Frank Miller’s heart has always been with “crime comics.” You could tell that from his breakthrough days at Marvel back in the’80s when he took over DAREDEVIL, a character that was and always had been essentially a second-string SPIDER-MAN knockoff, and in short order eliminated most of the superheroics (as well as the wisecracking Daredevil that Stan Lee had written) and reconceptualized it into a gritty, much more grounded action thriller, and even introduced his own femme fatale in Elektra, a gorgeous but lethal woman from Matt Murdock’s past (a character Miller freely admits was greatly inspired by Eisner’s “Sand Saref” character from THE SPIRIT). Miller’s success on DAREDEVIL led to his most famous work, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, a series whose astounding critical and commercial acclaim catapulted Miller into another realm as a creator, the “800-pound gorilla” who could now do anything he wanted, secure that there would be an audience for his work. With his newfound freedom, Miller threw himself into a work that could never be published at DC or Marvel, not only because neither publisher had any interest in publishing non-superhero work, but also because Miller’s new series would be an unashamedly sexy, violent and oft-disturbing rampage of fists, babes and bullets, combining the best of all of Miller’s influences (EC crime comics, writers like Spillane, Hammett and Chandler, artists Kirby and Krigstein, to name just a few), along with a vision uniquely his own, into an entirely new beast: the series of graphic novels and miniseries, written and drawn by Miller, collectively known as SIN CITY.
With the release of Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY feature film in theatres nationwide this Friday, this seems an excellent time for a look at what I consider Frank Miller’s most powerful and well-crafted body of work. Those of you planning on seeing the film (and if you aren’t, you should) who haven’t read the books needn’t worry. I’ve no intention of spoiling anything in what looks to be the most faithful adaptation of a comics work ever attempted. What I would like to do is try to whet your appetite for what you’ll be seeing this weekend, and hopefully inspire you to head down to your local comics shop when the movie lets out, because no matter how good the movie might be, there’s no substitute for pure, untarnished SIN CITY coming at you, both barrels.
SIN CITY first appeared in 13 installments in Dark Horse Comics’ monthly anthology series DARK HORSE PRESENTS, and was later collected under the same name, and more recently under the subtitle THE HARD GOODBYE. Like most good hard-boiled thrillers, the plot is deceptively simple. Marv, a hulking but dull-witted legbreaker, is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Even worse, the victim, a gorgeous high-class prostitute named Goldie, was killed under his very nose, while he was passed out stone-cold drunk after they’d spent the night together.
Marv, a brutish thug of a man, decides then and there to go after whoever framed him, not for himself, but for Goldie. On the run from the cops, Marv makes a promise to himself in a chilling staccato hard-boiled monologue, a dialogue style that Miller takes to like a duck to water:
“I don’t know why and I don’t know how and hell I never even met you before tonight but you were a friend and more when I needed one and when I find out who did it it won’t be quick and quiet like it was with you…
“I’ll stare the bastard in the face and laugh as he screams to god and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby.
“And when his eyes go dead the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.”
Marv takes care of some loose ends, getting his medication from his parole officer and retrieving a pistol from his mother’s house, then gets to the business of finding Goldie’s killers. Unfortunately, Marv isn’t exactly blessed with a fine deductive wit, so he gets answers the only way he can: swift and blinding violence. Marv heads to Kadie’s, a favorite strip bar we’ll see time and again in the SIN CITY stories, where he puts the word out via a favorite stoolie that he’s been drunk and hitting the bars, hoping to draw the hitmen to him. Sure enough, soon the hitmen show up, and we get the first sense of how darkly funny SIN CITY can be, as Marv continually admires one of the hitmen’s overcoats, just before brutally dispatching them both, leaving one alive momentarily to answer some questions.
Marv’s trail of executions and interrogations leads him to, of all places, the church, where he questions a priest who’s been implicated by Marv’s last victim. At gunpoint, the priest fingers the man behind it all: Cardinal Roark, the most powerful member of the influential family that’s long run Sin City. The priest tells Marv to check out a farm just outside of town if he doesn’t believe him, and also makes the mistake of asking Marv if “that corpse of a slut is worth dying for”:
It’s pages like this where we really see Miller come into his own as a visual storyteller, as he combines sound effects with panel breakdown, telling the story as much through the assumption of action as action itself, and making use of the cross as both a reminder of location and as a heavily weighted symbol in regards to Marv’s actions, what they represent, and where they may lead. All this, it should be remembered, in stark black and white, more powerful than the most extravagant computerized coloring. The story is told only through figure and the absence of figure, image and the absence of image, focusing the reader’s eye only toward that which Miller finds most significant. It’s a brave method to use, and one that requires a confident hand behind the pen. Especially in this first SIN CITY adventure, the black-and-white format is at its most appropriate, as it highlights the dichotomy of Marv’s world (and, as we’ll see in later stories, the world of SIN CITY as a whole): there is right and there is wrong, and the wrongs must be avenged, no matter what the cost, or who has to die along the way. Right and wrong. Black and white. No gray.