a young man, takes what she says is her first drink of beer, then proceeds inside to the dance floor and blows herself up. The purpose of this scene is unclear; perhaps it's a statement about the way terrorists rob young people of their futures through their religious fanaticism? It's a bit of a departure from the propagandistic attitude of the rest of the book's terrorists, and it seems like a poorly-realized attempt to add some depth to the story's purposely dimensionless conflict. It does give Miller a chance to draw the girl's ass in a tight skirt though, and he uses some interestingly gestural art to depict her scene of rainy reflection, ink smeared into the shape of a figure that almost has to be unconsciously discerned:

That sort of thing is probably the main appeal of this book; Miller does some pretty amazingly expressive stuff here, including setting that opening chase in a rainstorm that is depicted on the page as slashing lines of ink that seem gouged into the pages, or using groups of clumped-together fingerprints to depict explosions. It's often quite gorgeous, with hard-hitting violence and nice, noirish shadows, but then it will be followed by oddly shaky figurework, pages full of faces that look like they were scrawled on napkins, and some really awkward images of the main characters swinging through the air and contorting themselves into odd positions:

Miller also takes pains to point out the human cost of the terrorist attacks, filling several pages with grids of people's faces, presumably meant to be portraits of the victims, and then gradually fading them out until reaching a striking two-page spread consisting entirely of blank panels. That works well enough as a way to emphasize the death toll of the imaginary bombing spree, but the odd thing is that it is repeated when our heroes tear through a group of terrorists, the bad guys' faces all joining their targets in little inset panels surrounding the action:

What could be the purpose of this? If this is a work of propaganda, why emphasize that this enemy is just as human as the "good guys"? It seems to counteract Miller's purpose of portraying them as faceless, evil monsters, but maybe he's trying to emphasize that they are defeatable, and in the end, just as dead as those they chose to terrorize. It weakens the popcorn aspect of the book, and raises the ugly possibility that Miller doesn't care how human the enemy is, he still considers them worthy of torture and murder. Like much of the rest of the book, it's a weird choice.

And what of the political caricature which pops up on occasion? Several pages consist of panels depicting political figures (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and plenty others) making speeches (or just making faces), interspersed with either scenes of terrorists preparing for battle or Arabic leaders similarly shouting into microphones. What is the purpose of these scenes? Is Miller trying to point out the uselessness of politics when facing a real (imaginary) threat? He might be trying to emphasize the heroism of the soldiers, the people on the ground doing the actual fighting, but that's kind of undermined by having them be pretty useless here, the evil plot only able to be countered by a lawless vigilante.

In the end, this book is kind of a mess, more of a statement on the state of Miller's mind than anything else, and said portrait is neither consistent nor flattering. Tellingly, the final page sees a police official (the Commissioner Gordon stand-in) sitting in his home, irrevocably changed by the events of the story, terrified for life by the violent actions of the enemy (and probably the good guys too, really). Is this Miller's thesis statement, his cry for help to a world that he no longer recognizes? If that's the real propaganda, that everyone should be forever afraid of a shapeless, faceless, all-powerful enemy that can never be defeated, or even comprehended, it's a pretty sad one, for anyone who chooses to believe it, but especially for its creator.