Sin City, v. 1: The Hard Goodbye
Collects: Stories from Dark Horse Presents: Fifth Anniversary Special and Dark Horse Presents #51-62 (1991-2)
Released: 1992 (Dark Horse)
Format: 208 pages / black and white / $17 / ISBN: 9781593072933
What is this?: A mentally ill thug named Marv is framed for murdering a prostitute, causing him to launch a one-man war on Sin City’s power structure.
The culprit: Frank Miller
Last Friday, it was the newest non-superhero comic to be made into a movie. This Friday, it’s one of the best.
Frank Miller wrote and drew Sin City, v. 1: The Hard Goodbye as a feature in an anthology title for Dark Horse Comics. It is an ultraviolent noir tale, as Marv — a thug who gets confused without his meds — is framed for murdering Goldie, a prostitute who gave herself to him in return for his protection. Ashamed for failing Goldie, Marv investigates the murder, and not just because Basin City’s corrupt police force is trying to tie the murder on him.
Miller works hard to construct a noir world, from the title to the charaters and setting down to the black-and-white art. It’s not a setting constructed on Phillip Marlowe’s LA or Sam Spade’s San Francisco or even Mike Hammer’s New York, although it’s easy to see Hammer could get to enjoy Sin City. The Hard Goodbye goes well past Hammer’s gleeful gunplay and dead women, crafting something so violent it’s almost superhuman. In the movie, this was morphed into a sort of a noir fu, a martial art that relies not the purity of heart or the wisdom to learn but instead hinges on a person’s rage and corruption. The comic book is like that — Marv and his chief antagonist Kevin are bizarre aberrations, their ability to take and deal out pain inhuman in scope. Miller integrates them into a world that is mostly recognizable without a great deal of trouble, but Marv knows the truth: they’re freaks.
There is a legitimate complaint to be made about Miller’s depiction of women in the book: they’re all hookers or strippers. Other than Marv’s mother, the lone exception, Marv’s parole officer, makes her first appearance nude. The noir genre has a long tradition of ladies who make their living on the wrong side of the law, and there have been more than a few hookers among those. A charitable reader might make the point that Miller is being satirical, making Sin City so hyper-noir that every woman has been “corrupted” in some way. Or perhaps make the same point that Marv makes: what kind of woman would be seen around an unstable, ugly brute like him? Still, I feel uneasy about the undercurrent of misogyny, despite Miller’s attempts to empower the hookers by giving them their own section of the city where they rule. At any one point his depiction of women can be accepted as true. As an overall theme, it’s distracting at best and unappealing at worst.
I admit, the narrative is straight and to the point, not leaving a lot of room for extraneous characters. That’s one of The Hard Goodbye’s strengths, coming from its original publication in anthology comics. It’s impressive, given how effectively Miller builds the feel of Sin City and how well he constructs his psychopath with a heart of gold, Marv.
Miller’s art is a big help with that. The story is told in stark black and white, with completely dark silhouettes and no room for shades of gray. There’s not much subtlety to Miller’s work, but that’s not unintentional: the entire story’s about as subtle as a bullet to the head, and the art follows the story’s leads. Despite the lack of color, you can almost see the trail of blood Marv leaves behind. You can almost smell the corruption and feel the rain. This book is visceral all around, and it’s hard to imagine another artist who could pull it off — or at least pull it off with Miller.
The Hard Goodbye is as brutal as its protagonist, although there’s a great deal more sophistication. Despite some uncomfortable undercurrents, this book is still a hell of a read.
Rating: (4.5 of 5)