This feature was originally written for Cherwell
In the 1991 Fifth Anniversary Special Edition of Dark Horse Presents, the flagship title of Dark Horse Comics, Frank Miller first presented Sin City, a fictional American metropolis populated by corrupt policeman, sadistic serial killers, muscle-bound heavies and the occasional principled anti-hero. Oh, and scores of voluptuous “dames”.
The series of neo-noir graphic novels that ensued overflow with every nameable vice. Sin City is a cesspit of crime, prostitution, adultery, corruption and more besides. Miller’s “yarns”, as he calls them, are packed to the gills with sex, drugs, violence and immorality. And they’re fucking brilliant.
His first story, The Hard Goodbye, was released over thirteen issues and followed Marv, a hulking ex-con, in his rage-filled pursuit of the cannibalistic murderer of Goldie, a beautiful prostitute with whom he shared one wild night. There is enough gratuitous bloodshed to rival even the goriest Tarantino movie, including a particularly grisly moment in which a man has his arms and legs sawn off, before being fed to a ravenous dog.
The Sin City series has won a multitude of accolades, including seven Eisner awards — the graphic novel equivalent of the Oscars — and it has been enormously popular with comic book, ahem, enthusiasts and the wider public for over two decades. It inspired the 2005 film starring Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke (which you probably thought this article was going to be about), as well as this year’s A Dame To Kill For. But why does it have such perennial appeal?
The answer is partly because of Miller’s remarkably evocative artwork. Although later artwork contained flashes of colour, the early books in the series were drawn entirely in black and white. Miller draws deeply on the visual starkness of 1940s film noir. Films like those of John Huston and Otto Preminger offer a timeless grace that, despite Sin City’s decidedly grittier themes, translates well onto Miller’s work.
In The Hard Goodbye, Miller presents a set of arresting images that embrace this contrast. Marv, the tempestuous protagonist, lies sprawled across a heart-shaped bed with a naked woman curled against his chest. Now he marches the streets of the city dressed in a long raincoat, collar turned up against the “cold, mean torrent”. Now he stealthily approaches a farmhouse in the moonlight, the windmill above him turning slowly in the gentle breeze. These are striking scenes, the colourless approach lending them an elegance — a profundity that juxtaposes the visceral content of the plot. Yet, away from the artwork, there is something about this visceral content that appeals as well; there is something undeniably alluring about the world Miller has created. In Sin City, one could indulge one’s wildest, darkest fantasies. In Sin City, one could cheat, fight, snort or fuck one’s way through life without judgement.
Miller’s novels clearly resonate with a deep-seated primal instinct inside us. Psychological repression, that cornerstone of psychoanalysis, as Freud described it, is rife in Western society. We feel the need to stifle those impulses that stir deep inside, simply because we know the results of letting them rise will not be something society wants to see. Like Dwight, the protagonist in A Dame To Kill For, we “never let the monster out”.
It’s here that Sin City finds its niche. Psychologically, Sin City is a paradise attuned to our most repressed and sublimated desires, whether sexual, physical, or emotional. Sin City is a Mecca for those seeking glorious immorality.
Miller’s drawings play effortlessly with the reader’s imagination, satisfying and teasing: silhouettes of beautiful women, their curves visible yet forever intangible; close-ups of burly hands grasping menacing weaponry; explicit depictions of violence, both cathartic and gratuitous. These are blunt tools, lacking in psychological sophistication, yet they are effective nonetheless. They prey on simple emotions, yes, but certainly not shallow ones.
Miller’s text is similarly emotive, capturing Sin City with an appropriate grittiness. His dialogue is engagingly naturalistic, but stylised to evoke primal feelings of greed, rage, lust, and envy. The protagonist’s thoughts, however, are related in too prosaic a way to be termed grandiloquent, but have a decidedly rhetorical feel to them.
“I’ve been framed for murder and the cops are in on it. But the real enemy, the son of a bitch who killed the angel lying next to me, he’s out there somewhere, out of sight, the big missing piece that’ll give me the how and the why and a face and a name and a soul to send screaming into hell.”
Vituperative and hardly poetical yes, but there is an undeniable vigour — an oratorial quality — to lines like these that correlates effectively with the primal urges that permeate the novel.
One must acknowledge the skill with which Miller draws these strands together. The artwork, plotlines, concept, and text all meld seamlessly to create an alluring and impactful whole that inevitably engenders instinctive emotions. In truth, it is these emotions that the novels rely on for their success.
To read a Frank Miller comic is truly an immersive experience and the Sin City series, with its gratuitous sex, drugs violence, is as engagingly visceral as they come.