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The Pipeline Guide to SIN CITY

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The Pipeline Guide to SIN CITY

WELCOME TO SIN CITY

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been re-reading Frank Miller’s SIN CITY books. There are seven collections of the series, plus one art book. I thought this would be a good time to take a look back at one of the legendary series of the 1990s, as it prepares itself for a new audience in movie theaters this weekend.


If you’re new to the world of SIN CITY and enjoyed the movie, you have a lot to look forward to on the printed page. I hope you give some of these books a shot. I’ll be sure to note which books were the most influential to the movie as we go along.


Five of these seven titles have been re-released this year so far in a new 6 x 9 inch format. The remaining two will arrive this coming Wednesday. They are the last two books reviewed in this column. You’ll want to take special note of volume seven, BOOZE, BROADS, & BULLETS. The opening for the movie comes directly from a short story in that book.


This column is, as always, spoiler free. The reviews you’re seeing here are lightly edited from their original publication. You’ll see references at the end of most reviews to the movie trailer. You can find those now at the movie’s official web site.


If you’re interested in buying any of these comics, you can look them up on their publisher’s web site, or stop by your local comics shop.

VOLUME 1: THE HARD GOODBYE

The original SIN CITY series still holds up, almost 15 years after its first publication. That’s rare in comics today.

In reading it again recently, I was surprised by how much more I appreciate the book today than I did in those first few readings. I think part of it has to do with the impact the visuals had on me. I was a bit blinded to the story by Miller’s art. Anything I didn’t grasp right off the bat I’d glance over. I didn’t want to stumble over the visuals. Miller’s writing is intentionally meant to be a roller coaster ride; momentum is everything. These books aren’t so dense or long that they can’t be consumed in a single sitting. I’d suggest that for all these trades, as it maintains the momentum and keeps all the characters straight in your mind better.

I should point out that the book is not supposed to be set in the real world at a specific time. It’s a mish-mash of sensibilities, locations, and technologies. Miller doesn’t attempt to place Sin City in the real world. “Sin City” is short for “Basin City,” and any resemblance to Vegas is superficial. Timewise, there are references to modern tech, but a reliance on older cars. Don’t try to figure out if this book is an alternative history or future. Just enjoy the world Miller creates.

In this story, Marv is a big thug with a mental problem, capable of calming down with the help of his drugs and his parole officer. When Goldie, his lady friend — and that’s putting it politely — is dead in his bed The Morning After, all heck breaks loose. There is a bigger plot going on dealing with prostitute death and dismemberment that he’s unfortunately stumbled onto. Marv, with his heart of gold, takes on perhaps a bit more than he can chew and vows to avenge the dearly departed Goldie. It leads to only bad things. . .

Frank Miller is still working on his style for this series throughout the book. It progresses to a higher and higher level of contrast with each entry. This story was originally serialized over 13 months. Miller changed as the story went on.

This is a hard as nails noir pulp thriller. It pulls no punches and flinches from nothing. Miller draws all sorts of violent acts, and doesn’t shy away from drawing anyone naked, and then glorifying that. That goes for both men and women, though I don’t think any full male nudity occurred until the second volume.

Using Marv’s point of view for the narrative gives Miller the chance to write the kind of prose that even the most hard-boiled of novel writers might think goes too far. It gets better in future volumes, though. This is all part of why I don’t think the original story is the best of the lot. It is, however, better than 95% of the books you might pick up at the comics shop on any given week.

In the movie trailer, Marv shows up prominently, with a few panels from the comic used in the movie quite obviously. See Marv bust through his own door. See Marv kick through a police car’s window. See Marv mourn Goldie.

Mickey Rourke looks a lot like Marv with the help of some makeup and a facial appliance, but the question is how believable that makeup will be for longer than a second here or there.

VOLUME 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR

. . .is the second volume, but begins in continuity before the first. The clues for this are not subtle at all, but I don’t want to spoil anything about the first book. Miller gives the continuity-hungry some morsels to chew on in the course of the book to see which events occur in parallel to Marv’s first story.

ADTKF is the story of Dwight, a recovering alcoholic and now stealthy photographer. He shoots incriminating photos for a sleazy (aren’t they all?) private detective in Sin City. He has one weak spot – an old flame by the name of Ava. And when she comes to him for help, he can’t help but fall for her all over again. In the process, Dwight comes into contact with the women of Old Town, the den of inequity for Sin City’s sex trade. That pays off in a big way in the next volume.

This book is almost over-the-top in its melodrama. This is pulpish noir taken to an extreme: the charming wiles of the beautiful woman, the internal monologues from the lead, the calm gunman, the calculating shrew, the damsel in distress. Miller is throwing everything at the wall here. It all sticks. This is a book that works not despite those clichés, but because of them. Miller brings the reader into this world from the first page and doesn’t let up. He doesn’t attempt to soften it at all with self-aware comments or metatextual narrative. This is pure Sin City, and it’s an unflinching style that only grows stronger with each story.

You can also see the high contrast artwork settling in here. There’s no going back. If a page can be drawn by throwing in only the shadows in a thick Sharpie marker, that’s what Miller does. It’s a style he’ll go even further with in the next volume before pulling back a bit and mixing it up again.

What the book lacks is either the grand scale bombast of THE BIG FAT KILL, the political intrigue of FAMILY VALUES, or the extremely personal narrative of THAT YELLOW BASTARD. Because it’s a general mish mash of all those things in parts, but focusing on none, it’s not my favorite of the books. It’s still great stuff, but I don’t think it’s the best.

The movie trailer appears to skip over this book, although the next couple are featured heavily.

VOLUME 3: BIG FAT KILL

VOLUME 4: THAT YELLOW BASTARD

The next two books are the basis for the bulk of the movie. They’re also my two favorite titles in the series. They work in completely different ways, which makes comparing and contrasting the two works such a perfect idea. Miller shows a slightly broader storytelling ability with these two tales than people generally give him credit for on this series.

THAT YELLOW BASTARD is an emotional character piece. The spotlight shines directly on Hartigan, the stereotypical movie cliché cop who has one last case to solve before retiring tomorrow. What should be a slam-dunk case quickly turns his life around because of dirty Sin City politics. We follow him as he attempts to climb back up out of the hole he’s in to save the woman he loves, damning the consequences. It’s a taut thriller, one in which the reader pulls for the most unlikely of heroes with his every move.

BIG FAT KILL is the opposite of that. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer movie done in sequential narrative. It’s an episode of ’24’ but with more blood and body parts being hacked off. It’s the ultimate action/adventure piece that doesn’t have a second to waste, or a moment to pause. Just when you think things have gotten as bad as they might get, Miller pulls another twist out of his pocket to send his characters spiraling further into the abyss. Of course, there is something of a happy ending by SIN CITY standards, but getting there is all the fun.

Let’s take a look at the books in more detail.

THE BIG FAT KILL follows hot on the heels of A DAME TO KILL FOR. We’re back to following the hapless Dwight, whose love life is sure to kill him eventually. His current girlfriend has an ex who treats her wrong, and Dwight’s self-appointed obligation to show the bad guy a lesson leads into the politics of Sin City. The Old Town section that’s controlled by the prostitutes functions by its own laws. Dwight unwittingly upsets that balance and then spends the rest of the book trying to right the wrong.

There are car chases, gun fights, torture scenes, drownings, tar pits, dinosaurs, sewers, and more. Miller relentlessly pounds the story forward, never pausing for so much as a flashback. This is gleeful violence and madcap excitement.

THAT YELLOW BASTARD takes us away from the life of Dwight to look at Hartigan, a tough as nails noir cop who’s set for retirement. His last case is to save an abducted girl who, as it turns out, we’ve already met as an adult in a previous SIN CITY book. When politics enters that case, Hartigan finds himself near death, framed for hellacious crimes, and a pawn in a protection scheme of the vicious Roark family, who we first met in the original SIN CITY book.

This book is all about Hartigan, who’s a selfless hero. He takes a beating for something he believes is right. He doesn’t let anyone know what he knows, and he refuses to give them the satisfaction they want. He won’t be broken, as easy as it would be for him to let them do it. Much of this story is about mental control. Miller writes most of this book in captions, explaining Hartigan’s every move without being expository. This is hard boiled narrative, with a few monologues that stage actors could benefit from studying. I can’t wait to see if they’re used in the movie at all.

Both books continue the evolution of the art style for Miller. In BIG FAT KILL, Miller is working in pure shapes, rather than form. The details don’t matter. The negative space does. Keep it stark. Keep it contrasting. If it can’t be drawn with a Sharpie marker and a splatter of white out, it ain’t worth drawing. Don’t look for as many of the background tricks as you may have seen in previous stories.

The book includes so few “sets” that the architecture doesn’t feature much at all. The tar pits scene is the exception, but I think Miller just wanted an excuse to draw dinosaurs for a few pages. It’s either that or the Hollywood training kicking in: Stage as much of your story in visually interesting locations as possible. A La Brea Tar Pits-like amusement part? Golden.

In YELLOW, he opens up the art a bit more, throwing in plenty of splash pages. You might not notice it at first, but they are there for dramatic effect. When Hartigan is entering a barn door, Miller needs to slow down the moment just a bit. That’s why there are two two-page splashes just before he enters. With his high contrast style, they’re also interesting pages to look at.

YELLOW is the first long-form SIN CITY story Miller used color for. The titular character appears in the second half of the book with yellow skin. The jaundiced look matches his medical history, possibly, and helps the sicko stand out more and look more evil. It’s a trick Miller played with in some short stories first, but also one he’d repeat a lot in the future. His short stories, in fact, end up looking like a color wheel by the time you compile them. (See Volume 6 at the end of this column for details.)

If there’s one thing the two books share in common, it’s their high level of story craft. Specifically, they start as late in the story as possible, and end as quickly as they can. In both books, you can easily imagine an epilogue to tell us more about what happened after that last page and the characters’ reactions to it. It’s not necessary, though. They end on their climax, period. In both cases, they start with the inciting action. (I might be chanelling Robert McKee here.) In YELLOW, Hartigan arrives at the scene of the crime to save an abducted girl. It’s the day before he retires. His history doesn’t matter. Even if it does, you can infer that he’s a good cop from his actions in the first few pages. The story lies ahead, not behind. In FAT KILL, Dwight is there to save his girlfriend from an abusive ex-boyfriend. Dwight’s character comes through in his actions on the first few pages, and the little details past that are filled in neatly during the dialogue. In neither case does the scene end simply. The resolution comes much further down the road. These are merely the points in time that Miller can begin his story while giving us as much information as we need to process what’s about to happen. He does so in both cases without flashbacks. That’s good writing. Both books ends at the moment that the main character’s mission is fulfilled. Nothing else is needed. The story is done.

Miller is playing around with the timeline of all the Sin City books in these two volumes. Nancy’s Bar is becoming the main crossover location for this series. If you want to know where in the overall timeline any story takes place, look for a scene set in Nancy’s Bar, or that feature one of her girls. Miller keeps adding to pre-existing scenes with new “background characters” to cross-reference events.

As for the movie: That’s Bruce Willis playing Hartigan, and Clive Owen playing Dwight. Alexis Bledel is Becky from the opening scene in Old Town in BIG FAT KILL.

VOLUME 5: FAMILY VALUES

After a few short short stories and mini-series, Frank Miller did something different in 1997. He did his next SIN CITY story as an original graphic novel. Rather than create the story in five or six parts and then collect them all into a trade afterwards, he went straight to the square bound paperback. FAMILY VALUES is a single 125-page story. Without the constraints of a monthly page count, he’s free to do away with the forced issue-ending cliffhangers and issue-starting recaps. The result is one smooth story from beginning to end. Reading it feels more like watching a movie than any previous SIN CITY story, just for the structure.

Dwight is back to investigate a shoot-up at a diner that left a number of people dead and sparked fears of a renewed Gang War. We know only that he was sent by the women of Old Town to do so, which means there’s a vested interest in it. We’re not made privy to that until the end.

Perhaps surprisingly, Miho ends up the real star of the issue. She gained popularity for her earlier appearances in SIN CITY, and was no doubt a favorite of Miller’s for her quick and clean cutting style. In this story, she’s shadowing Dwight every step of the way. Silently, she drops in when needed to take care of the dirty work. The third act is a deliciously violent killing spree, as the roller skating assassin has her way with any number of larger and better-armed men. In many ways, it undercuts the dramatic tension of the book. There’s never any real doubt that the good guys will win and the bad guys will get theirs. Dwight gets roughed up at one point, but that’s only because he lets it happen and he has backup. You have to have a slightly dark side to enjoy this book, because the fun in it doesn’t have anything to do, really, with good triumphing over evil or David rising up against Goliath. The fun is in the surgical precision of the action, and Miller’s storytelling of it.

Looked at another way, the story is less about the personal peril that we’ve seen in previous SIN CITY tales, and more about the reason for its existence. FAMILY VALUES is a CSI or LAW & ORDER episode. You start at the end and work back to the beginning, looking for that last clue that promises to pull all the pieces together to form one coherent whole. And whether you find the ending satisfying or not, I think the road getting there is awfully fun. This is a calm, cool, and collected story.

FAMILY VALUES may not be the high point of the SIN CITY library, but it is a very enjoyable read. At only $12, it’s also a nice addition to the library.

There’s nothing in the movie trailer that would appear to come from this book. However, I think it would be a great segment for a sequel. It should be fairly easy to translate it in Rodriguez’s style.

VOLUME 7: HELL AND BACK

(Yes, I’m skipping volume six for a moment. I think the series reads better if you go with seven first. That’s why I’m reviewing them slightly out of order. Volume six is an anthology title that we’ll discuss in a minute.)

The final SIN CITY mini-series thus far is also generally considered the least of them. I remember liking it vaguely when it first came out, but thinking it was not nearly as bad as some people thought it was. When I reread it this past week, I saw mostly the faults.

Perhaps they were right, after all.

The cover bills this as a “love story,” but the love is never established strongly enough. It’s a love of plot convenience. We don’t know either character involved enough to buy into their stories. This book lacks the emotional core that YELLOW BASTARD or the original SIN CITY book had. It lacks the instantly likable lug with the heart of gold like Marv, or the easily-rattled but trustworthy and dependable Dwight. Even Hartigan had a noble purpose. In this book, we don’t get any of that. Here, Wallace doesn’t have an easily identifiable “hook” for us to latch onto.

Wallace is a down on his luck artist who makes the mistake of getting involved with a woman he saves from suicide. Things get stranger from there, as you might expect, but Wallace’s instant love for this woman doesn’t click. His military training seems like a forced excuse to explain his heroic tendencies later in the story. His artistic side is hardly the hook that Miller might have thought comics fans would latch onto. As the book ends, Wallace is still a bit nebulous. He’s a plot device meant to carry the reader through the story, to the “shocking end” that’s forecast so well throughout the book that it’s not all that shocking. It turns into just another bad guy at the end of a story that needs defeating. Even worse, the pacing is off leading up to it. When the story ends, it feels abrupt, and devoid of the kind of bombast that a SIN CITY tale needs to properly conclude.

Another problem with HELL AND BACK is that it’s not focused strongly enough. The original mini-series lasted a whopping nine issues. The story does a lot of meandering around, with events happening in multiple locations all at once. There are a bunch of new characters in here, and none of them are defined too well past “evil” or “friendly.”

In the end, a lot of people die. The hero goes through some personal pain. The sick seedy underbelly of Basin City is exposed and one of its hidden evils is wiped out. That’s all plot, but that’s not what brings us back to SIN CITY with each successive volume. We want characters to root for. HELL AND BACK falls far short in that department.

Miller takes chances with his art in the book. The Will Eisner influence shows in this volume, particularly with flashbacks that are drawn in panels outlined in scratchy white lines that emulate smoke. There are also more inset panels and even stories-within-the-story. Miller’s artwork continues to mix up the level of detail, from harsh black and white pages that look more like splotches of white on a black background, to more detailed and conventional pages. Since this is a SIN CITY book, you’ll also get plenty of splash pages featuring women staring soullessly out to the reader. It’s a problem of pacing that there are a few too many of those.

As far as the movie goes, there’s no sign in any of the trailers that any of the movie is lifted from this book. It would take a major rewrite, but I’m sure this story could be hacked into shape for a movie sequel. Miller and Robert Rodriguez would have to strengthen the characters and simplify the story to make it work, but there’s enough of visual interest in the book to sustain a movie.

HELL AND BACK is not the first, second, or third volume in the series that I’d recommend to a new reader. It’s strictly for completists. While it has its entertaining moments and its laudable artistic experimentations, it falls apart as a whole. The original printing will set you back $25. The new digest-sized second edition will be $28.

VOLUME 6: BOOZE, BROADS, & BULLETS

. . .is a collection of short SIN CITY stories Miller did for various sources. As with any anthology, the quality of stories varies from chapter to chapter. Your reactions will likely be as mixed as mine, but in different combinations. I don’t hate any of the stories in the book, though. Every one is entertaining, some more so than others.

Some of the stories take place in recognizable spots of continuity. They are “between panels,” if you will. Others feature completely new characters. The familiar ones steal the show, though. Marv and Dwight both show up. Two-bit stooges like “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” also make get starring roles. Those two, in particular, are featured in the funniest story in the book.

Stories range in length from the 26-page Christmas tale, “Silent Night,” to three page fillers. This might just be a good way to introduce a new reader to SIN CITY, as there’s bound to be something to like in here, even if it means pushing through the other more obtuse stories along the way. They’ll recognize bits and pieces of these stories later on, when they read the collections.

The best story is likely the one used by Rodriguez to sell the SIN CITY movie in the first place. “The Customer Is Always Right” is only three pages, but it has great mood, dialogue, and a sharp little twist. It packs a mean punch for only three pages. If more comic book writers and artists were able to tell stories like this, we might just see profitable anthologies again on a regular basis.

“Silent Night” was controversial when it originally came out. It’s a mostly-silent story told in full page panels. It takes 10 seconds to read, if you’re lucky not to get a paper cut while flipping the pages that quickly. It features Marv rescuing an abducted little girl. To reduce the story to being “too short a read,” though, is to ignore the artistry it contains. Miller plays with the pacing, the staging, and the showmanship of the story. He uses shadows and negative space as strongly as he does in any of the SIN CITY stories. And, unlike the rest of the series, it’s a happy story. Shocking. No wonder why people didn’t like it. I think it’ll receive a warmer welcome as part of a collection like this, as opposed to buying it at full cover price on its own. I think the mental barrier will be easily breached this way.

Miller experiments more with color throughout the book. “The Babe Wore Red,” “Wrong Turn,” “Wrong Track,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and “Blue Eyes” all feature spot colors. While I think the pinks works in “Daddy’s Little Girl” to help point out the character’s innocent look, I’m not sure I really see the need for spot colors in general. I’m sure I’m missing a grand artistic gesture with this one. It doesn’t take away from the story, though, so I don’t complain.

The new “second edition” printing is only $15. There’s a lot of story in these 160 pages, and I think it’s a worthy read. It certainly requires less attention from the reader than the other stories. You can read this one five minutes at a time without missing a beat.

WRAPPING IT ALL UP

There is also an ART OF SIN CITY book out from Dark Horse. That is a high end edition, reprinting sketches, layouts, and original art pages from the various series. It’s an oversized hardcover volume that will set you back $50. It’s also the first book in this format that Dark Horse produced. Their follow-up volumes (for HELLBOY and USAGI YOJIMBO) have been much better. It’s a pretty art book, but lacks context. At the price, you’ll want to hold off on it until you’re a devoted fan. There aren’t any new stories in there to salivate over.

That is the complete SIN CITY catalog, then. Seven books comprise the entire circle of storytelling. Miller hasn’t mentioned working on any new ones since the last saw print. At last word, he was working on a couple of Batman projects for DC.

If you just saw and liked the movie, you’re going to love the comics. Hopefully, this column will serve as some kind of guide for you. If you have any questions, please drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer.

Pipeline Commentary and Review is updated every Tuesday morning.

The Pipeline Podcast brings you news of the week’s comic releases on Wednesdays. Check out our RSS page for the free feed.

And Pipeline Previews stops by once a month on a Friday to look at what’s shipping to comics shops two months hence. It took this month off, but plans to return at about the first Friday in May.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: THE OFFICE reruns on NBC, AMERICAN IDOL commentary runs rampant, plagiarizing is bad, what’s new on DVD, a handy PayPal calculator, a new COWBOY BEBOP DVD release, and a lot more!

The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast continues to look at the week’s DVD releases, every Sunday afternoon. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to it right here. This week’s show clocked it at an impressively long 15 minutes.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page. I haven’t had that account in years, but they’ve yet to delete the page space. Go fig.

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