Review: Frank Miller’s ‘Holy Terror’ Is Sickening — But We Should Still Take It Seriously

It would be delightful to dismiss Frank Miller’s dreadful new graphic novel, Holy Terror, as a simple but significant misfire by a once-talented artist. But the viciously Islamophobic sentiments and sexualization of torture that permeate the book aren’t fringe beliefs that we can ignore because they have no chance of taking hold. Instead, variants of these sentiments have guided American foreign policy and domestic sentiments in disastrous directions and fuel a wide-ranging industry.

To be clear, even without its noxious politics, Holy Terror wouldn’t be a good book. Much of the story takes place on a rainy night, and the cross-hatching meant to indicate the storm adds a muddy quality to the images. The images of bodies may not reach Rob Liefeld levels of offensiveness, but only because they lack any of the specificity to be distinct, much less disgustingly sexist, though an early image of our purported heroine Natalie’s rear end is about as specific as things get. When she and the Fixer, ostensibly her enemy, her occasional lover, and in the course of the book, her soulmate, have sex on a roof, they’re an indistinct black mass. The story operates on a level of assertion rather than demonstration. For a story about a terrorist attack, it’s deeply dull.

When it’s not downright disgusting. Miller’s clearly working from a framework that assumes that on September 11, everything changes. Our Natalie, a sneak thief, finds the experience of getting a nail through the leg from a bomb packed with them clarifying:

They knew where to hit us. They knew exactly where to hit us. All my life, there’s been something wrong. Something missing. A sense that everything I’m seeing around me isn’t entirely true. That this seemingly orderly world of laws and logic and reason is nothing but a shroud, a chimera. A mask. But every once in a long while, the mask falls away. Every once in a long while, the whole world makes perfect sense. The world reveals itself. I am at peace. And at war.

This fetishization of conflict is bad enough, but I can see a scenario where a state of war might be morally clarifying. If you’d been beating the drum about atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s regime against Jews and other Nazi victims for years, a declaration of war against the regime might have felt like an end to a disgusting fiction. But there’s a difference between a declaration that certain things are unacceptable and a change of state that lets you indulge your darkest desires, validating behaviors that were previously unacceptable. And Holy Terror is decidedly in the latter category.

Even by the standards of contemporary popular culture, the book’s fetish for torture is astonishing. As Natalie and the Fixer move from rooftop sex to combat mode, their conversation about violence still sounds like they’re negotiating levels of consent for sex acts. “We’ll have to torture him,” the Fixer warns Natalie as they “engage in postmodern diplomacy,” a sick joke for killing a lot of people. Their torture and crippling of the surviving man (who the Fixer insists must be named Muhammad) has a definitive sexual overtone to it as they work together — as does a latter scene where terrorists tie Natalie up in knots that resemble Japanese rope bondage. As if that wasn’t enough, Miller establishes a position to the right of even Israeli hardliners when Natalie and the Fixer hook up with a mysterious man with a blue Star of David tattooed on his face who, as the Fixer explains is “the most dangerous man alive…Mossad didn’t have much use for him. They found his interrogation methods a little too intense.” When the Fixer kills an enormous number of people, that’s the moment when Natalie realizes that “So okay, now maybe I’m in love too.”

No institution’s safe from Miller’s nasty paranoia. The Fixer has Empire City’s police commissioner assassinated because “he needs killing. I’ve been on his trail for months. He’s rotten…He’s one of them. He misdirected every squad car in town. He left us wide open.” A New York mosque funded by Saudi Arabian interests is supposed to be the base for the attack on Empire City in echoes of the vicious slanders against Park51. Al Qaeda operatives mock Empire City residents for being naive to the threat of terrorism, speechifying at Natalie that “You westerners slay me with your naivete. We come right out and call ourselves Al Qaeda—the Cell—and you don’t stop to consider what that means. We’re scarcely a microbe. A speck. A tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief.”

That this is boring and cliche doesn’t make it any less noxious. It’s unfortunate that Frank Miller, once a significant talent in comics, has fallen to this level of political and artistic incoherence. But it’s much, much worse that our country fell, in significant ways, victim to that same twisted thinking.