Know Your Comics: Frank Miller’s Sin City

An interior spread from 'The Hard Goodbye', showing Marv.

Sin City is one of the two series that brought me back to comics. After several years’ hiatus, in part a result of the Image Comics-driven collectors’ market spike and crash, I dipped my toe back in the water. I’d heard about Sin City, and I knew that Frank Miller was a name to be reckoned with, but I had no idea what was in store. I’d walked out of the comic shop with the collected trades Sin City and A Dame to Kill For, and I read them both in one sitting. I was blown away. From the story to the script to the art, Sin City was succor for my starved eyes and mind. The hyper-noir tales, drawn in a unique stunning style, opened my eyes to a new world of comics that could compete with the sophistication and satisfaction delivered by films and novels. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Miller’s tales of desperation, violence, honor, sex, and love set the bar higher for every comic I’ve purchased since.

An interior spread from 'The Hard Goodbye', showing Marv.

The stories set in the world of Basin City certainly aren’t for the squeamish, but the rewards are so rich that any hesitation should be set aside. The first trade alone is an achievement in narrative art that should be experienced at least once by anyone with an interest in exploring comics. Miller is rarely happy to sit still, so even within the relatively narrow development of the series there’s a great deal of artistic exploration to witness.

The first installment of Sin City (renamed The Hard Goodbye once the series expanded) introduces us to one of my favorite characters, Marv, a burly and mentally disturbed dreg of Basin City, but one with a simple and ferocious sense of duty and justice. Miller introduces us to Marv as he discovers he’s been pulled into a larger game, and takes it upon himself to become an avenging angel and a brutal detective. The story takes twists and turns, revealing the depths of depravity that corruption has created in the city, leading to a truly gritty crime noir conclusion.

An interior spread from 'The Hard Goodbye', showing Marv.

As the series progresses, the machinations and channels of power in the city are revealed. Most of the tales focus on smaller conflicts that spin outward, drawing in more and more players, exposing greater and greater plots. They’re delivered largely in the first person, by the main character of that particular story. The telling is fairly sparse, letting the stark and stunning visuals fill the page and take an equal part in delivering the scenes. But Miller revels in the quirks and verbal mannerisms of his characters, as well as their exaggerated appearances. Each character has their own design, particularly the male characters. Sin City certainly makes no bones about its women, who are sexual and deadly. But Sin City isn’t about a town full of role models, it’s about survival in a town without pity. It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve always viewed Sin City as hyperbolic and stylized. Some readers, particularly women, may not find as much to sympathize or connect with in the characters featured in each collection. My personal favorites are the first, Sin City, and the fourth, That Yellow Bastard, both of which are featured as threads in the film version, which I’ve written about.

An interior spread from 'The Hard Goodbye', showing Marv.

An interior spread from 'That Yellow Bastard', showing the opening of chapter one.

Miller’s visual approach to Sin City is a stunning execution of black and white contrast. Often bending the rules of lighting to create elegantly minimal imagery, the panels describe scenes carved out of light and shadow. The art takes on an almost pedagogic quality in its descriptions of characters and objects, showing us how to see the world in only black and white. Miller begins to incorporate some color in the series as it progresses. That Yellow Bastard isolates the color to a single character, a theme that continues until Hell and Back, which includes a fully-colored dream sequence featuring Lynn Varley’s work. The visuals are so rich, I often flip through Sin City specifically avoiding the dialogue, focusing completely on the construction of each image. Their minimalism is a masterful veil over their sophisticated and expert construction. Unfortunately, these opportunities are few and far between.

An interior spread from 'That Yellow Bastard', showing the literally yellow bastard.

A fully colored spread from 'Hell and Back', showing a hallucination of a tyrannosaurus rex attacking the protagonist.

The Sin City series is not published regularly, as it’s both written and drawn by Miller, with occasional color work by the talented Lynn Varley. He’s a very prolific comics writer and artist, and I consider him one of the masters of the form, as he can write and draw with equal aplomb (though, admittedly, his writing has gotten a bit stranger recently). Typically, an installment will be released as a self-contained mini-series of well-produced individual issues over the course of as many months, followed by a collected trade maybe six or more months afterwards. I actually no longer buy individual issues of any comics, because it’s simply too much hassle for me to manage all of those relatively fragile issues and it’s also a bit expensive and time-consuming, so I wait for the collected trades. Fortunately, the industry has moved towards fairly quick collection of virtually every interesting series out there, in part because it puts them on the shelves of sellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders.

An interior spread from 'That Yellow Bastard', showing the protagonist Hartigan using a pipe as a weapon.

Around the release of the first film (there’s a second in the works), the Sin City series was rereleased in a series of redesigned trades that are slightly smaller than the originals. While I’m sure these are very well-produced, if you can find the earlier full-size editions, I recommend them. Their design is more appropriate to the noir setting, they’re easier to enjoy, and they don’t reduce any of the art, which deserves to be appreciated at its full size.

I don’t believe there are any new graphic novels planned at the moment, particularly since Miller is involved in not only the second Sin City film, but also in the impending release of another of his excellent works, 300, which I’ll touch on later. So, if you find yourself enjoying Sin City, you can experience the full run pretty easily. It’s well worth it. If you like superb art, noir crime stories, or a rough-and-tumble tale of desperation and revenge, then you should check out Sin City.

An interior spread from 'That Yellow Bastard', showing the protagonist Hartigan in jail.

The Hard Goodbye Episodes #1-13 of 13 from Dark Horse Presents issues #51-62 and 5th Anniversary Special
A Dame to Kill For – #1-6 of 6
The Big Fat Kill – #1-5 of 5
That Yellow Bastard – #1-6 of 6
Family Values – 128-pg graphic novel
Booze, Broads, & Bullets – collected oneshots
Hell and Back (a Sin City Love Story) – #1-9 of 9

Check out In Stock Trades, Dark Horse Comics or any online book seller to get a copy.

An interior spread from 'That Yellow Bastard', showing the protagonist Hartigan limping into a barn.

3 replies on “Know Your Comics: Frank Miller’s Sin City

  1. You know, I knew someone would comment on that. I’m using my three central fingers, each of which is 7 inches long, to prop up the spines of the books, of course.

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