A Trip to Sin City

Frank Miller is the man generally credited for taking Batman and returning the character to his roots (through his groundbreaking works The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One) as a take-no-prisoners hard-ass. For a lot of people, myself included, that probably would have been enough. Personally, I’d have called it a day, because the aforementioned stories are seminal works that even the most talented graphic artist (which Mr. Miller clearly is one of) would be hard-pressed to top. Keep in mind, his work on Batman follows a lengthy stint on Daredevil in the early ’80s that has proven to be the definitive take on the Man Without Fear, influencing the character’s adventures under every writer since.

So in 1993, having rebuilt one franchise character and practically created another, as well as inspire an entire movement within the comics industry (the so-called “grim and gritty” trend of the early ’90s, an ill-advised creative bent blamed on Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen), Miller went to Dark Horse and, rather than start a creator-owned superhero book, as was the trend at the time, serialized a singularly original take on both film noir and the concept of the anti-hero.

Sin City

Sin City is actually a very simple story, at its heart, a tale of murder and corruption, devotion and revenge.

Marv, a recently paroled and borderline psychotic mountain of a man, cuts a bloody path of revenge through the streets of the titular metropolis. Awakening after a drunken night of passion with the kind of woman who normally wouldn’t haven given him a first look, much less a second, Marv finds the object of his infatuation, Goldie, lifeless beside him, her perfect form unmarred by any sign of foul play. Before he can collect his thoughts, the blare of sirens heralds the arrival of Sin City’s corrupt police force. Reasonably certain that he didn’t murder Goldie, Marv decides that the fix must be in on him. Swearing revenge over the body of the woman he idolized, he pummels his way through the oncoming cops with Hong Kong action flick acrobatics that belie his massive bulk.

Over the course of the graphic novel, Marv stalks through the seedy underbelly of an already morally bankrupt burg, using his connections in the strip joints and back alley dives of Sin City to unravel a mystery that encompasses far more than one murdered prostitute and stretches dangerously higher than the gutters that Marv calls home.

Sin City works on basically every level. Visually speaking, Miller’s use of negative space and choice to render his sequential noir in black and white make for some of the most striking and memorable images in comics history (see the scene of Marv in the rain for particularly strong examples). Sin City is a mean, ugly story about a brutal man and Miller never shies away from showing the gruesome results of Marv’s handiwork. At the same time, however, it’s by no means a gratuitous splatterfest. Still, make no bones about it, Sin City is a story for mature readers only.

Regarding the script, Miller’s authorial voice is particularly strong in his protagonist, Marv’s internal monologue showing both the influence of classic pulp fiction and film noir, as well as the effects of the main character’s own dubious sanity.

At the end of the day, the entire Sin City franchise of graphic novels is worthwhile (except for Hell and Back, which is a drastically weaker affair than its predecessors), but it’s the original that probably holds up the best. Sin City is an ugly, visceral tale about a disturbed man’s blood-soaked quest for revenge, but at the same time, it’s a moral story. Marv knows he’ll do prison time, at the very least, for what he’s planning, but he does it anyway simply because he genuinely believes it’s the right thing to do.

And while later stories would delve into the city itself in greater detail, Sin City somehow never felt as real as it did the first time around. It’s simply a classic of modern graphic fiction.

Sin City: The Big Fat Kill

While the original Sin City was by no means bereft of action, it did tend to strike a fairly moody, introspective tone at times, with whole sequences devoted solely to Marv questioning his own sanity and mulling over the justification for his killing spree. The Big Fat Kill, however, is practically full to the brim with gunbattles, fistfights and explosions.

But I suppose it shouldn’t come as any surprise.

It is called The Big Fat Kill, after all.

This third volume in the Sin City series focuses on Dwight McCarthy, the tortured protagonist from the previous volume, A Dame to Kill For. Having finally put his heart-breaking affair with Ava to rest and been successfully brought back from the brink of death by the prostitutes of Old Town, Dwight undergoes plastic surgery. Wanted for murder (after the end of A Dame to Kill For) by the Sin City PD, a new face is the only way he can continue to live in the city he loves.

Lying low, Dwight has fallen in with Shellie, a good-hearted barmaid whose affection for him has been no secret for years. After driving away a drunken, abusive ex-boyfriend named Big Jack, Dwight thinks better of letting Jack and his friends leave generally unscathed. Fearing that they might head into Old Town and take their aggression out on the girls working the streets that night, he chases after them in his car.

But Dwight has little to fear, it seems. As the result of a truce between the citizens of Old Town and the police in Sin City proper, the working girls are effectively the only law recognized in Old Town, with every hooker in town packing heat and ready to defend themselves and their turf from unruly customers and would-be mobsters alike.

After his arrival in the area, Dwight begins to feel almost sorry for Big Jack and his crew, as it becomes increasingly obvious that an object lesson is going to be made of them by the itchy trigger fingers of Old Town. However, things rapidly go south on the whole affair as, after his death, Big Jack is discovered to in fact be “Iron” Jack Rafferty, a hero cop from Sin City. Fearing the worst, that the death of such a prominent and respected figure would bring an end to the truce and a return of the old days of mob control, the Old Town girls leave their fate in the hands of Dwight. He’s on the man on the run from the law, but he’s also a man who owes them his life.

What entails afterwards is a sometimes gritty, sometimes comedic, but always hard-boiled caper through the streets of Sin City as Dwight first fights to dispose of the bodies of Jack and his friends, then engages in an ongoing struggle for possession of Big Jack’s severed head.

The original Sin City didn’t have light moments, by any means. The Big Fat Kill, however, is a different sort of animal, possessing a dark sense of humor. The simple fact that rival gangs are competing for the severed head of a hero cop is sort of amusing in its own twisted way (though I imagined you’d have to see how it plays out to really get it), but there are other moments of violent levity, like a hired goon that ponders aloud with casual clarity when someone will bother to remove an arrow that was shot through his chest or a group of IRA soldiers turned soldiers of fortune who are amazed at how much easier it is to do their job in America. It undoubtedly seems strange to call these moments comedic, but the difference between Sin City and Big Fat Kill is readily apparent if both books are read in close proximity.

Sin City was, as stated earlier, a bit of a strangely moral tale about doing the right thing, even if that entails killing your way across town. The Big Fat Kill doesn’t veer too far off that established course, going so far as to have tagged one of the single issues with the line, “Sometimes standing up for your friends means killing a whole lot of people.” It’s essentially a story of frontier justice, a tale that definitely adds to the mystique of Sin City itself, as well as one that successfully plays off of earlier works, but manages to remain completely accessible to new readers.

Sin City: That Yellow Bastard

That Yellow Bastard is a unique creature in terms of the Sin City franchise as a whole. The series, as a general rule, paces itself well; that is to say, the stories are neither padded nor rushed, taking an appropriate amount of time to establish mood and tone and atmosphere and what not, but still getting on with the business of advancing the plot. The pacing in That Yellow Bastard, however, is something else entirely.

When I was first in the process of reading it, I remember disliking it a fair bit. It didn’t seem like it was too well thought-out, that it hurried in the beginning, then plodded in the middle, then rushed to conclude. However, when I put it down after that first read, I mulled it over all day. And the longer I did, the more it grew on me. See, That Yellow Bastard is what they call a bit of a slow burn. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, per se; it’s just a different kind of graphic novel than the rest of the franchise. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, by any means.

First and foremost, That Yellow Bastard is almost a prequel to the original Sin City, and having read that first volume is sort of a prerequisite. You could undoubtedly get by without having read Sin City and you’d probably enjoy it. All the same, a lot of the subtleties and in-jokes of That Yellow Bastard would be lost on you, so it’s worth checking out the series’ beginning first.

Hartigan is a Sin City cop working his last day on the beat before a heart condition puts him into mandatory retirement. However, there’s just one case left on his agenda and it’s a case that owns him. The son of Sen. Roark (who is the brother of Cardinal Roark, a man with ties to the conclusion of Sin City), a man known only as Junior, is everything but convicted by a jury for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a series of young girls. The problem, of course, lies in actually getting him before that jury, as his father’s political connections makes the charges roll off Junior like water off a duck’s back. Mere days before his retirement goes into effect, eleven-year old Nancy Callahan (herself a player in Sin City) goes missing and Hartigan finds himself unable to rest until he’s rescued her from Junior’s clutches.

The book opens at Hartigan and his partner race across town, tipped to Junior’s hideout by an informant. These opening chapters are a frantic affair, as Hartigan chases down Junior, maiming and nearly killing him in the process, then as the one honest cop in Sin City tries to stay alive long enough for backup to arrive after his corrupt partner makes an attempt on his life, having been bought off by the Roark family fortune.

Hartigan succeeds in rescuing Nancy, so all would seem to be right with the world. However, the vengeful Sen. Roark, furious over the condition Hartigan left his son in, frames Hartigan for the abduction and “rape” of Nancy. Threatening to kill both the girl and Hartigan’s wife if he so much as speaks a word in his own defense, Roark leaves the man in torment, his dignity wrestling with his sense of right and wrong.

In the end, Hartigan chooses to sacrifice his own career and good name for the safety of his wife and Nancy, theorizing that if one old man has to die for a young girl to live, it’s a fair trade. That Yellow Bastard then hits a bit of a lull, though it’s merely a calm before the inevitable storm. Detailing the police’s attempt to beat a confession out of Hartigan, as well as his interactions with others, all of who now believe him to be a violent pedophile. Sent to prison, weekly letters from Nancy under an assumed name keep him sane and alive in solitary confinement. For eight years, Hartigan maintains the status quo, never copping to the charges, but never asserting his innocence, secure in the knowledge that Nancy is safe. Then a week arrives without a letter from Nancy. After two months pass without word from her, he simply assumes that she’s outgrown her infatuation with her rescuer and though he’s heartbroken, in a way he’s relieved that she’s finally gotten on with her life. Then a simple package arrives: a severed finger, appearing to be taken from the hand of a young girl. Fearing it to be Nancy’s, Hartigan now realizes that there is nothing he won’t do to ensure her safety and sets about freeing himself from prison. Finally signing a confession and begging for Sen. Roark’s forgiveness, Hartigan is paroled. And a man possessed by a righteous fury is back on the streets of Sin City.

That Yellow Bastard marks the first use of color in a Sin City tale, with Lynn Varley coloring the skin of the titular character (who is, of course, yellow), a nice effect particularly in the scenes where he is following Hartigan from a distance. The graphic novel is full of eye candy, particularly the scenes of Hartigan in solitary confinement, where Miller’s rendering of a single cell in a shaft of light amidst a background of solid black is especially memorable.

As I said earlier, That Yellow Bastard is a different kind of Sin City story. It’s a deliberately paced story about the lengths that one man will go to take a stand in a town without morality, the sacrificing of his own dignity to protect the innocence of a child. It’s not a story about revenge so much as it’s a story about vengeance. It’s also my favorite Sin City story.

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