Few manifestations of cognitive dissonance are as discomfiting as the realization that a much-admired artist might possibly be an unpleasant madman. Often, the revelation is abrupt; the casual reveal that a literary idol spends his nights goose-stepping around his kitchen in a little moustache. At other times, one can cling desperately to the hope that said idol is just a Chaplin aficionado off his game until the evidence piles too high to ignore. Such is the tragic arc of the average Frank Miller fan, starting at the dizzying heights of genre-defining classics like The Dark Knight Returns and culminating in the denial-destroying ignominy of Holy Terror Miller’s newest release.
Editors have been backing away from this propaganda piece since 2006, when it was announced as Holy Terror, Batman!, a DC Comics publication that was to pit Bruce Wayne against the Al Qaeda. Miller eventually concluded that Batman was not right for the job (or DC recognized Islamophobia when they saw it) and the result is now on bookshelves as Legendary Comics’ Holy Terror. The story is as irrelevant as the one in Miller’s übermensch manifesto 300. Not-Batman vigilante the Fixer’s tryst with un-Catwoman Natalie Stack is interrupted by explosions around their home turf of almost-Gotham Empire City. With the righteous, trailer-friendly tag line of “not on my turf”—delivered sans irony, hipster or otherwise—the duo begin their indiscriminate war against Islam.
Habibi: Pantheon Books, 672 pages, $35 (around Rs 1,725)
Make no mistake, it is Islam that the Fixer (and Miller) is declaring war on, not the debased “theology” of groups like Al Qaeda. There are no shades of grey; the moral underpinnings of Miller’s rant are as black and white as his signature visual style. The terrorists are all subhuman representatives of Muslims as a whole, with Islam portrayed as a belief system more suited to the Dark Ages than 2011. The toxic “us versus them” aesthetic reaches Rocky Horror levels of camp hysteria with the appearance of the Fixer’s ally David, an ex-Mossad agent with the Star of David tattooed on his face. But what is terrifying about all this cartoonish hate-mongering is how seriously Miller takes it. Torturing people has not come this easily to a protagonist since Jack Bauer took up pliers in 24. Those on the receiving end were not stereotyped in so ugly a fashion even on that paragon of interrogation TV.
The tragedy of this book’s existence is enhanced by the occasional flashes of inspiration that bring back dim memories of Miller’s once-genius. Most are moments of visual sublime; black and white tone poems reminiscent of his best work from the 1980s and illustrative of how much mileage he can still get from a splash of black ink.
Holy Terror: Legendary Comics, 120 pages, $29.95
There are some genuinely beautiful pages floating in this puddle of ugliness; a resplendent double spread of a terrorist, a minimalist night-time mosque scene, entire cityscapes sketched in silhouette. Miller seems truly happy drawing grotesque people running across rooftops; few readers could be blamed for wishing that he’d stuck with variations on that theme instead of trying to go socio-political. Holy Terror is a shrill, vulgar screed against Islam, uninterested in real consideration of the post-9/11 world Miller claims to be inspired by.
The lack of irony in Miller’s work was partly compensated for by the release schedule of Pantheon Books, the publisher of Blankets auteur Craig Thompson’s latest masterpiece Habibi. Released in the same week as Holy Terror, they ended up next to each other on bookshelves, Thompson’s work the delicate Bach fugue to Miller’s Wagnerian bombast, the Professor X to his Magneto. Habibi also represents its creator’s engagement with Islamic culture but this is where the commonality ends. Where Holy Terror is ill-considered and nasty, Habibi is impeccably researched and beautiful.
Habibi is all the argument one might need to come down on the side of physical artefacts in the e-book wars. A 672-page opus, it is a wonder of book design and production that rivals the sensual overload of the best of Chris Ware or David Mazzucchelli. If a critic must inhabit the role of consumer guide, I can safely advocate buying this book on aesthetic considerations alone.
Intellectually, the waters are slightly more muddied. Habibi is, on one level, a surreal love story between refugee child slaves Dodola and Zam, spanning several centuries as the protagonists shift bodies and identities. On another level, in true Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman form, it is a story about storytelling, the world and everything. On yet another, it is a knotty intellectual engagement with a culture that is simultaneously alien and fascinating to Craig Thompson, brought up fundamentalist Christian in rural Wisconsin. Here lie the troubling aspects of the book.
Good comics: Habibi is impeccably researched and beautiful
Set in what Thompson describes as a “mythical landscape”, large chunks of Habibi function as heavily stylized fantasy. Mythical or not, the Orientalist tropes that are paraded throughout the book tend to weigh heavy after a while. Child slavery, eunuchs, rape and sexual degradation—it’s all accounted for.
No individual element feels too gratuitous. If anything, it is all suffused with Thompson’s deeply humanist personal philosophy and feels grounded in his stated ideology of positing Habibi as a counter-argument to Western vilification of Islamic culture. Yet, these are still tenuous grounds for his Orientalism. The erotic imagery borders on the hysterical at points, as the harem baths and pleasure palaces start to run into each other. One can almost imagine the riotous graduate seminars that will result from pairing Habibi with a dose of Edward Said.
That said, it is a fount of delight for the attentive reader; a work of staggering ambition. The feverishly detailed art is a welcome change from the minimalist, semi-scrawly look that is in vogue with “literary graphic novels” of this nature (Persepolis and Maus come to mind). Every page is the result of obsessive research and planning followed through with meticulous execution in a distinctly Eisnerian mode. The images are loaded with diverse elements drawn from history, mythology, Arab numerology and calligraphy.
Thompson’s preoccupation with the visual qualities of Arab letters is worked into the narrative continually, both in symbolic terms (similar to Moore’s incorporation of magical symbols into From Hell and Promethea) and as building blocks for panels. A transcendent example arrives on Page 405, where Zam is reunited with long-lost companion Dodola and his perception of her morphs into a white silhouette fleshed out with calligraphy. It is a moment of great beauty, tempered with an oddly appealing note of melodrama. The virtuoso brushwork that represents Thompson at the height of his abilities. As good as Blankets looked, it is not a raggedy patch on the rich tapestry of Habibi.
The story, too, is gripping. The interplay between digressive religious fables and the mythicized main plot is handled deftly and paced well for a 600-page comic. More than anything, however, its success hangs on Thompson’s success at pulling off that most primal of tales: the discovery and loss of a beloved. As with Blankets, Thompson equates the loss of a loved one with the loss of God (or, perhaps, faith); only this time, he is looking for the divine in places far removed from the American Midwest.
Bad comics: Where Holy Terror is ill-considered and nasty
Habibi was not just written or drawn; it reads like it was practically birthed in a tremendous effort of will. It is the perfect response to those who would suggest that the venality, superficiality and stupidity of books like Holy Terror are representative of comics as a whole. There are no “graphic novels” and “comic books”, just good comics and bad comics.
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