No one seems to get Frank Miller. Despite the flurry of digital ink spilled over him, most critics seem to be left scratching their heads. Indeed, the entire body of Frank Miller criticism can now be said to have coalesced around the central question: “What in the world was he thinking?” Some have gone further, pondering Miller’s politics. But what he’s doing as an artist seems to be oddly ignored: it’s too slippery a subject, and any attempt to touch it seems to veer into the critic’s own politics, rather than a discussion of the work at hand.
Miller’s defenders (few though they’ve been) haven’t helped, usually resorting either to statements of personal preference (“Hey, I liked it.”), false comparisons (“It’s better than the rest of the schlock!”), or their own political rants.
Lost in all of this is any serious discussion of Miller’s continuing artistic project. One way of obscuring this is, of course, to brand Miller a crazy, implicitly unworthy of discussion — even as he’s being discussed. But to discuss Miller’s art is to feel one’s mind veering back upon itself.
What we need, therefore, is a lens — an artistic rubric through which to understand Frank Miller’s work — and which can then serve as a starting place through which to evaluate it.
This is that essay.
Contextualizing Frank Miller: The Tarantino Analogy
Critics and comics fans might claim that Frank Miller is over, that his better days as a creator are behind him. That may or may not prove to be the case; only time will tell. It’s true that his work in the past two decades hasn’t won the critical acclaim of his 1980s work or his early Sin City stories. But make no mistake: Miller’s a titan, not just in comics but in popular culture. Anything he does is obligatory reading and deserves better than to be dismissed casually, as too many have done recently with Holy Terror.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice that Miller’s work has evolved into uncomfortable moral territory. Even his 1980s work, primarily on Daredevil and Batman, showed a fetish for the uncompromising individual, who defies the law and common-sense self-interest to carve his own reality into existence. It’s an archetype that worked well for human super-heroes like Batman, as well as for the macho, hard-boiled world of Sin City.
But those were fantasies, immediately identifiable as extreme reinterpretations of the super-hero and the detective genre. However regretfully, we’re used to super-heroes breaking the law and beating people. We’re used to detectives swaggering and espousing sexist glorifications of women, who somehow must be protected like children, even when juxtaposed in the same story to gun-weilding femme fatales. We thus largely tolerate these disturbing elements.
Such toleration hasn’t been extended to Holy Terror, and it’s not hard to understand why. Despite it being a super-hero story, its depiction of a Muslim terrorist threat seems so hateful that it transgresses beyond the boundaries of toleration, even for the super-hero reader who registers no disturbance whatsoever at heroes committing torture or acting as violent, even sadistic vigilantes.
Yet Holy Terror is obviously every bit as much a fantasy as Miller’s earlier work. Its depiction of Islamic fundamentalism, with a secret network in the old caverns beneath Empire City, is that of a cartoon villain. Even the idea — scary as it is — that this network has cells around the world, just waiting to be activated and willing to die for the cause, bears only a passing semblance to reality. Any student of real Islamic fundamentalism — which Miller openly admits he’s not — knows that terrorist recruits often rebel against being treated like explosive fodder by their often rich, criminal bosses. Terrorist cells do exist around the world, but their members are nuanced human beings, not unthinking, brainwashed, cartoon hordes ready to lay down their life for an Arab version of Fu Manchu.
Critically, most don’t seem to give Miller credit for knowing his work is a fantasy. Yet he’s been perfectly clear about this. Besides admitting his work isn’t informed by actual study of Islam, he’s openly called Holy Terror a work of “propaganda.” He’s referenced the super-hero comics of 1938-1945, which frequently bolstered the U.S. war effort and demonized the “Japanazis,” often in racial depictions that rightly make us uncomfortable today.
In other words, Holy Terror is a bold reinterpretation of a genre, every bit as much as The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. It’s just that the genre — patriotic propaganda, demonizing and dehumanizing the enemy — is one that’s fallen out of fashion.
That Holy Terror is a fantasy, a reinterpretation of the forgotten tradition of super-hero propaganda, certainly shouldn’t immunize Miller from criticism. After all, there’s a reason this sub-genre has fallen out of fashion. Intertextual riffing can’t be used as a defense, or at least not a total one, against vile or racist or dehumanizing depictions of real people or groups.
But let’s not pretend that Miller’s alone here. Quentin Tarantino’s been criticized for his depictions of blacks, especially for his casual and excessive use of the word “nigger.” His defense has always been that he grew up watching blacksploitation films, and he’s riffing on this genre. Tarantino’s made his reputation by riffing on cinema history. The question is, at what point do these clever, postmodern, intertextual riffs become an excuse for depictions which are vile on their face?
The consensus seems to be that, wherever that line is, Tarantino’s not past it. But Holy Terror is.
As a critical stand, that’s a perfectly respectable one. But one simply cannot afford to pretend that Miller’s work stands alone or doesn’t have a context. It may be more extreme than Tarantino, but that’s not a difference of kind.
To find a difference of kind, we only have to consider Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds. Like Holy Terror, it plays off an out-of-fashion genre: the war comedy, especially The Dirty Dozen. And its soldier protagonists, like Miller’s protagonists in Holy Terror, have a black-and-white view of the world, in which Nazis are the enemy and deserve to be tortured and killed. This has appealed to many fans of the film, who clearly enjoy the violence and the excuse the Nazis provide to hate. But in the film’s final sequence, for those willing to see, it radically undermines this hate and violence, even when applied to literal Nazis. The Allied soldiers, their faces twisted into contortions by hate, are directly juxtaposed to images of parallel Nazi violence — a radical equivocation for a director known for his use of violence, especially an American director while his nation is at war. And then there’s the young Nazi sniper, a hero for violence he committed only in self-defense, who seems alone in abhorring violence in a world awash in blood.
Violence in the film may solve problems, but it kills and distorts its practitioners. Hatred, even by a Jew whose family was savagely murdered by Nazis, inevitably becomes self-annihilating obsession. It’s also a postmodern film about the power of art, especially cinema, both as propaganda and to undo those effects.
It’s fair to say that Tarantino has it both ways: criticizing violence while relishing it. But there’s a complexity to his depictions of violence and its effects, an interiority that he grants even to Nazis, that’s denied in Holy Terror.
Because while Holy Terror is a riff on old-school propaganda, it’s deliberately not a postmodern riff, undercutting the intentions of the original works. No, it’s a straight-faced return to propaganda, a black-and-white depiction of an American at war with an unfathomably evil enemy.
I can’t help but admire that. It’s so bold in its political incorrectness. But as an artistic choice, that comes at a price. It’s paid in a lack of nuance. And it’s paid, in the case of Holy Terror, in a radical discomfort on the part of readers.
Miller as Visionary, Not Philosopher: The Ayn Rand Analogy
I’m fairly confident that Miller’s okay with his readers’ discomfort. He’s always been a bold creator, but he’s become increasingly so over the decades.
Everyone remembers how Miller’s celebrated Dark Knight Returns radically juxtaposed TV talking heads with super-hero action. It didn’t take long before critics caught its troubling undertones, such as when Commissioner Gordon says we can’t judge those uncompromising individuals. But Dark Knight Returns has no thesis statement, except that Batman’s a hard-boiled, uncompromising type who wouldn’t get along with Superman. Conflicting political interpretations are raised, thrown into a wild mix of images and ideas, and then dropped without resolution. And in the mid-1980s, when somnambulist super-heroes were still fighting the costumed villain of the month, without any attention to the political and narrative implications of these stories, the frantic juxtaposition of political interpretations in Dark Knight Returns was enough.
But Miller continued to evolve, as most serious artists do. It’s almost as if he decided to make himself Batman, to become the kind of uncompromising individual he had celebrated.
It’s here that we have to talk about Ayn Rand. Rand spent her career extolling such uncompromising figures of masculinity.
Rand, a Soviet expat in love with American freedoms, started by conceiving of these figures as artists, free-speech advocates, and architects — and ended up expanding the concept, fatally, to include industrialists. Eventually, she went so far as to construct an atheist, libertarian philosophy around the idea that such figures drove the economy and, effectively, the world. Call it a twisted capitalist version of the old Great Man interpretation of history, but in her worldview, everything counted on these figures, and God forbid (so to speak) that they be alienated enough (such as through taxes and regulations) to go John Galt and head for the hills.
Rand’s beloved in certain right-wing U.S. circles; you can see “John Galt” references among the Tea Party’s signs. But she’s a punchline in most intellectual circles; a single non-mocking mention of Rand’s name is usually enough to make most liberals roll their eyes.
Miller’s openly stated his admiration for Rand, at least when it comes to her uncompromising heroes — he’s explicitly distanced herself from her wider philosophies. Rand’s heroes most directly influenced Miller’s Martha Washington work, produced with art by Dave Gibbons. Citing Rand didn’t help him, however, with those already concerned about the fascist overtones of The Dark Knight Returns.
And it hasn’t helped him with Holy Terror, produced in the age of the “patriotic” Tea Party’s relentless xenophobia and ceaseless demonization of anyone who dares speak out against America’s corporate masters. If anything, Rand’s more a litmus test today than ever.
But a comparison between Miller’s evolution and Rand’s is very informative. Rand moved from fiction with social implications into outright philosophy. Miller’s stayed in fiction.
That’s not to say that Miller hasn’t gotten more extreme. To see this, one only has to look at his increasingly stylized artwork. Beginning with Sin City, he began to experiment with black and white, taking Alex Toth’s minimal line to the next level, composing stark and affecting images entirely of silhouettes without any shades of grey. At a time dominated by the Image Comics style, in which more lines seemed better, Miller was going in the other direction, paring himself and the comics form down to its essential elements. By the end of the decade, his Daredevil-era realism had given way to exaggeration, and fans began to joke about the size of his characters’ feet.
This artistic style was a large part of the objection to The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It used more super-heroes than The Dark Knight Returns, but the central objection was that it didn’t feel like the original, and a big part of this was look. For those who venerated The Dark Knight Returns, its creator had committed sacrilege. When Miller offered All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, with artist Jim Lee, comics fans had already largely turned against him, mocking Miller’s dialogue relentlessly.
But Miller had evolved, as the best artists tend to do. He was still interested in some of the same themes, in uncompromising toughs who molded the world through sheer force of will. But his approach to telling these stories had entirely changed.
Instead of the wild, polyphonic juxtapositions of The Dark Knight Returns, Miller now preferred the bold, single vision. And his works were now wilder than ever. The Dark Knight Returns has wild, unrealistic elements, from a massive tank of a Batmobile to the Joker’s flying baby robot. But even in what felt like a frantic narrative, these elements are bracketed. They remain unrealistic and absurd on their own, but they’re fitted into a larger patchwork that’s surprisingly ordered and controlled. Compare that to The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and one finds that Miller’s less concerned for this sort of anxious, careful control. It can feel like everything’s tossed into Strikes Again, like it’s more wild and uncontrolled. But there’s no doubt that several sequences possess immense power and were composed thoughtfully, deliberately.
Miller only seems to have lost control. Instead, he’s simply let go of the anxieties of influence that demand his narrative accommodate itself to the dominant taste. In this place is a preference for a strong work of singular vision, and there can be no denying that The Dark Knight Strikes Again is exactly that. Love it or hate it, but it’s so undeniably, uncompromisingly itself.
The same can also be said of Miller’s movie adaptation of The Spirit. Of course, it wasn’t Will Eisner’s comics version — but Miller is not Eisner, nor should he pretend to be. (If you prefer fidelity over distinctive reinterpretation, there’s always the case of Zach Snyder’s Watchmen.) But once one notices Samuel L. Jackson is dressing in a different archetypal costume in each scene, it becomes obvious that the movie’s an exercise in wild incorporation of pop culture iconography, placing the memorable visual above narrative logic. Tarantino wouldn’t dare. True, this brave innovation doesn’t really coalesce into a great movie. But I’d rather have a novel failure than another tame work of art that plays it safe, and time will be far kinder to the film than its contemporary criticism would suggest.
And so we circle back to Rand. Because what Miller’s done doesn’t follow Rand at all. She turned to philosophy, and there’s nothing philosophical, at least in the conventional sense, about Miller’s work in the last decade and a half. Alan Moore or Grant Morrison may use a narrative to tease out a philosophical idea, but not Miller.
And it’s easy to see why: philosophy is concerned with conclusions, and conclusions require taking into account as many counter-arguments as possible. Miller’s work no longer has this pretense.
That’s not to say that Miller’s not thoughtful, or that his work carries no implications. But his mode isn’t to consider the issues at hand, to rotate it for the reader to allow the reader to see the issue in full.
Rather, if Miller’s work is philosophical, it’s more like a manifesto. A rant. It’s not polite. It doesn’t represent a full picture, designed to take into account all perspectives. It’s not work that could ever be produced by committee. If it’s philosophical, it’s more like a bomb. A statement, the product of a single perspective, stated as powerfully as possible.
What Miller’s sacrificed in terms of nuance, he’s gained in boldness.
He’s reduced the comics narrative to its most minimal form.
You can deplore it. You can ignore it. But you can’t pretend it’s not a powerful, uncompromising, singular statement. A vision.
Is the result uncomfortable? Frequently. And that’s been true of Miller’s work for a while now.
But God, it’s hard not to admire the artistic balls of what he’s done. The sheer, uncompromising singularity of the individual work, of the individual artistic vision, which is to utterly itself and so completely disinterested with pleasing everyone, with being politically correct, with being able to be comfortably placed as part of a multicultural discourse.
That’s a discourse in which we’re all supposed to be so goddamn polite all the time, so considerate of everyone’s argument and possible reaction. All of which, in the arts, leads to anxiety, to moderating one’s visions, and to a kind of self-censorship that compromises a work of art and blunts it, often fatally.
But if Miller’s ignored Rand’s personal example by eschewing the philosophy she spent her later life flailing at, he’s followed her fictional example.
Miller might prefer super-heroes and detectives as his uncompromising heroes, but Rand’s finest exemplar was an artist — architect Howard Roark, of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Before she fell off the deep end into philosophy, she made Roark her fullest mouthpiece yet for her thoughts about the disastrous effects of collectivism. And they’re framed in terms of art. Roark decries how committees place neoclassical columns on modern buildings, making the whole a clashing jumble rather than a singular vision. Roark also decries architects willing to make such compromises, to subject their visions to popular taste.
Through her mouthpiece Howard Roark, Rand would extrapolate this into a radical statement against society’s claims on the individual. Of course, it’s easy to see this as an overreaction against the horrors of collectivism — of actual Communism, of real Nazism, of outright Fascism. And this denial of society is obviously disastrous, when applied to tax policy, as if the vast wealth of corporations and industrialists should be defended with the same zeal as the artist ought to defend the integrity of his work.
But Roark wasn’t an industrialist. He was an artist who suffered because he refused to compromise — but who, because of this, produced bold works of vision, which the novel makes us believe will stand the test of time. They are works that, even if they aren’t to everyone’s taste, deserve admiration for their singular, uncompromising vision.
They do not ask politely for respect, through trying to please everyone. No, they demand respect because they are such uncompromised visions. In this sense (and perhaps only in this sense), they are towering monuments to the individual. Because they carry with them the power of the unified, singular, individual vision.
To equivocate between Miller and Rand’s later philosophy is unfair.
But it’s hard not to notice that Miller’s turned himself into a kind of Howard Roarke.
Comics as a Renegade Medium
Simplifying Miller’s evolution towards bold, uncompromised artistic visions in terms of Ayn Rand is, of course, unfair. Because it’s also an evolution that is deeply rooted in the medium of comics.
In the late 1980s, Miller joined the call for creators’ rights, along with other creators, such as Alan Moore. It was, in part, spurred by DC and Marvel’s past abuses, such as Marvel having kept Jack Kirby’s original artwork. But it was also rooted in the fact that creators like Moore and Miller, who had redefined super-hero comics, felt that they hadn’t been treated fairly by the companies that profited immensely by these works.
This high-concept debate was a natural outgrowth of revisionism, with its literary pretensions and high-art concerns. Marvel had dabbled in creator-owned comics with its Epic imprint, but that wasn’t a widely available option at the time. The creator rights movement also questioned how super-heroes had hamstrung comics’ development, and creator rights became intimately tied to those creators being free to tell stories other than super-hero ones.
During this period, both Moore and Miller largely left mainstream comics, Moore turning to his own Mad Love imprint and Miller to the still-fledgling Dark Horse Comics. And both swore off super-heroes for years, with Moore turning to horror with From Hell and pornography with Lost Girls, while Miller turned to hard-boiled detective fiction with Sin City.
At the time, DC was discussing creating a system of content labels, a move that Moore has frequently said was a catalyst in his departure from the company. DC eventually backed down from this proposal, although it did create a “mature readers” label, applied to titles that would eventually morph into the company’s Vertigo line.
Miller was particularly outspoken and eloquent against content labels. Books, he pointed out, didn’t carry them. Readers in bookstores were (and are) trusted to know the difference between Clifford and Stephen King. To label comics was, for Miller, insulting to the medium. And he was right.
Miller, in particular, rooted his objections in comics history. He decried the Comics Code Authority, which had castrated American comics. Miller looked back to E.C. Comics and to the crime comics of the 1940s, to crude and wild titles such as Crime Does Not Pay. Miller had used Batman’s rougher, vigilante origins as inspiration for The Dark Knight Returns, but now he was celebrating the unregulated pre-Code years more generally. Sure, those comics were often crude and disposable, but they had a vitality that Miller felt was missing after the Comics Code. They also embraced different genres, prominently including crime, horror, and romance. For Miller and many others, this period represented a Golden Age in American comics, which was already flowering (through E.C. Comics) into greater sophistication before the Comics Code interrupted the natural evolution of the art form, identifying it so strongly as being only the tamest sort of kids’ fare that Miller and Moore and all the other ’80s revolutionaries had to battle against this public perception.
But Miller went further. He embraced the crudeness of the Golden Age. He pointed out, as many have subsequently, that part of the wonder of comics is that they’re cheap to produce, especially compared to films. In the space of a few months, an artist can illustrate a comic and have it printed, at relatively little cost. This was especially true in the Golden Age, in which comics were pumped out with little oversight, sometimes illustrated over weekends. Comics, Miller said, were a renegade art form. Their cheapness was a strength. They didn’t have to be polite. They didn’t have to be micromanaged by corporate executives and focus groups. No, they could be created by individuals and printed cheaply, without any concern for whether they were politically correct. Their crudeness was a strength.
It’s hard to argue with this. It’s a very American point of view, in which wild artists can do whatever they want, and in theory the best work survives. Perhaps ironically, it’s a view embraced by the comics intelligentsia, which tends to prefer idiosyncratic work by the likes of Robert Crumb over the polished, edited corporate narrative.
Crumb’s work is a touchstone here. It’s troubling at times. It’s arguably misogynistic. It can be both crude and beautiful. But it is so unapologetically Crumb. So much of his work’s strength comes from its immediacy, its almost utter lack of self-censorship. It’s so naked and raw that it sometimes borders on the sociopathic in its lack of concern for society or how others will interpret these visual confessions.
Miller’s politics aren’t Crumb’s. Somehow, we find Crumb drawing himself mounting an obese woman or disappearing into her vagina less offensive than Miller’s buxom, gun-toting Sin City dames. But if we’re going to champion such individual artistic visions, we should be prepared for the consequences. And we shouldn’t pretend, just because we happen not to like some of the visions that result, that those visions aren’t just as raw, just as idiosyncratic, just as vital.
That is, it seems, how Miller would like to be judged.
And we don’t have to go to Ayn Rand to get there.
We only have to look at comics history. We only have to see the connection between Miller and Crumb. We only have to understand the crude, unfiltered potential that many see in 1940s comics.
And let’s not forget, Miller’s inspiration for Holy Terror comes from this same period. A time when illustrators could gather together and make crude illustrations of Superman or Captain America or the Human Torch punching out Hitler or Tojo, without feeling any need to include good German or Japanese civilians.
In this interpretation of comics and comics history, rawness and lack of self-censorship aren’t liabilities. They’re strengths.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t be disturbed by the individual visions that result.
But the crude, uncensored, politically incorrect quality of Holy Terror? The way it comes off as a super-patriotic wet dream most would filter rather than share? That’s intended.
What looks like thoughtlessness is actually a statement about comics as a medium. One deeply immersed in comics history. It’s a deliberate attempt to turn back to the raw, sometimes disturbing comics of the 1940s, tossed into the world almost without concern for their social impact.
And of course, you can’t embrace this theory of comics, when it comes to Crumb and the undergrounds, and then say Miller’s gone too far — because, essentially, you don’t like his politics.
I don’t like his politics either — at least as I know them. But I get what Holy Terror is doing. And it’s as admirable as a project as it is disturbing on its actual pages.
What I don’t understand is how others seem to be playing dumb when it comes to Miller’s intentions or larger artistic agenda. Many seem to find Holy Terror mind-boggling, an inscrutably ill-considered display of Islamophobia, so tone-deaf to the times that it’s led some to question Miller’s sanity.
All of which may also be read as a great indicator of the text’s artistic power.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not shedding tears for Frank Miller. One can’t go down this particular artistic path, towards the raw and uncensored, and not expect the slings and arrows that go with this particular artistic choice.
But it’s not as if Miller doesn’t have a rather complete artistic theory underlying this particular choice. And it’s not as if Miller’s hidden it all these years.
This is the man who published the 1997 one-shot Tales to Offend, a politically incorrect homage to E.C. Comics. I don’t think anyone considers Tales to Offend an artistic masterpiece, and some might even have thought it dangerous. But everyone understood the one-shot’s political incorrectness was a deliberate statement: both a throwback to pre-Code E.C. Comics, rooting Miller’s work in comics history, and a statement about how art must not bow to public taste.
How is this not equally clear about Holy Terror?
We’re talking about a graphic novel that opens with a two-page quote from Mohammad. Everyone’s seen how the quote, which is offered without any context, seems to be accusing Islam for the actions of its extremists. And that’s, of course, correct of the critics. And dangerous of Miller. But since it’s obvious to everyone, one has to assume this includes Frank Miller. If nothing else, Miller’s certainly aware of political correctness, and he knows perfectly well that this is a shot across the bow. It’s a bold, unapologetic opening to an angry work, and it immediately announces that Holy Terror isn’t here to compromise, any more than Tales to Offend was.
Introductory quotes are sometimes used to set the tone and sometimes used to be keys to a work’s overarching agenda or meaning. In the former, a quote is used subjectively; in the latter, it’s used objectively, to make a claim for truth. Everyone seems to be taking the quote as this latter kind, which would seem to imply that the book is intended by Miller as an objective depiction of Islam, or at least its extremists. But the quote may equally be seen as an indication of the following work’s subjectivity — that it’s a work of propaganda, and it’s not going to pull any punches in that regard. But propaganda isn’t intended to depict the truth.
Of course, this double standard, between how readers have interpreted Tales to Offend and Holy Terror, is partially due to the fact that most American comics readers have seen plenty of E.C. Comics, or at least parodies of them. Super-hero propaganda, on the other hand, is far less familiar. And its Islamophobic political overtones are, understandably, a far more sensitive and troubling matter, today, than a philandering hero or another girl in a skimpy black dress, for which we have already have generic boxes in our minds.
Put another way, Tales to Offend was just slightly more offensive than the kind of antics of material like Two and a Half Men — material that it’s easy to market as “outrageous” but which is actually rather tepid. It’s the kind of thing people can point to as a way of saying “Look how politically correct I am!” Holy Terror, on the other hand, actually is offensive.
But such differences, while worth discussing, don’t lessen Holy Terror as a work of art. If anything, they augment the work’s vitality.
Of course, we don’t have to go to Ayn Rand or comic history to understand what Miller’s doing. Transgressive art is nothing new.
Although the term wasn’t employed at the time, it was arguably what the Marquis de Sade was doing, in using scatological pornography (at least in part) to satirize his day’s anti-sex religious hypocrisy.
It’s often what the surrealists were doing. Surrealist pornography, such as Georges Bataille’s 1928 Story of the Eye, comes to mind. But one can also think of the 1929 classic short film un Chien Andalou, by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. Besides its wild, illogical narrative structure, the film famously includes a close-up shot of a woman’s eye (actually a dead animal’s) being slashed with a razor. Besides an obvious indication of how the film, using a visual medium, intended to assault its audience, we can here think of how Fredric Wertham identified the “injury to the eye motif” in comics, itself a visual medium.
Transgressive literature has also been said to include works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroghs’s Naked Lunch — works that, especially in the 1950s, became the subject of censorship / obscenity trials in the United States.
More recently, transgressive literature has flourished under writers like J. G. Ballard, Bret Easton Ellis, and Chuck Palahniuk. Meanwhile, transgressive cinema has flourished, especially in Europe, through films that often involve a great deal of violence as well as on-screen penetration.
Transgressive art often features unlikable characters. It often alienates its audiences.
It also is known for using sex and violence as a way of trying to get society to “wake up” to larger social ills, but these works never attempt to solve those social ills, which are sometimes not even explicitly identified.
What’s important to understand about transgressive art is that every act of violence is an ideological statement. It only looks like murder, torture, or rape. In fact, it’s a statement about the human condition, about how the West has become disaffected, disconnected from our own bodies, and more generally lost.
And in transgressive art, political incorrectness is its own reward. Being offensive is its own reward. These are transgressions against the dominant but sick tastes of society. And they are radical and necessary affirmations of the fact that no one has a right to censor art and personal expression.
Miller hasn’t identified himself as a transgressive artist, and his politics seem to be at odds with much transgressive fiction.
But one can see in Miller something of the same delight in crossing social boundaries, in refusing to bow to public taste, and in being offensive as its own reward. It’s right there, in his statements about the Comics Code and in favor of 1940s comics.
And it’s not as if Miller doesn’t have a larger social and political point with Holy Terror. Like most transgressive fiction, he’s using extreme art as a way to “wake society” to a larger problem. In Miller’s public statements, he frames Holy Terror as part of his own post-9/11 embrace of patriotism. He seems to see America as being at war with Islamic fundamentalism, yet so comfortable in its affluence that it refuses to a adopt wartime frame of mind.
The fact that I largely don’t agree with the second part of that assessment doesn’t mean that I can’t afford Holy Terror the same protections I afford other works of transgressive art. It doesn’t mean that I can’t see, as a reader and as a critic, that Miller’s being intentionally offensive, intentially one-sided, intentionally shocking, as a way of trying to wake the reader to a reality he believes is being ignored.
I don’t have to agree with his agenda to understand what he’s doing.
Art can be dangerous or challenging or uncomfortable and still be strong and vital and intelligible, as a work of art. And Miller’s Holy Terror certainly meets this qualification.
How, Then, Do We Judge a Work of Art?
Of course, none of this means we have to be comfortable with the art Frank Miller produces. In fact, I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the politics of Holy Terror.
Nor does any of this mean we have to like Frank Miller’s art, nor anyone’s. At the most basic level, one person may be more aesthetically attracted to circles, another to triangles.
But one doesn’t have to be comfortable with a work of art to appreciate it. One doesn’t even have to like it.
In fact, many of the most celebrated and powerful works of art are spectacularly disconcerting or ugly. Who can read Dante’s contrapasso, the punishments he concocts for the damned, without delighting in their ironic imagination but also feeling repulsed at the naked sadistic zeal they exhibit, one sliver removed from elaborate revenge fantasy, nor the implications this has for his supposedly loving God? Who can stand before Picasso’s Guernica (1937) without reeling in horror at the ugliness of it, of the way war twists his figures into a mish-mash of shapes, stripping away all sense of order and humanity, yet leaving us still aware of the suffering?
Ah, but we’ve been taught that Dante and Picasso are classics. And Frank Miller’s a nut with fascist tendencies, or so the narrative goes.
Except that he’s not, and his work demonstrates that. However repulsive we might find its implications, it’s obviously not slapped together. If it’s explosive, it’s not the explosion of thoughtless self-expression, slopped without filter from one orifice or another onto the page. For as much as Miller’s embraced the wild and the exaggerated, each of his works exhibits its own remarkable internal consistency, its own control — a control that’s perhaps even stronger for being localized to the specific work, for casting aside all other concerns but those of the work itself and what it wants to be.
The question, then, is how to judge a work of art responsibly. Because as subjective as artistic evaluations are, they simply cannot be reduced to whether one personally cares for the art at hand. Nor even whether that art carries difficult or objectionable political messages. Nor, of course, whether it’s been accepted as a classic.
Of course, we needn’t go to Ayn Rand to recognize the power of the singular vision as a criterion by which to judge a work of art. Nor do we really have to understand how Miller’s embraced the uncensored crudeness of 1940s comics. Nor do we even have to understand and tolerate transgressive fiction.
That’s because it’s now been over a century and a half since the Art for Art’s sake movement argued, against tradition, that art needn’t be moral, that it shouldn’t didactically teach Christian values. At the time, this idea was a bohemian one, but it’s been solidly ensconced in literary criticism for the last hundred years in the principle that one must judge a work of art based on its own intentions.
That doesn’t mean the intentions of the artist: it’s obviously possible for an artist to produce something that reflects his or her unconscious assumptions or structures. At best, the artist has a unique and useful insight into the work’s intent, but his or her opinion is hardly definitive and must stand on its merits.
Rather, it means that the critic can’t complain that a silly farce doesn’t reflect the tragic brutality of life. One could analyze how a would-be silly farce fails to be silly, or to get the audience to identify with a character meant to be an audience identification figure, or how its writing or staging is technically unimaginative. One can put the work in question into juxtaposition with other works of the same genre. But one can’t object to the genre or its content itself, merely its execution.
This might seem dogmatic, in its own way, and it certainly is. But it’s necessary, because the alternative would be to accept that what a critic feels as acceptable criticism. It’s these rules of critical civility that keep religious and ideological objections from being actual criticism, which they’re not.
And so, with Frank Miller’s Holy Terror, we may well point out that the work possesses unsettling implications. For example, the work doesn’t possess the usual “good Muslim,” a device now so common in narratives involving terrorism that it’s even used by many hate-mongering, Islamophobic writers. That’s a choice Miller’s made, and it deserves examination. It one that certainly opens Miller to criticism, but it’s also remarkably brave (in its own unsettling way), because the “good Muslim” has become such a stereotype that it’s easy and almost obligatory to insert into such tales.
But here, we must remember that Miller’s writing super-hero propaganda, and committing to that sub-genre virtually requires the elimination of this stereotypical figure. World War II propaganda didn’t have “good Germans” or “good Japanese.” To insert such a figure would undo the intentions of the work at a basic level — and to insist upon such a figure is tantamount to insisting upon a tragic hero in a farce.
That’s not to say it’s not fair game to point out that a work of propaganda is racist or Islamophobic. And of course, Holy Terror is. Just as World War II propaganda was filled with racist depictions, especially of death-happy hordes of buck-toothed, inhuman Japanese. The analogy here with Holy Terror is obvious and apt.
But it’s intrinsic to the entire project of the book, which is a revitalization of super-hero propaganda. That’s certainly an odd project for a book. It’s even potentially dangerous, socially. If you’re going to do such a project, you’d better not compromise it with political correctness. Because doing so would destroy the entire project, compromising it fatally.
Art has a responsibility to be true to itself, not to social expectations. Yes, we expect realistic art to reflect social reality — and quite reasonably. But to start expecting art to be socially responsible is to begin down a very slippery slope. And we must be reminded that so many of the works we prize today were outrageous and offensive when first produced.
It’s the artist’s job to craft a work as strongly as possible and not give a damn what the critics think. That’s not to say that art isn’t commercial, or that no one can call himself or herself an artist while having the slightest commercial considerations. I’m not a purist on this point. But an artist’s primary loyalty must be to the work itself, to making it as much as possible what the work itself can be — indeed, to use a metaphor, what the work wants to be.
And on this count, Holy Terror succeeds at a very high level.
To ignore this and instead insist on political correctness in art — even when that art is so concerned with being bold and configures itself as a work of propaganda — is exactly tantamount to the religious objections of old.
And here’s where Frank Miller wins, politically. Because a lot of the condemnation of Holy Terror hasn’t examined the work on its own terms. It’s one thing to examine and to question the project of reviving super-hero propaganda, in a time when the West is, frankly, filled with Islamophobia. But it’s another thing to condemn such a project for simply existing. For daring to attempt such a thing.
That’s not criticism. It’s dogma. And it’s detestable.
It hasn’t been acceptable, intellectually, for a hundred years.
And as detestable as Holy Terror is, in its implications… as difficult and disturbing as reading it was for me… we are all forced, by Holy Terror and the ensuing controversy, into stating where we stand. Not in some imagined war between America and Islam. But about art, and whether controversial — even, yes, offensive — art has a legitimate and vital place in the American discourse.
I say it does. Art has a right, even a duty, to be disturbing. And I am disturbed by it. But I’m at least as disturbed by some of the reactions against it.
To say that should not — cannot — be deemed an endorsement of Frank Miller’s politics, to the extent that anyone can deduce them. Only the worst sort of reader could possibly think such a thing here.
This is, rather, an endorsement of art.
In this case, of strong and powerful and — yes — uncomfortable art. Art with politics that may indeed be repugnant. But art that’s strong and affecting and visionary nonetheless.
Such a stance shouldn’t be radical at all. In fact, the ability to separate a work’s politics from its execution is a precondition of having any public opinion on art — and has been for a century. By all means, point out if you think a work is racist. Or politically wrong-headed. But it also deserves to be judged as a work of art, on its own merits.
Because that’s what it is, not political non-fiction.
That’s not me compromising my morals or my intellect. That’s me exercising them.
Because we know where expecting art to be moral leads. Or we ought to. Because there’s arguably nothing more moral, at least in art criticism, than endorsing the artistic merit of something one personally finds to be immoral.
On this, to those of us who love art and take comics seriously as art, we ought to take a page from Frank Miller and refuse to compromise.
It’s absurd to demand an artist, even an offensive one, have a coherent artistic philosophy behind his content, to produce some kind of non-fiction thesis statement to explain his choices. But it so happens that Frank Miller’s effectively done this, and it’s a theory of artistic vitality that’s not only legitimate but wedded to his understanding of comics history.
So this is where I find myself. Absolutely convinced of Frank Miller’s continued artistic vitality. Equally convinced he’s got a lot to teach, about how comics work and how we ought to approach its creation and its criticism. But also convinced that this has led him to produce a fascinating and moving work that is also deeply upsetting to read, in part because of its Islamophobia — a strain that may well actually be dangerous.
It’s a place that’s uncomfortable, even perhaps contradictory. But then, so are the times.