On the anniversary of 9/11 in 2006, Frank Miller, superstar comic book artist and director (along with Robert Rodriguez) of the hit film Sin City, recorded an essay for an NPR feature called “What I Believe,” in which he re-evaluated his relationship to American patriotism after the September 11 attacks. “Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit,” Miller said at that time. “It’s self-preservation.”
After several years making films, Miller is back with a new publishing house, Legendary Comics—the newly launched publishing division of the film studio Legendary Pictures—and a new graphic novel, Holy Terror, conceived as a response to the 9/11 attacks. A cautionary superhero tale of American complacency in a post-9/11 world, Holy Terror is Miller’s first major graphic novel in nearly 10 years. And in many ways that 2006 NPR essay continues to illuminate both the thinking and the passion behind the creation of this new book.
“Yeah, I feel like I grew up as part of a lost generation,” Miller, 54, says during an interview at the San Diego Comic-Con International. “At a time of fury,” he says in reference to 9/11, “we were listening to stories about Monica Lewinsky! When the attacks came, it was like a shroud had been pulled away and I could see the world for what it was. I took my country for granted.”
Miller was in San Diego to launch Holy Terror, which originally pitted Batman against al-Qaeda. But in the intervening years, the book changed; Miller dropped Batman, withdrew it from DC Comics, and recreated the book around a new hero called the Fixer. Miller said he came to believe that the politics of our time called for a different kind of hero: “I was the guy that toughened Batman up [in the critically acclaimed 1986 graphic novel Dark Knight Returns],” he says, “but at some point Batman and his gadgets can’t fight these guys. You’ve got to be a killer to fight killers and Batman is not a killer.”
The result is a new hero (along with Natalie, a female sidekick) who must respond to a series of suicide bombings in Empire City, “a thinly disguised New York,” Miller says. The Fixer is an adventurer “who has been seeking an adventure great enough for him. Natalie is a much more ambiguous and—if it’s possible in a comic book—a much more normal person,” he says. “She doesn’t understand what’s going on and her small world is being invaded by something much larger.”
“It’s changed the focus of my work,” Miller says, referring to 9/11. He calls Holy Terror “a reminder that our country has a habit of moving on, shrinking back into a nice safe place. It’s a reminder that there is an active enemy out there, absolutely dedicated, well equipped, and very intelligent. We’re up against an existential threat.”
Vividly illustrated in black and white, Miller’s muscular drawing is as powerful, as bold and kinetic as anything in the Sin City graphic novels—he continues to impress despite the demands of also making movies in Hollywood. Indeed, Miller says he splits his time between comics and movie making and is about to start filming the long awaited Sin City 2—“it’s written, and Robert [Rodriguez] and I are hashing out the last little bits of the script.” He worked on Holy Terror in between films. “The last few months I set everything aside and just worked on this, “ he says, “because I was sick of talking about it.”
While Miller says he still spends most of his time working on comics, he calls movie making “a welcome interruption. Drawing comics is wonderful—my life’s dream—but it gets a little lonely. What I do in comics is so personal, my editors don’t see the work until it’s done. Being in a big room bossing a hundred people around is a lot of fun.” But he says the comics medium still drives his work. He’s halfway through a new graphic novel, Xerxes, a prequel to 300, the 1998 graphic novel (and hit film) that retells the story of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.And he remains passionate about the growing importance of the books in the mainstream comics market.
“The crowning achievement of the Eisner Awards and of the comics field is the graphic novel,” he says, “whether done first as pamphlets or not. A finished piece of work that’s a worthwhile journey for a reader is a comic book artist’s highest ambition.”