Later this month Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller will follow up their 2005 theatrical hit Sin City with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Here I’m going to take a look at Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name.
Dwight is a disgraced, newspaper reporter and recovering alcoholic now working as a disreputable private eye. Despite his lowly position, he seems to at least have his life somewhat together. He is able to pay for rent and food without breaking the law and is staying out of the back of a squad car. Things seem to going well for Dwight until Ava, a former flame, comes back into the picture. After that, things fall apart at light speed for Dwight. He goes from seedy, peeping tom, to knight in shining armor, to fall guy, to finally avenging angel of death. The process is quite literally transformative for Dwight.
If Miller’s Sin City could be boiled down to two words, they would be hyper style. (I say two words because hyperstyle isn’t a real word, and I want to use it.) The book’s art is entirely black and white. There are zero shades of gray here in Miller’s universe. On one hand he creates stark and striking images that are vivid and alive, yet on the other hand his world is almost bereft of any real detail. So much is hiding in the shadows.
When talking about Sin City, it’s important to understand its artistic lineage in film noir and pulp novels. Film Noir is a style, some would say sub-genre, of American crime films in the 1940’s and 50’s. There are a handful of European examples but they can draw their linage directly from the American films, and many of these were even directed by Americans. Though it is difficult to define Film Noir, one knows it when one sees it. Simply put, at the heart of film noir is its style: black and white with shadows—plenty of shadows.
The seeds of the noir style can be found in the German expressionist films such as Nosferatu (1922) and the proto-Noir film M (1931). It is no real surprise that three of the styles’ most lauded directors, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, were from Eastern Europe. Miller mainlines this expressionist feeling in his story.
If there is one archetype that is more synonymous with Noir than any other, it is the Femme Fatale, and Miller has created one hell of a Femme Fatale. The mistress of seduction and disaster is as old as story telling itself, appearing in everything from the Odyssey to The Maltese Falcon, but in no universe is she more powerful than in Noir, and no Femme’s power is as nearly absolute as Ava’s is in Sin City. Sex is her weapon of choice and it is a good one. In the noir films of the 40’s and 50’s, the Femme Fatale’s sexuality was strongly implied but never shown explicitly. Here, Miller’s Ava leaves only the very minuscule to the imagination. It’s is only Miller’s style that seems to keep what infinitesimal modesty Ava has intact.
Ava’s sexuality is incredibly effective. She doesn’t need mind control. Her beauty is mythic, a set of tits and an ass that could launch 1000 ships. She can turn a straight arrow, super cop into an adulterous quivering pile of suicidal goo; Shaq sized bodyguards in to religious zealots worshiping her as a Goddess; and our hero Dwight in to a bipolar mess. Miller is careful not to reveal too much about Ava, lest the reader should become disconnected and wonder, “Ok, I get that she’s hot but all of this for one babe?”
The other characters are also Noir standards, Dwight the private eye everyman, Marv and Manute, the heavies, Mort the super cop, and Gail the helpful woman. They all play their parts but in Miller’s universe they are all exaggerated nearly to the point of ridiculousness. The only character that I feel was misplaced was Miho, the killer Ninja/Kung Fu babe of Olde Town. Her inclusion in the story is a bit jarring and out of place. In fact, the whole element of the killer prostitutes of Olde Town seemed to be the one area in which Miller gets carried away. Their first appearance in the book, gunning down two cops that wander onto their turf, makes one think, “Who in their right mind would go looking to buy sex from these women?!” and, “Why the hell are they even whores to begin with?!” Once a story forces the reader to think a little too hard about its universe, there is a problem.
Though Sin City is a book of extremes—hyper violent, hyper sexual, hyper stylized—there are a few areas where Miller doesn’t quite excel. Although the characters are highly amped up, noir archetypes they are very much two dimensional, highly amped up, noir archetypes. All the characters play their roles very well, but with very little variation or depth. There isn’t much room for ambiguity in Sin City.
It doesn’t really get more hard boiled than this script. There are points where a Dick and Jane book might have more words on its pages then A Dame to Kill For. The tough, leathery, short sentences are reminiscent of Hemingway, but without Hemingway’s rich depth of meaning.
This two dimensional feeling doesn’t really take away from A Dame to Kill For, or make a bad book–far from it. It is a fun and enjoyable read. Miller is pushing a well loved genre to its visual limits, following in the footsteps of the dime store pulp novels of the 30’s that became the noir movies of the 40’s and 50’s. He updates all the gritty, seedy elements that would not have flown in the 30’s and 40’s, and brings them to us in a book cranked up to eleven. Sin City is the ultimate pulp comic that is now becoming the hot blockbuster twenty years later. It satisfies the very base itch for a very simple, straight forward story full of salacious sex and violence. It’s hard not to enjoy the overripe story of an amoral, yet rather identifiable, everyman dead set on vengeance on the bitch that did him wrong.
3.5 out of 5 Death Stars
by Joseph De Paul