Artist and writer Frank Miller serves as perhaps the best example of what modern popular culture has to offer. This is not faint praise, as popular culture has offered much in the way of mythology and symbolism. Of all the great pop artists of the last half century, Mr. Miller might very well be the best, however.
Admittedly, for better or worse, it is hard for me not to think of him as rooted in the 1980s—next to Thomas Dolby, Rush, Blade Runner, and Ronald Reagan. His The Dark Knight Returns not only brought Batman back to his darkest roots, origins, and motives (as he always should be), but he also helped make the graphic novel a series work of art as well as a money-maker.
The graphic novel—a strange, perplexing, and fascinating mixing of word and image—is an incarnational form of popular art. At its best, it returns us to the traditional liturgy prior to the Protestant Reformation, and it also—in the 1980s—anticipated the ebook, tablets, and iPads. In other words, the graphic novel doesn’t just mix word and image, it connects past and present and future. At some level sacramental, it is also a revolutionary technology.
It is not just Batman, though. Through his art and storytelling, Miller revolutionized Daredevil at Marvel, introducing the powerfully tragic Elecktra, as well as making each of these characters major players in the Marvel universe. Given what Marvel has accomplished since Disney bought it is no small matter. One only has to read Stratford Caldecott’s last words in this world to realize how utterly power and transforming comic art and comic heroes can be.
Using the work of Herodotus and Victor Davis Hanson, Frank Miller wrote a modern version of Leonidas’s defense at Thermopylae in 1998 and 1999. The chapters of this graphic novel reveal much: Honor; Duty; Glory; Combat; Victory. It is a chilling and moving retelling of the very birth of western civilization. The last page depicts eight warriors rushing into the thick of things. The words: “The order is given/the battle flutes play/To victory/we charge.”
Relying somewhat on his own upbringing in a Roman Catholic Irish family (Mr. Miller was one of a very large family, born to hard-working middle class parents), he created the tenebrous world of Sin City. Noir in setting as well as ethics, Sin City reeks of power and manipulation.
Whatever he did seemed to turn to gold, and Mr. Miller—almost single handedly, with one notable exception—created the graphic novel. The exception is Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta as well as of The Watchmen.
Certainly, Mr. Miller has never shied away from expressing his views on things. He loves his sin to be bold, his men to be manly, and his women to be as intelligent as they are curvy.
Drawing upon his visceral reaction to the barbarism of 9/11, Mr. Miller wrote and produced Holy Terror.
In almost everything Mr. Miller has ever done, he has been praised to the skies. I am not alone—certainly—in seeing him as a central figure in modern culture. But, this last mentioned work, Holy Terror, almost destroyed him. Many of his closest allies deserted him after denouncing him, and Wired—perhaps the definitive periodical of this post-modern generation—has openly written of his “Public Downfall” and his failure to repent of his “sins.”
His crime? He chose to write about an hypothetical Al-Qaida attack on American soil and to do so without the caveat that he was not writing about all Muslims. Without question, the events of 9/11 deeply touched and troubled Mr. Miller. He saw it not only as an attack on New York City but on all of western civilization. In his previous writings, he explored the deep claustrophobic angst felt by all superheroes—from Batman to Wolverine to Daredevil—in their heroic if only morally and ethically flawed attempts to defend the West (or, at the very least, the greatest values of the West) in all its fragility. In every one of his works, Mr. Miller critiques the modern media (much like Marshall McLuhan and Norm Chomsky) as well as the established political order. Politicians—whether on the left or the right—are often buffoons and almost always corrupt. Mr. Miller also, equally faithfully, praises real diversity in the West. In other words, he loves the real creativity that freedom has unleashed. He despises any monolithic vision of life. Indeed, Mr. Miller chafes against conformity.
Shortly after 9/11, Mr. Miller decided to write a Batman story in which the Dark Knight took on Islamic extremism. Mocking the ridiculous 1960’s T.V. series, Batman, the title would be Holy Terror, Batman. As he saw it, he was imitating the Superman and Captain America comics of the World War II-era, in which the protagonist took on Adolf Hitler.
For whatever reason (s)—most likely politically correct ones—DC decided not to publish it, and Mr. Miller changed his story from Holy Terror, Batman to simply Holy Terror. Now, instead of a dedicated Batman, Catwoman, and Jim Gordon fighting against the evils of Gotham, the Fixer, Natalie Stack (a sexy cat burglar), and Don Donegal take on an Al-Qaida/IRA cell in the heart of Empire City.
As with all of Mr. Miller’s art, the story is gritty, violent, and overly-sexed. The images leap off the page as though three-dimensional, especially when depicting the urbanscapes and true diversity of Empire City.
There is no doubt that Mr. Miller is furious about 9/11 and about America’s response to it. One can almost see the Irish tough ready to take on the world. And, yet, Mr. Miller does not propose taking the war to radical Islam across the ocean. He presents a world in which radical terrorists have struck at the heart of American culture. The response, he argues, should be one of citizen retribution. In other words, the Fixer is Batman, but he is also Ronin and Daredevil and Leonidas.
And yet, to look at the reviews of this once lauded artist, one would conclude that Frank Miller had gone stark raving insane yelling Sieg Heil under a bloody crucifix.
In a review of Holy Terror in Wired, the reviewer wrote:
But it wasn’t God who knocked down the Towers. It was fanatics who believed themselves to have deciphered His true message. Miller doesn’t realize that by portraying them as true disciples of Islam, he’s giving the murderers what they want most. That’s the real terror of Holy Terror, the real lie, and the real naïveté.
And, the Hollywood Report attempted to sum up all the various reviews:
In fact, part of the problem leveled at the handsome hardcover is that Miller didn’t do enough to make Fixer more than a Batman clone. “We transfer to completely new characters and yet Miller spends little effort in making them feel unique and independent,” says Comic Book Resources, which also notes the story is “surprisingly thin.” Many are having problems with Miller’s angry political take with his revenge fantasy. Newsarama, giving the book 3 out of 10, said it “doesn’t look at the villains in any way or explore the differences between Muslims and terrorists” and calls it a “mean and ugly book.” Geeks of Doom echoes the sentiment, noting Miller takes his analog characters and “turns them into murdering, torturing, rage-aholics with a limited vocabulary.” Robot 6 calls it “the work of someone who was profoundly affected by the events of September 11th, to the point where fear took over from whatever artistic drive used to push Miller’s work. This isn’t a story as much as a revenge fantasy from someone who is clearly terrified of the world that he’s found himself living in, and closed himself off from reality as a result.” Ain’t It Cool News didn’t mince words: “Sloppy, arrogant work by an arrogant bastard.”
While much of Mr. Miller’s Holy Terror is truly dark and disturbing, it is not horrific as these reviewers made out. No doubt, Mr. Miller despises Al-Qaida (who does not?) and attacks on civilians. But, there is nothing in the graphic novel that one would not find in a Dirty Harry movie, a Tom Clancy novel, or a single episode of 24.
Let us put it a different way. Almost every comic book and science fiction fan loves V for Vendetta, as do I. The hero/anti-hero claims the mantle of the Roman Catholic terrorist, Guy Fawkes. Why do the same reviewers who think Mr. Miller is crazy and anti-Islamic not think Alan Moore is crazy and anti-Catholic? After all, would not the pope blow up parliament if given the chance? Or, Mother Theresa? Ok, you probably get my not-so- delicate point.
What is interesting is that the very reviewers who claim that Mr. Miller hates all of Islam are, in fact, the bigoted ones, though almost certainly innocently so. They are the ones who are seeing Mr. Miller’s terrorist as a representative of an entire faith. Mr. Miller never once makes such a claim. And, while the young girl with the bomb strapped to herself is wicked, the worst character in the story is an Irishman who sold his services to the terrorist. Does this mean Mr. Miller hates all Irishmen? Or, just the ones who profit from evil? I am pretty sure it is just the latter.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.