One of the issues with modern ventures into trash genre work is that the acute self-awareness required to dive deeply into these avenues is anathema to the raw energy needed to carry that same work to a sincere and authentic endpoint. The power of trash can’t be replicated by fetishizing its aesthetic, but instead is found in the imperfect rawness of its mutant truths and their resultant imagery. It might seem like it’s easy to chuck off a Deadbeat at Dawn (1988) or The Burning Moon (1992) under the guise of a knowing love letter to either film. But it’s not. And though the temptation to turn modern rehashes of trash work into self-aware essays about… whatever is real, that self-reflexivity is the enemy of the raw power which makes the original imperfect works so lasting in the first place.
With Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War on Terror), Benjamin Marra gets frustratingly close to a raw fevered depiction of the white male id in a post 9/11 America. Terror Assaulter is the story of a special agent, codenamed O.M.W.O.T., who is tasked with fighting domestic and global terrorism. Terror Assaulter follows the episodic orgy of violence and sex perpetuated by its aviator-glassed protagonist; if Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible films represents the highly capable man who is let down by the inefficiencies of the systems around him, O.M.W.OT. represents a man who exists without respect to those same systems. And while O.M.W.OT. rigidly follows a code he represents as being anti-terror--in point of fact, his code is merely an artifice for the fascistic wet fantasy of white male supremacy that he perpetuates in all environments within which he finds purchase. It is a code of domination and control, whether that pertains to violence, sex, or emotions: all of these exist to perpetuate the shadow of his grip on the world around him.
These themes are explosively laid out through iconic power chord imagery, droll action catchphrases, and the four-fisted colors behind the book’s blood-flamed aesthetic. There is a basic paranoia flowing through the rigid thick inky veins of the figures making up this comic. It is hidden beneath a tightly corded manic stoicism that lives in veiled terror of presenting any kind of emotional weakness and thereby ceding control to the surrounding chaos of race, gender, and sexuality.
The parts of Terror Assaulter that feel uncomfortably close to watching a grown man take a child’s action figure game too far are where the book is actually at its best. In one particular chapter of the book, our intrepid special agent needs to thwart a hijacking. After dispatching the terrorists—and several of the passengers—he ends up in the cockpit piloting the plane. A passenger accompanies O.M.W.O.T. into the cockpit. The two men fuck each other while O.M.W.O.T. crash-lands the exploding plane, a sequence exultant in its image-making.
Terror Assaulter is weird, and at times uncomfortable (particularly in terms of its extreme self-centeredness)--but in all of its discords the book creates an energy that infuses its anthemic punchlines with real force.
While it’s uncertain how a book that had merely depicted this weird world without commenting upon it would have been received within the current cultural climate, which is predisposed to decontextualize imagery to its most problematic aspects, the decision to filter these moments through a host of self-reflexive hipsterish jokes works against any effectiveness Terror Assaulter may have. If the strength of the book is how far into outrageous absurdity this white-male-supremacist vision can go, stopping repeatedly to inform the reader that “hey it’s just jokes” drains away a lot of that power.
Two scenes—one involving a knife fight, and one involving a sword fight—illustrate perfectly both the strengths of the book, and where it fucks itself:
Throughout Terror Assaulter characters describe in blunt literal language whatever action they are engaging in within a given moment. This is a classic technique that you still see employed today in a lot of shonen comics, where an MC character will narrate a fight between ninjas, explaining the amazingness of different moves and the impossibility of their performance. This tactic helps to amplify the imagination of the reader to the point where, even if you draw an incomprehensible mess on the page, if you tell the reader it is amazing, they will usually be down for the ride--simply as a function of how reading comics works. This happens in Terror Assaulter as well, but here, the device is less an extended descriptor, and more a simple exclamation mark.
Sometimes this device works really well. Probably the apex of its usage comes during O.M.W.O.T.'s fight against Freedom Warrior Champion, a former Terror Assaulter turned terrorist, as FWC’s victory rant is juxtaposed against the pain O.M.W.OT. is inflicting on his body. Pushed out a second-story window, a paralyzed FWC remains defiant: “You broke my back--I annihilated everything you stood for.” This is a terrific line, setting up the moment where O.M.W.OT., against the backdrop of a world in flames, professes not to understand what FWC means. In this space, the world order has completely flipped to the point where terrorists now run the world, and people fighting terrorists are the new insurrection. In this new world order, black has subsumed white and everything has become chaotic and without traditional order. But even in this setting, O.M.W.O.T. remains unchanged.
We understand then that O.M.W.OT. is not a man who lives by systemic structural goals rooted in any kind of perceivable reality. Freedom Warrior Champion exists to tear down the frameworks that perpetuate the white status quo ("I annihilated everything you stood for"), but O.M.W.O.T. knows only physical domination, and so even though his entire world has been turned upside down by Freedom Warrior Champion, his perspective and sensibilities remain unchanged. FWC is proclaiming his victory, but the terms of that victory are not agreed upon. O.M.W.OT has broken this black man’s back, and that is the only thing he understands or cares about: his continued supremacy as a white male, and in that, he is uncompromised. He has overthrown FWC’s racial authority over himself, and so he considers that a win, in spite of FWC’s larger systemic gains.
At other times, Marra's dialogue just falls flat. It reads like what it is, a device calling attention to itself. When the man in the cockpit scene mentioned earlier asks for O.M.W.OT. to “gay sex it in his ass” or when FWC in the closing chapter refers to being “sex changed”--these are distancing exercises in moronic artifice. They exist to say, “Hey, look how stupid I can make this, hyuck.”
We see this effect here in the knife fight. When homedude says, “Eat this knife,” it is juxtaposed against this wooden idiot drawing done in profile that reminds you: “Oh yeah, this comic is one of those draw-like-you-can’t-draw comics.” It is a distancing effect, and a side of the book that is absolutely making fun of its target genre.
Of course, a lot of classic trash features a similar kind of woodiness--but that woodiness wasn’t self-reflexive. Its creators were trying to make shit as dope as they could, and sometimes their resources or talent couldn’t match up to the vision--the point is though, that it was sincere, and it is that sincerity that makes the best of those works lasting. Andrey Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time: “The refusal to weigh the scene down with obtrusive thoughts is what makes it as compelling as life itself [...] what we are talking about is being faithful to the truth of the characters and circumstances rather than to the superficial appeal of an interpretation in ‘images.’” That an image endures through time is a testament to the internal emotions that image stirs even as the ideas behind it die away; and the power of an image comes from our ability to see it without artifice and without instruction. This is why the internal cleverness of a Tarantino film, say, is never as powerful as what it references. An image that is only a hyperlink has less weight than an Image which is. The truth behind the matter has authority, and so the less true images are made, the more contingent they are upon an ever diminishing understanding of the contexts which surround them. When an image traumatizes you, it doesn’t do it because you remember it in reference to something else, or because of the exterior ideas you glean that the author intended--you are traumatized by the inexplicable truth of the image--the thing which you cannot explain outside of the image. The best most lasting trash is lasting because of this emphasis on the image.
In its weaker moments, this book exemplifies the opposite of that impulse. It’s trying to make things as wack as possible. The strength of Terror Assaulter isn’t in its mocking laughter of things most people already couldn’t accept without egotistical qualification--the strength of Terror Assaulter is in the second page above, the sword fight.
The sword fight doesn’t make time for distance. There’s no “eat this knife” moment here. The figure work and the perspective are dynamic. Everything is in motion, and the absurd motion lines don’t hit you like “har har motion lines” they hit you like “oh shit, he killed the fuck out of those guys on the motorcycles--this is fucking crazy”--and that’s real.
That’s the frustration with Terror Assaulter. If it took itself just a little more seriously, it would far outstrip any absurdity it could ironically joke about, it would be what it is is telling us it is. There’s a really crazy, disturbing, and strange world beyond the edges of Terror Assaulter--and even in glimpses, it is fairly potent. There’s a madness conveyed here that is absolutely at the underpinning of everything going wrong in America right now as it pertains to the violence of white men. But that’s all it is, the edges. For all of its bravado, it is a cowardly work afraid of its own conclusions.
The final chapter of this book depicts the insane fight by O.M.W.OT. against a conspiracy of domesticity brought on by a triumviral aspect of black-trans-women, who attempt to entrap O.M.W.OT. in a vengeful sham marriage, taking him away from the glory of his fight--and this fight is ostensibly rooted in a yearning for a false past based upon mythological white supremacy. WHICH IS FUCKING CRAZY. When it gets out of its own way and lets you read into its implications, Terror Assaulter becomes a very rich text, without the need for the constant hypertext annotation. While I can sympathize with Marra's apparent fear of being misunderstood on these issues, it is not a consideration that can be introduced without fatal consequence. It is a book that is as annoying and hipstery as it is visceral and wonderful.