Frank Miller: Holy Crap!

It’s been six years since Frank Miller announced his plans to publish a second sequel to his beloved 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that would bring the caped crusader up to speed with the War on Terror, and show Batman socking Osama in the jaw. The book was to be titled Holy Terror, Batman! and would see DC’s hero take on Al Qa’eda in a way that was meant to reflect the superhero’s direct wartime engagement with the villains of the WWII era. Controversial upon its first announcement, Miller’s idea faded from consciousness over the years, as the author’s increasingly sloppy and erratic work removed him ever further from any conversation that mattered, and the public came to assume that even Miller must have reached the conclusion that the whole thing wasn’t such a great idea after all.

But earlier this year a trailer appeared publicizing an upcoming book now entitled simply Holy Terror, a book that wasn’t published by DC Comics and that didn’t feature Batman or any other DC characters or properties. Instead, it features a new character called “The Fixer”, who is accompanied by a decidedly feline partner/nemesis/love interest and starts torturing, maiming and slaughtering Islamic fundamentalists after a sudden terrorist attack wreaks havoc on the Gotham City-like New York stand-in Empire City. Miller’s own version of the story would have it that he decided at some point during the process that the project had “moved past Batman”, and that it would instead feature a new character more suited to our current real-world conflict. Given the end product, which was published a few days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in a poorly-judged attempt to capitalize on the publicity, it seems more likely that DC Comics preferred not to have one of their most successful franchises associated with Miller’s plan “to offend just about everyone.” I don’t blame them: at this point, who (besides Robert Rodriguez) wants to be associated with anything created by Frank Miller?

Considering the author’s work over the past decade, it should be little surprise that Holy Terror is simple-minded, sloppily executed, misogynistic, and racist. Those remembering The Dark Knight Returns as being cut of a similar political cloth as Alan Moore’s late-1980s graphic novels would do well to re-read this formally brilliant but deeply reactionary comic book: its digs at Reagan’s neo-conservative government are really just about finding his policies too liberal. What this world of pussies needs, according to Miller, is a Real Man to come forward and defeat all those postmodern wimps with heroic and unambiguous violence. Miller’s celebrated choice to introduce a female Robin meanwhile seems to me more likely based on his blatant homophobia than on any feminist tendency in his work.

Speaking of which, Holy Terror attempts to sustain its rampant xenophobia and racism by appealing to that old standby: the evil perpetrated on women by muslim societies. Someone like Frank Miller trying to mobilize a feminist argument in favor of his rabid approach to this material moves beyond any definition of irony and enters the realm of the absurd; and anyone who wishes to argue that his obscenely sexist objectification of women throughout his oeuvre is a knowing, post-feminist joke should try listening to the audio commentary that accompanies his universally reviled film The Spirit.

If the author’s intention was indeed to write something that would offend just about everyone, Miller has succeeded to some extent. But on the other hand, one must care about something to be truly offended by it, and the most pathetic thing about Holy Terror is how irrelevant and out-of-touch it feels. If Miller’s longtime readers were concerned about the prospect of “a vulgar, one-dimensional revenge fantasy,” as Spencer Ackerman writes in his review, Holy Terror delivers something even worse. For whatever else one might say about The Dark Knight Returns, it is very much a product of its time, and can be used in wonderfully productive ways to think through some of the Reagan-era debates. As a work of graphic literature, it was innovative, thought-provoking, and it engaged with superhero mythology in ways that opened it up to stimulating discussions and revisions. Likewise, Miller’s Sin City books (or at least the early installments) broke new ground in comic book aesthetics, and engaged with the hard-boiled noir genre in interesting ways. Holy Terror however comes across as the work of a confused old man whose attempts to engage with contemporary issues seem to be lagging about ten years behind the times. If DC Comics did indeed bow out of the project, it may just as well have been because they correctly assessed not so much that everyone would be offended, but that nobody would care. Obviously, that’s even worse.

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12 Responses to Frank Miller: Holy Crap!

  1. It’s not that DC lost interest in the project, it’s that DC editor Bob Schreck, who was probably the only guy there who thought that Holy Terror Batman was a good idea, got sacked, also probably because he was the only guy there who thought that Holy Terror Batman was a good idea, and moved to Legendary Comics. Miller apparently had such a hardon for the project that he was prepared to follow Schreck there and meticulously erase all the bat-ears from every panel.

    Makes for entertaining blog posts throughout the internets, though.

  2. This is a great post – I especially like your statement that a female Robin was the result of Miller’s homophobia. Makes perfect sense but I had not realized that before.

    I like the description of him as a confused old man trying to stay relevant… which reminds me a little of the experience of reading Tom Wolfe trying to describe the world of college in I Am Charlotte Simmons.

    • Karl says:

      The comment about homophobia is the only of this article I disagree with; misogyny and xenophobia are certainly present in Miller’s work, but I have never seen him being homophobic.

      Besides, the notion that there must be a reason why Robin is a girl in TDKR makes me uncomfortable; if he was a boy, would we be asking ‘why did he make Robin a boy again?’

      • I think there’s some evidence of homophobia in “300”, most notably when the studly Spartans refer to the ‘weaker’ Athenians as “those man-lovers.” Also, while the Sin City series never minds showing us some hot lesbians in action, Miller has always shied away from depictions of male homosexuality. Perhaps it’s just a hunch of mine, but the homophobic subtext of the Batman/Robin dynamic just seems like a more convincing (though no doubt unconscious) reason for Robin’s much-discussed gender switch in TDKR than its supposedly feminist implications – especially because Miller’s Robin only does exactly what Batman says at all times…

      • Dan,

        I seem to recollect that it was John Byrne who suggested that Miller make Robin a girl. I agree that the sex change of the character fits with a potential homophobic motivation on the part of Miller; do you have any evidence for this other than your suspicions?

        This is a great blog post by the way — I really enjoyed it.

        Clem Nickel

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  4. Karl says:

    But why would there need to be a reason for the gender switch? If there has to be one, I would probably go for: Miller would like to be seen as a feminist. But I still think ‘why not?’ is the best answer to the question, as this Robin doesn’t do anything that requires her to be female. I’d say the most important difference between her and the boy Robins, is that she is the only one who chooses to be Robin, rather than having the decision made for her by Batman. Unlike the poor boy in Miller’s “All Star Batman and Robin”, and by the way, if there’s one comic that invites a homo-erotic interpretation of Batman and Robin… but I digress.

  5. Thanks, Karl: all good points. And hey, we should probably just rejoice in the fact that Robin in TDKR is a female character written and drawn by Frank Miller who isn’t a prostitute or stripper, doesn’t wear fishnet stockings, and doesn’t thrust her boobs forward aggressively in every single panel.

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  8. @Clem: Nope – no evidence apart from my own gut feeling, which was mostly the result of a class discussion with the students with whom I most recently read TDKR. The discussion was sparked off by the question to what extent the ‘new Robin’ could be considered an icon of feminism, a suggestion my students ultimately found quite laughable. Given Miller’s track record with supposedly empowered female characters, I found the homophobia argument much more convincing.

  9. Queerio says:

    Why isn’t anyone aware of Miller’s depiction of a male homosexual couple in Sin City #6? I’m not saying he can’t also be homophobic in other ways, but he at least once embraced a gay couple as manly, complex good guys.

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