Superheroes are More than Propaganda

It’s been five years since he originally announced it, and ten years since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which inspired the story, but Frank Miller’s graphic novel Holy Terror has finally been released. The graphic novel tells the tale of a masked vigilante who is chasing down a scantily clad female cat burglar when terrorists unleash an attack on his city, interrupting his rooftop sex time but vindicating a lifelong fetishism of war and xenophobia.

Originally conceived as a Batman story that would fit into the same continuity as Miller’s “All-Star Batman and Robin: The Boy Wonder” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” the author eventually decided that it wasn’t a Batman story, and based it around his own original character, The Fixer. Regardless of whether or not the DC logo appears on the cover, when viewing the stylized pen and ink drawings of The Fixer and the Catwoman-esque Natalie Stack bounding between the rooftops of Empire City, its hard to not mistake it for another chapter in Miller’s Batman legacy.

Only this is a Batman story in which Miller pits the fictional Caped Crusader against the real life al Qaeda terrorist organization in order to seemingly celebrate his own fear and hatred toward Islamic extremists.

“Let’s get us some killing done,” is one of The Fixer’s several eye-roll-inducing one-liners, this one exclaimed just after seeing an emergency medical helicopter get shot down by a terrorist’s stinger missile.

Another winning line has him engaging in “postmodern diplomacy,” which he describes as giving the terrorists what they want, namely a violent death, without the innocent lives to accompany them.

It’s not clear when reading this story what Miller’s trying to accomplish from an ideological perspective. The material is too extreme and the villains are too cartoonish for it to make any kind of effective case for the hawkish mentality of the protagonists. But at the same time, while it could easily be mistaken for a Stephen Colbert-style parody of that philosophy, it’s clear that none of this is intended to be funny. Perhaps it can be somewhat tongue-in-cheek at times, but even then it’s still ultimately sympathetic toward the views of the protagonists.

So then it’s a work of propaganda, just as Miller has said, which doesn’t attempt to elevate our culture over the need for war, but instead attempts to fight fire with fire by getting its audience just as hungry for blood by perverting superhero fiction as al Qaeda does with its initiates by perverting the teachings of Islam.

In the end, Holy Terror couldn’t have been a more apt name, as this is most definitely a story about fear. Fear of the enemy at the gates, fear of the enemy right under our nose, fear of death, and fear of the unknown. And for many average people, the only way to really express that fear is with hate and aggression. It’s the kind of reactionary, xenophobic rant that would have felt right at home in America under the Bush administration, but that’s not where we’re at anymore as a country. Osama bin Laden has been killed, and contrary to what Miller says in his graphic novel, he was not just a “slave beneath a slave beneath a slave” in that organization. That organization was his instrument, and he’s gone now.

It has been said that his death, along with the Arab Spring, the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the announcement that U.S. troops would be completely withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, indicates that the neoconservative era of American foreign policy is drawing to a close. It seems that America has largely moved past the blind hostility toward Arab and Muslim people that might have dominated the social consciousness back when Miller first announced Holy Terror. Whether he’s late to the game, didn’t feel like abandoning the project once he got it rolling, or genuinely still feels this fear and hatred, the themes espoused in this material are already outdated and passe, in addition to being needlessly offensive.

Miller has previously justified using superheroes for propaganda by citing instances during World War 2 in which Captain America and Superman fought against Nazi and Japanese villains to support the efforts of America and its allies. The thing is propaganda is an art form, it expresses an idea, and the War on Terrorism is a war of ideas. No matter how many bombs, we can’t kill this really bad idea that people like bin Laden put forth into the world, poisoning the human consciousness.

We have to replace it with a better idea, and that better idea is not the “kill or be killed” rush to violence that The Fixer embodies, which actually portrays Americans as being just as weak and frightened as the terrorists hoped we would be after their attacks. That better idea is the superhero, a being that doesn’t kill, doesn’t use guns or bombs, and represents a better human race just over the horizon. It is a shining example of all that we can be once we stand up to our fears and help those that are in need. Holy Terror serves only to twist the superhero concept into something that is neither entertaining nor helpful to the people who read it.

“Empire City is in peril… and a whole lot of folks need killing,” reads the copy on the back cover of Holy Terror. As I feel inclined to think of it as a Batman story, I’ll let one of my other all-time favorite Batman writers have the last word against this reactionary use of the caped crusader archetype.

“If Batman kills everyone, he’s just another soldier,” Morrison said during a Batman panel at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con. “We don’t need another soldier, we have millions of soldiers. We need Batman.”

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Miguel Rosa says:

    Frank Miller’s politics make little sense to me, but even if his work seems hateful, xenophobic, and ignorant, I support his right to upset and annoy people. Our world has become so politically correct and appeasing to those who want to curtail our freedoms through violence and intimidation – consider the fear in the media of portraying Mohamed – that I actually appreciate Miller’s anger, even if he equates Al-Qaeda with Islam. I prefer to see him venting his rage through comics than to see him stoop down to the level of suicide bombers. He’s not the major problem here.

  2. Ben Marton says:

    When it comes to Miller’s recent work, I am a little like him; my rage has made me less articulate. As his art has become uglier, so has his politics.

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