Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 2: Frank Miller
Editor’s Note: See here for part 1, where I discuss some of the theory underlying this critical investigation.
Frank Miller makes for too tempting a subject not to discuss first, as his work presents the bloodiest and most over-saturated justifications of American imperialism and metropolitan superiority one is likely to find in popular culture. In many ways, his work is difficult to approach with an eye for critical depth because the surface is so bald and blatant, deliberately taunting critics. His book 300 is an anomaly in this investigation, the only one depicting an ancient rather than contemporary conflict. It is a pulpy, mythic retelling of the legendary 300 Spartans soldiers of Thermopylae who perished in the defense of Greece against the barbarian Persian hordes. It is a simple and stark war between noble warriors and faceless slaves, depicted with artwork reflecting its cosmic drama in all its excess.
Said himself reflects on the appropriation of Greek culture as the pure birthplace of Western society, shedding light on how “today’s anxieties and agendas on the pure…images” we construct of Greece saw its culture “redesigned as ‘Aryan’ during the course of the nineteenth century, its Semitic and African roots either actively purged or hidden from view.”¹ That purity, a purity born of exclusion and what could crudely be called “whitewashing,” is evident throughout 300’s narrative of a few free patriots defending their country. With a certain cruel pleasure, Miller’s narration idealizes the ironclad strength of Spartan society: “[Spartans] are born. We are inspected. If we are small or puny or sickly or misshapen, we are discarded. We are starved. Driven to steal and fight and kill.”² [emphasis original]. Persians are, meanwhile, portrayed as decadent and effeminate, especially the ruler, Xerxes, whose confrontation with Spartan leader Leonidas is depicted with him astride an enormous golden throne supported by kneeling slaves, a parody of the phalanx formation employed by the Spartans (Fig. 1).
Against such barbarians, the text reasons, what force could not be justified? One of the ironies of 300 as a narrative is that its excessive admiration of Spartan discipline and masculinity ends up barbarizing the forces with whom the reader is meant to sympathize. Though the Persians are depicted as black, alluring, mysterious, and savage—the ideal villains, in other words—the Spartans’ depictions as hyper-masculine, almost fascist figures renders them somewhat ridiculous. There are elements of what biblical scholar Roland Boer has called “Orientalist camp” at work in the portrayal of the Persians as sensual and feminine, but the excessive bloodshed and almost certainly unintentional homoeroticism of the Spartans renders them camp figures in their own right.⁴ Constant references to Persia’s slave class also render these Spartans hypocrites, given that Greek society as a whole depended on masses of enslaved people as well. Miller’s narrative works to define the West as “everything that the East is not,” a shadow or repository for everything alien and exotic.⁵ A close reading, however, reveals that the images and text of 300 uncover the internal contradictions within European society, which are only subsequently projected onto the Oriental Other. The steeled and murderous discipline of the Spartans is almost more repellent than that of the great Asiatic king on his slave-borne throne who represents the might of the subaltern non-West.
If 300 sowed the seeds of Miller’s political and psychological justifications for a renewed Western militarism against the “colossal mass”⁶ of alien elements coming from without, the internal nature of the threat and its contemporary implications are the subject of Holy Terror. While this book was thoroughly criticized for being unabashed propaganda on its release, it is a useful work in that it demonstrates the heights of post-September 11th hysteria in the United States, boldly dramatizing the psychology of imperialist justification.⁷ Most of the book lacks any color or shades of grey, its images perfectly mirroring the narrative’s bleak moral logic. Taking place in “Empire City,” a transparent fictionalization of New York, its plot concerns a pair of superheroes dealing with the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, eventually infiltrating a gigantic underground city swarming with Muslims/terrorists bent on the destruction of America. This book repeats 300’s tactics, dehumanizing Muslims by covering their faces, blackening their skin, and showing them massed in anonymous groups. The one exception to this rule is a young humanities major and Arab American named Amina, who pontificates on the blasphemy and decadence of American society before unleashing a hail of nails on unsuspecting Americans. (Fig. 2)
Holy Terror is animated by a conviction that the enemy, that alien shadow that despises Western culture and values, has already infiltrated as is actively working to undermine that society. It transposes the ancient conflict between Persia and the Greeks into the contemporary time, its imagery deliberately evocative of September 11. Here, the Americans take the place of the soft and decadent Athenians, the warriors willing to do anything for the cause are superheroes who exact extralegal justice. Miller’s work, complimented by his often inflammatory remarks on his blog and in interviews, is unabashed justification for an “any means necessary” approach to the destruction of foreign enemies both at home and abroad. Both of these books represent one pole of the Western response to the Islamist reaction to American imperialism: they distort a tiny movement of religious radicals until it consumes a whole culture. Said cites Richard Barnet’s analysis, summarizing American self-perception thus: “The United States, uniquely blessed with surpassing riches and an exceptional history, stands above the international system, not within it. Supreme among nations, she stand ready to the the bearer of the Law.”⁹ In Holy Terror, however, the law can be ignored even in the metropole, since the foreign element rests within and not merely around America.¹⁰
- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 16. Here, he cites the work of Eric Hobsbawm and Martin Bernal.
- Frank Miller, 300 (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 1998), 31. Pages are not labeled in the text.
- Ibid, 50.
- Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 121-123. Boer’s analysis pertains to scholar Allan Edwardes’ Erotica Judaica and specifically interacts with Said in defining camp of an Orientalist variety.
- Ibid, 122.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1968), 314. Cited in Said, 195.
- For an exemplary review, see David Brothers’ review at Comics Alliance. http://comicsalliance.com/frank-millers-holy-terror-review/
- Frank Miller, Holy Terror (Burbank, CA: Legendary Comics, 2011), 35. Pages are once again not numbered.
- Richard J. Barnet, The Roots of War (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 21. Cited in Said, 286.
- Holy Terror was also dedicated to right-wing martyr Theo van Gogh. See Miller’s comments on his blog: “3000 of my neighbors were murdered. My country was, utterly unprovoked, savagely attacked. I wish all those responsible for the Atrocity of 9/11 to burn in hell.” http://frankmillerink.com/2011/9/propaganda.