Sunday, October 02, 2011


Growing up in the '80s and '90s, comic artist/writer Frank Miller was an inspirational figure to me. His seminal Batman opus, The Dark Knight Returns, depicting an aged Bruce Wayne reclaiming his cape and cowl to set a post-apocalyptic Gotham City aright once more, was one of those rare pieces of comic literature I felt comfortable handing off to "civilians" to prove that comic books weren't, in fact, for kids. And when you're a kid yourself, all you want is the validation of knowing that the things you love aren't mere childish distractions -- no, they're serious

Thus, Miller's particular oeuvre -- as defined by the aforementioned Batman and a character-redefining run on Marvel's Daredevil before that -- held a special appeal for me, with both his superhero works and later projects like Sin City and 300 all awash in the mood and shadow and macho posturing and barely-veiled adult innuendos that were proof enough of just how grown up I was (not grown up enough, mind you, to appreciate the inherent irony of pointing to colored picture books as evidence of said maturity). 

I bring all this up not to trumpet the maturity I've acquired in the interim (not much, FYI), but merely to contextualize my gut response to Miller's latest work, released last week by new publisher Legendary Comics: the much-delayed/much-anticipated graphic novel Holy Terror. Originally announced in '06 as a Batman vehicle before cooler heads at DC Comics prevailed (though the character's removal does rob the title of its punny significance), this was intended by Miller to serve as a balls-out, take-no-prisoners story of the Caped Crusader launching bloody vengeance against Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in a callback to the anti-Nazi, anti-Japanese propaganda that emerged in the '30s and '40s in the midst of World War II. 

When I first read the description way back when, it prompted a visceral "Oh geez" from me (as it did from comic writer Grant Morrison -- currently impressing with his new take on Superman -- who considered Miller's project one step removed from "King Kong vs. Bin Laden"). By then though I'd long since resigned myself to the reality that the Miller I'd so admired in my youth no longer existed -- if he'd ever existed at all, that is. The older I got and the more divorced I became from my own certainties and certitudes, the less appeal I found in Miller's nihilistic meditations on a black-and-white world (literalized in his art via Sin City and beyond), where right is right and wrong is wrong and that's it. 

What I once saw as so confident and so mature (there's that word again) suddenly -- and rather surprisingly -- struck me as the work of a perpetual adolescent desperate to couch his simplistic worldview in enough naughty words and heaving bosoms to lend it the imprimatur of sophistication. Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, back to Holy Terror. In the interests of full disclosure, I haven't read it, and while I'd normally have set that bar for myself before embarking on such a lengthy discussion, having seen the preview pages and read much of what its creator had to say about his intent, I couldn't bring myself, in good conscience, to plunk down money in support of such an endeavor, even if only for "research" purposes.

Wired writer Spencer Ackerman, whose expos√© on the FBI's Islamophobic training program a few weeks ago is still dealing out shockwaves, has a lengthy review up wherein he dissects Miller's screed (which Ackerman describes as "hateful"), and helpfully juxtaposes his stated goals and beliefs with the actual reality of the Al Qaeda threat. Reading through Ackerman's write-up, as well as others like it, I'm saddened by how common Miller's viewpoint is, where tough guy bravado of '80s action movies has become a viable -- even preferred -- alternative to actual reasoned discourse.

Says Ackerman:
Miller’s Holy Terror is a screed against Islam, completely uninterested in any nuance or empathy toward 1.2 billion people he conflates with a few murderous conspiracy theorists. It’s no accident that it’s being released ten years after 9/11. This comic would be unthinkable during the unity that the U.S. felt after the attack.  
Instead, it’s a perfect cultural artifact of this dark period in American life, when the FBI teaches its agents that “mainstream” Islam is indistinguishable from terrorism and a community center near Ground Zero gets labeled a “victory mosque.” Call it the artwork of 9/11 decadence, when all that remains of a horror is a carefully nurtured grievance.
This is a mentality also at work in the "Government Sponsored Islamophobia, Addendum" post from my blog two weeks ago (about Ackerman's FBI piece) wherein I copied-and-pasted a Facebook conversation with just such a person -- "R." Like Miller, he too began the thread with "Islam = bad" already written on his mind in Sharpie, and nothing -- not facts, not evidence, not actual experience -- was going to change his mind. And it wasn't just facts and evidence he was rebelling against, but the very notion that there might be other cultures throughout the world who do things differently than we do here in America, and that doesn't render them inherently evil.

That "R" tried immediately to chum the waters with talk of "honor rapes," "hacking off hands," etc. is indicative of a basic flaw in the argument. Believe it or not, it is possible to take a relative view of the world -- the only possible view, I would argue -- while still holding fast to a firm concept of right and wrong. The addendum to the addendum here is that shortly after this conversation played out (and after many, many similar conversations over the years), "R" ended up de-friending me on Facebook. In other words, it was easier to cling to his misconceptions if he didn't have to deal with the fact that I -- a living, breathing counterargument -- existed. It's a fascinating insight, I think, into such thinking, also offering an instructive window into what may be guiding Frank Miller's mindset.

In a week that saw American imam Anwar Al-Awlaki's long journey from supposed moderate to supposed radical end in Yemen with an American drone strike, we see more than ever how hate and anger metastasize inside of us, suffusing horrible acts and horrible words with a veneer of righteousness. When preaching violence against fellow Americans, Al-Awlaki thought he was in the right. And when Miller preaches hate and bigotry that's just as vile in its own way with works such as Holy Terror, he thinks the same thing. While I continue to believe a calm, well thought out argument can be all that's necessary to turn people's thinking around, sometimes they're so indentured to their prejudices there's simply no reaching them. And that's the place we never want to end up.


Sabir Pirzada said...

Nice post, Zaki. For what it's worth, I enjoyed sin city because of its simplicity -- but I think it's when Frank Miller tries to apply that to real-world scenarios and think it can still be valid that he loses me.

Zaki said...

What interesting about Sin City is that it's a pastiche of noir thrillers from the '40s and '50s, thus what seemed revolutionary when presented in comic book form seems like a Xerox of a Xerox when it was in turn adapted into film, betraying the inherent weakness of the source material.

For me, the wheels started to come off the Frank Miller wagon with the two RoboCop flicks that he wrote, and the original scripts of which were later adapted into comic form. All blood and bullets, with none of the wit that characterized the first film.

It was right around then that I started realizing that Miller only plays one chord, and that's it. This was confirmed by 300, and by the time we got to All-Star Batman & Robin ("I'm the Goddamn Batman!") that impression was well and truly cemented.

David Carr said...

That last paragraph is one of the finest you've ever written, Zaki. We can argue the merits and consequences of approaches to responding to violence after it occurs, but all sides must recognize that preventing violence from occurring in the first place must be the primary goal. I fear we (and I mean that as a species, not as a particular nationality) are still very, very far from recognizing this.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I actually went to a book store and sat down to read the whole thing. It ends up being a rather primal amoral ourside vs. theirside type of story. "Batman" and "Catwoman" join forces against Al-Qaeda. "Batman" ends up killing a cop who helped the terrorists. Tortures and ultimately breaks the back of a suspect to get information out of him. There is no underlying morality. "Batman" just ruthlessly goes after the Muslims.