hmm... On consideration, I rather liked it! Yes, it requires consideration (and an atlas -- see below). My first reaction was less favorable, though I couldn't help feeling strangely drawn to the tortured artwork. By a literalist approach, this graphic novel gives the impression of a banally scripted revenge fantasy tethered to a skimpy plot: embodying America's post-9/11 combative urge to strike back at Someone Over There, we have "The Fixer" who in anti-heroic form will make the threatened Empire all better by busting toweled heads. The best defense is a strong offense, and The Fixer certainly knows how to take offense -- he takes it all the way to the enemy's front door.
But there's more going on here. The storytelling throughout is dense with symbolism. To read it prima facie as a propagandist slam against Islam is to vastly oversimplify its scope and I think uncharitably fails to credit its author for keener sense. Frank Miller's "Holy Terror" is political commentary delivered with a punch, a kick, an eye-gouge -- it's unrestrained Juvenalian satire at once straightforwardly damning of jihadist psychoses yet also reflecting on the erosion of democratic values as a casualty of the War on Terror, simultaneously potent as an emotively rendered memorial to the victims of a national tragedy.
The opening chase sequence maps a conspicuous geography of shadowed tenement buildings -- that's New York State outlined on page 4, events navigating toward Ground Zero. Deluged by a violent climate, Liberty's rightful place has been usurped by blind justice. Captions spun in staccato beats disclose that Empire City isn't a proxy for Gotham, it's America. Our cowled crusaders aren't mere stand-ins for Gotham's nocturnal players but are symbolic of larger entities: the militant Right is engendered in a quasi-fascist vigilante taking unilateral action, blunt as a fist; the wounded nation's Left is personified as a sometime burglar of the public purse and flighty bitch [sic] who shouldn't forget how she cried and cried when the Empire's towering legs were nailed by a terrorist act -- something like that. Authority meets Liberalism, per respective costuming. Initially communicating in savage grunts (is this what partisan discourse has been reduced to?), their relationship is adversarial yet ultimately conjoined, as effected in romantic dallying. To my reckoning, these political representatives are more attuned to DC's "Hawk and Dove" (the 1988 gender-revised team) than simple substitutes for Batman and Catwoman.
Textually minimalist (mostly), the book's many arresting images unspool like a portfolio of political cartoons strung in sequence to pantomime an essay. Snapshot caricatures paint a range of reactions to the terrorist attack: the Mujahideen basking in a flurry of WTC ashes; Arab crowds in defiant celebration; President G.W.Bush, morose; Michael Moore depicted as a snide opportunist; Dick Cheney, ornery (/no change); Karl Rove brimming with fiendish designs; Saudi royalty outwardly saddened, a suggestive partial fingerprint blemishing his image. As Ariel Sharon worries of regional conflagration newly poised at Israel's doorstep, one cleric is seen denouncing the attack, another calling for jihad while clips of the atrocity replay in media (or in memory) with numbing frequency.
Among the gallery of full-page spreads, there's America (reproduced on the back cover, rotate 45 degrees for geometric approximation) as the strained linchpin of world order, mistargeted "shock and awe" raining hell on Baghdad, boots on the ground "playing their cards" in cartoonish prowling and networking through neighbouring territory (reminiscent of WWI flying ace Snoopy skulking across occupied countryside in "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"), followed on the reverse page by army forces vaulting into southern Afghanistan, hands straddling the Pakistani border (made to resemble a scraggly corrugated cable) -- consult aforementioned atlas.
Read between the lines to decode the dialogue's ingenious duality. The visited "rusty old factory" is Israel; the "beautiful Asian twins" are its polar feuding tenants, with American diplomacy caught in the middle, wary of being "cut in half at any second." See your atlas again: the negative space composing that panel looks fashioned after pre-1967 borders, the Star of David "spook" tracing the West Bank representing God ("...they'd die for Him, if they weren't so busy killing for Him"). Suddenly, every banal line swells pregnant with hidden meaning, every ambiguous pronoun thrown into question. While the title "Holy Terror" plays tongue-in-cheek as a parodying 1960's Batman camp exclamation, it also mirrors the earnest title of Terry Eagleton's 2005 non-fiction book, an investigative analysis of the theological roots of terrorism. The Fixer's reference to "something Biblical at midnight" would be global Armageddon ("...don't press the Red Button or we're all dead"). The story's closing act becomes an "Apocalypse Now"-type fantastical journey into the heart of darkness for a final confrontation. Spartan helmets -- ghosting ancient trophies of Roman-Persian wars -- mark a path to the Underworld ("the city below") as the paradise of Al-Qaeda ambition, whose "upside down" ideological fatalism is spawned of Evil, "an organism so vast as to be beyond belief"; that farcical IRA fugitive dropping hellish metaphors with mad abandon would be the Devil, eager to collect on mass murder, indifferent to whose or their philosophies.
The book's moral perspective isn't entirely one-sided as Miller proves unapologetic in lambasting fundamentalism of various stripes. A rogue F18 fighter jet seen destroying Justice (striking at the heart of tabula ansata) is no foreign attacker but the immediate consequence of neocon policies having hijacked the law for the sake of expediency on the preceding page, symbolized by a stolen police car in which The Fixer is shown to "hear voices", dually suggesting a radio earpiece and/or religious delusion matching the purported evangelical motivations for GWB's invasion of Iraq. The barbarism of Sharia law is cast beside the military fetishism of American culture, where adolescent accolades ("kewl!") at a "Transformers" screening bring to mind the public titillation over embedded TV news coverage riding shotgun on the warpath rolling into Baghdad. A seemingly misplaced portrait of relative non-participant Sarah Palin contrasts Western social opportunity versus brutal misogyny on offer in the Eastern corner of the same page.
As far as accusations of bigotry go, I don't see that Miller is dramatizing anything in this work that doesn't reflect the reality of lacerating statements that were regularly expressed by Western voices in the aftermath of 9/11. Saved for posterity, I still have a complete weekend edition newspaper from September 15, 2001. It's a strange artifact to revisit with hindsight: its block-font headlines ring grave with solemnity, article writers throughout struggle to collect their thoughts even as politicians sketch battle plans, and editorializing everywhere palpably shudders with raging venom, impatient to exact retribution, post-haste, irrespective of target -- we're not too picky, "Moe"; I think it's sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that the wrong country was hastily invaded. Drafted toward that end, the Left here becomes complicit by Cat Burglar's "I'm down with that," if elsewhere qualifying, "Don't get used to it."
Embracing risk, Frank Miller's heavily stylized art affects mixed feelings. His brush in the opening half is hyper-expressionistic, emotionally ragged and bolting with the murderous intensity of story events, barely a gentle line in sight. That's not ink spilled across the pages, it's spilt blood. Silhouetted forms are assaulted by a frenetic downpour of whiteout swipes closely resembling real-life crime scenes where mutilated corpses have been unceremoniously dragged across a surface, scoring an abrasion trail of smeared gore. I expect this visual analogy was Miller's aim, with blood-spatter detritus, ashen glove-print blotches and busily swarming boot tracks defacing the layouts, as if these pages of art were forensic evidence recovered from the investigation of a grisly massacre -- namely, that of pre-9/11 America. Miller's technique through this section appears deliberately inelegant in its blotting escalation: he wants the ugliness kept raw, unchoreographed and frustrating, the skies raining a literal storm of blood. It's all very "performance art" in its execution, the two heroes almost like contemporary dancers taking a series of crumpled poses, battered and demolished as the twin towers; meanwhile, the avante-garde inking made to mimic ruination provokes the desired visceral response: its unattractiveness utterly infuriates the eye much as the historical event depicted.
The aesthetic is vastly improved in later pages unmarred by that precipitous noise, particularly in artful compositions toward the end, though the book becomes very thin by then, its abbreviated pacing feeling out of balance against the overlong opening hellstorm. For all the critical hullabaloo regarding its jingoistic plot, the story sees surprisingly little combat action. There's a quickie four-page conflict halfway though, then another small round of terrorist-squashing ballet in a symbolically realized bloodbath drawing to the climactic finish. Readers anticipating an orgy of vertebrae-snapping brutality on par with Sin City's extruded sadism may be disappointed at just how fleeting this material feels by comparison.
A number of reviewers have complained that it's hard to discern what's happening in the art, but I found this to be an issue only in one panel which questionably portrays a man in profile being electrically tortured, perhaps framed within a map of Kuwait. Given reports that terrorist suspects were interrogated at secret torture sites within accommodating Arab states, Miller may be obscuring its depiction precisely to suspend clarification on those allegations, the art forcing us to wonder what exactly is transpiring there (both abroad and in-panel). Another page features a woman's scarlet shoe scaled impossibly large amid the wreckage of the WTC towers; presumably this piece is an abstract study on the phrase "waiting for the other shoe to drop" (viewed in past-tense) as was nationally felt once the first tower came crashing down, earlier represented by a breathlessly gasping image of Not-Catwoman falling. Yes, this brand of layered sophistication is gunning for the high Art literati (be forewarned, fanboys). But why are the soles of her boots colored red everywhere, their tread pattern vaguely avian? Is it just to facilitate visual identification? Some cautionary statement relating to fallen empires (evoking bristled Roman headgear)? Hijacked airplanes? Bloody political footprints? ...Louboutin footwear??
My main complaint -- apart from such purposed obfuscation in much of the symbolism -- is that the book's landscape format is sometimes confusing where inconsistently assigning two standard comic book pages to a single horizontal spread with nothing in the arrangement to separate them, making it difficult to determine the reading order of panels. The semi-gloss paper is also fairly flimsy as pages buckle disposably while peeling through them in this wide format, although packaging the ugliness on higher quality stock might somehow compromise the message.
FYI: "Amina" = Arabic name meaning "honest, faithful". The mother of the prophet Mohammed.
Dare I suggest an identity for that shrouded figure being clobbered toothless on the book's cover? "You've got to admit the odds are pretty good it's..." Yep, boldly depicted front and center, akin to the cheekily masked workaround in the infamous "South Park" episode. Deny everything, Frank.