Five years after the 11 September 2001 attacks, al-Qaeda is as strong as ever, whatever else it is. Osama Bin Laden is doing well enough, thank you, somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan. The Taliban are reinvigorated. The "war on terror" is not going anywhere fast, except deeper into a bottomless quagmire. In this dark hour, there is only one man truly up to the job. Time for a bat signal! Come in, Batman! We've never needed you more.
Fortunately, the Caped Crusader is ready to kick Bin Laden's butt. Frank Miller, author of Sin City and the Dark Knight versions of Batman, has announced that his next comic will be Holy Terror, Batman!, in which our vigilante with the fetish for rubber will fight al-Qaeda. It's "a reminder to people who seem to have forgotten who we're up against", Miller told delegates at WonderCon, the mother of all comic conventions, held in San Francisco. If Superman and Captain America could punch out Hitler, what's to stop Batman from knocking out Bin Laden? As Miller said of our folk heroes, "That's one of the things they're there for."
Miller certainly knows what we are up against. Renowned for his neoconservative, reactionary values, he sees violence as cleansing. His heroes seek vengeance with unflinching brutality. He also specialises in degrading women and glorifying cruelty. He thinks Islam is a fascist, genocidal creed. Add a few crude insults to the Koran and the odd beheading, and you get a rough idea of the final product.
But, in the end, as Miller emphasises, it is only "a piece of propaganda". In the US, propaganda and mythology are one and the same thing. That's why America is so good at winning wars as long as they are fictional. Vietnam was won by the Green Berets; Afghanistan was tamed by Rambo. On film, these heroes rewrote history to assure American audiences they had not been defeated. Comic books work differently. In their worlds, the superhero embodies indomitability. Comics are instrumental in shaping American mythology, because they work in imaginary space and never mix fiction with reality. The supremacy of American values is guaranteed.
But anyone with an intelligent head on their shoulders would raise a few pertinent questions. Why do we keep losing wars if Superman and Captain America are fighting on our behalf? Why isn't Batman sorting out the mess in Iraq? Where was Superman on 9/11 when we needed him most? Answer: he was on holiday. In Superman Returns he comes back to earth to sort things out after the event. This is a common device in American comics: his self-imposed exile provides justification for his inaction. Superheroes must triumph in the end. They cannot be involved in events that put them on the losing side.
All of this bodes ill for Batman's encounter with al-Qaeda. My friend Jordi Serra, a Batman aficionado, is appalled at the mere thought. "It's a battle that Batman cannot win," he says. Serra, who has been working on a definitive survey of American comics as long as I have known him, points out the absurdity of a figure in cape and mask prevailing with just his fists over an international terror network. If the main objective is to prove America's moral superiority through Batman's triumph over Bin Laden, while we daily watch reports of al-Qaeda's success, this superiority will be exposed as a fraud. Our credibility will be stretched beyond its limits.
The best option, Serra says, is a draw, with Batman achieving a partial triumph; that would not be too discordant with reality. We'd end up with a hollow victory that gave some sense of vindication - albeit ultimately forgettable and irrelevant. Either case, laments my friend, would signal the fall of a much-loved character with a 60-year-long history of triumphing over evil.
I prefer home-grown superheroes. Give me Bart Dickon, "ideologically sound" secret agent, any time. He lives on the pages of The Chap magazine, but occasionally his creator, Borin van Loon, lets him out in full-length novellas. In his latest outing, The Bart Dickon Omnibus, Bart refuses to come out of his mother's womb, wins a Second World War battle all over again, stops the future from being privatised, and is caught by the lovely teenager Snowy and her doppelgänger "in flagrante osculato with a flipperty gibbet". Now there's a proper comic crusader, one who knows that reality and al-Qaeda should be left well alone.
"The Bart Dickon Omnibus" by Borin van Loon is published by Severed Head Books (£14)