Two weeks ago, DC Comics published New Teen Titans: Games, a hardcover graphic novel by Marv Wolfman and George Perez we have been waiting twenty years for. One week ago, Legendary Comics published the comic that DC was going to publish several years ago, Frank Miller's Holy Terror – which once upon a time would have been called Holy Terror, Batman.
Two blasts from the past then. Two books anchored in another age, yet brought right up to date by publishing fashion. And both centred on a terrorist attack on a major US city, and a superhero response to that.
Holy Terror is the best selling graphic novel through Diamond Comic Distributors in September, and Games is the second best. So how do they compare?
Frank Miller's art has become far more of an acquired taste these days. There are those who long for his Klaus Janson-inked days, and eschew the bold black felt-tip-like appearance of some lines, as ugly and simplistic. Rather, I see his style as kinetic, defining bodies in space, much in the same way that Rob Liefeld can, but with a far greater control and thought going into the panels, the page and the storytelling experience. In Holy Terror, he does so much of that, using the open spaces of the wider pages to expand the field of action, before condensing it with impossibly small panels. Miller is as innovative as ever, moving from simple panels expanded to take who pages to repeated black white panels, a hundred on the page, all used to trick the eye's expectations, control time and space and generally control the reading experience as he sees fit.
Holy Terror takes on an objectivist point of view, targeted against an Al Qaeda operation against an American city, a stand in for New York, that seems far more able, organised and larger than any found in the West previously. There is a master plan, and it's only the build up to that event that tips off The Fixer and his Cattish companion – who he begins chasing across the rooftops after a stolen necklace, before they have sex on the rooftops.
Appropriately, for a mature readers book, this is carried out with greater subtlety and skill than in a certain recent infamous first issue of Catwoman from DC.
But this is a very focused work it terms of participants and message. In a grey world where police are corrupt, vigilantes and trusted and thieves are partners, the participants are given a true black and white choice between ordinary normal people, with all their foibles and utter, utter evil, manifested in various forms. There's no attempt to understand this foe, indeed it's clear that it is beyond any understanding, explicitly so in the text, so why bother? At one point,one of the terrorist mocks the understanding of the word "cell", so small against the far larger body of terror that threatens. Rather than the rag tag band of idiots who actually make up such terrorist attacks and who are, bizarrely, better represented in reality by the movie Four Lions.
But then, this may fall into the trap of reading the work as "this is the way things are and we must know our enemy" as opposed to "what's the most evil Al Qaeda could be if they were comic book villains with resources like AIM and HYDRA". In this regard it's a shame that Frank Miller lost the Batman and Catwoman lead, at least that would put this terrorist threat into that kind of context. Because these terrorist Muslims in Not New York have stinger missiles.
Some people will unilaterally reject this comic for the politics within, which are unashamedly neocon and objectivist, and I think that's a shame. Books like Cerebus, Brought To Light, The Infidel, Tintin: Breaking Free and even Action Comics #1 have suffered that, despite, to a variable degree, the artistic content within. There should be no ideological issues however for anyone reading New Teen Titans: Games. Not unless you are a born again pacifist.
New Teen Titans: Games contains a more familiar plot, that of a terrorist mastermind attacking New York (no pretence here) with a variety of supervillains in an intricate plot that smacks of the likes of 24. It just happens to have been written over ten years before that. And fifteen years before Die Hard 4, which also has said mastermind's motivation to show the US that they are vulnerable to attack, and ensure the country makes changes to its security, even at the cost of millions of lives. As the terrorist's name suggests, Gamesmaster, it's all about strategy, placing the pawns on the correct squares and tackling each obstacle as it comes along, more intellectual excercise than the raw emotion that Holy Terror splashes on the page.
Titan is matched against terrorist as New York becomes a game board for atrocity and attack. From school buses full of disabled children about to be blown up, to priceless artwork about to be slashed and burnt, each Titan is played up against their equal and opposite number in a stalemate of assault, keeping them away from events they would otherwise get involved with.
Artistically, the books are worlds apart, but there are common touches. Perez uses the greater width of the page to pack in more detail and stretch out comic book tiers across the page. Around the same length, Holy Terror is a much longer read, with far more text and panels, yet without sacrificing a design for the whole book. That does inhibit the ability to really let go however, and often the comic seems restrained by the structure filling the page, where Holy Terror is more likely to have a nail fly through the sky across five pages
As a result, while Holy Terror reads more like a short story, Games is a novel, a dense political and action thriller. Marv Wolfman's script abandons any attempt to emulate individual issues or chapters, the narrative rolls on, page after age, building up steam. And there is invention, Nightwing's exercise routine in the park, for example, which is reflected again near the end of the book in a fight scene, or Raven's other dimension, stretching out and around panels, which is later transformed in colour and tone by her matched antagonist.
Especially notable is Changeling's opposite, Holox – presumably to rhyme with "bollocks", who exists on a series of screen surfaces and can conjure up real life versions of television and game characters to take over a television station. Both his visual appearance, and the fight scenes that he creates, and his disjointed speech patterns make for something closer to a more surreal comic, a three dimensional villain created from interlocking two dimensions, which also plays up the media's role in such disasterous events.
At the heart of both books is not just the assault from an outsider, but that the inside is just as corrupt, In Holy Terror, we discover that the police and the politicians are working in cahoots with Al Qaeda, in Games, not only did the government employ and then not listen to the main antagonist, but they are also intend to cover up the source of the attacks. And the Titans are powerless to stop them.
Games portrays this in a far more comfortable way, unseen government figures hat fit into a cynical view of government, managing the system to keep them in power and to get rid of embarrassment, but without any sense of justice. Holy Terror portrays an authority in hoc to treason, and an apocalyptic terrorist force that cannot be reasoned with.
Despite Holy Terror's attempts to portray a less fantastic world, with no super powers, just driven people in the right place, holding the line, as a result it feels far more fantastic than the super powered Games, which if nothing else fits into our expected version of reality with greater ease.
I think most Bleeding Cool readers will be happier with Games and while I enjoyed it too, I think Holy Terror will stick with me longer. For both the right and the wrong reasons.
Note: Oh and as we mentioned the appearance of an unnamed Catwoman in Holy Terror in the light of recent DC events, we should probably check to see just how Starfire is sexualised in this volume…
Comics courtesy of Orbital Comics, London.