A Place for Bold:

Understanding Frank Miller

Frank MillerNo 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.

Holy TerrorAt 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.

Holy Terror page 102Critically, 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?

Quentin TarantinoThe 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.

Inglourious Basterds screenshotViolence 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.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns panelEveryone 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.

Ayn RandIt’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.

John Galt invoked by the Tea Party movementAnd 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.

All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder panelBut 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.

The Spirit screenshotAnd 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.

Frank Miller's Sin City panelWhat 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.

screenshot from the film adaptation of Ayn Rand's The FountainheadMiller 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.

from Frank Miller's CBLDF imageMiller 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.

Robert CrumbCrumb’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.

Captain America Comics #1And 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.

Tales to Offend (1997) #1This 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.

Transgressive Art

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.

un Chien Andalou

Director Luis Buñuel holding open actress Simone Mareuil's eye in the film's opening scene.

un Chien Andalou

The famous image of an eyeball, in close-up, being cut with a razor.

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.

contrapasso in DanteIn 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?

Picasso's GuernicaAh, 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.

Holy Terror page 65But 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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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Not pictured:

36 Comments

  1. Julian,

    First off, great article! The downside is in trying to pick a point to begin a response.

    I certainly appreciate the comparison to WWII propaganda and Miller’s work. I guess there is a part of me that thinks: “Those old forms played upon fear… upon emotional responses with far less–if any–regard to appealing to the reason.” And I have to then ask why would Miller opt to avoid an appeal to reason? I’m not going to jump to the conclusion and say he isn’t being rationale (though I’m ready to do so at a moment’s notice!-), but I do find this to be a flaw in his thinking. If his intent behind his graphic art was to stir political action, then don’t we have to judge his work–in part–upon the way he communicates his politics? This may just be my personal opinion, but someone who appeals strictly to one set of senses (emotion or reason) is taking a cheap way out. Crafting an argument that calls out both the reader/view’s critical thinking and emotional intelligence would take more effort. From what I’ve read of “Holy Terror” thus far (1/2 way through it), I’m not finding as much of an appeal to reason as I am an appeal to fear. As you rightly point out: In this genre of propaganda, there is no room for gray–just black and white. And wouldn’t the world be “easier” if issues were merely black and white?

    I fully agree with the notion you bring forward about being critical in our critiques of both Miller, and artwork as a whole. I tell my son: “Take a No-Thank You bite before deciding you don’t like something.” He’s a toddler, so we’re still working on it. :) However, I’d like to think I’m encouraging him to make an informed decision about why he disagrees with something–something that will stick with him later on down the road. In like fashion, it IS important we understand our rationale for branding a particular book as being of “lesser quality.” We need to experience works like Miller’s in order to understand why they are or are not art before casting reactionary judgment.

    Perhaps the real fault with Miller’s latest offering is that it is anachronistic in nature. He (wrongly) assumes he can pick up an outdated mode of communicating his politics–the WWII comics propaganda model–and successfully argue his points. While he may be successful in communicating his thoughts, I’d argue that he ultimately fails to achieve any sort of substantial foothold in the mind & beliefs of his readers. We no longer live in a world of “black and white,” and hopefully, Miller will take this into consideration the next time around…

    • I don’t think it matters if his intent is to stir political action or not. Rather, it’s how the text functions: if it feels like a political appeal. And while I think it’s an angry work, I don’t think it’s a manifesto to political action. It’s not. It’s angry and passionate, but it doesn’t tell you to do anything — except, arguably, to get angry. That can be seen as a pro or a con. But the bottom line is that the author’s intent doesn’t matter (and that’s different from the work‘s intent, as I’ll discuss in comments below).

      I agree that the world’s not black and white and that Miller’s text works emotionally, rather than making an argument. I only would add that even though we might not like the emotions on display or the reason for them, there’s nothing illegitimate about an appeal for emotion, which has to be judged on its own terms, rather than any readers who would have preferred a rational argument leading to a different conclusion.

      I agree with you, Forrest, about Miller taking an anachronistic model in the super-hero propaganda story. But I don’t think he or the work itself is really trying to make an argument, any more than the stories of old were. Whether we are moved to action or not shouldn’t be the issue — otherwise, we’d have to judge Dead Man Walking by whether it made us campaign against the death penalty. It didn’t. Art rarely does.

      • Miguel Rosa says:

        Whether we are moved to action or not shouldn’t be the issue — otherwise, we’d have to judge Dead Man Walking by whether it made us campaign against the death penalty. It didn’t. Art rarely does.

        But let”s be honest: if the movie were promoting the death penalty, it wouldn’t have gotten half the critical acclaim it did. Why shouldn’t good art also promote good, socially responsible ideas?

      • Because who decides what’s “good, socially responsible ideas?” Sure, I’d like that too… but once you’ve said that, it’s fair game for the Christian right to say the same thing.

      • Miguel Rosa says:

        Because who decides what’s “good, socially responsible ideas?” Sure, I’d like that too… but once you’ve said that, it’s fair game for the Christian right to say the same thing.

        I guess we can go down that road and declare there are no morals, no ethics, etc., but I don’t see where that’ll lead us. Humans are moral creatures; it’s evolutionary useful. So’ll always be guided by our values. You can say art is immune from them, but it’s not, because without values people can’t even begin to properly function in society, make choices, etc.

        But the fact remains: in general, great writers don’t behave like Miller, in their writing and outside it. I’ve yet to read a great writer go on such an ignorant tirade, or show such xenophobia in his interviews. In their personal lives? Sure, they’re horrible people. But at least publicly they show some decorum. And for me there’s no way of turning Miller’s rants into a statement of courage and boldness and artistic freedom.

      • Thank you for your comment, Miguel.

        I take your point, and you make it well. I respect your opinion. I do feel the need, however, to respectfully disagree on principle.

        I think shit thrown on a canvas, while not necessarily great art, can indeed be a legitimate expression of artistic freedom. I assume we all accept that, at least when such an expression is considered unacceptable art. So yes, I do think there’s artistic value in pushing the limits. I further think there’s value in continuing to reestablish those limits, especially in defiance of public taste, because freedom not used tends to be lost.

        That doesn’t mean I have to like it, nor do you. I actually think it’s quite dangerous, as I said many times.

        I’m not saying there are no morals, just that it’s dangerous to apply them as a metric by which to judge art. (I couldn’t agree more that human morality stems from evolution. But the idea of demonizing a group has been morally normal throughout human history, if not throughout all of human evolution. It’s not at all “natural” to object to that. This only demonstrates the inherent subjectivity involved.)

        Of course, we should object to artistic depictions that objectify whole classes of people, especially innocent people (like roughly 99.9999% of Muslims). But I stop when this politics also necessitates that we find no artistic value in the given work. That’s a kind of puritanism, a throwing of the baby out with the bathwater, that I think goes too far. And is simply inaccurate, in this case.

        That was really my main thesis here, and I think it’s rather a moderate one — although important.

        Again, thanks for your comments, as always. I hope I’m not being too much of a dick. Not my intent.

  2. David Balan says:

    Very well reasoned, Julian. But I must respectfully disagree. And not because I disagree about how moral feeling should not enter criticism. I disagree because I think the art has failed at its stated intention.

    “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 disagree because I find this aim to be a foolish one. It doesn’t communicate what he wants it to communicate. What he has communicated with this book is, as he said himself that, “America is at war with a great enemy.” And as he further expounded, the second part about how nobody seems to give a damn, and America is too affluent to wake up and care.

    That’s the message he’s trying to send, right? That’s what he believes. He’s said it, we believe it.

    His book doesn’t send that message. It fails to convince the reader of the importance of what he’s saying, precisely because it is so one-sided, foolish, ungrounded in reality, and offensive. The propaganda comics of the 40s that he’s pulling from were not designed to convince the reader of the wisdom of Captain America punching Hitler, they were designed to simply satisfy the cathartic urge the reader already had for somebody to punch Hitler.

    These kinds of comics fail to communicate or convince, they are merely exercises in schadenfreude for people who already hold such an opinion.

    Is that bad? I think it is. Because what the work then really amounts to is, pardon my crudeness, a circle jerk. That’s all it is. He hasn’t woken up the rest of the world to his point of view, he’s essentially just walked over to all the people he already knows share his opinion and has said, “Hey, we’re so right, aren’t we?”

    And the people who share his opinion reply, “Oh yes, we’re very very right. Why can’t the rest of the world see how right we are?”

    And that’s where it stops. No attempt to understand other people, no attempt to broaden one’s experience or thought process, no attempt to even communicate with anyone who doesn’t already think that Islamic Fundamentalists ought to all die a horrible death and are unequivocally evil.

    No communication, just self-affirmation.

    It may still be art, but it sure as hell isn’t good art.

    • Thanks for your comment, David.

      Excellent point about the difference between ’40s propaganda and Miller’s work. Of course, Miller would probably say that’s a failing on our parts. And I agree, judged by what you’re saying, Holy Terror fails. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

      The basic error I see you making is that you assume that a transgressive work’s desire to wake the reader has to succeed. But that’s not how art is judged, purely by whether it presents a coherent argument that succeeds in convincing. I don’t think that a transgressive work has to succeed in “waking” its audience to succeed artistically. That’s never been true. All that matters is that there is a deeper agenda to the work. And even that isn’t strictly necessary, in terms of its art. But if you want deeper meaning, it’s there. Whether it convinces us is irrelevant.

      That’s a very restrictive definition of art, and it’s not one to which I subscribe. It’s incredibly reductive.

      From this, you assume that Miller’s talking to those who are already convinced. Except that this is obviously a work read by a general audience, much of which has objected strongly to it.

      If you’re looking for a circle jerk, there are lots of movies and comics that present really safe ideas, like about how terrible American slavery was, or countless Lifetime movies about the horrors of domestic violence. Fine, I agree with those agendas personally, but if you’re judging art on the basis of whether it convinces or is a circle jerk, those are a lot safer, a lot more circle-jerky than Holy Terror. By miles.

      Now, personally, I don’t think America’s at war with a great enemy. I think we’re at war with a petty, largely impotent enemy — one willing and able to do horrific acts, yes, but acts that are asymmetrical precisely because the enemy is so weak and outgunned.

      I think we are at war with a far greater enemy: ourselves. With our own values and our future as a democracy.

      Which makes judging Holy Terror on the basis of whether it convinces us all the more dangerous. Of course, it doesn’t. Nor should it. Rather, we should all collectively retort how the work might successfully invoke the fear of 9/11 but utterly leaves out the fact that, in the big picture, a lot more innocent Muslims have been killed by the U.S., since 9/11, than U.S. citizens died on 9/11 itself. That’s a fact not in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that American Muslims face widespread discrimination — cases of which have made me weep. I couldn’t be more concerned with that. These are things we should all but saying and saying loudly.

      But to put that on Frank Miller, or to argue that he shouldn’t create art that addresses these issues unless it reflects these facts and unless he’s able to convince us we’re wrong… that’s absurd. That’s nothing but subjecting art to an ideological test, and that’s repugnant. Democracy shall not survive by the left putting art to its own equivalent of a knee-jerk pledge of patriotism. We must not dodge theocracy by implementing political correctness. Neither is a world I want to live in.

      So you see, the question isn’t and can’t be whether it convinces. A hell of a lot of the art I most admire doesn’t “convince” me politically. I’m not a Christian, but I’m moved by a lot of Christian artwork. I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m moved by Buddhist artwork too. I’m not a vigilante, but I’m moved by revenge stories. The question simply can’t be weather we think these works a full and accurate political argument, nor a depiction of reality when they’re sometimes obviously fantasy.

      I do realize that all of this may be the result of me being inarticulate, in the line you quoted about “waking” the reader. But again, that’s only to say that transgressive art has deeper meaning. It’s not to say that it ought to convince us of it.

      • Miguel Rosa says:

        If you’re looking for a circle jerk, there are lots of movies and comics that present really safe ideas, like about how terrible American slavery was, or countless Lifetime movies about the horrors of domestic violence. Fine, I agree with those agendas personally, but if you’re judging art on the basis of whether it convinces or is a circle jerk, those are a lot safer, a lot more circle-jerky than Holy Terror. By miles.

        More and more I’m inclined to T.S. Eliot’s words about art and originality; he contended the purpose of art was to recapitulate what we already know; trying to come up with new things to say would only lead to perversions.

        I’ll gladly prefer safe ideas; just because they’re safe doesn’t mean they’re not necessary anymore. I think a narrative about slavery makes a lot of sense in our days of savage capitalism.

        Miller’s comic book is a perversion. Just because it’s not safe, just because it’s bold, it doesn’t mean it really transmits anything of value about the human condition.

        I’m not a Christian, but I’m moved by a lot of Christian artwork.

        The Sistine Chapel never urged me to kill people. I think it’s worth distinguishing between visual arts and literature, which deals directly with ideas. We can make the same point about Picasso’s art; sure, “Guernica” is ugly to look at; but there’s being harmlessly ugly; and then there’s being an ugly text that promotes killing people.

      • I have no problem with those “safer” narratives. I enjoy quite a bit of them. But to limit art to those kinds of safe narratives is, to me, a violently repulsive idea. One that is, to me, far uglier than any of Miller’s drawings.

        Nothing shall be accomplished in politics if we don’t, as a precondition, provide this place for art and ideas. That must always come first.

        I’m being quite serious when I say that this is intrinsic to the entire democratic project, if not the project of the Enlightenment itself. The right to distribute pornography means your right to religious speech is protected, as is the right of the scientist to propose out-of-the-box hypotheses. Equally, the right of the K.K.K. to spit its historically revisionist bile ensures these same rights, as well as our own right to get history and race completely wrong.

        Yes, that bile should be condemned. But we shall only change minds when we have this discussion, not when we drive views underground.

        That freedom of speech does stop when it urges people to kill others. But then, Miller’s work simply doesn’t do that. It is fiction, period. Ugly fiction, perhaps. But it doesn’t cross that line into a non-fictional endorsement of killing people. Indisputably.

        The fact that I even have to say this illustrates why this article was so important.

        As for whether Miller’s text “transmit[s] anything of value about the human condition,” of course it does. Even if we take it as a paranoid, racist fantasy, or as an exhibit of the brain shutting off in response to the trauma of 9/11, it meets this criterion. I’ve seen the work of people in mental institutions, with little grasp on reality, praised as teaching us about the human condition. Is our hatred for Frank Miller so great that our own reasoning faculties have been shut down, precisely as we accuse his of being?

        Again, I’m not defending Miller’s politics. I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out the text’s implications, which I repeatedly called “dangerous.” I’m saying that this very inability to process the artistic merits of something with which we disagree is profoundly worrying.

      • Miguel Rosa says:

        <b<I’m being quite serious when I say that this is intrinsic to the entire democratic project, if not the project of the Enlightenment itself. The right to distribute pornography means your right to religious speech is protected, as is the right of the scientist to propose out-of-the-box hypotheses. Equally, the right of the K.K.K. to spit its historically revisionist bile ensures these same rights, as well as our own right to get history and race completely wrong.

        I’m not arguing against that. I never said Miller should be deprived of of his rights to write this garbage. But I disagree that just because it’s vile, un-PC and mean-spirited it’s a reason to praise it for its boldness.

      • David Balan says:

        First off, I agree with Miguel – I never said this sort of story should not be allowed to be published, or that Frank Miller should not be allowed to voice his opinions. I will defend Holy Terror‘s right to exist vehemently – I still think it’s bad.

        I think so because it fails on its own merits – it fails to sufficiently communicate the intended message. The intended message does not necessarily have to be a persuasion – that always fails in a narrative. Persuasive narratives are always flat, and almost never actually persuasive. Rather, the point of a narrative is to reveal, to make the audience understand and empathize with the viewpoint, logic, and meaning of the message. What to do afterwards is up to the viewer – authors attempt to show truth, not preach it.

        That’s why we’re moved by some Christian and Buddhist art. It’s why we cheer at the cathartic climax of the action movie in which the hero gives the villain his comeuppance. We understand – that doesn’t mean we’re going to become Christians or Buddhists, or go beat up some bank robbers. But we get it.

        Holy Terror fails on that level. No communication, no understanding.

        Qualitative judgements of what Holy Terror is communicating is not what I’m after. Regardless of my opinion on the politics of the book, I think as a work of art, as a story with an intent to communicate – it fails.

      • Everything you’ve said here is quite smart and responsible. I’m not sure that the point of a narrative needs to be to reveal, necessarily, but I take your point.

        Is there any room in what you’ve said to say “this is a stunning image” or “this is a brilliant line of dialogue?”

      • “Is there any room in what you’ve said to say “this is a stunning image” or “this is a brilliant line of dialogue?””

        I *wish* I could remember the exact quote and source, but my mind is failing me. Grading exams does this to you after a bit. However, I’m reminded of a something I read somewhere that essentially said many writers have the ability to write a powerful line or two; truly great writers do it on a consistent basis.

        Considering this idea–which I rather like–against Frank Miller’s efforts in “HT,” I’d say there is arguably some artistic elements present, but it’s not enough to make it a work of art. He might have one or two lines or panels that provide a flash of brilliance, but I don’t think it’s enough to consider the work as a whole anywhere near so.

      • David Balan says:

        There certainly is, Julian. However, I tend to be biased towards examining work as a whole, and since my definition of a good story is one that communicates and reveals (it’s not everyone’s definition, I just find it useful.) – I lean heavily on overall story structure because that’s where almost every problem with a story’s ultimate effectiveness lies.

        That said, I’m sure if I flipped carefully through Holy Terror I would find more than one at least decently constructed panel, maybe a riveting action sequence or two (Frank’s good at those), and possibly some good dialogue. I’m doubtful on the last one because I’ve actually never liked Miller’s dialogue, due to it all sounding very stilted and mostly the same, but it could happen.

      • I agree that Miller’s dialogue can be stilted, but I think it alternates between this and the concisely powerful. But that’s me.

  3. Miguel Rosa says:

    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.

    I studied the intentional fallacy and art for art’s sake at college, like any other good literature student, and although it held me in a thrall for a while, it means very little to me these days. The Art for Art’s sake is a very convenient excuse for artists who feel they’re under attack from society, like Oscar Wilde felt (and later was), but it can become ridiculous. I was reading an interview by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka the other day, and the poor man was complaining how the problems of Nigeria take away all his time to writer proper artistic literature. It seems if Nigeria weren’t a country rife with corruption, social inequality, crime, etc, apparently he wouldn’t write about those mundage things. He does because of his social consciousness. Apparently, if he could he would write about artistic things. But, I wonder, what the hell is artistic art? Plays about poetry? Novels about sculpture? Poems about architecture? It’s all very fuzzy.

    Then I’m reminded of something José Saramago wrote in one of his diaries. One day he attended a writers’ conference; he was in his seventies by then, and there were lots of young novelists in the group. And all those young novelists, when asked if they thought art should be socially responsible, rushed to declare no!, art must only true to itself. But then they were asked, did they want their art to change the world? Of course! And Saramago observes how those young novelists had contradictory views about art: on the one hand, art must only be true to itself. On the other hand, they expect their art to have the power to change the world. But how can artistic art achieve that if it’s not concerned with the world but with that lofty thing called Art?

    Then I’m of course fascinated by the fact that, although most writers defend art for the sake of art, most of the good ones, the ones universally praised, can’t stop writing about real world questions, moral issues and social matters. I refer as an example Mario Vargas Llosa, whose almost entire body of work is one long exploration of South American politics. His latest novel, The Dream of the Celt, is even about a civil rights activist.

    I just think that art for art’s sake, although useful once, is something that doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Sure, writers, perhaps under cultural and academic pressure, pay lip service to it, but deep down they really want to write morally indignant books with the intention of making the world a better world. But they’re too ashamed to admit it.

    But if writers only care about Art, if they’re such amoral people who worry more about language and worldplay, and all those artistic things, then why don’t we have more writers advocating the death penalty, praising capitalism, freely expressing racist and sexist beliefs, condoning pollution, etc? Isn’t that transgressive? Isn’t that bold? But strangely enough, most writers are left-leaning, not to say down-right communist, idealists with utopian agendas who are also socially and politically active in the real world.

    Sure, Tropic of Cancer was a transgressive novel, it upset a lot of people; but certainly we can agree that advocating the freedom to fuck a lot is not the same as advocating killing people, yes? Even Curzio Malaparte, who was a Fascist, as in he was friends with Mussolini’s son-in-law, had sumptuous dinners with Nazi officers and had safe conducts to visit Jewish ghettos, managed to write one of the best anti-war novels ever. So I don’t think there’s any way to excuse or condone Frank Miller’s “boldness.”

    • I think you’re totally right about how artists do want to change the world. It’s an excellent point. What you describe is indeed a dilemma.

      However, that doesn’t negate that it’s wrong to judge a work of art according to one’s own ideas of what that art should be, rather than what that art is. That’s how you get people complaining that an action movie should be less of an action movie.

      An artist makes art for his own reasons. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and it’s got to be judged on its own merits, or lack thereof. Those initial reasons aren’t relevant anymore, and the text is what it is.

      A lot of times, an artist who tried to make a social point buries it so well that it’s not even obvious to readers and is ignored by critics. But much of what readers and critics like is the result of the artist’s intentions, however filtered through a narrative. That doesn’t mean we should ignore that narrative and instead focus on the artist’s intentions. It means we should recognize that the artist’s intentions — which could be as mundane as dealing with death or personal issues — went into this product and are interesting, but they don’t come out in ways that are necessarily controlled or even reflective of those original intentions.

      I’m definitely not saying artists should only care about “Art,” divorced from politics or material circumstances. I think that would be absurd. I’m just saying that, if we found out Lolita was intended as an argument for pedophilia or against pedophilia, it wouldn’t change that it’s a masterful, beautiful work — and that, even if we do want to examine it on that issue, it’s conflicted, whatever the artist’s intent.

      In response to another point, I’d very much like more artists to feel free to express their racism and sexism. Not because I agree with it, but because I believe these views are out there (if not widespread), and most people simply don’t express them because they know they’re politically incorrect. If we’re going to end racism and sexism, we’ll end it because people do feel free to express those views, and the rest of us will explain why they don’t make sense.

      I lived in Hawaii, and people are openly racist there in ways that would appall mainland Americans. But one soon realizes that it’s not really hostile — it’s just stereotypes, and they’re no more prevalent than they are anywhere else. Once they’re expressed, they can be addressed, usually in very friendly ways. So one has to wonder: isn’t the fact that racism is usually so hostile reflective of the fact that it’s repressed and left to fester? We all have stereotypes in our minds, and the way our brains develop them is actually quite rational and serves an evolutionary function. Better then, I think, not to repress them, so that they can be corrected instead of allowed to fester into a hatred of society’s “double standard” against expressing such views.

      Thanks for making me think!

    • On another point, I don’t think Holy Terror‘s political problem is that it is “advocating killing people.” If it’s advocating killing terrorists who act like those in Holy Terror, I and most would have little problem killing them. But that’s a slight of hand of the narrative, a false correspondence. And therein lies the real problem, for Holy Terror‘s politics: that it paints all Muslim fundamentalists, and arguably all Muslims, in this unrealistic and horrible way — which then allows us to believe killing them might be okay.

      That’s a common tactic in propaganda: make the enemy look as evil as possible to dehumanize and objectify them.

      That doesn’t excuse such a depiction. It’s repugnant, actually. But that’s the real criticism, if you’re going to go after Holy Terror‘s politics — this false equivalency that allows us to dehumanize, not that the text is “advocating killing people.”

      But again, it’s art. It’s wild art that takes place in an exaggerated fantasy world, which obviously has only a passing correspondence with our own. I’m not sure that such a work of art can really advocate anything, much less killing people. It presents a narrative, and a narrative with dangerous political implications. But I’m not sure that’s the same as “advocating,” in the way you’re using it.

      • Sorry to be so passionate on this point, but it’s one that I’ve already thought about and discussed with friends.

      • “That doesn’t excuse such a depiction. It’s repugnant, actually. But that’s the real criticism, if you’re going to go after Holy Terror‘s politics — this false equivalency that allows us to dehumanize, not that the text is “advocating killing people.” ”

        But this sort of approach to dehumanizing one’s enemy is meant explicitly to better enable one to commit acts of atrocity. And Miller uses the text to push this agenda. I’d say using his text as a vehicle for this agenda opens the gates to such criticism.

        Heaven help me for going in this direction, but Nazi Germany adopted many traditionally accepted forms of art to push its agenda. Further, it used these products of art to portray a particular group of people in such a way that the populous would be mobilized to act against them. While I’m sure that the film, radio, literary, and other artists of Nazi Germany created works that can be analyzed as art, how many do we still see studied and appreciated today?

        Obviously, I am in *no* way suggesting we look at Miller as a Nazi. However, I do find some similarities in using art to dehumanize one’s enemy in order for the individual experiencing that art and taking in that message to either commit the act of violence, or at least condone it. In this regard, I do believe (after having now finished the book) that this is Miller’s aim: Numb the reader to condone and support such acts of violence against fundamentalists.

        On a personal note: I spent 6 months deployed in Baghdad during 2003-04 earning an Army Combat Action Badge (CAB) following my deployment. One of the biggest difficulties I recall facing while deployed and when upon my return was the conflict over the human nature of our enemy. When we dehumanize the enemy, it is easier to commit inhuman acts against him or her. Look at the horrific events of Abu Ghraib. We dehumanized these prisoners, and then some individuals stopped seeing them as humans worth *some* level of humane treatment.

        For my part, any work that presents a narrative–in an uncritical manner–that carries with it these sorts of behaviors is one that deserves the sort of criticism Frank Miller is earning with “Holy Terror.” For what it’s worth, Julian, I hear you when you say that this is not a work that you’ll be recommending to others as a good read :) Instead, it is the point that we need to allow works from ALL backgrounds have the opportunity to be voiced, and I won’t argue that point. I just feel no sympathy for Miller in the backlash that he has rightly earned with producing this sort of work, which I believe is a lazy appeal to fear and ignorance through out-of-date mode of storytelling that is behind the times.

        But DO keep posting articles like this! If we don’t stop and think about what makes our comics worthy of artistic consideration, we’ll never be able to communicate this others and be willing to accept anything as art. As you point out, sometimes we need to be a little uncomfortable at times if it helps spur us to think more critically.

      • Forrest, you’re right to point all of this out, and your personal experience is moving. I agree that the text’s politics deserve criticism, and I would like us to discuss this objectification of the Other.

        As I said in the piece (I think… I cut to much, it’s hard to remember), I’m not saying “poor Frank Miller.” You can’t take a stance like this and not expect criticism.

        I appreciate very much your final paragraph. Few things make me more queasy than saying what I have here, because I am very concerned about the text’s politics. And Islamophobia in particular. And the fearmongering that has been disastrous politically.

        But at the same time, I can point to a good dozen sequences in this same text that I find stunning and brilliant examples of the comics form. That puts me in a very odd bind. And while I support those who have stood up to point out the text’s Islamophobia, I felt a need to stand up and defend its artistic merit, which I felt was being ignored.

      • Miguel Rosa says:

        On another point, I don’t think Holy Terror‘s political problem is that it is “advocating killing people.”

        Hm, yes, that’s probably an exaggeration. It just gleefully exalts the murder of lots of people without considering any moral consequences.

        It’s not very meaty stuff for me. I can’t really see any value in this book; I don’t think there’s any boldness about being un-PC unless it’s clever or has a point. I mean, the author is free to write about what he wants. But don’t expect me to praise him for things I find worthless.

      • I don’t, and you’re right to voice your opinion. Absolutely. I do see artistic value, although I agree with the criticism that it’s Islamophobic.

  4. Julian,
    I love reading articles like this, but I have a problem with your premise. First off, I’ve liked or loved everything I’ve read from Miller except for Holy Terror. But you seem to be arguing two different points of view here, one, that a lot of the people judging Holy Terror are not judging it as what it is, a piece of propaganda, and two, that the success of the message that (we think) Miller is trying to send isn’t necessary to consider it a successful piece of art.

    My problem is that I don’t feel that Miller is successful in creating a piece of propaganda. As i see it, there are two basic forms of propaganda; nationalistic propaganda and cathartic propaganda. Miller seems to be going for the second, but lets take the first type first. Triumph of the Will would be a pretty good example of nationalistic propaganda, a piece of work that promotes the superiority of your nation. Nothing about Holy Terror seems to do that. In fact, it’s not really even set in any United States that we know. It’s set in a fictional analogue of New York City that we can only presume is in the United States. This becomes a key point in discussing the second type of propaganda, the cathartic. Miller’s problem is that he’s creating a fictional work about a fictional Muslim enemy (a fictionalized version of al Qaeda) getting beat up by a fictional hero in a fictional city in what I can only presume is a fictionalized version of the United States. More to the point, the book was published ten years after the event that it seems to be fictionalizing.

    To compare Miller’s book to the propaganda of the 1940s, you would need a book in which a hero from Central City, USA fights off an invasion from space after Teutonic aliens destroy a military installation. And you would publish it in 1951.

    Now, you can point to the racist caricatures of the 1940s and say that Miller is aping them in his portrayal of the fictionalized al Qaeda, but that ignores years and years of preexisting racism in comics. We already had the Asian stereotypes in comics before comic propaganda came along; we just got lucky in the fact that we had a preexisting stereotype ready to step in. If we were attacked by the Ivory Coast we would have had caricatures of Little Black Sambo getting decked by Captain America and Bugs Bunny.

    But if your propaganda comic doesn’t work as propaganda, what have you got? Can it be art for arts sake? That depends on whether we want to consider propaganda art in the first place. It is a functional work, so in essence it is defined by its function in a way that other works of art are not. If, say, a piece of propaganda was used to try to get more people to join the army and no one joins the army, did that piece of art not fail?

    But that doesn’t mean that propaganda can’t be art. Triumph of the Will pops to mind. So does Birth of a Nation and The Little Dictator. What I find most interesting are the people who defend Holy Terror simply because it’s not politically correct. I have yet to see anyone who makes a real and convincing case for its artistic quality. Even you at one point refer to the book as “detestable.” and simply being un-PC does not make something art.

    • You make an excellent point about how Miller’s cathartic propaganda differs from the nationalistic propaganda we’re most familiar with. A discussion along those lines would be excellent and productive, and it would involve whether or not it’s even possible to make old-style propaganda in the era of asymmetrical warfare.

      Where I’m very much aware that I’ve failed is in pointing out where Holy Terror succeeds artistically. I would like to do so in a later writing, but it didn’t fit here.

      It really wasn’t my argument that the text has artistic merit simply because it defies political correctness. I do think transgressive art does so, and I thoroughly respect that. But defying P.C. might be brave in some cases, yet not produce vital art. Holy Terror is vital, although I agree I haven’t shown how, beyond what you’re addressing. I did assume that people would see that, but it was also beyond the scope of this particular piece.

      Having said this, I feel obligated to say that, while I don’t think simply being un-P.C. makes something good art, I’m sympathetic to those, both on the right and the left, who see political correctness as something to resist. I support, in general, the desire to be sensitive, and I even more strongly support the desire to have representations of minorities reflect reality, rather than stereotypes. But we simply cannot permit ourselves the delusion that political correctness hasn’t ruined lives and warped psyches.

      If we are to criticize religion for damaging people with sexual repression, surely we can admit that gender feminism damaged many — especially American intellectuals — far worse. We raised a generation of men to hate themselves and see themselves as inherently born evil, including as rapists, and we’re reaping the consequences now with the cultural backlash in favor of an unapologetic, objectifying male sexuality. In the annals of political doublespeak, surely “feminism is the radical belief that women are people” merits a high ranking — it’s as transparently manipulative and silencing in its intent as dubbing your own policies the only patriotic options. For a good long time, the left in America was the leading champion of speech restrictions and “free speech zones.” And while I thought Dom Imus’s comments deserved discussion and rebuke, he didn’t deserve firing for them any more than Bill Maher deserved firing for his comments after 9/11. I’ve experienced a lot of this nonsense first-hand, and I feel obligated to point out that political correctness has an awful lot to account for.

      That doesn’t mean I think it’s worse than the lunatics in the Tea Party. It also doesn’t mean that those objecting to political correctness are as thoughtful about it, nor as strong in their defense of free speech, as I am. I do recognize these things.

      But understanding this history demonstrates that having a place for the non-P.C. is of vital importance for not only political discourse but the republic. Condemn and discuss, certainly. But excoriating an un-P.C. work as inherently artistically worthless because of that fact is a vile, vile thing to do.

      (I know you’re not doing that, Danny! You don’t see artistic merits, regardless. That’s utterly your prerogative. I’m just trying to explain why some would be inclined to leap to the defense of the politically correct.)

      • I’ll give you Bill Maher, but Don Imus? Really? I mean, if you lose that many advertisers based on an obviously racist comment, you should pretty well expect to be fired. This is where the anti-PC brigade loses me. If you want to make the argument that people should be allowed to express their ideas without fear of reprisal because of their ideas, that’s fine, and I’ll agree with you. But Imus’s SNAFU wasn’t an expression of ideas; he got fired for calling a bunch of black college students nappy-headed hos. Imagine if he would have called a bunch of Jewish basketball players hook-nosed whores.

        The problem with the un-PC lobby is that it’s too broad. Every time a white dude calls someone a nigger and gets creamed in the media he blames the demon of political correctness. I don’t see it as such. I see that as a natural reaction to hate-filled language.

      • Of course, you’re right: Maher was expressing an idea. It’s different.

        The thing you’re forgetting about Imus is that the left really went to war against him. He was public enemy #1 for a week. Everyone lined up to condemn him, and several prominent Democrats publicly campaigned for him to be fired. Yes, his show lost advertisers, but you’re forgetting why.

        Of course, I thought Imus’s comment was awful. But he’s a comedian, paid to be offensive on the fly, he and others (Howard Stern, anyone?) have said a lot that’s questionable, and Imus apologized very quickly, from what I remember. He soon went to meet to talk with the students he’d slurred and apologize personally. He also didn’t have a record of racism in his personal life — quite the opposite, in fact. What he said was was wrong, but to single him out like that and campaign for his removal — as if that would mean a victory for the forces against racism, when all of this debate over his prospective firing actually obscured the fact that no serious discussion of race ever occurred… that was horrific to watch, frankly. And it was totally counter-productive to anyone who cares about racism, unless the point is to simply silence racists and make them hostile towards what they likely already perceive as a politically correct establishment.

        All a conservative had to do, in the wake of the hounding of Don Imus, was to play a 30-second clip from any Chris Rock special to demonstrate a double standard. How was campaigning for Don Imus to be fired helping the cause, then? It didn’t; it set the cause back.

        I don’t often see people doing what you describe, using racial invective and then blaming the P.C. police. When that happens, it’s usually one idiot who no one takes seriously, and he’s laughed at. And one person invoking X doesn’t mean X isn’t real.

        I don’t recall anyone significant saying the furor over Mel Gibson’s remarks was “the demon of political correctness.” No, his remarks were just vile, and people said so. The most anyone said that I heard is that he’s not Hitler and shouldn’t be banned from work.

        Does the right manipulate the fear of political correctness? Of course! But that doesn’t mean it’s never a legitimate concern.

      • I think you comments highlight something that whites in the majority fail to understand about racism, sexism, or religious persecution, namely, that it is an emotional issue that fails rationality. Mel Gibson got a pass compared to Imus. Then again, Imus is still working, just on WABC instead of WNBC. There was something about the group that he slandered, I thing. When you attack female black college students you get a different response than when you attack…whoever Gibson attacked (see? I donn’t even remember. I think if was Jews.) But then, look at Michael Richards. He got a brief stint in the hot seat, made his apologies, and everyone seemed to forget, but dude can’t get work.

        Sure, the comparison between Imus and Chris Rock creates a double standard (sort of…) but it is commonly understood that people are allowed to appropriate negative slurs to use in their own language. My wife can call her sister a bitch, but I can’t. It is okay (sort of…) for a black guy to say nigger, but not a white guy. Same thing… Except I don’t know many women, black or white, that are okay with being called “ho.” And while it might be okay for a black guy to call his friend a nigga, it’s not okay for, say, Barack Obama to refer to Herman Cain as “my nigga.”

        Frankly, when I hear white people complain about black people saying nigger, I presume that they’re thinking what Homer Simpson said about the word queer; “That’s our word for making fun of you!”

        Now, to stay on topic a bit, I do see a lot of manipulation of political correctness. I’ve read a few different reviews of Holy Terror, most of them well written and saying the same thing;it’s a boring story, the art is a bit of a mess, and it’s a bit racist (although they’re never that cut and dry and they usually have one or two nice things to say about the book). Inevitably among the first commenters on these reviews is someone who is claiming that the reviewer is just too PC and doesn’t get it, or is just trying to attack the book because it is controversial. It’s an unfare argument, putting the writer, or anyone who agrees with the writer, in a position of trying to argue that they’re not just trying to toe some PC line.

        And I wanted to clarify a point; I’m not simply arguing that Miller’s work doesn’t work as natioanlistic propaganda; I’m also arguing that the event is so far in the past and Miller has pulled his story so far away from reality that it doesn’t work as cathartic propaganda either. It may have worked in 2002, but not now.

      • I wasn’t actually intending to say that Chris Rock using black stereotypes is a double standard. I’m sorry it came off that way, and that’s not an argument I would make. I was actually thinking of how Chris Rock mocks and stereotypes many (if not all) groups, including other minorities. (Don’t get me wrong; I like his work, and this isn’t about Chris Rock.) I also understand that it’s not the same for a minority with a long history of being persecuted to use stereotypes, including but not limited to stereotypes of his or her own race or ethnicity. My sole point was that political correctness actually gives the right wing ammunition, rather than eliminating any racist sentiment.

        It’s usually counter-productive. It can be ugly. And creating a “teachable moment” is usually a lot better option.

        Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine with campaigns to get people fired. But when it’s transparently selective, it becomes very ugly very fast.

        I actually don’t think criticism of the depictions of Holy Terror need really be P.C. at all. I don’t think pointing out the text’s problems, or its agenda, need be “politically correct.” It’s just responsible criticism. I’ve said myself its implications are dangerous.

        I also agree about 9/11 being too far in the past. And I’m sick of it being used for political gain and to short circuit analysis.

        My sole point is that there is artistic merit here. I’m wowed by quite a lot of the art and even dialogue / captions in Holy Terror. I’m also really troubled by its politics, and I think it’s a lot more dangerous than “slightly racist.”

        You’ve read different reviews than I have. I’m sure that’s my fault. Most of what I encounter is pretty liberal, and the reviews I’ve read have been largely dismissive of Holy Terror or focused on its troubling politics. I was trying to play Devil’s Advocate here and make a case — which I do feel strongly about — that art with politics we may find reprehensible may be artistically vital nonetheless. If I’ve misread the terrain, as I suspect I have, I’m sorry. It’s certainly not my intent to add my voice to those shouting that any criticism of racist or Islamophobia content is equivalent to P.C. censorship. Very much not my point at all.

        Thanks again for your comments. It’s been helpful.

  5. I want to give a shout-out to Colin Smith, who’s addressed Holy Terror quite reasonably and responsibly at his blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics. I knew his posts existed but deliberately didn’t read them until after my own was completed.

    Colin addresses the text’s Islamophobic implications with great precision, and I agree with 99% of what he says. He doesn’t address Holy Terror‘s artistic merit (outside of one reference, in a caption, to how the terrorist bomb explosion sequence is moving), so there’s mostly little overlap between our two works. And crucially, Colin doesn’t make the mistakes I criticize in others, such as confusing fiction for non-fiction advocacy, or claiming there’s no artistic merit to what Miller’s done. Rather, he concerns himself quite precisely with the text’s implications, and I don’t disagree with him. I just have a different take, a different concern, which I don’t find mutually exclusive with his.

    One point Colin makes, which I concede completely, is that Miller’s claim not to know anything about Islam is bunk. Colin proves that’s not the case quite convincingly, which is something I hadn’t contemplated. Colin also demonstrates that Miller doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions, when it comes to his public comments about Holy Terror, which is a useful note to my claim that Miller’s made himself, as an artist, into a kind of uncompromising, Randian figure.

    These are very important to note, and I encourage everyone to read Colin’s take on these matters.

  6. Personally I haven’t read Holy Terror, but from all the things i’ve heard and read about it it seems to me that there’s not much artistic merit in it, at least from what I understand should be art.

    I have problems with fictions that try only to carry a “message”, that wish only to impose a viewpoint that is intended to be correct, which is not always necessarily political. They are just an illustration of what the author knows for sure to be True. That’s why, for example, I find Paulo Coelho to be an awful writer, because he comes with his hands full of truths and all his work reduces itself to just a few one-liners. The same happens with Ayn Rand. Art must raise questions, not give answers. Quoting Tzvetan Todorov, Truth must be the horizon, not the starting point. When an author comes with his hands full of answers, I doubt he is an artist.

    That is why I doubt Holy Terror’s artistic merit. It seems to just only say “Muslims are bad, let’s kill them.” There seems to be no investigation of the human soul, no confronting of the contradictions involved, no doubts, which are the essence of literature. That is why Holy Terror is just propaganda, and why propaganda is not good literature. I tend to think that if you want to state your ideology on any given subject write an essay, or give an interview or whatever. But literature is for the things you don’t understand, it is the Empire of Doubt, as argentine writer Carlos Gamerro has put it.

    Probably all that I’ve said is wrong because I haven’t read Holy Terror. And I’m sure that pictorically there must be some merit, Miller after all is a great artist, but just not a great writer. Although maybe he used to be.

    I hope my point was clear. English is not my first language and I tend to babble a lot…

    • I don’t think Holy Terror says “Muslims are bad, let’s kill them.” I think it comes dangerously close to saying “Muslims are bad,” but the killing is limited to cartoonish versions of Al-Quaeda. But I take your point, and it’s well-said, despite your caveats!

      I do reserve the right to hold seemingly contradictory views: for example, that Holy Terror possesses quite a bit of artistic merit, but that it’s also Islamophobic and dangerous.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Mariano!

  7. Ian Moore says:

    My personal definition of the word “art” is short and to the point. For me art is simply this: creative self expression. I don’t see it as anything more than that. From this standpoint there can’t really be any evaluation of the “success” of a piece of art beyond the artist’s own view of whether they have successfully expressed what they wanted to express or not. Did they express it, did they ‘get it out?’ How society responds to a piece of art is a very different subject to the question of that piece’s success.
    Has Frank expressed to his own satisfaction what he wanted to express?
    What do I personally feel in response to what he has expressed?
    The second question is the discussion that society can get its teeth into. The first can only be answered by Frank himself.
    So of course, in any public discussion about one or more of Frank’s works we (all of us who are not Frank) can only really talk with any authority or satisfaction about our own personal responses.
    I guess the point I’m looking to make is that for me…well I wouldn’t even try to have a conversation about whether a piece of art, or an artist in general, should be deemed successful or not. To me that question is a meaningless abstraction that doesn’t lead anywhere. There is only my personal response.

    • I think there are many ways of judging whether a work of art is “successful.” Personally, I don’t think most of us are in any position to judge whether it was successful for the artist, nor do I think that should particularly matter to anyone else.

      Just my two cents.

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