For the better part of a decade, Frank Miller has been talking about a graphic novel on terrorism called “Holy Terror,” but it was only this week that he could say the one sentence everyone was waiting to hear. “I’m done,” Miller said. “It was eight years in the making, but I’m done.”
The 120-page book will hit the shelves right after the 1oth anniversary of 9/11 and Miller — the 54-year-old creator of “”The Dark Knight Returns,” “”300” and “Sin City” — promises that the tale and imagery will be “pretty rough,” which is saying something given his history of scorching political rhetoric and ultra-violent artwork.
For many followers of Miller’s career, though, the biggest shock of “Holy Terror” is the fact that it’s actually reaching stores. Miller is arguably the most important comic book artist of the last three decades but in recent years he has been a figure of absence and uncertainty following his Hollywood misadventure as the writer-director of the 2008 film “The Spirit.”
More than that, “Holy Terror” looked like damaged goods from a distance. In 2006, Miller had talked publicly about the project as a Batman epic titled “Holy Terror, Batman!” with the Caped Crusader undertaking a blood quest against the Taliban after a terrorist attack on his beloved Gotham City. The subject matter, the sneering title and Miller’s own history of give-’em-hell politics promised a book that would land in pop culture like a Molotov cocktail.
But, as the seasons went by, the endeavor lost momentum and changed dramatically. Most notably, it was no longer a Batman story — whether that decision was made by Miller or by hand-wringing executives at DC depends on who you ask. By last year, the project had morphed into a tale of a para-military avenger nicknamed The Fixer and the setting of New York City. But there were also signs that “Xerxes,” a follow-up to “300,” was the real front-burner project for Miller and, with its aura of Hollywood interest, wouldn’t look like a total retreat from Tinseltown endeavors.
The script flipped this week, however, when a new company called Legendary Comics put out a press release promising that “Holy Terror” will arrive in stores in September in a hardcover that “seizes the political zeitgeist by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last page.” The images released so far suggest that, at least visually, The Fixer looks a lot like Bruce Wayne’s brutal alter ego and his fishnet female friend looks a lot like Catwoman — it seems fair to assume that Miller was able to revamp the pages from his early labors without too much heavy lifting.
Legendary Comics is the latest venture by Thomas Tull, who arrived in Hollywood with a passion for comics, a desire to make movies and considerable resources as the founder of Legendary Pictures, which has hedge-fund investors and Wall Street credibility. Legendary has produced more than two dozen films with Warner Bros., starting with “Batman Begins” in 2005. The list includes “The Dark Knight,” “Watchmen,” “Clash of the Titans,” “The Hangover” films and “300,” the Zack Snyder-directed hit that adapted Miller’s landmark comics mini-series of grim Spartan honor.
Snyder and Tull have talked with passion about a “300” follow-up called “Xerxes” that would be based on Miller’s in-the-works comics series but that’s on hold while the two Hollywood collaborators turn their attentions to next year’s Superman movie. Tull in the meantime is launching a comic-book company with “Holy Terror,” but Miller said this is more than a moonlighting publishing project or collaborative stopgap.
“He carries his own credentials obviously and that brings its own excitement,” Miller said of Tull. “It was great just to sit across the table from him and show him my paintings and get his reaction of shock and of thrill at the same time. Some of these images are pretty rough.”
Asked for an example of the roughness, Miller said: “Well, out of nowhere, needles start flying through the air and it’s a very resonant image. Suicide bombers pack themselves with nails and ball bearings and razor blades and all kinds of things like that. When my hero finds a nail in [a victim’s] knee it sort of brings the whole thing home emotionally.”
Miller said “Holy Terror” and its Manhattan menace are now as far from Gotham as “Sin City.”
“I took Batman as far as anyone, and this guy is just not him. He’s been playing the crime fighter to stay in shape. What he really wants to do is fight terrorism. He knew the day would come. The story is essentially New York under attack by suicide bombers and our hero is out to find out their greater scheme. He’s much more a man of action than a detective. He’s a two-fisted Dirty Harry type, really.”
The story began as a fresh-wound response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 but that too has changed through the years. Miller says 9/11 sent him to his art table with rage in the earliest days of the project, but that over time there were shifts and twists in his emotions.
“At the beginning this project torqued me up even more; the first batch of pages screamed with how New York tasted and how it felt,” he said. “Gradually the story became more linear and less emotional. It’s not me screaming for 109 pages. There’s a balance there. There had to be. What surprised me is that were touches of humor in the course of the story. I never would have predicted that early on. It began utterly humorless.”
Miller has said in a way he is going back to the FDR era of comics when heroes and creators amped up their stories with patriotic anger and didn’t mute the color of their work with political correctness.
“I’m a comic book artist first and foremost; as I got into this I felt probably something close to what Jack Kirby felt when he created Captain America,” Miller said. “There’s a gut-level intensity to the work but there’s also levels where it needs to be entertainment. And this is propaganda. I think it’s a much abused word. I think most things I read on the Internet and in newspapers is propaganda. Everyone from the New York Times to Rupert Murdoch has a point of view and is putting forth their own propaganda. They’re stuck with the facts as they are but the way they interpret and frame them is wildly different.”
The art of Miller has changed dramatically through the decades. Early on, during his landmark run on “Daredevil,” his covers showed a gift for audacious composition and a flair for fierce melodrama and violence, but many of the panels inside were guided by the work of his mentor Neal Adams. Miller has said he could never compete with supple illustrator gifts of contemporaries such as John Byrne, so he went deeper into a sort of kinetic impressionism and stark use of line, void and shadow. That led to a disdain for realism and naturalistic tendencies in comics; the storytelling and style of “Sin City” and “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” show a creator going off the grid of traditional superhero comics both literally and figuratively. “Holy Terror” is the next step in that artistic odyssey.
“It is more raw and unfettered and I’m more likely going into something you could call extreme cartooning,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of that in the course of ‘Holy Terror.’ There are interludes where there are pictures — cartoon pictures — of modern figures and they are all wordless. It’s up to readers to put the words in.”
Miller is a provocative figure and he delights in a return to the battlefields of cultural debate. During the ramp-up to “300” — the film that so faithfully adapted the Miller comic book mini-series of the same name — Miller was a bit of a talk-show sensation with his scorching sound bytes regarding Islam and Persian history. Miller is clearly ready to get back in the mix. Asked if “Holy Terror” will rile people up, he chuckled before answering.
“I sure hope so,” Miller said. “I hope it shakes people up. I’m not around to mollify. We’re living in a terrifying time and it’s changed us. Look, my decision to make this not a Batman project was part of that. Do I really want to draw a guy chasing the Riddler around town? No. The stakes are higher now.”
— Geoff Boucher
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