For years, Frank Miller spoke of a Gotham City graphic novel that would be like no other — for the 120 bone-crunching pages of “Holy Terror, Batman!” Miller — arguably the most important comic book artist of the last 30 years — envisioned a story in which the Caped Crusader went on a blood quest against Al Qaeda.
Earlier this week, sitting over coffee at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, Miller said the elusive project is finally close to completion but that the name and central character have changed and that DC Comics won’t be the publisher. Miller frames all of this as a decision that was driven by the work itself and not dictated by a DC leadership that, according to insiders, has long been leery of the politically charged concept.
“It’s almost done; I should be finished within a month,” Miller said. “It’s no longer a DC book. I decided partway through it that it was not a Batman story. The hero is much closer to ‘Dirty Harry’ than Batman. It’s a new hero that I’ve made up that fights Al Qaeda.”
Miller, best known as the writer and artist of “The Dark Knight Returns,” “300“ and “Sin City,” said the story will be set in a place called Empire City that, as the name suggests, evokes New York. The landscape and people are fictional but the real-life Al Qaeda will be transferred to this universe with its name, history and mission intact.
The book’s title will be shortened to “Holy Terror.” And what of the protagonist?
“The character is called The Fixer and he’s very much an adventurer who’s been essentially searching for a mission,” Miller said. “He’s been trained as special ops and when his city is attacked all of a sudden all the pieces fall into place and all this training comes into play. He’s been out there fighting crime without really having his heart in it — he does it to keep in shape. He’s very different than Batman in that he’s not a tortured soul. He’s a much more well-adjusted creature even though he happens to shoot 100 people in the course of the story.”
In the 1980s, Miller was permitted to take the iconic Batman character through an unprecedented reinvention with “The Dark Knight Returns,” which showed the embittered hero in his twilight years when Gotham has collapsed into near-anarchy and the Caped Crusader finds himself being hunted down by Superman and engaging the Joker in a battle to the death. “The Dark Knight Returns” became a publishing sensation and, along with “Watchmen,” ushered in a new era of ambition in the comic book medium that led directly to the contemporary boom in superhero cinema.
Despite that history, DC executives were reportedly leery of Miller’s plan to drop their globally recognized property inside an Al Qaeda vendetta fantasy. Miller, though, says he is the one who decided to leave the familiar hero in the Batcave for this particular mission.
“I had a talk with [former DC president and publisher] Paul Levitz and I said, ‘Look, this isn’t your Batman,'” Miller said. “I pushed Batman as far as he can go and after a while he stops being Batman. My guy carries a couple of guns and is up against an existential threat. He’s not just up against a goofy villain. Ignoring an enemy that’s committed to our annihilation is kind of silly, It just seems that chasing the Riddler around seems silly compared to what’s going on out there. I’ve taken Batman as far as he can go.”
Miller said he will complete the book before he signs with a publisher. “I’m talking to a number of people,” says Miller, who has often worked with Dark Horse Comics in the past. Miller said the book will come out “next year, certainly,” and he likes the idea of a hardcover, horizontal format, not unlike the Dark Horse deluxe version of the Spartan epic “300.”
Miller became part of the Hollywood boom in superhero and comics adaptations as the director of “The Spirit” and the co-director (with Robert Rodriguez) of “Sin City.” Miller is working right now on a 12-part Dark Horse comics series entitled “Xerxes,” which returns to the battlefields of “300,” another illustrated adventure that will likely stir political debate. Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, who wrote the screenplay for the 2007 hit film ($456 million in worldwide box office), are already at work on a script for a film adaptation and Snyder will almost certainly direct it, although a final deal with Warner Bros. is not in place.
“Holy Terror” has been a long journey, but Miller said he views it as a project that has arrived at its final destination right on time, creatively speaking.
“It began as my reaction to 9/11 and it was an extremely angry piece of work and as the years have passed by I’ve done movies and I’ve done other things and time has provided some good distance, so it becomes more of a cohesive story as it progresses,” Miller said. “The Fixer has also become his own character in a way I’ve really enjoyed. No one will read this and think, ‘Where’s Batman?‘”
— Geoff Boucher
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Photos, from top: Frank Miller in 2008. (Credit: Robert Durrell / Los Angeles Times); Miller’s version of Batman (DC Comics); a post-9/11 illustration by Miller (Frank Miller); an early look at “Xerses” image (Frank Miller/Dark Horse Comics).
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