In the original Sin City, Marv is a tired old man. The events of the story turn him into an uncompromising hero, whom you could say is in the ultra-violent, Ayn Rand-inspired mold of some of Miller’s later work. But Sin City undercuts that in remarkably ways.
Marv’s old. He’s not very smart. He’s probably an alcoholic. He hasn’t done much with his life for a long time, if ever.
He longs nostalgically for the bad old days. He’s old, and he’s on his way out. Effectively, his turn towards the heroic in the story is a kind of suicide – a way of dying well, as he imagines it. It’s a last gasp. One final, desperate, dramatic measure.
So yes, he’s a powerful individual who molds the situation to his whims and is willing to make the supreme sacrifice for what he believes in. In a way, Marv creates himself by doing so, much as Ayn Rand heroes are said to do so.
But with Marv, you get the sense that he’s fighting for things that are far more personal than anything. What sets him off is the murder of Goldie, the first woman who’s shown him any kindness in years. There’s a loneliness at the heart of Marv that he doesn’t even try to hide.
Does he really do anything for Goldie? Or does he do what he does because he’s tired of life, and he get his adrenaline up just thinking about going out in a hail of fists and a feeling that he’s making a difference? It’s transparently more the latter than the former.
Most importantly, there’s no indication that these bad old days, to which Marv wants to return, really existed at all. Yes, Marv was once younger. But was this past, for which Marv pines, really a paradise for the rough-and-tumble individual? If Marv is remaking himself, he’s doing so according to an ideal. But that ideal exists in his mind, in his memory of how things used to be, or perhaps how they ought to be. And there’s little indication in the story that this state ever existed, or is really very noble at all.
Miller’s earlier work has a similar sense of remove that adds layers of depth to his tough guys. Bruce Wayne, in The Dark Knight Returns, similarly pines for his glory days. But these glory days aren’t really any Batman comics we’ve ever seen. They’re what Bruce Wayne wishes they had been.
He might ignore the politically correct talking heads and mold Gotham to his will, but this isn’t the actions of an Ayn Rand industrialist, ignoring labor laws and lesser minds. Rather, it’s the action of an old man nostalgically remembering the bad old days, when he imagines he could impose order with his young fists.
And like Marv, there’s no indication that Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns is driven primarily by any noble desire. The story questions his sanity. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned with Alfred, nor with his new Robin, nor with Selina Kyle, nor with anyone but himself and his memory of his martyred parents. Bruce might be more pissed off at the state of Gotham than Marv is at the state of Basin City, but neither seems motivated by anything more than their own desire to feel relevant again – and perhaps to die well.
By the time we get to late Sin City – and certainly to Holy Terror – this irony and distance is gone. It’s one thing to point out that The Dark Knight Returns is satire; that’s true to a point, and it’s notoriously hard to pinpoint that point, which changes depending on the reader as well as on the reading. But beyond this, the whole noble Ayn Rand tough guy to which Bruce and Marv aspire is a myth. It’s a myth they want to believe, perhaps. But it’s at best a previous state of affairs, a Golden Age before civilization slid into corruption and political sensitivity. And given the troubled psyches of both Bruce and Marv, we have every reason to believe that this Golden Age – like all Golden Ages – isn’t exactly being remembered precisely.
Here, it’s worth recalling that Miller previously told the story of 300 on a single page of Sin City: The Big Fat Kill. It’s just a one-page throwaway, and it’s cast in the light of this Golden Age. It’s a past state in which brave men did very manly, violent things that saved civilization. In the present, the characters just gun people down, and there’s no glory in it, even if it’s presented as necessary and visually appealing.
Fast forward a few years, and 300 is set in that Golden Age. Even then, Leonidas struggles with the current state of Greece, which more closely resembles the corrupt, politically sensitive state of late Gotham or Sin City than any Golden Age of Manliness. But Leonidas is a much more purely noble figure than Bruce Wayne or Marv. His sanity isn’t questioned in any real way, nor is the rightness of his sacrifice. The things Miller put into his stories to make us question Bruce Wayne and Marv aren’t here now. You’re supposed to think Leonidas is a hero, not a battered and nostalgic old man looking to feel alive again, or to go out in a dramatic and semi-noble fashion.
By the time we get to Holy Terror, there’s no Golden Age at all. There’s no remove. There’s no satire, at least not of the hero. The Fixer’s sanity isn’t brought into serious question. There’s no death wish. There’s no nostalgia for a simpler era, when men were men, that might never have existed. There’s only the Fixer and his city.
And the unspeakable foreign hordes that have infested it, that seek to destroy it, and that are so evil, so heinous, so insane that they obliterate any such defects on the part of the protagonist.
Miller’s career shows a clear evolution. The violence isn’t new. The possible psychopathology of Miller’s hard-boiled protagonists isn’t new, nor is the discomfort this can create in readers. But where Miller once questioned these protagonists, or made their psychopathology part of the story, this subtlety has slowly disappeared. Marv gives way to Leonidas. The Dark Knight Returns gives way to All Star Batman and Robin (where Gotham’s become Sin City, but at times the Goddamn Batman seems to be posing for Robin and others), which in turn gives way to the Fixer.
If you wanted to justify this evolution, from the three-dimensional and complicated to the straight-forward, you could see it as the writing equivalent of how Miller’s art evolved. Alex Toth is most celebrated for his minimalism of line. Beginning with Sin City, Miller’s art began to look like Toth on steroids, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the effect revolutionized comics art. Simplicity is often more effective than needless complexity. But simplify the characters in this way, and you get a hero and a villain who fight with exaggerated brutality, and the villain’s very very evil and insane, and the hero’s very very good because he’s the only line of defense against this very very evil monstrosity.
Everything’s reduced to its essential elements. Including people.
You can evoke a figure with a silhouette and still have the person beneath that splotch of ink feel three-dimensional. Of course, that “person” is only a side effect, produced in the reader’s mind from two-dimensional words and pictures. Reducing this mental image to its barest essentials is an interesting experiment, and concealing elements of a character’s backstory is a long-established literary technique. But take this too far, and character becomes caricature, and persons stereotypes.
Take this too far, and minimalism can give way to a lack a subtlety, then to an apparent hostility towards subtlety, a deliberate closing-off of interpretive possibilities that once helped counterbalance the violent, uncompromising hero.