Standing at the Edge
Holy Terror, Batman!
By Christopher Brosnahan
16 April 2006 — So, apparently, Frank Miller is writing a comic to be entitled Holy Terror, Batman!. You may have heard about this already, since it's been reported pretty widely, even warranting a story by the BBC news website. If you haven't heard about it, it's a fairly simple idea — Batman fights al-Qaeda. You probably have your own thoughts about this: whether you believe Miller to be a Comics God (like many do), or whether you believe him to be somewhat overrated (like I do). One way or the other, it certainly is controversial.
It has been questioned whether or not something like this is a good idea, since the element of fantasy-fulfillment is obviously a major one. It has also been questioned whether or not it is likely to be politically correct (especially bearing in mind that Frank Miller has had accusations of misogyny leveled at him in the past). It has even been questioned as to how this will effect DC's post-Infinite Crisis continuity, since 9/11 never officially occurred in the DCU. This because, at the end of the day, fanboys will be fanboys.
However, I have my own misgivings about the project, and for my own reasons. To explain them involves a little bit of history.
Miller has called Holy Terror, Batman! a "piece of propaganda" where "Batman kicks al-Qaeda's ass." After all, "Superman punched out Hitler. So did [Marvel Comics'] Captain America," he said. "That's one of the things they're there for.... These are our folk heroes. It just seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you've got al-Qaeda out there."
And it's true — Superman did punch out Hitler. It's also worth remembering that Batman and Robin helped him out in collecting War Bonds, in posters and comic book covers. On the covers of World's Finest Comics, you often saw Batman, Robin and Superman in formation on the wing of a plane, firing machine guns, handing out goodies to soldiers, punching Nazi's. But there was another important distinction to make, which was that Batman, Superman and Robin didn't go and serve. For a number of reasons they fought the war from home: partially the editors felt uncomfortable with the idea of sending superheroes over to fight the Axis, since it could be seen as suggesting that the soldiers weren't doing a good enough job; partially since the writers and artists who were crafting the stories weren't serving, it could be seen as somewhat hypocritical for them to write stories about people who were fighting; and partially because a lot of people find it difficult to reconcile atrocities in real-life with the escapism that comics have always provided.
Later in the 1940s, we also saw another enemy that Superman fought, both in fiction and in real-life. He fought the Ku Klux Klan in what has been acknowledged as one of the worst things to ever happen to the Klan.
Post-World War II, Klan membership was better than healthy — it was at its highest point in 30 years, and was particularly high in Atlanta. This was also at a time when the men had just come back from war, and there was a publicity campaign of sorts "to let the niggers know that the Klan was back in business." A man named Stetson Kennedy (named for his grandfather, who invented the hat), who had been unable to go to war due to a bad back, had decided to fight bigotry at home. Being... well... a bit mad, he decided to infiltrate the Klan. Eventually, he managed to become a member, and was able to get hold of a lot of the Klan's information.
The Klan, after all, worked because of secrecy. In exactly the same way that children are attracted to the idea of a secret society, adults joined and were able to use that secrecy for power. You put ten people in a room, all involved in a similar career field, all in secret, and conspiracy will be rife, even if it isn't a specific cause of the group itself (see also the Masons in the UK — although the group itself is not inherently conspiratorial, it's way of being breeds conspiracy). They had secret code words (they were Klansmen, having a klonversation in a klavern), they had secret conver — sorry... klonversations, in which they would be able to pass information on in public:
"Excuse me. Do you know a Mister Ayak?" (Ayak: Are you a Klansman?)
"Yes, and I also know a Mister Akai." (Akai: A Klansman am I.)
It was all generally as ludicrous as it sounds. Now, if you turn that secrecy on its head, it may be possible to turn it into mockery.
This is exactly what Stetson did, with the help of Superman... or, at least, the Superman radio show, which was one of the most popular radio shows of the day. Stetson got in touch with the producers of the show, and asked if they wanted to help take down the Klan. They were immediately enthusiastic, and the next four episodes involved Superman systematically taking down the Klan — while using real passwords, real secret terms, real code words. Everything. The Klan was furious, and immediately did two things. Firstly, they tried to get Kellogg's to pull their advertising dollars. Kellogg's refused. Secondly, they changed all their passwords, while promising to deal with the situation. The password went from being "Red-Blooded" to "Death to Traitors."
The following week, the new passwords were incorporated into the show.
Kids on the playgrounds were putting capes on, and chasing other kids with pillowcases over their heads. And they were using sacred words, sacred terms. The secrecy of the Klan had turned the Klan into a laughing stock. Members left in droves, out of humiliation. New membership dropped to practically nil. The Klan never again reached the level of influence that they had.
Newsweek, at the time, reported that "Superman [was] the first children's program to develop a social consciousness." Let's not forget that DC Comics took that social consciousness seriously. Does anybody else remember those one- and two-page inserts where, say, Green Lantern would swoop into a schoolyard, and show kids the error of their ways because they didn't let the black kid play football with them? Things along those lines. I remember them, at least.
Now, you can look back at World War II, where you had Superman punching out Hitler (which he didn't do in the comics), and you could see Batman on a poster with the slogan "Bash a Jap Today." Viewed in today's context, they're horribly racist. And that is what they were. However, as a nation, America was at war with other nations. Now, however, America is waging war on an idea. On a concept. It isn't being publicized as "The War against Iraq" or "The War against al-Qaeda" — it's "The War on Terror." And this is what leads to my concern about Miller's project.
If you have America going to war against a concept, as opposed to, say, Afghanistan or Iraq, then having propaganda involving characters is a very difficult concept for me. Is the enemy going to be seen as what it is: extremists who are perverting the message that the Koran teaches? Or is the enemy just going to be Arabs? Are we going to see Muslim and Islam as strong, positive religions, or are we going to just see a bunch of bomb-wielding towel-heads?
If we were talking about a writer who deals with subtleties and with depths of character, then perhaps I'd be feeling better about this project. Instead, we're talking about somebody who doesn't deal with characters like that, but rather deals with types... so far, not stereotypes. But we're dealing with somebody who writes using absolutes.
I quote from Frank Millers' contribution to the 9/11 charity collection, which was published in January 2002 by Chaos! Comics, Dark Horse Comics and Image. His contribution was two pages, three images, all stark black and white. The first is a close-up of a star with "I'm sick of Flags." The second, a close-up of a cross with "I'm sick of God." And the last, a stylized picture of the Twin Towers falling with "I've seen the power of Faith."
It's a very strong piece, in a very strong collection, and I am not using this to intentionally criticize Miller for his work on it. But I am using it as an example of Miller writing something he believes very strongly in. He writes in absolutes, and in black and white terms. Faith caused 9/11. This does not reassure me that Holy Terror, Batman! will be a balanced view on the situation. Of course, there is the probability that, if the piece ends up being offensive, DC will refuse to allow it to be published. And I am also hoping that I will turn out to be wrong about the situation. It just makes me uneasy. Especially since he's turned around and said straight that he's writing propaganda.
It makes me uneasy because the history of comics is not just propaganda. That was the infancy of comics. The history of characters like Superman and Batman is to work against religious intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia. It was via a Superman radio show that the KKK lost their credibility. And it was Superman that proudly said, in one of those radio shows, "Remember this as long as you live: Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people — anyone who tries to tell you that a man can't be a good citizen because of his religious beliefs — you can be sure that troublemaker is a rotten citizen himself and an inhuman being. Don't ever forget that!"
I leave you with another quote from the 9/11 charity book. This is an extract from Alan Moore's contribution, and partially explains my concerns when dealing with this real-life issue using a character such as Batman. It's also the piece from the book that struck home with me:
"Writing comic-book morality is embarrassingly easy. See, super-villains don't need motives for doing anything, killing, maiming, whatever. They're just evil.... If the enemy is evil, no motive is required. History, politics, economics, all of these are irrelevant when writing super-villains. Does that imply that the West is to blame for all the Middle East's problems? Clearly, no. Inter-Islamic conflict causes plenty itself. Does suggesting a wider context justify the slaughter? Insult the victims? Christ, no. We all wept. I'm weeping now."
— Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. : William Morrow, 2005.
— Miller, Frank and Moore, Alan. "short stories." 9-11: Artists Respond, volume 1. : Chaos! Comics / Dark Horse Comics / Image, 2002. 64-65, 189-190
— "Superman on Radio!." <http://www.superman.ws/fos/thescreen/radio/>.