“The air cools. The sounds change. The suits and brief-cases scurry to their fortresses and bolt their doors and balance their checkbooks and ignore the screams and try not to think about who really owns Sin City.”
—Sin City Volume I: The Hard Goodbye
Sin City, its creator has said, is not a place but a state of mind (Booker 161). Eager to do comic books about crime, “about tough guys in mean cities,” in 1991 artist Frank Miller created the first story of the Sin City series, initially released in thirteen parts in Dark Horse Presents (Harvey 259). The story was retitled The Hard Goodbye, released as a graphic novel and followed by five more “yarns,” sordid tales of urban violence set in a climate of complete moral corruption. Influenced by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Jim Thompson and “long nights of living alone in Manhattan and discovering the black-and-white movies,” Miller’s illustrations drew their inspiration from outside the traditional confines of the comic book subculture (MacDonald 42, Gabillet 104). Sin City featured gritty black-and-white stylized graphics, over-the-top, hard-case crime retro dialogue, hardcore ultraviolence; it became an exercise in the celebration of film noir culture, one that is particularly extreme, violent and brutal, even by the genre’s standards. Steeped in darkness both physical and psychological, the style, characters, setting, themes, and tone of the graphic novel series, particularly the first four volumes (The Hard Goodbye, A Dame to Kill For, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard) are undeniably indebted to film noir. At the same time, Sin City self-consciously draws attention to the conventions of noir either by reducing or amplifying them, effectively critiquing its own narrative forms while remaining entirely within the rules of the genre.
The noir is a closed world of the imagination from which most sense of “reality,” of the everyday flow of life has been rigorously excluded, “a sealed-off environment of airless rooms, and of threatening, lonely streets” (Hirsch 6). Film noir appeared at a historical moment of crisis, brought about by post-WWII feelings of disillusionment, the influence of German expressionism and the hardboiled writing tradition of the twenties and thirties. The dominant world view expressed in noir is one of paranoia, claustrophobia, hopelessness, doom, a sense of predetermination, and a lack of clear moral or personal identity (in all characters but the protagonist). “Man has been inexplicably uprooted from those values, beliefs and endeavors that offer him meaning and stability, and in the almost exclusively urban landscape… he is struggling for a foothold in a maze of right and wrong. He has no reference points, no moral base… Nothing—especially woman—is stable, nothing is dependable” (Place 41). Everything is relative, obscured or distorted, and values, like identities, are constantly shifting and redefining themselves.
The genre is dominated by images and ideas of entrapment or investigation. Innocent men are framed or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit or caught up unwittingly in conspiracies and plots. Investigators struggle to make sense of events made up of coincidences, hidden interrelations, unclear and confused motives, to uncover the order embedded deep within chaos. The protagonists of film noir are men whose experience in life has left them sanguine and often bitter; in the immediate postwar period, these characters become lone romantic heroes with an unwavering moral compass, who sometimes operate outside society but are always above it.
“Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always just out of reach” (Bould 13). The genre was defined not by plot and setting as much as style and more subtle qualities of motif, tone and mood. Its distinctive visual style included low-key lighting, which often produced unconventional patterns of light and dark; a preference for vertical and oblique as opposed to horizontal lines; unbalanced, disharmonious or claustrophobic compositions that introduced tension into the mise-en-scene; increased depth of field, in which shots become more ambiguous, and, with wide angle lenses, distorted figures in the foreground; camera position, angle, and the placement of actors within the frame which subjectivized the third-person camera, allowing it to express relationships of power, struggle and conflict (Bould 13-24). This style was coupled with generally complex chronologies, subjective voice over narrations and an iconography of rain-drenched nocturnal streets, trains, elevators, bars, interrogation rooms and heels clicking on pavement.
Miller’s fictional Basin City, with its motley collection of lowlifes, assassins and crooked politicians, fits perfectly into the noir tradition of dark mean streets. The title’s crime-infested metropolis allowed Miller to explore in stark black-and-white drawings the brutality and ruthlessness of the denizens of the underworld (Harvey 259). “They’re very dark,” Miller (under)stated about the stories, “and the consequences are bad and they’re usually futile… You can’t have virtue without sin and what I’m interested in is having my characters’ virtues defined by how they operate in a very sinful environment” (MacDonald 42). Like film noir, Sin City is artificial and divorced from reality; it creates a hyperbolic, familiar milieu that completely separates its hermetically sealed microcosm and its subjects from the outside world; it also becomes an extreme reinterpretation of the noir genre. The artist takes the sinful environment of noir and raises the darkness and corruption to the nth power. “There is no ‘caped crusader’ here, no colorful costume criminals,… no redemption. Basin City is Ragnarok, Sodom and Gomorrah, and every violent, corrupt, urban nightmare rolled into one festering cesspool of vice, vigilantism, and death” (Blasingame 446).
The titular city enacts Miller’s own professed desire to make Sin City a place in the mind, with no real-world location or temporality (Booker 163). The stylistic innovations of the setting’s depiction not only fit within the boundaries of noir, but, in fact, highlight genre as a necessary component of interpretation (Pizzino 119). While characters are generally drawn with enough detail or at least sufficiently outlined to create instant recognition, the rendering of setting tends towards abstraction, sometimes approaching what Scout McCloud calls the “picture plane,” a realm of signs that do not clearly refer to any external reality (49-57). The benighted necropolis of the novels at times seems barely there, no matter that it is literalized by office towers, docks backgrounded by an industrial plant across a river, Kadie’s country-and-western saloon/strip joint.
Much of the action unfolds in enclosures that seem to have been abstracted from the novels’ reality–the heart-shaped bed that begins the series, floating against a pitch-black background (The Hard Goodbye 13), a barred cell that appears to hang in the air (That Yellow Bastard 88-91), a tiled dungeon festooned with severed heads (The Hard Goodbye 97-102), the Roarks’ barn, represented merely by a set of white bars (That Yellow Bastard 204-207), and the multitude of images that place characters against no background at all. “As Miller has said, ‘film noir is about inner darkness not spooky-looking stories, ’” and by outwardly representing this inner darkness through the physical darkness of the images themselves, Miller uses these claustrophobic chambers and the pure, baseless nothingness of some backgrounds to expressionistically evoke “the controlling desires and fears of each of the heroes” (Fuller). The artist, however, goes beyond the emphasis on mood rather than setting prevalent in most noirs to the point in which an understanding of noir is central to grasp the abstracted, stylized images of physical background and the relationships between them (Pizzino 119).
Miller displaces the interconnected tales of Sin City in time as well as space. The realism identified in hard boiled fiction and film noir is disconnected from its historical context almost to the point of comic caricature (Finn). By exploiting the characteristics of the graphic novel medium itself—drawing’s ability to caricature and critique—Miller exaggerates the spatially and temporally indefinite environment of his comic book series in order to add to the feeling of confusion and uncertainty that governs the noir genre. Sin City is a place in which dramatic events occur incessantly, but where nothing ever really changes, a land without history, without a past or future, unbound by time and space. The artist offers readers a collection of images from various decades. Perhaps most striking are the cars, which can be typically used as temporal markers to roughly identify the historical setting of the action. In Sin City though, the cars could come from any decade from the 1940s to the early twenty-first century, as could the costumes or the skyline of the city.
The implication is clear: the temporal setting doesn’t matter because all times are the same in Sin City—a dangerous and politically retrograde notion that completely disarms any hope that action (by groups or individuals) can lead to change (Booker 170). The scrambled, virtually randomized chronology of the graphic novels further adds to the displacement and confusion. Each of the novels features a similarly nonlinear plot, and they are not published in chronological order. “A work of striking images, not compelling story lines,” Sin City provides “an excellent example of the postmodern lack of regard for narrative sequence” (Booker 163). The narrative pieces never quite fit—slight inconsistencies and bits of missing information make it impossible to rearrange the events of the series in exact chronological sequence. This narrative structure mirrors the non-linear plots (filled with holes, flashbacks, multiple perspectives and revelations) of noir, at the same time exaggerating the jumbling of narrative sequence found in films of the genre. Even more than the medium of cinema, graphic novels lend themselves to defying conventional narrative; because they exist in space, they are less likely to be confined to a linear narrative.
It is in this environment that the (anti)heroes of Sin City must evolve. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv epitomize the archetype of the tight-lipped, morally inflexible, uncompromising individual, “who defies the law and common-sense self-interest to carve his own reality into existence” (Darius). These three protagonists are modeled on the romantic postwar noir hero, but, although their motivations are just as noble, their methods would not be at home in a classic noir. A chivalric code, handed down from Chandler, drives the protagonists, whose romantic dedication to protecting women at all costs rationalizes torturing, murdering and dismembering of all who do women harm. “Each story has a hero,” Miller said. “There might be flaws. They might be disturbed, but if you look at it ultimately their motives are pure…. Dwight wants to keep the girls from getting killed. Hartigan does everything for Little Nancy and throws his whole life away for her. Marv goes on a quest that ends up destroying a lot of evil people. So I consider these people heroes. If you go by Chandler’s definition in The Simple Art of Murder, they’re what I’d like to call ‘knights in dirty armor’” (MacDonald 42). In keeping with Chandler’s Arthurian references in his novels, in Sin City Dwight is invoked as Lancelot and Hartigan as Galahad (A Dame to Kill For 39, That Yellow Bastard 197).
Significantly, the characters are, like their cinematic counterparts, loners and outsiders. It’s telling that our first glimpse of Dwight in A Dame to Kill For has him peering through the skylight of a hotel room, taking photos of a scene of adultery, prostitution and soon-to-be attempted murder. The character is placed physically as well as morally outside of and above this world (3-5). Dwight, like the best noir heroes, has a past—one that is at first murky, which he wants to forget. “I put the game on and pray it will chase away the memories,” he says in the beginning of A Dame to Kill For, “the damn Old Town memories, of drunken mornings and sweaty sex and stupid, bloody drawls” (15). Sometime before these memories, he had also won a Pulitzer writing for the Times, but now, when he sorts through the “broken pieces of [the past], … like always, they come together to form the same, sorry picture” (20).
Like Dwight, The Hard Goodbye’s hulking, brutish protagonist is similarly an outsider and a loner, albeit for different reasons. Marv is a lowly outcast from society with superhuman strength and toughness, but with limited intelligence and only the most tenuous of grips on reality. The character is so ugly and misshapen (and ill-behaved) that normal people tend to flee at his approach, so unattractive that even prostitutes shun his company. Marv is not really as bad as he seems, we are told; he was just born in the wrong century: “There’s nothing wrong with Marv, nothing at all—except he was born at the wrong time in history. He’d have been okay if he’d been born a couple of thousand years ago. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield, swinging an axe into somebody’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking a sword to other gladiators like him.” As it is, “the world will [get him killed], one way or another. It has to kill him. It’s got no place for him” (A Dame to Kill For 93-94). Miller described his first idea of the character as “Conan the Barbarian in a trench coat…. I wanted to do someone who was completely miscast in the universe, a raging id in a world of superegos” (O’Donnell 114). Protagonists of noir often represent an older order of masculinity, but never quite that old.
Miller’s modern barbarian, like all noir heroes, has a soft spot for the ladies. His sense of chivalry, however, spills well over into the condescending. “It really gets my goat when guys rough up dames,” he says (The Hard Goodbye 181), and, “It just gets my goat when guys talk about dames that way” (A Dame to Kill For 89). Fitting for any noir hero, Marv gets into trouble because of a woman, finding himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit, one that he thinks is his duty to solve and avenge. Marv, in fact, dedicates the rest of his life to finding Goldie’s killer, even after he learns that she had been a prostitute, and even after it becomes clear that she had come to him in the hope that he could protect her from the danger that was following her. After all, he explains, “she was nice to me,” an event so rare in his life—especially from someone so beautiful—that his one night with her becomes his central experience. Marv’s moral code dictates that he repay Goldie’s kindness by finding and killing her murderer. The Hard Goodbye’s plot, like those of the other novels in the series—and of the best noir films—relies on the strength of the protagonist’s moral code and his determined resolution to follow it at all costs.
Although Marv would never admit it—and might not even know it—there is good in Sin City just as there is evil; it’s just hidden beneath the tough exterior of men like him. “Mostly what keeps me involved in crime stories, the reason I go back to them,” Miller said, is that under the surface, these are all morality tales…. There’s a fierce clarity in which each person makes his or her moral decisions. It’s also the motif of crime fiction that such characters are disguised. They look like dirty knights; they don’t let on that most of them are compulsive do-gooders.”
Of course, in keeping with the noir tradition, none of the protagonists of Sin City would ever categorize themselves as heroes. “It’s not that I’m some kind of hero that makes me stay,” Marv insists. “Heroes don’t go weak in the knees and feel like throwing up and curling up into a little ball and crying like a baby…. No, I’m no hero. Not by a long shot. I just know that Goldie won’t let me off so easy. No matter where I go I’ll smell her angel smell. I’ll see that mouth and those eyes and that perfect, perfect body. I’ll hear her and taste her and I’ll know that it was me, only me, who could have set things right” (The Hard Goodbye 131-32). But it is this sense of moral obligation to right a wrong because he is the only one who can that turns Marv into a hero. Meanwhile, Goldie’s murderer, the creepy, cannibalistic, bespectacled Kevin is the ward and chief henchman of the aging Cardinal Roark, top man in the Catholic church, a member of Sin City’s most powerful, and most corrupt, family. Roark, a man actually hailed as a hero by Sin City’s society, called “Saint Patrick,” is a man thoroughly saturated with unadulterated evil, a political kingmaker who has the influence to place his friends in family in positions of power leading all the way up to the U.S. Senate.
The Roark family is also prominent in That Yellow Bastard, the third graphic novel in Miller’s series. “Power doesn’t come from a badge or a gun,” Sen. Roark tells the hero of that story. “Power comes outta lying and lying big and getting the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you got ’em trapped. You’re the boss. You can turn reality on its head and they’ll cheer you on” (emphasis in original, 65). Both Hartigan and Marv operate in direct opposition to the Roark family, the principle controlling power behind the political, religious, law enforcement and legal systems. Because the noir heroes of Sin City sacrifice their social status, choosing to operate outside of, or, indeed, in moral opposition to the definitive power of the law, both are framed for crimes they did not commit and lose their lives protecting or avenging those they love.
Miller was initially attracted to the noir mode for its potential to explore moral corruption and the violence he thinks is necessary to combat it. The themes of societal corruption generally explored in noir are hyperbolized in Sin City to the point in which illegality is universally big business (Finn): “In this town just about anything you can name that’s worth doing is against the law. It works out better for everybody this way. Cops and politicians make their fortunes by looking the other way while crooks like Kadie get away with charging ten bucks a drink” (The hard Goodbye 51). The law is bribed into ineffectuality, and, although institutions like the police, the judicial system and the church no longer operate as moral arbiters, they retain the power allotted to them for such purposes, which is wielded for individual gain (Finn). The police, church and government are symbolized by degenerates, but the satire of Sin City is not really aimed any particular group or institution. It is aimed at power and authority in general, the central organizing premise of its universe being that almost anyone in authority is bound to be corrupt, decadent, and vicious, while the more upstanding characters in the world of Sin City tend to be losers and outcasts, existing in only the lowliest margins of official society (Booker 165).
Hartigan is seemingly the only cop in the city who thinks his duty is to protect and serve, the only man who will stand up to Senator Roark and Junior, who tortures, rapes and murders children. Throughout That Yellow Bastard he displays an ethical single-mindedness, ignoring any strictures of law or custom that interfere with his mission to protect Nancy, his moral imperative to protect the innocent. Hartigan’s motives, however, are much simpler than the ethical registers that animate the actions of most heroes of the genre. Noir protagonists are often confronted with complicated, difficult questions of ethics that place them at the intersection of all kinds of personal, social, and institutional obligations. Hartigan, like Marv and Dwight before him, deals with no such conflict of interest (Pizzino 117). The hero focuses solely on Nancy Callahan, “little Nancy Callahan,” “skinny Nancy Callahan,” often repeating her name in his internal monologue to remind himself of what he must do next. Unlike classic noir heroes who undergo complicated struggles, often ongoing ethical processes of negotiation, Hartigan simplifies his course to a single, if suicidal, transaction: “An old man dies, a young woman lives. Fair trade” (219).
This simplicity of motivation works to create increasing intensity. In order to defend Nancy, Hartigan must commit more and more brutal acts of violence and suffer more and more extreme tortures. Nancy herself becomes an obstacle in his course, when she expresses her love and physical desire for Hartigan, despite an age gap of several decades. Although this kind of narrative and thematic entanglement—the conflict between Hartigan’s uncomfortable attraction to Nancy and his need to protect her at all costs—has a recognizable noir lineage, Miller radically simplifies it. This conflict and other narrative elements are bolder and their proportions are magnified, a sign of the work’s self-reflexivity and self-conscious use of its own generic norms (Pizzino 117).
True to the series’ noir influences, however, Miller does not reductively categorize this opposition of morality (represented by the characters) to authority (represented by the formal public systems and institutions) as a simple good versus evil conflict. While simplifying the moral setting of the stories, Miller complicates the morality of his own characters by exploring their inner darkness (Finn). Even “clean liver,” “boy scout” Dwight has a dark side that he’s afraid to let loose, the “monster” in his gut that eventually “uncurls itself and erupts from [his] throat in an endless, bloody roar” (A Dame to Kill For 82). The character tries to control himself, to be a part of society, but cannot because of society’s evils as well as his own faults: “I thought there was a better world out there. I thought I could be a part of it. I was wrong both times” (147). Nor is every death the hero cause righteous. The massive carnage Dwight partakes in at the end of The Big Fat Kill is motivated by no sense of duty, justice, or nobility: “No escape. No surrender. No mercy. We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them. Every last one. Not for revenge. Not because they deserve it. Not because it’ll make the world a better place. There’s nothing righteous or noble about it. We gotta kill them because we need them dead” (165-66).
Miller seems to especially relish his heroes’ musings as they administer final justice to a nemesis; “their words are chewed and savored and then spat out with vengeful, gustatory release” (Blasingame 447). The massacre in The Big Fat Kill is marked by an unsettling gratification: “The Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure hateful bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter and so am I” (169). Film noir was driven by a logic of sexual desire which, repressed (and suppressed by the Production Code Administration), sometimes turned the crime itself into the object of the protagonist’s erotic fascination (Bould 15-16). If the example of The Big Fat Kill’s final bloodbath is not enough of an argument for Miller’s eroticized treatment of violence, consider Marv’s thoughts on killing.
The character says it is the only thing he has ever been good at, so he might as well enjoy it. His “kind of kill” is not a quick and quiet means to an end; it is the end, and it’s “loud and nasty... 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” (The Hard Goodbye 28). The repetition and magnification of this description when he actually kills Roark, and the pure pleasure Marv takes in the man’s suffering is even more disturbing: “It’s not quick and quiet like it was with [Goldie]. No, it’s loud and nasty. My kind of kill. I stare the bastard in the face and I laugh as he screams to God for mercy and I laugh harder when he squeals like a stuck pig and when he whimpers like a baby I’m laughing so hard I cry. He spurts and gurgles and life is good” (192). This description of the brutal torture and killing at the end of the novel almost exactly mirrors Marv’s own description of an orgasm in the beginning of The Hard Goodbye, which he directly compares to fighting: “You get in a fight, you fight in a war, and you figure all the worst of it will be worth it for the one big moment…—but this… One last time I wonder why… then she falls against me dripping with that angel sweat of hers…” (13). The character seems to take the same kind of pleasure in both acts, a physical, almost feral intensity that equates sex with violence.
The female characters of Sin City are hardly less venomous, volatile or violent than their male counterparts, and, in the case of Ava, they even surpass the heroes in their viciousness. In the development and roles of the beautiful, dangerous women that populate his fictional city, Miller once again draws on the traditions of film noir. In classic detective noirs like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, as in Miller’s The Hard Goodbye and A Dame to Kill For, the women become central to the hero’s investigation, its object and sometimes the central problem in unraveling the truth. Female characters in classic noir’s detective/thriller narrative fit into one of two categories. The first (and perhaps most important) category encompasses the femmes fatales, spider-women who work on the fringes of the underworld: bar-flies, nightclub singers, mistresses, gold-diggers, murderesses, who sometimes help the hero, but mostly bring about harm and destruction. The second category is made up of all the good women the (anti) heroine is contrasted with, those who have no place in this world: wives, long-suffering girlfriends, would-be-fiancées, or young girls who are vulnerable and in need of protection (Gledhill14).
In a reversal of noir’s conventions, the women in need of protection in Sin City (Nancy and Goldie) actually work on the fringes of the underworld, a place they would be completely unsuited for in classic film noir. Nancy is a stripper who dances in Kadie’s, a lowlife saloon frequented by Marv and other rough types, but who has nevertheless managed to maintain her stereotypical innocence and purity through it all. Goldie is a prostitute, who, along with her twin sister Wendy, ran Old Town. Nancy is the best example of an innocent woman in an non-innocent environment, but other “good” women in the series are similarly placed in settings that contradict their roles in typical noir tradition. Shellie, a waitress in Kadie’s, and Gail, a warrior prostitute from Old Town, both help the heroes, which places them in the second category of “good” noir women despite their occupations. “Sin City is the kind of place where all the women are whores and all the whores are beautiful, capable of handling a gun and taking a punch” (Bould 110). Miller reduces sexuality to displays of elaborately costumed gun-toting prostitutes, an armed and mostly naked parole officer and a stripper packing a six-shooter. In this universe, even the good girls look like bad girls.
The one female character that completely conforms to film noir norms—although she becomes an exaggeration of them—is Ava, the typical femme fatale. Defined by her desirable but dangerous sexuality, the femme fatale of film noir is always a part of the action, never a part of the décor. The steely, beautiful spider woman, her voice honed to a sexy, low cutting edge, is independent, ambitious, in search of wealth and freedom and oftentimes confined to a marriage or relationship form which she wants to break free, with violent results. Often trailing wisps of cigarette smoke behind her, the cue of a dark and immoral sensuality, she emerges from deep shadows, her face turned a harsh white by the high-contrast lighting. The femme fatale is always filmed in ways that will emphasize her sexuality, often being introduced as a pair of long, elegant legs (as in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) or some other decontextualized anatomical part.
In accordance, Ava, the dame to kill for, first appears as a set of luscious lips—which we know would be red if the comic were not in black and white (26). When she is presented in her entirety, it is as a shadow cast on the floor of Kadie’s, larger and lusher than life (30). Then she appears in silhouette in a lighted doorway, getting increasingly closer, from a long to medium shot to closeup in separate panels, until we see her clearly, first from behind and then in profile until we finally see her face (31-34). Like her motives and true identity, Ava’s body and face remain hidden as long as possible. The story she tells our hero is made up of blatant, outrageous lies, and he instantly falls for it. A master manipulator, she feigns innocence and vulnerability with Dwight as she will with the police after she gets him to kill her husband. And when innocence isn’t enough, Ava uses her sexuality, going to Dwight’s apartment and basically throwing herself at him. From the moment Dwight walks into the room, he’s gone, covered from head to toe in the black and white bars formed by light streaking in through the Venetian blinds. Looking like Walter Neff did when he stepped into that living room in Double Indemnity, Dwight is trapped. His imprisonment is complete when he has sex with Ava: “I’m dragged to the ground by a jungle cat. She devours me and I thank her for it… I say all the things I swore I’d never say again. She owns me. Body and soul” (63-65).
Even while limiting himself to the confines of noir character conventions, Miller intensifies them, turning Ava not into a driven, dangerous woman, but into pure evil. The character is “a witch, a predator,” Dwight will come to realize. “Maybe I just got what I deserved, he says, “but what about the others [she has manipulated and destroyed]? Good men, driven mad…” (emphasis in original, 174.) Completely pathological, she has orchestrated the murder of her husband so she can gain money and power and brags about her twisted victory even as she’s shooting Dwight again and again: “‘I’m in charge’—God, I’ve waited years to say that. Years. Night after night, flat on my back, making all the right noises while Damien did what you men do. I waited. I planned. For the moment I could have it all…. Sorry to be such a chatterbox. I can’t help myself. This is such a rare opportunity. I almost never get the chance to stop acting—to stop lying. To let somebody see the real me… There’s a word for what I am, but nobody uses it anymore. Nobody wants to see the simple truth. If they did, they’d kill people like me as soon as we revealed ourselves. But they don’t. They close their eyes and blather about psychology and say nobody is truly evil. That’s why I’ve won. That’s why I always win” (emphasis in original, 113-14). Ava’s evilness is intensified to the point of humor; by this exaggeration of his femme fatale, Miller points out the ridiculousness of the character type, again relying on comic caricature to comment on the conventions of the genre.
Miller not only intensifies elements of setting, plot, and character, but undoubtedly, and perhaps even more strikingly, comments on the style of film noir as well in Sin City. The graphic novels are drawn in unmitigated black and white, “often with the simplicity of woodcuts” (Bould 112). The lighting, a hypertrophied chiaroscuro, forms stark and affecting images entirely devoid of shades of grey. The night is always darkest when Miller inks it. All the pictures in the graphic novels are drenched in solid black, the image defined by silhouette and by highlighting features and portions of figures as if the subjects were standing in rooms completely dark except for a single light bulb, dangling naked (no doubt) from the ceiling. The lightning effects are wholly unrealistic but stunning in creating the uncompromisingly sordid world of Sin City. “At a time dominated by the Image Comics style, in which more lines seemed better, Miller was going in the other direction, paring himself and the comics form down to its essential elements” (Darius).
Miller’s panels, varying in size and shape, are characterized by vertiginous angles and exquisite use of line, as in the dazzlingly etched images of driving white rain, and Marv trudging through it, in an 11-page sequence in The Hard Goodbye and in the bricked alleyway and dungeon, viewed from above, in the same novel (128-38, 108). Images of entrapment abound in this universe, created by the long shadows cast by Venetian blinds, over the shoulder perspective, use of squares and rectangles and the relentless confining and framing by frames within frames within frames. Everywhere you look there are bricked and tiled walls, barred cells and windows, the paving, fencing and the Band-Aids on Marv’s face included. There are several panels in which a face on one side of a frame is in focus while the character on the other side is some yards behind and out of focus, which puts us right in the mind of the character in close-up. Perhaps the most stunning example is the closeup of Hartigan with Nancy in cowboy hat and chaps undulating sexily behind his right shoulder (143). “Skinny little Nancy Callahan,” the troubled Hartigan muses. “She grew up. She filled out” (128). Just as noir filmmakers subjectivized the third-person camera through cinematography and mise-en-scene, Miller’s drawings form compositions that place us inside his troubled character’s minds, conveying their emotions and feelings of imprisonment.
Long sequences are presented with little written text, while other pages are overburdened with words, with panels cramped by packed speech bubbles and long columns of text running down a thick margin. The visual image claims a greater immediacy even as the intermittent excess of text points to the shortcomings of the visual image at capturing aspects of the hardboiled writing tradition. Through the visual juxtaposition of image and word that essentially characterizes the graphic novel form, Miller self-consciously draws attention to the medium; he points out the scripted quality of the characters’ stories, particularly evident in the use of language. The artist retains the film noir voiceover narrative style used to convey internal monologue. Marv, Hartigan and Dwight inarticulately express their (simplified) existential dilemmas in their narrations, in accordance with the archetypally fatalistic noir hero. The amped-up hardboiled style that Miller has perfected for the series, reminiscent of the distinctive style of detective-fiction writers is extreme to begin with. The style is pushed here to even greater heights, in what could easily have turned into self-parody, but doesn’t—because the style is entirely appropriate to the world of Sin City and to the events being described. “As much as Miller’s embraced the wild and the exaggerated, each of his works exhibits its own remarkable internal consistency, its own control” (Darius). Instead of becoming a mere parody of the film noir genre, Sin City uses the intensification and reduction of its narrative and stylistic conventions to comically comment on it. Because these exaggerations perfectly fit the unified, controlled fictional universe of the graphic novels, they don’t seem out of place, instead only increasing the internal consistency of each of the stories.
That Yellow Bastard provides a perfect example of Miller’s use of exaggerated hardboiled language. Hartigan reacts to forces that menace him in predictable, invariably terse monologues; even when his heart condition threatens to kill him, his response to danger is uninflected and monotonous: “No. Not a heart. Not a heart attack. Angina. The doctor said it’d be like this. He gave you a pill/ Take the pill he gave you. Not a heart attack. Get over it. Get over it. She needs you. Nancy Callahan, age eleven” (That Yellow Bastard 30-31). Accompanying this mostly monosyllabic utterance are four abstract and formalized panels: three signifying suffering (one in which the character is curled up on the floor, the other two inserted closeups of his face), the fourth, on the facing page, signifying determination (Hartigan tries to rise, one hand pressed against the ground, the other balled into a fist). The following pages again contain a pair of facing images: Hartigan’s face, stern with resolve, one hand braced against the ground as he rises, the second of his upright figure, an outline marked by few details.
At the level of plot, the heart condition is a source of vulnerability that threatens to destroy the hero; the stylistic portrayal of this near-death experience, however, emphasizes its formulaic quality, the necessity to present the constant state of struggle that, because of his heart condition, is the norm for Hartigan even more than for his noir predecessors. The suddenness of this brush with death—especially considering it is only the beginning of the story—and the subsequent return to action, the clichéd nature of the monologue and the images that accompany it (crouching, then standing) eliminate suspense; the focus is not on what is happening, but the familiar and deliberate manner in which it happens. As Hartigan suffers near-heart attacks again and again, the experience is naturally less surprising each time, and there is a strong sense of generic ritual. Miller is commenting on the formulas and expected events of noir even as he eagerly employs them (Pizzino 118-19). Through the use of standard, universal imagery of suffering or resolve and the repetition of the character’s near-death experiences, Miller critiques the use of such images and plot devices in noir; by circumventing any sense of suspense or surprise, the artist uses these conventional images and devices not to further the story, but simply to point out the deliberate, clichéd and formulaic quality of such ritualistic conventions in noir.
In The Big Fat Kill, the language again approaches parody. Dwight finds himself protecting another damsel in distress, waitress Shellie, from her abusive ex-boyfriend and corrupt Sin City cop Jackie Boy. In Old Town, Jackie Boy manages to get into an altercation that will lead to his death at the hands of little warrior Miho. She kills him with one deft stroke of her trusty sword: “She doesn’t quite chop his head off,” Dwight’s monologue tells us. “She makes a pez dispenser out of him” (67). This last line is one of the many times the hardboiled style spills over into camp, becoming a form of both self-parody (of Miller’s work) and comic caricature (of the noir genre as a whole). This is not film noir, nor is it the hardboiled fiction of Chandler or Hammett. It is a postmodern recreation of the noir style, perhaps less serious than the originals as a critique of greed and corruption, definitely more devoted than the originals to pushing the boundaries of extreme entertainment (Booker 168).
“People tend to do stories on stuff they like to draw,” Miller said. “For me, that was tough guys, vintage cars and really hot women” (O’Donnell 114). To this end he created Sin City a hermetic and hyperbolic noir pastiche filled with parodic self-reflexivity as well as film noir’s psychological and physical violence pushed to the limit. Throughout Sin City, Miller draws attention to and radicalizes the traditional elements of noir while remaining rigidly attached to its generic tendencies; in effect, the series manages to comment on its own narrative norms without ever abandoning them, creating works that can be interpreted as self-reflexive critiques of noir while at the same time able to stand on their own as representatives of the genre. Simple, linear narratives and simplified characters and settings result in a reduction of film noir to its images. In its crude certainties, the extreme hardboiled writing style, its depictions of armored masculinity and eroticized femininity, the shockingly violent events and its various detectives’ ability to trace crimes to unambiguous individual sources, Sin City works almost as if to create not a noir graphic novel, but a portrayal of the very idea of noir. Without adding anything foreign to the genre, Miller evokes the features of noir more than he represents its values in a mediated fashion. Sin City stays committed to the dynamics of a popular genre and, without attempting to transcend or redeem it, invites reflection on its conventions and, perhaps, even reflection on the idea of genre itself.
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