The Cinema King]
It's been said that Frank Miller has lost his touch. To be sure, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is nowhere near the one-two punch of The Dark Knight Returns or Year One (although I contend that All-Star Batman and Robin is more readable than its detractors give it credit). While his early work has been all but canonized, Miller's post-9/11 work has been criticized, often in tandem with his polarizing political perspective.
All Miller's extreme conservatism, all his political anger, all his willingness to sacrifice aesthetics for the sake of his message -- all of that gets distilled into Frank Miller's Holy Terror, an oversized OGN with the physical dimensions of 300 and the political subtlety of ... well, Frank Miller.
While in hot pursuit of slinky cat burglar Natalie Stack, Empire City's great defender -- The Fixer -- is caught off-guard by a series of coordinated suicide bombings. The Fixer knows intuitively that it's the work of Al-Qaeda, led by a chainmailed successor of bin Laden. Unable to trust the cops of Empire City -- even "tough cop" Dan Donegal -- The Fixer drafts Natalie Stack into the war for some good old-fashioned "postmodern diplomacy."
Originally conceived as a Batman vehicle, Holy Terror never lets you forget that fact. The Fixer, Natalie Stack, and Dan Donegal are straight out of Gotham City (with a healthy dose of Sin City, especially the scene in which The Fixer seems to visit Old Town). But despite Miller's attempts to distance himself from his original version of the story -- the cleverest being when Natalie Stack inquires about The Fixer's origins by asking, "Murdered parents? An exploded planet?" -- it's nigh impossible to read this story without seeing Batman, Catwoman, and Jim Gordon.
That said, there are a number of reasons why Holy Terror could never work as a Batman story -- even one written by Frank Miller. The rooftop-chase-turned-sex-scene between The Fixer and Natalie Stack isn't a far cry from Miller's All-Star Batman, but The Fixer's casual use of lethal force is. As a Batman exaggeration, The Fixer is perhaps more appealing; strip away the mantle of the Bat, and you have a less than compelling character. Ostensibly Miller's heroic avatar, The Fixer is "ready for killing," and the only thing he seems to fear is falling in love with his sultry sidekick.
With The Fixer as a stand-in figure for Miller himself, the message is entirely clear -- the United States faces a monstrous opponent and must repay blood with blood. He's not far off the mark, politically speaking, but his approach is more than a touch reductive. Miller's indictment of contemporary figures (i.e., Obama, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton) is less convincing, since it's done haphazardly and scattershot. Miller's finger of blame is rightly pointed at the extremist terrorists, who are seen to manipulate malleable minds with promises of paradise, but the attempts to accuse American figures of guilt by silent complicity is less successful.
The most fruitful work Miller does, however, is to humanize the conflict by bookending scenes of violence with small panels which provide close-ups on the faces of the victims. Miller's artwork, recalling the loose sketchy quality of Sin City, captures perfectly the innocence of the doomed and the raging madness of their killers. Elsewhere, Miller's art proves to be Holy Terror's greatest strength, taking advantage of the book's widescreen dimensions to capture the dynamism of the rooftop chases and to thrill the reader with cinematic action sequences.
For as large as the Holy Terror is, though, it's an incredibly quick read, in part because there's nothing particularly innovative about the story. The splash pages are lavish, but the plot can be telegraphed from the bookshelf. We know how this is going to turn out from page one, and it's diverting enough -- but not terribly substantive. The final pages fall flat, failing to deliver any kind of conclusion to the story. With a stronger ending, Holy Terror might have transcended accusations of shallow war-mongering, but as it stands the book concludes as an empty popcorn action film -- granted, entertaining in the brief time it'll take to read, but ultimately empty nonetheless.