Friday, November 6, 2015
NULL-MYTHS: HOLY TERROR (2011)
For this short review I won't get into all the hand-wringing politics as to whether Miller, or anyone, could have produced in modern times what Miller claimed that he intended to produce: a "piece of propaganda" showing a costumed hero beating up Muslim / Jihadist terrorists.
Obviously I have to mention the genesis of the project: that Miller floated the possibility of a project titled HOLY TERROR, BATMAN in 2006, about five years after the events of 9-11. I do not know whether or not DC Comics seriously entertained such a project, which IMO could have had no beneficial effect on the brand of their Batman character. But Miller clearly plotted and visualized the narrative as if it would involve Batman and his sex-sparring partner Catwoman getting involved in a major terrorist attack upon Gotham City. Instead, for whatever reason the graphic novel was published instead by Legendary Comics, replacing Gotham City, Batman and Catwoman with Empire City, a new hero called the Fixer, and a larcenous woman who has clawed hands (or gloves), hisses like a cat, and is called-- Natalie Stack?
While deriving images from the Net I happened across a review of HOLY TERROR from Sequart's Julius Darius, and was appalled to see that back in 2011 I had paid this munchkin of mediocrity a compliment for having tried to produce a "balanced" view of the work. I didn't re-read the essay, but I noticed that its conclusion was concerned purely with whether or not HOLY TERROR might "trap" readers into feeling nasty prejudiced feelings or some such tripe. I would expect that every extant review of this graphic novel similarly privileged real-world politics over the formal qualities of the work. I won't do that here. If HOLY TERROR is a null-myth in the terms I've set forth, it's because it doesn't take its absurd premise far enough, not because it should have pulled back and played it more cautiously.
In my first reading of HOLY TERROR I was aware that it would not be in any sense a nuanced observation of Muslim culture, so I didn't expect it to fulfill such a goal. I did look to see whether or not Miller targeted Muslim culture as a whole, or only the subculture to which the Jihadists belong. Within the narrative proper, most of the protagonists' aspersions are cast at terrorists and their beliefs in sanctified suicide. None of the aspersions are particularly ingenious, so even if one countenances the viability of trash-talking Jihadists, I can't say that Miller does a good job of it. I'm sure that most critics had something to say about HOLY TERROR beginning with a famous quote-- or misquote-- from Mohammed: "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel." That might seem like a slam-dunk for anyone arguing that Miller's playing to American bigotry. I don't dismiss that possibility. But there's also the possibility that even if the famous phrase is a misquote, real-life terrorists like bin-Laden did adopt it for their own ends. And if Miller is using the quote the way bin-Laden used it, that makes a crucial difference with regard to said author's intent.
Miller specifically said that his notion of "propaganda" was informed by the early examples of anti-Axis propaganda seen in American comics, in which unreal heroes like Superman and Captain America regularly punched out menaces like Hitler and Hirohito. None of those comics can be judged as reproductions of reality. If they have any value at all, it lies within the attempt of American artists to project depraved vileness upon their nation's enemies.
Instead, Miller's villains-- usually wearing heavy burnooses or some similar garb-- are unremarkable in the extreme. As the heroic Fixer and his reluctant gal-pal Natalie commence their personal war on terror, they unmask some of the low-ranking thugs, but they're entirely ordinary. Toward the conclusion Natalie encounters the unnamed leader of the Al-Qaeda cell-- his face obscured by a beaded headdress-- and the leader informs her that the reason they're called a "cell" is because they're just a "tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief." Natalie and the Fixer manage to destroy the cell with its own weapons in the end, but significantly, the story ends not on a note of triumph but of consuming fear, as a hard-bitten police captain (a re-written Commissioner Gordon) suffers a sleepless night, wracked with anticipation of further atrocities. I suppose Miller may have wanted to make the nation's current enemies seem more menacing by their facelessness. He might have had more success, propaganda-wise, in making al-Qaeda's crusaders as weird and freakish as the bogus "Persians" of 300.
The two heroes comprise another arrow from Miller's quiver that falls far short of its mark. Since they were originally envisioned as Miller's takes on Batman and Catwoman, he doesn't really exert himself to re-design their costumes into anything compelling. Instead, prior to the terrorist crisis, we see Fixer chasing Natalie across Empire City's rooftops, and the two of them look like nothing more than a pair of acrobats in fetish-wear. Going by Miller's past oeuvre, the fetish-look was probably intentional on his part-- but my point is that both characters are badly designed. Again, real propaganda needs not just images of the villains' vileness, but also images of the heroes' superior status-- and that's nowhere to be found here.
One last kick to this horse that probably died in most fans' minds years ago: on one page, when Fixer and Natalie are slashing and shooting their way through a horde of fanatics, Fixer's thought-balloon says, "We engage in postmodern diplomacy." I won't say all of Miller's dialogue is as bad as this, but this is a real howler. What, did Miller think that "postmodern" means "ironic?" Given that at one point some pundit thought that 9-11 had done away with "irony" in American culture, it seems profoundly weird to see a comic warning Americans of the doom at their doors invoking the vagaries of postmodernism, especially in support of what ends up being the oldest form of diplomacy-- the "gunboat" kind.