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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Holy Terror’

- - Friday, October 14, 2011

HOLY TERROR
By Frank Miller
Legendary Comics, $29.99 120 pages

The planned title for Frank Miller's new graphic novel "Holy Terror" was "Holy Terror, Batman!" but it proved too hot for Batman publisher DC Comics to touch. To see why, one need only turn to the book's epigraph and its dedication, which bookend the story. The "quote" is a highly charged gloss on the words of Muhammad: "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel." The dedication is to the memory of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was shot and stabbed in the streets of Amsterdam for his offenses against Islam in 2004.

Mr. Miller has made enough changes to avoid an intellectual property infringement lawsuit from DC, probably, but this is still a Batman story. At one point his hero The Fixer is asked about his origin: "You got yourself a family, crime-stopper? ... Murdered parents? An exploded planet?" "Don't be silly," he replies, for the benefit of the Legendary Comics lawyers only.

The rest of us are supposed to see right through the thin facade. The hero's costume looks almost exactly like the caped crusader's get-up, minus the ears and big bat symbol on the chest. (The color scheme is different - on the cover.) The Fixer's thief/love interest is named Cat Burglar rather than Cat Woman. Gotham City, Batman's fictionalized hometown based on parts of New York, has been replaced with Empire City. And Police Commissioner James Gordon, that hard-driving, spectacle sporting, cigar chomping, mustachioed wonder has been replaced with Captain Don Donegal, identical in all above respects except that he smokes cigarettes.

"Holy Terror" begins with a hot pursuit on Empire City's rooftops. Cat Burglar is on the run from The Fixer because of a "lousy diamond bracelet" that she purloined. He catches up to her, they fight and kiss. The tryst gets cut short by two world-rending explosions. Al Qaeda-sponsored suicide bombers set themselves off in public places. Deadly shrapnel fills the air - raining first nails and then razor blades.

We see one of these suicide bombers, an Arab female transfer student named Amina, "taking it in." Echoing the behavior of several of the Sept. 11 bombers, who got drunk at a strip club shortly before carrying out the attacks, Amina takes a swig of beer ("My first alcohol. Ever."), hits the dance floor, and hits the ignition switch. Before she sets it off, the young man who proffered her the alcohol asks, in an almost gentlemanly way, what she's got under that coat. Comes her one-word, chilling reply: "Paradise."

We also see the parallel, guttural responses of our heroes as they take in the destruction. Fixer: "Not on my watch." Cat: "Not on my turf." Donegal: "Not in my town, damn it!" These three will do Whatever It Takes to bring al Qaeda to its knees and protect Empire City from further devastation. Which is good because al Qaeda plans to do an awful lot more damage, and the clock is ticking.

It's a good setup, and the art helps to make the sale. Formerly a fairly conventional comic book artist, Mr. Miller reinvented his visual style with the noir black-and-white series "Sin City." He uses that style to great effect here and the unusual page size (roughly 12 by 9 inches) give him a bigger canvas. When the sky rains nails and razor blades, when the portraits of victims stretch out and then vanish, it really does evoke some of the horror that most Americans felt on Sept. 11.

The story breaks down where the post-Sept. 11 American consensus eventually did. On the one hand, it flirts with trutherism (an al Qaeda inside man may lurk somewhere in Empire City Hall). On the other, it ascribes to jihadis numbers and a level of organizational genius that they have not demonstrated. A Very Bad Girl from al Qaeda tells Cat Burglar, "We're scarcely a microbe, a speck, a tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief." One almost expects her to add "Bwahahaha!"

This makes the story unbelievable. That's a shame, because Mr. Miller did some of the pioneering work on Batman in the 1980s with "The Dark Knight Returns." He rescued the character from the camp of that wretched television show and made it possible for other authors to tell interesting stories with the character again. If the question had been posed several years ago, "What writer could do a credible job having Batman take down al Qaeda?" the intelligent fan-boy might have said, "Bet on Frank Miller." Alas, he would have lost that bet.

• Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books and an author, most recently, of "William F. Buckley" (Thomas Nelson, 2010).