By Frank Miller
POW! Right in the kisser! Yes! The London Graphic Novel Network takes a plunge into Frank Miller’s Holy Terror and gallantly attempts to deal with the following questions: Do racist works make the world a worst place? What is that on the end of your fork? And what are Batman stories about anyway?
Sick Boy: It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: What do you mean?
Sick Boy: Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Some of his solo stuff’s not bad.
Sick Boy: No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it’s actually just shite.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: So who else?
Sick Boy: Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: OK, OK, so what’s the point you’re trying to make?
Sick Boy: All I’m trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means fuck all. Its a sympathy vote.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: That’s your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.
I remember you saying on kraken about art supposing to make the world better – this comic doesn’t. It’s the comic book version of the unfocused I’ll-informed vengeful fury of the right wing as this infamous Fox News broadcast after Charlie Hebdo illustrated
In it’s defense, the art’s not bad in places and most 9/11 response comics are pretty dreadful, aside from Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s ‘This is information’, which I think is the most powerful thing Beardface has ever written, you can read it here http://www.oesquema.com.br/trabalhosujo/2011/09/11/this-is-information-alan-moore-e-melinda-gebbie/
And it’s far from the very worst 9/11 comic, since that honour surely goes to THIS
“This is Information” is everything I love about Alan Moore as it reminds me of just how good a writer he is when he’s on form, and just how he towers over lesser writers. I had a friendly pub discussion with Watters, who writes for T-publications, about Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrisson. Watters had done his Masters Thesis (?) on Morrison and had argued that Moore was content lite, and, how Morrison had more ideas. I argued that Moore was the better technician. That one comic is proof positive – powerful, enlightening, moving. I love the ABA Ternary form structure of it – the last panels recapitulating on the first – the perfect marriage of word and picture… Wonderful.
I’ve not read any Frank Miller since Sin City. So, when 300 came out as a movie a few years back, I went to see it with a muslim friend of mine, Imran. I’d heard that a number of American troops had seen it out in Iraq and had been whooping and hollering by the end, so my liberal antennae were set to offend, but I thought I’d give it a fair crack of the whip. I’d enjoyed the film of Sin City, and the trailers for 300 certainly looked as if they had translated the artwork to the big screen. So Imran and I went to see it at the Vue down in Croydon.
Now Imran had quite kindly taken me to a persian film festival a few years ago, where we’d come to see some Iranian films that had been smuggled out. One of the directors were there and they had talked about how in Iran there was a vibrant, underground, movie scene. Many of the members of the audience (I was one of only two white faces) asked many questions and the debate before the film was very lively. Sadly, when the film started, it was entirely in Farsi, with no subtitles, and this robbed the film of any kind of detailed text I could follow – which was doubly sad because it was almost entirely verbal.
Imran’s always been deeply invested in his culture. A film composer and sound recordist – I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life at an old people’s home where we recorded some elderly Indians singing Indian folk songs – when they sang, it was entirely without pretension or self conscientiousness, soulful voices, singing beautiful melodies, capped off by a joyful rendition of “you are my sunshine” in Hindi. I remember listening to them sing on the cannes, getting chills down my spine – a beautiful moment.
So, Imran, loves his cultural background. He reads Rumi. His family have meetings, where they get together with other families and read Sufi poetry – a kind of spiritual and mystical Islam. But don’t get me wrong – they’re not by any stretch of the imagination Fundamentalists. To him, Islam is a spiritual, mystical, allegorical text. These are an educated, professional class Indian family that take an active interest in their cultural heritage. Being from a typically western family, I envied to a certain degree, this close bond they seemed to share – which seemed a world a way from the dinner in front of the TV way I’d been raised.
Back to Croydon Vue. The film has started and I’m sitting there. I know I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t. When Xerxes enters I lose it. I see this ridiculously homophobic, caricature, the villain, naturally, as like a modern day version of “The Eternal Jew”. I’m sat in my seat apoplectic with rage, at this pointed, propogandistic piece of trash, wanting to scream at Zack Snyder, “don’t you realise what you’re doing?”. Every studio-detuned syllable of Xerxes voice, pitch shifted like the sense of morality of the filmmakers – downward – made me regurgitate bile. In my mind, this is the clarion call for a new holocaust. I can hear the troops hollering and whooping like blood thirsty wolves, “USA! USA!” whilst ridiculously muscled beefcakes eugenically cast out the weak or the deformed from their fascistic utopia.
If Frank Miller reviewed reviews, it might go something like this.
But in shorter, clipped sentences. Real Tough guy sentences. With a faux New York accent.
“Candy-ass liberals, so it made him sick. Good. I’m glad it did. HE’s the reason this country’s going to shit. A protozoa. A microbe. Barely even a speck. That’s what he is.
Ain’t no room for bleeding hearts. This is a WAR. They struck us first. Hell they deserve every thing they get. Savages. that’s what they are. I ain’t got no time to sugar coat no pill.”
So, you can see Frank Miller and I aren’t best of friends. I still haven’t forgiven him for the 117 minutes of his life he robbed.
Time is a funny thing.
It appears, in the minds of men, that you can draw an arbitrary line in the sand, and say that the present starts at this point, and that all other events prior to that point in the sand have absolutely no relevance on any subsequent events.
That whatever event at that point in time wiped the slate of history clean and everything starts again. First cause. The Big Bang. 9/11.
That the events on september the 11th were just a chapter, albeit a particularly, spectacularly tragic one, in a continuing saga involving relations between the middle east and the west – and that events can be explained, but importantly NOT excused, in relation to the past.
Russell Brand, gaw bless him, has a saying he likes to quote, “Fascism is the removal of nuance.” Post Dark Knight, Miller appears to have suffered some kind of embolism that robbed his brain of any conception of nuance. It’s like his beloved chirascuro appears to have sprouted tentacles, reached in and infected his morality. Gone are the greys. Everything is black and white. Good and bad. It’s enough to make a man wear a cowboy hat and dress in black.
Edward de Bernays said that Propoganda is the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the habits and opinions of the masses”. It doesn’t need to be said that propoganda was a tool with which the Armies of the world dehumanised their enemies in the second world war. Whether it be the stereotypes of the Germans, the Japanese, the Jews, the Russians, The Africans, The Chinese – all these resources have been used to make killing and enslaving people palatable. It directly enables us to commit these acts. “It’s OK – they weren’t really human. Inhuman acts to kill non humans. Don’t worry dear, it’s just beef at the end of your fork.”
With apologies to Will from last months’ crossed expose, but I feel like I’m copying your bit about the pidgeon: 1300 words in and I haven’t even touched on Holy Terror. Frank Miller, if you’re reading this – you and Zack Snyder wasted 117 minutes of my life, and you wasted the 30 minutes it took to read Holy Terror. I hope this wasted however long it takes you to read 1300 words.
Maybe now we can call it even.
I guess Holy Terror’s one redeeming feature is that it’s utterly transparent, that, unlike 300 – the film – it doesn’t try and dress it up in a thinly veiled metaphor.
I can’t really take the view that it doesn’t matter as long as it’s artfully done. Even if Holy Terror had the technique of Alan Moore, it’s content is still despicable. Understandable, within the tide of history, but not something that you think would spring from the pen of the Dark Knight Returns. It strikes me as like a marriage wrecking comment said in an intense argument that you regret afterwards. The only problem is, once it’s out there. You can’t take it back.
When the film ends, Imran and I are walking out of the Cinema and I ask him, “So, what did you think?”
“I liked it.” He says.
I turn to him, shocked, “How can you possibly like this – can’t you see this was propagandistic trash?”
“Nah, it’s just a film. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Morrison modifies Moores ideas whenever he can – Moore brought it up at his most recent interviews and its spot on
A D Jameson website
I sent a quick intro a while back, but since this is my first time actually contributing to your group, I thought I should reintroduce myself. First and foremost, thanks for adding me to your ranks; I’m looking forward to being part of the conversation. I guess I should also apologize upfront since I’m the fellow who suggested to Joel discussing HOLY TERROR. I’m a longtime fan of Frank Miller’s work, including his later career. And while I’m not surprised that a lot of people are turned off by that work, I am sometimes struck by the general unwillingness to engage with it—I know lots of people who won’t even read works like 300 or HOLY TERROR, let alone discuss them, as though those comics were radioactive, or that people are somehow even afraid of them. (“If I read them, I might wake up to find myself with a Star of David tattoo and fighting Al-Qaeda!”) So I appreciate that you’re making this space for discussing the stuff.
HOLY TERROR returned to my life because I met a comics scholar, Andrei Molotiu (who I’d love to see part of this discussion, if all agree); we got to talking about comics, and since I’ve written on BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Andrei pointed me toward this piece he’d written on HOLY TERROR:
I read it and was impressed, which spurred me to reread the comic and start jotting down notes on it. Since then, I’ve been considering writing something about it, maybe a paper or blog post or two—so my suggestion to Joel that the LGNN tackle the comic was in actuality a sneaky way of getting others to do my work for me, or provide an excuse to gather my notes into something more substantive. Either way, again, I’m looking forward to the discussion, and have already enjoyed the previous emails.
I should add that I think it’s the duty of the critic to convince others that artworks have artistic value (not just in this case, but in every case).
And I should mention (as others already have) that I read HOLY TERROR as a thinly-veiled Batman comic—indeed, I think it has to be read that way. The shadow of the bat hangs over every page.
So I just reread the comic, and at the moment the aspect of it that most beguiles me is how Miller has chosen to represent crime, violence, and terror. The work features plenty of violence—lots of punching and kicking and scratching and gunshots, etc. But other violence is portrayed differently. The most obvious example of this is the use of empty panels, which represent the hundreds of people killed in Al-Qaeda’s attacks. Miller never really shows you those attacks—instead, he represents them indirectly (e.g., we see shrapnel, but it’s the shrapnel that’s not hitting people, and we don’t see corpses; we also get dialogue about smoke containing human remains, but we don’t really see it), even negatively. My first thought here is that he’s suggesting something about the difficulty of their representation: he can’t render it in a way that adequately represents such violence. Which is a common enough sentiment about representing things like 9/11: more than one artist has commented on how atrocities are difficult to represent in a way that truly does them justice—in a way that captures the immensity that the artist feels about them, and thinks others should feel about them. (I have to say here that I find Miller’s blank panels fairly effective, in this regard.) But this isn’t the only violence that isn’t directly depicted in the comic. Another version of this comes when Natalie verbally describes violence, rather than Miller directly depicting it: we’ve already seen one example, with the smoke. Another comes when she and The Fixer execute the man they’ve captured and tortured (“Yeesh. That’s a lot of chunks of terrorist”), or (more strikingly) when she recounts what happens to the Al-Qaeda member exposed to the chemical or biological device near the end: “His knees hit the floor. They drag the rest of him down with them. The sound is soggy, all wrong. He vomits blood.” (Etc.) And it could be that Miller just didn’t want to draw this stuff (or couldn’t—he sucks at drawing now, har har). And unlike with the earlier suicide bombings, here we’re dealing not with innocent victims of terrorist attacks, but terrorists dying via their own terrible weapons. And Miller isn’t exactly squeamish, elsewhere in the comic, about drawing excessive violence. Indeed, one of the things that’s presumably so offensive about the comic to so many people is how he seems to revel in doing exactly that—the comic seems to be his way of striking back at Al Qaeda. So I wonder why he restrains himself in those places.
So why is HOLY TERROR then not a fantasy, or not an acceptable fantasy? What makes it so different, so horrible, so radioactive that no polite (liberal) person can stand to look at it, let alone touch it, let alone read it or take it seriously? And I realize that this is, in some sense, a naive question, but I’m trying to ask it sincerely, or as sincerely as I can, because I’m genuinely interested in the answer. And if I can begin to answer my own question, I think it has something to do with the fact that, in 2015, nice liberal people feel they must publicly announce that they are very disturbed indeed by a fantasy about a crazed vigilante beating up Al-Qaeda, because we all want to announce that, unlike Miller, we have the proper politics—we’ve all been taught to respect ethnic diversity, and religious tolerance, and we all know that the worst thing that anyone can be right now is racist, and so we’re all constantly policing ourselves and others for any traces of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia—all the identity politics. A disciple of Michel Foucault might say here that we feel the eye of the Panopticon so constantly upon us that we must never stop professing the right politics—even when we’re discussing not some real-world action that someone did (Miller didn’t go around fighting Al-Qaeda members), but a comic book fantasy about that. Except, at the same time, it isn’t even really that, because Miller’s representation of Al-Qaeda and what they did is rather different from reality in many crucial aspects—the same way that, even though his TDKR is rooted to some extent in things like Bernie Goetz, it isn’t directly “about” Bernie Goetz. Which is kind of to say—we are talking about a Batman comic. (Or do we think that Miller really believes that 9/11 involved nail bombs and corrupt police commissioners and the destruction of the Statue of Liberty?)
OK, so part of the problem is certainly that, squicky fantasy aspects aside, Miller clearly isn’t being sensitive enough to Islam, to Saudis, to Arabs, etc. But why then is it perfectly OK to make comics in which crime (i.e., poverty) is treated in so superficial a fashion? Why is it OK to read TDKR and enjoy it as a classic, even though Miller then and now clearly has very little sensitivity toward punks, inner-city gangs—i.e., the poor? I mean—he’s a pretty rich guy, has been doing all right for a long time now! And he’s never been a very sensitive guy! And I never see anyone feeling much need to stand up and decry Frank Miller’s depictions of the poor, which are certainly more caricatured—and I’d argue, ultimately more offensive—than his portrayals of Al-Qaeda. I’ll offer a simple solution: polite liberal taste doesn’t demand that people stand up for the poor. It demands constant vigilance against racism, but the poor—they can go hang.
Miller’s fantasies are deliberately escapist and offensive and loud and big—”too big.” They are always caricatures of real world problems, attempts to take the everyday, in all its messiness and difficulty and powerlessness, and turn it into a kind of cathartic adult escapism, in which the people who want to read them get to dream about sexy people beating the snot out of people and threats (real or imagined) in a way they never could in real life. (Does anyone read SIN CITY and think Miller is trying to faithfully render an actual city somewhere?) And, for the record, Miller has always understood this, or at least still understood it back in the 1980s, when he told the COMICS JOURNAL that Batman was just a fantasy as far as he was concerned—a very good fantasy—but not a thing that could happen in real life, because in the real world, you’d have to lock Batman up—you couldn’t let a guy like that run around loose. And I think he also understood it in the 90s, when he made SIN CITY. So maybe the question is—does he get that now? And even if he doesn’t, does it really matter? I mean, it’s not like he’s running around, looking for members of Al-Qaeda hiding in an underground city built hundreds of years ago by “madmen” whose ornaments and architecture have left archaeologists “bewildered.” (This is part of what I meant up top that HOLY TERROR, if it is mere propaganda, is certainly very weird “mere propaganda.” I mean, Captain America punched out Hitler, but I don’t remember him doing so in front of giant snails and dinosaurs, or whatever the hell a lot of those things are at the end of HOLY TERROR. Which is another way of saying: if all Miller wanted to say was “fuck Al-Qaeda,” he could’ve done it much more simply, and more straightforwardly.)
Yet another way of putting this is that I certainly get and understand that it’s become fashionable in liberal circles—our circles—to consider people like Miller “the crazy uncle,” someone who’s once was OK but now truly deranged, but I have to wonder—is he? Or is it more that we don’t like his politics now (though I wonder—did we ever?), and therefore feel the need to spend every second publicly denouncing his work so everyone else knows that it isn’t the kind of stuff we’d ever want to read—now where’s that final issue of Hawkeye? (And understand that my primary nervousness in writing all this has been—”Gee, I hope I professed loudly enough that I’m not endorsing Miller’s politics!”)
OK, thanks for entertaining these rather lengthy meanderings, and know that I look forward to the rest of the conversation!
I’m especially looking forward to Joel telling me why I’m totally wrong:)
P.S. Here’s my previous TDKR thing, in case you’re interested. There was already a link to it, and maybe it’s obnoxious of me to repeat it, but it also explores some of these same thoughts in different form:
1. My thinking about the representation of poverty, and its arguably inverse relationship with how we regard expressions of racism and other identity issues, is deeply influenced by one of my professors at UIC, Walter Benn Michaels. Along these lines, I would very highly recommend his 2006 book THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY: HOW WE LEARNED TO LOVE IDENTITY AND IGNORE INEQUALITY. (Joel, I will insist that you read it, but only after you finally watch WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.)
3. Sorry for all the typos. It’s late here, and I wrote all that after a bout of grading. Should have proofread more first, or sent it tomorrow morning. Apologies!
Great post Adam, Some really interesting stuff. Couple of things occcured to me whilst reading it.
1. “polite liberal taste doesn’t demand that people stand up for the poor.”
I think Inequality is something that’s at the forefront of liberal thinking, stretching back to the days of Dickens. It’s just that, post collapse of the Soviet union, quite often the narrative is co-opted with accusations of Marxism, or redistribution of wealth – which is largely unpopular. (I’m defining “Liberal” to mean left leaning, egalitarianism, as opposed to Neo-liberal Free market Adam Smithery here).
It’s something that should be addressed in comics. One of the things that I think would be an interesting subject would be a more nuanced take on criminals in superhero comics. In modern works, certainly post 60’s marvel, it seems that “crooks” aren’t the villains anymore unless they’re supervillains – most probably for dramatic purposes. I always wanted to write a take on Superman where he was the “bad guy” because the criminals were just trying to survive – kind of like Death of Salesman meets Breaking Bad meets Superman.
2. “I don’t think artworks or artists need to hold the same politics that I do, and I don’t think art criticism should be—or even can be—reduced to political criticism”
I agree we shouldn’t expect artists to hold the same things we do. But I don’t think of it as a reduction. I think politics is an essential part of everything and needs to be addressed, especially if the work is overtly political. It’s not possible to separate the two – “the personal is political”, no matter how much we wish it weren’t.
I don’t think this is a censorship issue, btw. Miller should be allowed to publish and be damned. But damned he should be, in the same way that if someone produced a modern day take on “The Eternal Jew” they should be damned. I’d posit that one of the reasons we haven’t had a modern day update is because any publisher worth their salt would realise the damage this could cause and it would remain festering away in whatever the state the equivalent of rotting paper is in the digital world – corruption maybe? That in itself speaks a lot about society’s attitude to Muslims that Legendary are prepared to put it out in the first place.
This also begs the question about what an artwork is and what an artist does. I would argue that artworks are fundamentally functional. I don’t think they’re innocuous doodles. They serve a purpose, and they exist within a societal context. But whose purpose do they serve?
Molotiu makes some interesting comments about Miller’s artwork, but hate wrapped in a pretty bow is still hate.
3. “Miller has also never been shy that crime comics are for him a kind of escapist fantasy, a means of acting out dreams of power that can’t be realized in real life”
Perfectly legitimate, but if he’s going to release it commercially in the hope of gaining income, then he has to expect some criticism. Most fantasies should remain in the head, not vomited over the public.
“The Bonfire of The Vanities is a mess, but it’s the kind of mess only a great filmmaker makes”
I think I’ve already pretty much said this – but just to be clear let me say it one more time: I have absolutely no problem with enjoying the hell out of a racist/sexist/homophobic/evil work of art. In that – if it’s well made and exciting and whatever then I’ll enjoy it. I mean – I might need to take a moral shower afterwards and think deeply about it and wring my hands and apologise and all the rest: but yeah – whatever. If Quentin Tarantino produced a modern day take on “The Eternal Jew” then I’ll be in the front row with a soft drink and big bag of popcorn. The problem with most “art” nowadays isn’t that’s it ideologically bad (but yeah – ok – that too). But that’s it’s poorly made and boring. You know: I like my entertainment to be entertaining. If it’s also morally righteous then so much the better. (A good example of the other way around – Jupiter Ascending = as a work of ideology it’s pretty much spot on – you know: lots of good stuff to think about etc: but as something that’s actually enjoyable to watch: well – not so much).
The thing about True Lies or Bond or TinTin or Raiders of The Lost Ark is they’re not screeds – their villains are plot obstacles and not the point or main objective of the story.
I don’t know if it’s because “deep down that I know it’s not about me.” But I do take your point. I mean – yeah – a benefit of my white male privilege that I can be thick skinned about the corrosive side of the stories out there (well – ok: technically I’m more “mongrel” than “white” but I guess we should go by what I look like rather than all the ins-and-outs of whatever).
I loved Tintin as a kid and now I see the Sambos and it really jars
I walk into every movie with open arms looking to hook into it and a great or even good beginning will have me umbilicalled to the movie until something fucked up happens and I’m cut off.
Ha. Up until now I had never heard of the term “Sambos” – so thanks for that.
So. For my sins I actually sat down and reread Holy Terror this weekend and well yeah – afterwards it felt like my brain had stepped in something icky.