Frank Miller’s latest work, Holy Terror (not to be confused with Batman: Holy Terror) is… problematic. We’ll leave aside the fact that it is self-described propaganda with perhaps the least nuanced view of Islamic terrorism on record. Other people have covered that.
And we’re not even talking about the things which the book knows are illegal, e.g. having the police commissioner assassinated or shooting down medevac choppers with heat-seeking missiles. Remember, where a story knows something is illegal and says so, we basically give it a pass.
No, what’s really problematic for our purposes here is the fact that we’ve got individual citizens engaging in not just vigilante justice, which is a problem for pretty much all comic books which involve superheroes, but vigilante geopolitics, which is actually kind of unusual. Sure, politics exist in other comics stories, e.g. the whole Genosha storyline, the possibility of war with Atlantis or the Inhumans (or both at once), the emergency of Wakanda on the world scene, and Reed Richards’s (inadvertent?) conquest of Latveria. But most of those involve superheroes dealing with supervillains or the unique problems caused by superpowers or the existence of beings like Mutants. What we don’t usually see, and indeed, what several stories have actually gone to fairly great lengths to avoid, is superheroes—or, at least, masked adventurers—from intervening on their own authority into mundane politics.
It’s worth mentioning that Captain America and Dr. Manhattan don’t count, as both of them were acting on behalf of sovereign governments in their respective stories. What we’re talking about here is a masked adventurer essentially inserting themselves into an otherwise mundane geopolitical situation and pursuing their own agenda. This is problematic for two reasons.
First, though it goes without saying that the nation against whom a superhero is fighting is likely to be kind of upset, so is the nation who purportedly benefits. In one of the one-off stories in Action Comics #900, Superman complains that he’s tired of his every action being construed as part of US foreign policy. But you know what? The State Department was probably just as pissed about that! Here they are, trying to present something like a coherent face to the world, a unified and consistent policy position, and Superman’s running all over the place doing Bob-only-knows what, only to have his actions, over which the US government has absolutely zero control, interpreted as representing the American take on a particular event. So when he goes and maybe violates Iran’s sovereignty, Tehran gets pissed at Washington, which can’t even promise that it won’t happen again. One of the problems with having powerful people running around who aren’t accountable to voters is that the people who are accountable to voters are likely to wind up with the responsibility for it. This is bad for representative governments, as it makes it inestimably harder for them to respond to world events.
This is basically what Fixer and Natalie are doing here. They decide they’re going to save Empire City on their own, independent of the state forces which are responsible for that job. Sure, Miller makes it seem like only they can do it, because the government is some undesirable combination of corrupt and incompetent, but the proposed solution basically makes it impossible for an honest, competent government to exist, so even if we were to admit that ends can justify means, these ends don’t.
Second, having loose cannons with apparent sovereign authority is really, really bad for geopolitical stability. One of the biggest concerns in the Persian Gulf right now is that junior officers in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, in command of small gunboats, might inadvertently—or deliberately—set off a conflict which could escalate out of control without general officers on either side having any say in the matter. In this story, Fixer winds up doing… something to a huge, Saudi-funded mosque in downtown Empire City. Not entirely clear what, but it’s probably biological and definitely No Fun At All. It’s not totally clear whether it’s actually an embassy, which would raise issues we’ve talked about earlier, but even if it isn’t, we’re still likely looking at the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of Saudis and just Muslims in general who were on site. Even if this isn’t an actual act of war, it’s still going to be a major diplomatic incident, involving countries with which the State Department doesn’t really need anything else going on at the moment. We’ve got two major military operations ongoing in the Middle East, both of which require significant cooperation from neighboring governments. If they decide to protest our actions by limiting access to their airspace, even temporarily, that’s just going to suck. But even if the wars were over, the fact that OPEC hasn’t declared an oil embargo recently doesn’t mean they couldn’t, and the last time that happened was pretty terrible all around.
So, in general, the existence of masked adventurers running around fighting crime on the domestic front is going to be hard enough for governments to deal with, and even superheroes taking care of superhero-related international crises is potentially manageable, but masked adventurers intervening in otherwise-mundane political events? Really, really problematic.
Of course, the main problems with Holy Terror is that it’s boring and hard to read. So consider this something less than a ringing endorsement.