Book Review

Sin City by Frank Miller

Sin City by Frank Miller

Spanning seven books Sin City showcases Frank Miller's dark, violent and wholly, pathologically, noir universe. Miller is most famous in comicdom for groundbreaking work on crime titles featuring Batman (his Dark Knight Returns completely resituated the Batman myth reinvigorating a title long since passed into caricature) and Marvel's blind superhero Daredevil. Sin City is his longest running work set in crime-ridden Basin City, dominated by booze, broads and bullets and the struggles over and concerning them. In marvellous black and white studies Miller parodies all the pulp essentials, shadow and absence dominating the books. If he can leave something unsaid and suggest it via a looming umbra he will. Miller lets his bold, massive shapes communicate directly to the reader and it is when he forgets this - when he lets his writing do the talking - that the books suffer. These are superb comics, and Miller is a decent writer, but he doesn't wield words nearly as well as the best crime writers do. And maybe we shouldn't expect him to. What he does do is create a universe in which his art and words work beautifully together to create something powerfully unique.

The opening book, simply entitled Sin City, is visually quite astonishing. An intimidatingly brutal piece Miller's artwork realises his pulp world superbly well. Marv is a giant who has found some peace in the arms of a prostitute called Goldie. Goldie, running from someone, scared as hell, needs protection as much as Marv needs a little human kindness. Hauling himself out of the depths of a huge hangover Marv wakes to find Goldie murdered. In A Dame to Kill For we are introduced to Dwight McCarthy. A Photographer and specialist in capturing the mess that leads to expensive divorces Dwight is also a criminal and a friend, lover and protector, like all of Miller's heroes, of the prostitutes of Old Town. His past is just about to catch up with him.

The Big Fat Kill is as brutal as we've now come to expect from Miller's series. Our main protagonist is, again, Dwight McCarthy, not nearly as compelling a hero as Marv and The Big Fat Kill seems more one-dimensional than the earlier work. Dwight's barmaid girlfriend has got in with some bad sorts, Dwight sorts it, but the aggrieved boys drive into Old Town's red light area to take out their frustration on the girls who work there. Bad news for them is that Old Town's 'girls' are well used to fending for themselves and one of their number is particular keen to teach our misogynists a lesson. Miho, samurai trained, beautiful, cold and vicious - and seemingly modelled on Miller's superb anti-heroine Elektra Assassin - takes them out. But then their worst nightmare: one of the buffoons was a copper, Jack Rafferty. And Jacky was a hero cop at that. If the police connect his death to the girls the truce allowing them to look after themselves will collapse, the mob will move in and none of them will ever be safe again. Seems that only a further bloodbath can wash away their mistake.

That Yellow Bastard is an absolutely fantastic chapter - Sin City at its best. Police lieutenant John Hartigan is an hour away from retirement. Sixty, as hard as Harry, but suffering from acute angina. On the other side of town the sick and perverted son of a powerful, impervious senator is just about to do all kinds of wrong to 11 year old Nancy Callahan. Hartigan has to save her and then save himself from the awful repercussions. The narrative drive here is excellent and a splash of colour in the black and white to pinpoint Hartigan's foe is a great touch (seen before in a story The Babe Wore Red collected in Booze, Broads & Bullets).

Because of a bungled mafia killing the prostitutes of Old Town are again caught up in a gang war. Miho makes her reappearance in Family Values as she and Dwight track down the culprits to create the conditions for a vengeful and violent denouement. This is as thin as it gets. The art is good but seems less able to support the weak storyline than earlier. And the storyline itself will not make too much sense to the reader who has not already got a sense of Sin City's mores and seems merely to retread themes better explored elsewhere.

Booze, Broads & Bullets is a collection of Sin City shorts (including the excellent The Babe Wore Red; Lost, Lonely, & Lethal and Sex & Violence) that collects hard to find early episodes. This is a strong collection featuring many of the characters we've seen before (old favourite Marv appears in a powerful Christmas story called Silent Night).

Hell and Back is a surprising disappointment. Old Town doesn't make an appearance and it, and its whores, have been inspiring noir essentials to the rest of the series. The hero, Wallace, an ex-Navy Seal, fails to garner the interest of the damaged Marv, the scheming Dwight or the heroic Hartigan and Miller's art, usually relying on bold contrasting shapes, is fiddly here, unpolished and cramped. It is also over long, the plot unable to keep our interest, and Miller seems half-hearted, almost self-mimicking.

Sin City is a good series, parts of which (Sin City, A Dame to Kill For, That Yellow Bastard) are really excellent. Miller has shown that the comic form can support and explore the noir universe that pulp fiction now rarely realises: he takes us back to the shadows and the girls who work in them and who need protecting from the kind of men Miller's heroes are only one step away from becoming. March 2002 saw the publication of the10th Anniversary Edition that it is hoped returns the series to the promise of its early form because the early form showed that when a good writer and an accomplished artist work on some sound ideas they can produce really great books.

Sin City series:

Sin City (1): Sin City by Frank Miller, Titan Books, 10.99, 1852864680
Sin City (2): A Dame to Kill For by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £13.99, 1852865741
Sin City (3): The Big Fat Kill by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £16.99, 1852866977
Sin City (4): That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £10.99, 1852868422
Sin City (5): Family Values by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £7.99, 1852868988
Sin City (6): Booze, Broads & Bullets by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £9.99, 1840230568 - short stories
Sin City (7): Hell and Back by Frank Miller, Titan Books, £19.99, 1840231270
Sin City: 10th Anniversary Edition by Frank Miller 22/3/2002

-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 30/08/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1852864680
ISBN-13: 9781852864682
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: 18/01/1993
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 208
URL: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=9781852864682&index=books&linkCode=qs&tag=marksbookrevi-21

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