After its three-page thematic introductory sequence, Holy Terror shifts to the Fixer chasing Cat Burglar across Empire City’s rooftops. It’s a sequence not without its charms, including a few powerful images. It depicts an eccentric, hard-boiled super-hero chasing an eccentric, hard-boiled female criminal.
Miller gives the sequence considerable space, and he’s clearly in love with its tropes: Miller’s stylized rain and big moons, New York City water towers, and Will Eisner-influenced cityscapes. The characters tumble and roll across high-rise roofs, grabbing and kicking and spouting tough-guy lines.
But this is only an extended depiction of the super-heroic status quo, in Frank Miller’s Empire City. The stakes are no higher than “a lousy diamond bracelet,” which Cat Burglar has stolen. She repeatedly references this, underlining the triviality of these events. It’s “a slow night,” she narrates. Despite all the melodramatic presentation, these are two super-people at play.
As the sequence continues, the two characters embrace romantically, even as they continue to fight and to tumble. Their thrill-seeking and violence soon surrenders to rooftop sex. The whole sequence reads like a stylized elegy to the sadomasochism that is arguably inherent to the super-hero, complete with handcuffs.
It’s a full comic in length (22 double-wide pages), and if the story stopped here, we would read Holy Terror as a worthwhile — though hardly entirely novel — commentary on the genre. Beneath the capes and costumes and tough-sounding self-justifications, these violent vigilantes and criminals are really eccentric thrill-seekers, playing out their sexualities and their adrenaline addictions across the city’s skyline.
It is innocent, in its own way. There’s no nobility, no sense of purpose beyond the personal fetish. Yet there’s no condemnation on offer. Rather, Miller lays bare the super-hero’s psychology, much as Alan Moore did Night Owl’s in Watchmen, but he remains appreciative of the genre’s simple, stylized beauty — which he very much highlights.
Keeping in mind Holy Terror‘s thematic opening, with its theme of justice, Miller successfully exposes how justice has nothing to do with most super-hero narratives. True, super-heroes give lip service to justice and stopping evil. But this is only the thinnest justification for fetishistic, adrenaline-fueled fantasies. The costumed hero and costumed criminal meet halfway, engaged in a brutal and sexual dance. In this dance, justice and evil largely serve as foreplay, setting the psychological stage for adventure, as in any costumed role-playing.
That Statue of Justice? She’s just a prop. A backdrop for psycho-sexual hi-jinks. An empty signifier.
She’s the Daily Planet building, backdrop for Lois and Clark to romance or Superman to die. She’s an extension, in concrete and steel, of the super-hero’s costumed role-playing, and her pretentious name reflects nothing more than the way those costumes are called uniforms, or stopping silly villains is dubbed an example of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
She’s the Statue of Liberty from every New York City establishing shot, the personification of liberty now reduced to tourist destination and commodified in wobbly-headed car dashboard decorations.
In Holy Terror‘s status quo, there is no justice. Only a statue. Justice exists only as justification for costumed rooftop sex.
And then the nail bomb goes off. The same bomb depicted on the inside covers, obliterating all sense. Cat Burglar gets a nail in the knee. She’s in pain and confused. But the Fixer understands. “It’s war, darling,” he tells her, cradling her. “It’s war.”
30 pages in, and there’s nothing even potentially Islamophobic, except for that opening quotation. If Holy Terror stopped here, it would be a mild critique of the super-hero genre, a satire showing how much these super-heroes are at odds with real-world horrors like terrorism. No propaganda. A good short story, but nothing all that revolutionary.
But Holy Terror doesn’t stop there. Instead, it shifts into a flashback, depicting a suicide bomber. And it’s unquestionably dangerous, disturbing material.
It’s focused on a female suicide bomber named Amina, who we’re told is “an exchange student. Humanities major.”
This should immediately send up red flags, much like Holy Terror‘s opening quotation does. As Colin Smith has pointed out, Amina is the name of the prophet Mohammad’s mother. And despite Frank Miller’s claims to know nothing about Islam, this can be no coincidence. It’s a choice that reinforces the implication of that opening quotation: that this isn’t simply anti-Al-Qaeda propaganda but anti-Islamic propaganda.
That’s a hateful, dangerous thing, and it should immediately make the reader queasy. Many Americans equivocate between all Muslims and Al-Qaeda, despite warnings against this by both the Bush and Obama administrations. American Muslims are a tiny, vulnerable minority that has contributed to the American republic throughout its entire history. Muslims fought in every American war, from the Revolution onward, including of course the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, despite their children being called terrorists in school and despite hate crimes against Muslims rising to alarming levels, have almost universally remained proud and loyal Americans.
You owe it to yourself to listen to their stories. To listen to how they praise America, despite the fearful scapegoating of Muslims they hear day in and day out and despite fearing for their children simply because of their religion. Listen to how much they value America’s religious freedom and equality under the law, which surpasses the rights they or their ancestors had in their countries of origin, which makes them appreciate America so much more. These are stories that will make you weep, if you have any love of country.
It’s easy to be patriotic from an armchair — or a drawing board. But real patriotism comes not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. Nothing could be more patriotic than to love a nation that at times seems to hate you. The patriotism of American Muslims, in the face of routine discrimination and threats of violence, surpasses that of most Americans. And if you think you hate what happened on 9/11, consider how American Muslims feel. As Americans, they’re just as outraged and angry about their nation being attacked — an attack that killed American Muslims too. But for American Muslims, this outrage is compounded by the perversion of their religion that those attacks represent. Imagine if the hijackers had been Christian or Jewish, acting in the name of their extremist take on God, and then further imagine that Christians or Jews are a vulnerable and misunderstood minority. To be an American Muslim is to be a victim of 9/11 in a way surpassed only by those directly injured on that day.
It is in this respect that Miller’s right to say that he knows nothing of Islam. I have to believe that he hasn’t heard the stories of American Muslims. I have to believe that he hasn’t gone to a mosque and heard the practical advice about subjects such as home insulation and mortgages that are typically dispensed there, a far cry from the political sermons common to most American churches. Because if Miller had, he couldn’t, in good conscience, have birthed this particular work of propaganda into the world.
Of course, Miller’s right to shine a light (as he will later, in Holy Terror) on the human rights abuses of some — not all — Muslim nations. We’re all familiar with executions in Afghan stadiums. With honor killings, in which Muslim families murder their own daughters for having premarital sex or even being victims of rape. Even as the controversy of Holy Terror has raged, Saudi Arabia has beheaded a woman on spurious charges of witchcraft. Miller’s also right to criticize how some Americans, including certain extremes of the American left (as well as the Bush administration, which was especially cozy with Saudi Arabia), have used cultural relativism to justify turning a blind eye to such practices. These acts deserve condemnation, and in the rare cases in which they overflow into Muslim communities living in the West, they are and should be prosecuted according to Western laws. Those who would defend Islam under the edict of religious toleration ignore such violations at their own peril, because they cede these facts to those who wish to use them to scapegoat all Muslims.
But it’s not being a cultural relativist to point out that Christian history is filled with many of these same practices, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to Puritan witch-burnings. To read Mosaic law is to encounter a list of capital offenses that would put many of these Muslim governments to shame. And the West, especially America, has its own zealots who cite these laws selectively, precisely as Muslim extremists do with the Koran, to claim that God views homosexual behavior as a capital offense, while ignoring that the same laws also demand capital punishment for adultery, including any extra-marital sex, or so much as touching — let alone eating — a pig.
And most importantly, just as repressive Muslim nations are far more likely to hurt their own population than outsiders, American Islamophobia is far more likely to hurt its own citizens than those in far-off lands (speculative wars notwithstanding). The first thing a xenophobic state does is cannibalize itself.
It’s therefore disturbing to see that Amina, Miller’s suicide bomber with a worrysome name, is an “exchange student.” No, she’s not an American Muslim. But America’s post-9/11 xenophobia has hit exchange students particularly hard. Many have been denied their dreams of studying in the U.S., despite that exchange students have traditionally brought American values, such as religious tolerance, back to their home nations. Of course, no one is advocating that exchange students shouldn’t be properly screened. But if America intends to demonstrate that it’s anti-terrorism and not anti-Islam, or to spread its values into Muslim countries, exchange students should be encouraged, rather than demonized.
That Amina is an exchange student therefore carries dangerous implications. It argues against allowing foreign Muslim nationals into the U.S., even for the most benign of reasons. It could even be read as arguing that no intellectual exchange is possible with Muslim nations. These are dangerously xenophobic implications, but they’re also counter-productive, targeting what is perhaps the group of foreign Muslims that should most be encouraged, if one’s enemy is terrorism or Islamic fanaticism, rather than Islam itself.
Then there’s the fact that Amina is a “humanities major.” Of course, there’s no such thing at most U.S. universities, where the humanities is an umbrella term applied to non-scientific fields, such as literature, language, philosophy, and religious studies. (At most U.S. universities, the humanities are a separate college within the university’s bureaucratic structure, although a few do offer humanities degrees, basically equivalent to generalist liberal arts degrees.) Miller’s imprecision here does have poetic merit: there’s an obvious irony in having a terrorist, who inhumanely targets civilians, be a humanities major. But it’s also possible to see this as a dig against academia and especially the humanities, which in fairness has defended cultural relativism for far too long.
Ironically, it’s the humanities that have — however slowly — championed comics, including Miller’s, as an art worth studying and writing about.
But despite the obvious poetic and political irony, there’s little rapport between Amina and Western suicide bombers, who don’t tend to be exchange students, humanities majors or otherwise.
Another way she fails in this regard is that she’s a woman. Fundamentalist Islam has indeed exploited women as suicide bombers, knowing they’re less likely to be accosted by security. But especially in the West, terrorists are rarely women. None of the hijackers on 9/11 were, nor any of its planners. To my knowledge, no Muslim woman has ever committed a suicide attack on American soil.
Like with Amina’s status as an exchange student, there’s also a danger here. Most Muslim cultures are especially sensitive about the treatment of Muslim women. Even where women are required to wear restrictive clothing, this is ostensibly to protect them from male sexual advances. In military raids on Muslim houses, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers grabbing, restraining, and searching women has been a particular sore point for the local population. Western forces with any concern for local culture and winning over a Muslim populace know that such raids must be done with extra sensitivity.
None of this is unique to Muslim cultures. In Western history too, putting women on a pedestal has typically existed simultaneously with female repression. Most men of any culture are humiliated enough by having their home violated; to hold their wife or daughter down, while those men watch helplessly, is often to encourage a lifelong resentment. Demonstrating to male prisoners, Western or otherwise, that they are unable to help women, even when those women are strangers, is often more effective in breaking a prisoner’s will than is torture.
Bad enough, then, that Muslim fundamentalists exploit this dynamic through female suicide bombers, hoping to spur Western occupying forces into greater violation of Muslim women, thereby inspiring more Muslim men to turn to terrorism. To depict a suicide bomber on American soil as female, in defiance of real-world demographics, is indeed propaganda — but propaganda for Muslim fundamentalism, not against it.
This isn’t the only way Miller’s propaganda seems to be serving Al-Qaeda’s ends. Osama bin Laden, after all, wanted America to strike out against Islam generally, thereby inspiring the pan-national Muslim unity he found so lacking.
Of course, it’s perfectly clear why Miller’s chosen a female suicide bomber: he loves femme fatales. Much of his best work blends eros and thanatos, sex and death. As with her being a humanities major and an “exchange” student, poetic resonance trumps realism.
That’s Miller’s right, of course, as an artist. But it demonstrates that his poetics trump his politics. If this is propaganda, it’s elegant propaganda — but like most propaganda, it bears only a passing semblance to actual reality.
We get more examples of this poetry as the flashback continues. But Miller’s a creator who can veer from powerful concision to purple prose. As an example of the latter, captions presumably representing Amina’s thought describe Empire City as “always building itself up bigger, taller, like some mad gaggle of robots.” The point, presumably, is to contrast American progress with technophobic Muslim backwardness, and the captions further underline this, saying that Empire City’s “towers stab into the sky like sharpened sticks aimed at the eyes of God.” Even “spears,” presumably, would be too advanced a word — or perhaps it would conjure too easily the racist depictions of Africa, and thereby make a bit too obvious the racism inherent in Miller’s own depictions. Never mind, of course, that America’s long ceded the skyscraper race to Asia and Arab nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, which sees no conflict whatsoever between “bigger, taller” and Islam. Even here, as it stokes fear of Muslim exchange students, Holy Terror presents little more than a caricature of Islam, one that echoes with the insecure fever of a waning superpower.
After captions repeat over again many of the same adjectives used to describe America just the page before, a young American man named Jaye approaches Amina. He’s drinking and has several piercings, which may or may not represent America’s pre-9/11 self-indulgence. He’s obviously intent on hitting on Amina, and he lets her drink his beer.
Here again, Holy Terror manages to evoke poetically while failing completely to represent reality. It’s rich that the dying girl’s final act, before blowing herself up, is to indulge in intoxicants, if only just a swig of beer — and from a strange man’s bottle too. Miller probably intends this to be evidence of her hypocrisy — one last, brief fling before eternal marriage to God. A tiny bit of alcoholic courage before explosive death.
But in fact, Muslim fundamentalist sleeper agents in Western nations are told to adopt Western lifestyles as a way of blending in. Drinking isn’t allowed; it’s encouraged. Premarital sex and use of prostitutes is equally permitted, thereby adding to the worldly appeals available to the suicide bomber. The real hypocrisy of Muslim terrorists isn’t a pre-suicide lapse — it’s that all other Islamic strictures are jettisoned except for the murderous mission. But depicting this would illustrate that such terrorists aren’t good Muslims, aren’t consistent followers of the Koran — that they pick and choose from their holy text precisely as Miller has, with his opening quotation. This truth would undermine the text’s propagandistic intent, dividing observant Muslims from terrorist sleeper agents, and so it’s replaced with Miller’s stark poetry.
This same dynamic applies to the page’s haunting final panel, in which Amina says she might come from the Dark Ages but she might also come from the future. The dialogue is natural, and it turns with such profound beauty. Here is Bush’s clash of civilizations, written in a naturalistic poetry Bush could never attain. Yet this dialogue would fail completely without its radical uncertainty, a trait uncommon in either American rhetoric or (one assumes) in suicide bombers. Beneath this terse, poetic exchange lies the West’s profound anxiety: its fear of decline, its fear that it may rule today but is old and bureaucratic and vulnerable, its fear that tomorrow belongs to someone else, somewhere else — in Asia or the Middle East. And worse: that all the West’s proud achievements, whether in science or human rights, might too be swept into the sea, as once befell Rome. That the future might belong not to some new empire, like China, but to the nihilism of the suicide bomber, who far more horrifically overthrows Rome because getting to the Dark Ages is the point. As black-and-white propaganda goes, it doesn’t get better than this.
Yet here again, the propaganda bears little relationship to its real-life target. It relies upon the Western view that Muslim nations are somehow stuck in the Middle Ages, when the West was theocratic and found religious tolerance unthinkable. But this view presumes a single course of cultural development, parallel to the Western one. And as we’ve already touched upon, Dubai hardly looks or feels Medieval, with its skyscrapers that dwarf Manhattan’s, its connection to the global economy, or its 21st-century infrastructure surpassing the crumbling bridges and slow internet service of the United States.
Afghanistan does look Medieval — and often acted like it, under the Taliban. But despite its poverty and repressive theocracy and geographic isolation, it had televisions and pornography and automatic weapons and most of the modern accouterments, even if they were part of an underground economy concealed from the religious authorities. The Muslim world is far too wide and diverse — not to mention defined more by national history and culture than by any supposedly monolithic religion — for any “Dark Ages” metaphor to stick. In fact, the Muslim world isn’t even a predominantly Arab one: there are far more Muslims in Africa than in the Middle East.
Then there’s the irony that a large part of what got the West out of the Middle Ages were Arab Muslims, who had saved Greek and Latin literature and learning, while Christians were busy burning them under the pretext that there could be no learning before Christ. Indeed, Muslim Persia was then far ahead of Christian Europe in science and philosophy. And among the many causes for the Dark Ages, one was indisputably Christianity and the theocratic policies of the Christian emperors. (The degree to which this is true quite alarmed historians, following Edward Gibbons’s masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — the first volume of which was appropriately published in 1776, when some British colonies declared their independence as a secular state.) None of this is to say, of course, that Islam is good and Christianity evil; both have their historical merits and crimes, neither of which should be forgotten. But to cite the Dark Ages in a work of anti-Islamic propaganda is a very ignorant thing to do indeed.
So: wrong, wrong-headed, and dangerously ignorant — but oh, so poetically powerful.
As the flashback sequence continues, Miller plays up the eros / thanatos theme quite masterfully. There’s young Jaye, eyeing Amina’s butt in such an innocent, sex-positive way. And there’s Amina, smiling and seducing, taking his hand, her pink lips whispering in close-up, “Stay close to me.” A death sentence, sealed through seduction. She’s the black widow of terrorism. The way jihadists would look, if they lived in Sin City.
The sequence culminates in a page worth of panels, showing individuals in the club, all of whom are about to die. It’s a powerful device, a way of personalizing the victims, to which Miller will return.
Careful (I won’t say “observant”) readers will note the Star of David in the last such victim, although it’s quite possible a club such as this would contain Muslim young people too. That might have been a good opportunity to underline, as both Bush and Obama have, how Muslim terrorists the world over have disproportionately killed other Muslims. But Holy Terror misses that opportunity, perhaps for the same reason it misses the opportunity to paint Muslim sleeper agents as hypocrites who care nothing for Islamic rules: propaganda has little room for truth beyond the selective facts that suit its aims. That selective opening quotation is looking more and more like a key to the text, only not in the way it might have been intended. And yet, to acknowledge this twisting of the truth is to dismiss the work as having almost any political relevance at all, to reduce it to a rhetorical and aesthetic exercise.
As that, Holy Terror succeeds wildly, even in this very troubling flashback. Amid those individuals in the club are a couple images without faces: an attractive girl’s midriff, a bra-covered breast. The club, after all, is a temple dedicated to the hook-up, a monument to the West’s sexual liberation. And Amina, despite her skimpy outfit, has come not to bear sex but to destroy it.
“There’s something under your coat — what is it?” asks Jaye.
“Paradise,” Amina whispers back, her lips all but touching his.
As we turn the page, we’re treated to another explosion with flying nails. All those individuals of the page before, including Jaye and Amina, are gone, vaporized, reduced to a white background and black outlines of debris.
Eros turns to thanatos. Sex to death. What’s under her coat isn’t her breasts or her thighs or her sex. That’s the paradise he seeks, naively. It is of this world. The paradise she offers is in the next, and for her alone.
On offer here is nothing short of a renewal of the tired trope of femme fatale, recast for the age of terrorism as a suicide bomber. That’s a masterful coup, with some concise dialogue that should make any writer jealous.
It’s the culmination of what ought to be a profoundly disturbing sequence — and not only for its depiction of an upsetting and deplorable terrorist attack. Perhaps Miller simply needed a female Muslim name and chose that of Mohammad’s mother. Perhaps Miller simply chose to make this murderess an exchange student and a humanities major for the ironic poetic resonance they permitted, rather than any deeper message against Muslim exchange students or against the ivory tower that insists upon looking at the history of religions in context. Perhaps Miller, a great lover of the femme fatale, similarly chose a female suicide bomber for the poetic possibilities. Perhaps Miller simply doesn’t know that, even as the most fundamentalist sleeper agent, this wouldn’t have been her first taste of beer. Perhaps he’s only creating a powerful poetic riff off the common misconception that Muslims live in the Middle Ages, rather than meaning to invest that myth with his demonstrable poetic might. Perhaps he chose to depict a Jew among the victims at the club as a sign that he was drawing inspiration from the real-world bombing of an Israeli discotheque, rather than as a message that Israelis are the victims and Palestinians the aggressors in that particular longstanding and complicated conflict — a message strongly identified with wider Islamophobia.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But the odds are long against all of this being the result of coincidence and ignorance.
And consider: this entire six-page flashback, which introduces so many troubling elements into Holy Terror, isn’t necessary for the larger story at all. No one will reference Amina or this particular bombing again. It’s only one of many, going on around Empire City — as we’ll soon see when we rejoin the Fixer and Cat Burglar.
This fact actually becomes harder to discern because of the flashback’s presence. As Jaye arrives, the bomb encountered by the Fixer and Cat Burglar has already gone off, although readers would be forgiven for missing this, given how Amina’s captions don’t explicitly say what the sound is and Jaye offers a more mundane explanation, which she doesn’t correct. Given that the reader knows this is a flashback, it would be natural for the reader to guess its subject is that first bomb — the only one we’ve yet encountered. Flashbacks generally illuminate events already seen, after all. This one strangely supplements them, taking us out of the narrative. The story would actually read more fluidly with the flashback removed. It feels like a late addition to the text. Given this, one has to assume the sequence held some particular importance for Miller.
True, the flashback dramatizes a bombing from ground level, which Miller might have otherwise felt was lacking. It’s important, after all, to show such things, if only to honor the victims by not making such attacks distant and relevant only for the chaos they represent for our protagonists. But then, if this were the goal, wouldn’t Miller want to make the bombing he did show representative of the many not shown? Why, then, make so many idiosyncratic choices that happen to suggest the worst about Islam while also bearing little resemblance to real-world suicide bombings?
An agenda is emerging, amid all the snappy lines and brilliant visuals. The evidence is mounting, in bits and drabs, although there’s no smoking gun.
It’s enough to make one think that there’s something more to the way Miller uses sex and death here than the reframing of the femme fatale.
If Amina, as her name suggests, represents Islam, she’s seductive. But she rewards interest only with death.
She is, after all, masquerading as an exchange student. If you try to make that exchange, whether of culture at a university or of bodily fluids at a club, you’ll not receive in return what you expect.
Perhaps I’m overanalyzing, I hear you say. It’s all quite academic, quite theoretical. Very well.
But consider that sex is a powerful urge. The femme fatale works because we understand the attraction. Stories of adulterers (like the movie Fatal Attraction) that lead to the wrath of a femme fatale are cautionary tales. So too are horror movies, which reward their teenage lovers with death, as if a cosmic rule within their universes. So too is any thing of beauty that turns out to be deadly. That’s because sex and death are primal. They’re emotional. They short-circuit the reason. To depict something — be it drugs or crime or Islam — as alluring, only to show it killing those who are tempted, activates a primal fear within us. It’s a common method of conditioning, and it’s been used in propaganda for a very long time.
So none of these messages about Islam, nor their inaccuracies, need be understood to have their effect.
The reader, like Jaye, is placed in the position of being seduced. And then killed.
And the miracle of it is: you don’t have to even believe a depiction accurate for it to have an emotional effect. You can know better, you can tell yourself that any terrorist would hide better, but all the statistics in the world won’t stop you from sweating, when a man in a head scarf gets on the plane.
That’s fear. It’s not rational. And the flashback sequence, whatever Miller’s intent, could hardly have been better designed to inspire it.
In this, as with so much in Holy Terror, every intended propagandistic message, once understood, deconstructs itself. To equivocate between Islam and the Dark Ages is actually to illustrate there’s sadly nothing unprecedented or unique to Islam in even its worst extremes. To depict the suicide bomber as a woman is to do Al-Qaeda’s propaganda for it. So too is to inspire American fear of Islam, which was obviously part of bin Laden’s intent. Few works of fiction allow themselves to be more terrorized by terrorism than does Holy Terror.
The book is, like Amina, erotic. Enticing. An aesthetic and even a poetic feast.
But beneath its luster lies something deadly. And uglier than anything drawn in ink on its pages.
It is also, like Amina, a trap. But the trap isn’t merely Holy Terror. It’s the way pain and fear can make you irrational, causing you to act out in contradictory and self-destructive ways. It’s the trap the terrorist sets, knowing he or she cannot win conventionally against his militarily superior enemy, without making that enemy flail and hurt himself.
To deny its the trap’s allure is to fail to understand how the trap works. But to fail to identify the trap as a trap is merely to be caught in it.