Book Club / He’s Got Some Outdated Attitudes but a Heart of Gold

Sin CitySin City
By Frank Miller

 

 

 

And we’re back. 

Last night for the first time in about a hundred years I reread Sin City. Which truth be told was a pretty pointless exercise. There are a few comics that I’ve read too many times to the point that every single part of it has soaked completely into my brain. I still have the same copy of Watchmen I got for my 12th (?) birthday and the spine has completely disintegrated because I’ve read it too many times (now it’s held together with gaffer tape). As a kid my party trick was that if someone read one line from Tintin and the Black Island I could tell you who said it, why they said it, describe the panel and tell you what the next line was. And then well yeah – there’s Sin City. Which isn’t really a book that I think I’d pick up and read for fun but I realised last night that’s probably because it’s all already in my head to the point where for every panel I read I already knew what the next panel was going to be and what it was going to say. (“She says her name is Goldie.”) 

That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s a great fucking little comic tho. 

(And just to be clear – when I say Sin City. I’m just talking about the first book. The one that when it first came out it just said “Frank Miller Sin City” on the cover in red writing overlaid a black and white picture of Marv standing in the rain holding a gun. But I understand that’s akin that those people who still call A New Hope – Star Wars but hey: that’s not my problem).

When I was a kid I literally lived next door to this cool Scottish guy called Chris who used to sell comics and had a whole wall of his house that was just three bookshelves of comic books – like the best Library you’ve ever seen. He’s the one that first gave me my first copy of Sin City. I think he laughed as he lent it to me and said something like “here you kid – this should blow your mind” (crazy Scottish laughter). Reading Sin City now it can’t have the same impact that it did back when it first came out (but hey – what can?) but the thing to try and keep in mind was that the comics world was way smaller then in terms of what it could do. I mean it came out all the way at the start of the 1990s. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns both came out in the second half of the 1980s and so (in the western world at least) people were still trying to wrap their heads around what it was that comics could do. Like yeah BIF! POW! BAM! comics weren’t for kids anymore – but what did that really mean? Like even at the time I realised that it was a big deal that the guy who’d made it really big doing a Batman comic was now branching out and doing this strange non-superhero book that was all in black and white and had started off where every panel took up a whole page. Like yeah ok I said that this isn’t a book that can have the same impact that it did when it first came out but even so: I’ve gotta admit it’s still pretty big smash in the face the way that it still hits now. And even now I can’t think of many comics that would devote two full page panels to a background character doing a striptease (although who knows maybe I’m not reading enough comics?) 

Of course in the same way that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Return spewed multiple countless imitators that could only grok the surface details and so started to churn out superhero stories with lots of swearing and unpleasant violence and sexual assault (BIF! POW! BAM!) Sin City basically birthed a whole comics industry where the basic idea wasn’t really much more than taking an Elmore Leonard book and adding pictures (yeah Ed Brubaker I’m looking at you) but compared to the experience of reading Sin City which is akin to chugging a whole pint of vodka straight out of the bottle the likes of Criminal feel more like taking little careful sips from a juicebox. I can’t remember where I read that the point of a story isn’t what it is but how it is. And yeah it’s a big part of Sin City that it’s about the underbelly and life on the wrong side of the tracks and punching and crime and guns and sexy ladies dressed in sexy outfits and all the rest of it. But more importantly it’s about how it is – how Miller likes to prolong the moment that Marv falls out of a window so that it lasts three pages. How the black and white cut across each other the blades of a knife. How the shadows fall across the brickwork. And how spooky is it that there’s a character who makes no sound even tho (as it’s a comic book) none of the characters make a sound. 

And yeah it’s all big and loud and brash and over the top. But then ask yourself – how many comic books have you ever read that freshly minted their own unique style? How many discovered a whole new language (or at the very least – a whole new accent)? How many other books out there ended up setting up a whole new goddamn genre?

But then seeing how I was there at the start and seeing how it’s lived inside my skull ever seen there’s no real way for me to look outside and see it with fresh eyes now which makes me wonder – what’s it like for those people who haven’t read Sin City before? Does it hold up? Or has it been superseded by everything that’s sprung up in its wake? Maybe the type of bare-bone crudity it exemplifies is out-dated now. 

But for me it still beats the hell out of anything else. 

Tarantino was heavily influenced by Elmore Leonard’s stuff – especially the dialogue but I’d don’t see much of him in Sin City which owes far more to Micky Spillane’s lurid, nasty 1950s pulp fiction.  Also while I’m on the subject, I highly recommend the 1950s film ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, based on Spillane’s work which is one of the best paranoid films ever (it’s a bit like Verhoeven’s starship troopers in that the director doesn’t particularly like the fascist flavoured source material but does interesting things with it)

 

I re-read the book just now and it’s deeper than I thought it was initially. Like Joel I read Sin City as I was getting into comics, and I liked it because it took what would normally be left as subtext in a noir story and just made it text. The buried romanticism and chivalric honour code that sets noir heroes apart from the corrupt society around them is very plainly spelled out, and it reveals the supremely patriarchal assumptions that structure the genre. It really is just knights and damsels in an urban hellscape – Lancelot faithfully serving Guinevere through violence.

The thing I picked up on this re-read was the overtly religious dimensions of the story, which adds a wrinkle to why Miller settled on calling the book Sin City. Sleeping with Goldie is a conversion experience for Marv, which pulls him out of a sense of meaninglessness and existential drift. She is literally his goddess, a martyr he bends down to worship and pray to at the end of the first episode. Religious imagery keeps recurring – Marv wears a cross for much of the beginning of the book, and he has a scene in a church where he confirms his vow to kill, die and go to hell for his deity. The decision to make the villain a priest seemed a bit random to me before, but it makes more sense now. Roark and Kevin are also religious obsessives, but for them this mania is expressed in violence against women, whereas for Marv the mania is sexual and focused on a single idol. That is the fundamental dividing line in the series’ morality – Marv “doesn’t hurt girls”. The bad guys do and that’s what makes them bad guys.

Miller adds a bit of ambiguity to this at the very beginning where Marv breaks into Lucille’s flat because “she knows what I need and she’s got it” – setting up the threat of sexual assault as a tension-builder. It’s quickly deflated, but it still reflects a view of the world where women’s sexuality is an ever-present danger to them. Marv constantly has to control and suppress his desires around basically every female character in the story. Wendy slaps him when Marv makes a move on her and he retreats – a submissiveness that shades into masochism when he allows himself to be pistol-whipped by the sex-workers in Old Town. There’s a dominatrix in the room to underline the point (again, nothing in the book is subtle). Marv’s masochism is set against the sadism of the villains – and that dichotomy is elevated into an ethic. Unfortunately, I suspect it’s something Miller actually subscribes to, but it’s nonetheless strangely fascinating to see his kinks laid bare.

I guess the other slight ambiguity Miller tries to add is that while Marv is the hero he is also clearly a psychopath with an unstable grip on reality. This ends up being a red herring, but when Marv sees Wendy it’s implied she is just a figment of his deranged imagination. The important point is however many people Marv has maimed, tortured and killed, they’ve all been men, and thus fair game. That conservative mentality is also reflected in Marv’s attitude to queer people. Reading this now, it’s a bit jarring to have Marv, valourised by the book as the hero, freely use homophobic slurs. What’s interesting is that despite this language, he is actually on friendly terms with Lucille and Kadie. The suggestion is that he’s a kind of Clint Eastwood character – complaining about modern cars and how they don’t make good jackets anymore, but actually actions speak louder than words and he’s an ally if you need him to be. He’s got some outdated attitudes but a heart of gold.

If you’re a woman, at least. For the entire story I don’t think Marv has a single non-violent encounter with a man. There is a dismissiveness towards the “suits and briefcases” that scuttle about during the day and retreat to their mansions at night, trying to ignore the screams outside. Sin City is owned by the monsters in the night – men fighting and killing each other because as Marv describes it that’s the only way to dull the fundamental purposelessness of existence. Miller and Marv may be so fixated on Nancy’s striptease because that’s the one thing that can momentarily put a stop to the bar brawl and provide a glimmer of transcendence. Men can only become something more than beasts when they are slobbering at the feet of a woman on a pedestal, shielding her from the degenerates who wish to profane the shrine.

So yeah part of me wanted to dismiss Ilia’s comment about Miller’s kinks as a little bit of an overreach. Like sure that reading is there if you want it – but it’s all just a part of the noir milieu right? But then I thought I’d keep on going and read the next book ago – A Dame To Kill For – and holy fucking shit I mean it takes all of the things that Ilia points out and then dials them all up to 11. 

Like if you want to make a checklist – It starts with the hero character Dwight taking pics of two other characters doing the nasty. Interestingly the guy is an unattractive short lumpy grotesque older guy who seemingly makes up for his inadequacy and insecurities by being dominating (“I’ll show you… I’ll show you who’s boss…”) with a woman who’s clearly not into it. After it’s done our hero literally jumps in to save the day and leaves the chump sprawled out on the floor (“On the way out she gives him a kick that’ll still hurt like hell when he comes to”) 

And that’s before we even get to Dwight’s relationship with Ava (The Dame to Kill For) 

I mean at this point I’m not sure if he could make it anymore obvious?

Although the question is – how much of this is Miller baring his soul (so to speak?) and how much of it is just the language of the genre? Like maybe my head is locked on back to front seeing how like I’ve said Sin City was a foundational text for me but I must admit that this kind of dynamic seems to me to be the one that is most often encountered in this type of fiction? Sexual dynamics of our society being what they are – it would seem a little strange maybe for the male hero to go around dominating his love interest and really the only way to defuse that is to do what Miller does here which is to have the hero surrender and allow himself to become vulnerable. Like maybe all this stuff is just Miller’s way of pushing noir to the extreme and taking the underlying subtext and making it text? Or maybe it’s just what he’s into? Or maybe a bit of both? LOL 

It sure is eye-opening to read this stuff with an adult’s eyes when you know you read exactly the same stuff as a kid and it all just sailed completely over your head. Am now looking forward to exploring the other books in the series and no doubt coming across scenes of the stoic hero guy getting pegged or something similar. 

This may be putting it lightly – but nowadays Frank Miller has a pretty bad rep. 

According to the public image he’s basically a misogynist piece of shit that’s pro-Facism and was probably the evil mastermind behind Gamergate. 
And like yeah – there are lots of exhibits for the prosecution. Mostly notable Holy Terror which as has been previously remarked upon is an ugly piece of work on pretty much all levels. 

Plus also – not to put too much of a fine point on it – but he really loves drawing swastikas…

But reading A Big Fat Kill I was surprised by (if you want to look at it from a certain angle) it’s actually pretty crazy progressive. 

Like I don’t know if other people lurk on the same areas of the internet as me but nowadays there’s a lot of people out there making the argument that sex work is something that left-wing people should support as (so the argument goes) it means that women can have automony and ownership over their own bodies. (And you know it means that to be respectful you shouldn’t use terms like “prostitute” and instead should say “sex worker.”)

And then there’s Old Town: 

I don’t know if other people saw the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (aka CHAZ) that sprung up over the summer during the protests in America but erm – it sounds like an embryonic Old Town to me. A place where the Police aren’t allowed and everyone who lives there runs it themselves and looks after each other? I mean holy shit – that’s one of the most left-wing things I’ve ever heard. And – without giving too much away – the fact that the entirety of The Big Fat Kill is dedicated towards maintaining this female-led utopia means that I think that maybe the image of Frank Miller: Misogynist isn’t as simple as many people want it to be? 

And yeah yeah ok I get that you can make the point that it’s not really all that progressive to have a series of books where every woman is a sex worker or a stripper or a referred to as a “Dkye” (hi Lucille!) but hey – speaking as a man – the options for male characters is also pretty narrow: we’re either heels or chumps or murderers or abusers or creeps or a mixture of all of the above. 

But then – well – that’s kinda what Sin City is all about yeah? It’s not really about affirmation and showing you the best of what humanity has to offer. It’s not Saint City after all. 

ALEXANDRE Instagram / budaboyhq

It’s damn hot in São Paulo City

Sweat pouring out my pores, my t-shirts wet, my forehead feverish.

Light comes from everywhere. I hate the light. I need the darkness. In the dark no one can see how ugly you are. In the dark you can wear a hoodie and camouflage yourself in the shadows.

But I don’t feel like going out. Not with the god-damned pandemic.

My day vanishes in front of a screen. I try to block the Sun, but there’s no use. And sleep is for sissies.

Nighttime. Still hot. I’m melting on the kitchen floor, on my way to get a soda.

Soda in my hand. So refreshing. I put it on my forehead and it’s like nirvana. Now I just need a friend.

I check my old shelves full of garbage. And then I remember, one of my dearest friends is here. For a long time. Without being revisited. I get him, and I read the stupid translation they gave him. Sin City: City of Sin. It smells like cheese.

As I sit on my throne, skimming the pages, I can’t help but smile. This shit is good. Makes you feel like a badass. You follow the ex-con Marv. He has a gun stored at his Mon’s. He finally gets laid. He can climb walls. His head is made of concrete, and after getting beaten up he can take his bandages off on the next day. He is the Ultimate Golem. He even smiles while getting toasted in an electric chair.

I can see the transition in the artwork, from a Richard Corbenesque ink work to a clean and full of energy Black and White. This Frank Miller guy can really draw. It’s manga dynamics all over the place- quick to read and at the same time, quite elegant.

The only thing that makes my soda sour is the Twin Sisters. I mean, really? Twins? At least Marv got lucky.

The good thing about classics is that they don’t feel old. And you can see how important they are, even after such a long time. Controversies apart, Sin City (at least the first tales), stands strong among the best things comics produced so far. Of course, not everything works, but it tells a good story in a striking, and I daresay, beautiful way.

Ok. Enough of this. Soda is making my nose itchy. Gotta go. Endure the day, and embrace the night.

 

It’s good to be back to adding to the LGNN chat in a manner that is maybe last minute and maybe incredibly past deadline.

Alexandre, really enjoyed your in the voice of Miller review – reminded me of the time Peter Bradshaw “reviewed” Eat Pray Love ” Sit, watch, groan. Yawn, fidget, stretch. Eat Snickers, pray for end of dire film about Julia Roberts’s emotional growth, love the fact it can’t last for ever. “

Marv is fucking nuts and probably killed Goldie – so this is the first time i’ve revisited the comic since I was a teenager and well, I’m still not convinced that Marv didn’t kill Goldie. I get there was a serial killer there (and I did love how creepily, eerily silent he was) and as much as I enjoyed his amphetamine charged gumshoe dialogue – yeah Marv is fucking nuts. Yes, he’s got a literal killer of a final line and does some cool stuff and saves some people. But he’s nuts. Nuts nuts nuts nuts. He’s the kind of guy who sees reality as another thing to beat the living shit out of “I feel reality cracking under the weight of my fist. Bury it behind the old newspaper press. Sin City sings with me tonight”. It feels like Miller wrote a twisty story about a psycho who killed someone and then halfway through decided, “I like residuals, let’s make him a tragic hero”. Marv revels in violence, he’s sadistic about it. He veers from mood swing to mood swing. A violent sadist who has mood swings who fell in love with “an angel” for one night before waking up to her dead body. Everyone thinks he did it. Why would you frame someone as violent and difficult to kill as Marv? Come on. I think this started as the story of a violent guy who was going to have to confront who he was before Miller decided he needed actual fights and that killer ending.

Having read Ilia’s piece, I do find it hard to argue that Sin City isn’t, in one form or another, Miller dealing with the repressed sexuality that a lifetime relationship with the catholic church can often bestow. The last line of the argument is a killer of a quote. At least this time, in stark contrast to say, Tarantino’s Death Proof, Miller makes it interesting.

The art is a reminder of why Miller is the best – 

So before All Star and Holy Terror and his Occupy Wall Street diatribe, Miller was unquestionably considered the greatest. In mainstream comic circles (i.e. those that hadn’t got round to Maus but it’s fine because they’d seen 2/3rds of Schindler’s List in history class), it was Miller and Moore. They were the pair that took the heroes we loved in the 80s and gave them stories that proved to the grownups that comics are serious art and that we should respect them. Miller had a string of all time classics, a succession of hits that didn’t entirely hit the literary highs of Moore’s 1-2-3, Vendetta-Killing Joke-Watchmen punch, but Miller could draw. In fact Miller could draw like no one else. His early work is a testament to that, not simply cinematically rendered but his figures move with a raw, expressive kineticism. He doesn’t use movement lines where other artists live by them and yet it feels like his characters are leaping out of the page. Look to his Daredevil, his Ronin, his Wolverine. Then there was Dark Knight Returns, where he used scratchy inks and watercolours to create a book that looked like nothing else before or since – nevermind that he also created one of the all time greatest superhero stories ever made (a legacy that will not be sullied by it’s beautiful sequel and successive garbage fire cash grabs).

Sin City though? It’s a leap beyond even all of that. It’s the apex of Miller’s visual work. I might enjoy looking at Strikes Again more but in terms of how it expanded what you could actually do with visual storytelling – it’s the peak. It’s a leap forward for the form that stands with Eisner’s The Spirit, Calvin and Hobbes and that one Garfield strip where Jim Davis was on DMT. 

I could go on about the Yellow Bastard or the scritch scratch rain drops, but there’s a key, illustrative example for this – Marv’s room. In the opening, when he sleeps with Goldie and when he wakes up. Marv sleeps with Goldie in a sea of black, an angelic moment. It’s like he’s fucking in a cloud. When the lights come on, when his lover is discovered dead. It’s white. The room is cramped now. It’s dingy, littered with sad little details from a sad life that’s about to get a whole lot sadder. Where else is black used to denote beauty, joy. It’s like a twisted little manifesto, this is a world where darkness is good and light is bad – welcome to Sin City. 

And Miller doesn’t there, he doesn’t simply use light in striking reverse. As he goes on, he begins to have fun with the perverse new reality he’s depicting and suddenly we get more twisted, expressive depictions of people. Not just the two page strip dance splashes – but Marv staring into his own mutilated image in the mirror. 

Writing this I find myself becoming convinced that Frank Miller knowingly and somewhat persuasively used Sin City to pitch himself as the medium’s Kurosawa. He’s not a literary force in the way the writers of the British new wave are, he doesn’t write fun dialogue like Bendis or go into the mad detail of Hickman. He’s potent and he’s expressive. He doesn’t deliver scripts, he tells story, moving from iconic, perfectly composed image from the next to the next (When he’s on form). Like Kurosawa, the stories are happy to live with a simple elegance than justify themselves with the kind of clockwork complexity that Hickman and Moore live by. The dialogue is good elevated to iconic because it serves a strong visual narrative that is executed with inimitable mastery. Stark black and white contrasts, perfectly balanced composition. Perfect drama. 

Put it this way, imagine Sin City in the hands of David Lloyd. Bolland. Think about it. It’d be a fucking awful comic. An exhausting nihilistic exercise in a Batman creator’s failed noir fan fiction. Blegh. And they are incredible artists with incredible bodies of work. It’s just that SIN CITY is great because of Miller’s unique, novel, brand of storytelling. Alot of it hasn’t aged well and there are chunks of dialogue that feel like they have stink lines coming off the page – but 20 years later and it stands tall as one of comics most successful experiments.

Ah. (Smells the comic like I’m smelling a fine wine). That Yellow Bastard

I don’t know about you – but for me this is basically the pinnacle of Sin City and maybe Frank Miller in general. It’s basically everything he does turned all the way up to the absolute maximum. I can so vividly remember reading this book when I was a teen and just being flat out amazing and dumb-founded by just how completely extreme this book was – and I’m willing to bet that it’s probably ruined me for a lot of stuff that I’ve ever after. It’s like getting a full needle of the highest quality of heroin and injecting the whole thing directly into your eyeball. In relation to that most other comics taste like – a slice of mild cheese you know? It’s just not the same. 

And like – (and let me try and say this right) it’s not even as if That Yellow Bastard is really that extreme in what it depicts. Like it’s not partially outrageous in terms of showing you horrific murder or violence or anything like that. Like if you just pulled every panel out of it’s context and held them up to the light then in terms of what it looks like it’s not even that much more wild than any other mainstream comic you might find. 

It’s just – extreme in how far the story pushes you and the characters. Like in terms of what happens and how it makes you feel when you read it the whole book is basically an unending climax like it basically starts where most books and movies end in the most loudest and most dramatic way possible (“Hell of a way to start my retirement”) and then just… keeps going. And reading it I’m going – This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t feel legal. I didn’t think stories were allowed to go this fast and this far and this crazy. 

And that’s without even getting to the big twist in the middle where it turns out that – oh – little Nancy Callahan is actually that Nancy. And even reading it as a teenager you get hit over the head with a massive hammer of conflicting thoughts and feelings because her role in the story has already been so clearly defined and fixed as the young sweet innocent girl who’s basically his daughter and in the background you can hear Frank Miller laughing like a maniac. Because he gets it. He knows that a story isn’t about making you feel good and affirming your sense of what’s good and right about the world. It’s about punching you in the face with a hammer again and again as you struggle to breathe and make it to the end. The entire experience of reading it completely identical to the feeling of having a thick and heavy rope wrapped all the way around your neck and standing on tip-toes on the edge of the table. 

And you know – what more can I say really? If only all comics were this good. 

 

OK for some reason for the last few days I’ve been reading a manga called Sundome which centres on a male protagonist who is the sub in a S&M relationship. The series is basically 50 Shades of Gray with the genders reversed and turned into a high school sex comedy. I bring this up only because it is an interesting contrast to the kind of sexuality portrayed in Sin City.

The premise of Sundome is in one respect similar to the start of Marv’s story, in that the protagonist is instantly smitten with the new girl in school and worships her with the same kind of obsessive devotion Marv has for Goldie. However, each chapter is its own little sexual scenario, almost all of which involve an element of humiliation and degradation for the protagonist. Although some of this is played for comedy, it’s clear that it’s all part of the kink. Rather than being fridged, the dom exerts complete control over the sub’s actions and desires, and the sub thanks her for it, falling ever more deeply in love as his leash gets tighter and tighter. 

That element of humiliation and debasement is completely buried in Sin City – one of the few times it emerges is when Wendy slaps Marv when he tries to make a move on her. But really Miller isn’t interested in putting his protagonists in a truly submissive relationship to the women they serve. They are traditional masculine heroes who retain complete agency in their stories. 

This becomes clearer in the next Sin City volume, which poses the question of what happens when the goddess worshipped by the male hero assumes control of her authority and starts to direct the activities of her male devotees. For Miller this is a dangerous aberration and the goddess must be destroyed as a result. The power women wield with their sexual allure must be contained by masculine protection, and if they step out of those bounds they deserve to be killed.

It’s a blatantly patriarchal understanding of sexual relationships – brought to light most clearly by the very weird father-lover hybrid figure in That Yellow Bastard. But it only brings to the surface what has always been an undercurrent of noir stories. The achievement of Sin City is to put the toxic assumptions of the genre on display in the starkest black and white.

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