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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The individual ‘yarns” in Frank Miller’s SIN CITY sage range anywhere from “very good” to “mediocre. But the first one—latterly entitled “The Hard Goodbye”—stands as a masterpiece of comics-art.  In all likelihood it will remain an unacknowledged masterpiece for the near future. When THE COMICS JOURNAL ran its 1999 list of the “top 100 English-language comics,” some fans bemoaned the fact that Sim’s CEREBUS was left off the list due to insufficient votes. A few fans even expressed some appreciation of Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. But critically, SIN CITY has usually been ignored by the comics-literati.

While it's possible to criticize Miller's work on its own terms, most extant critiques  have been grounded in the over-ideological concept that Miller’s SIN CITY—and perhaps his work as a whole—can be summed up by the Old Fascist Two-Step: (a) Work A endorses violence, so therefore (b) Work A is also a tacit endorsement of fascism. For some reason, it’s always the “Rightie” version of “the rule of force,” never the “Leftie” version—but that’s another essay.

There’s no question that THE HARD GOODBYE is chock-full of violence. George Bataille, who viewed violence as so pervasive that it even subsumed the activity of sex, might have appreciated Miller’s ode to the hardboiled crime genre. Even though the story starts with a sex-act between the protagonist and the woman he’s framed for murdering, there’s no tenderness evident: the sex is nearly as violent as the violence. The first words, uttered by protagonist Marv in his ongoing voice-over—comments: “The night is hot as hell. Everything sticks.” With these simple words, Miller creates a world unredeemed by good air-conditioning, where people are always exuding sticky sweat—a prelude of sorts to the way copious bodies will soon be exuding another sticky substance.

Marv—whose surname is never given—is a hulking, flint-faced loser. Miller never clarifies how he ekes out a living in the demimonde of Sin City. Since he’s on parole from his last prison-sentence, one may imagine him getting bounced around in various petty jobs-- none of which, admittedly, matter to this story. The GOODBYE of the title begins the night Marv meets a beautiful woman named Goldie. Goldie wants Marv's protection from an unnamed menace, and she tries to get it by sexing him up. But Marv fuels his passion with booze. After sex he passes out, “stone drunk,” after which an assailant sneaks into their bedchamber and kills Goldie. Marv is immediately framed for her murder, but this disturbs him less than his personal failure as a protector:

“Why, I ask now. But when you got scared, when you trembled and your eyes went as big as a little girl’s, I didn’t ask why, not then. Then, I didn’t give a damn what was bothering you.”

I could pen a much longer essay than this one on the role of female characters in Marv’s universe, though for this post I can only say of such an essay that it would be free of the usual clichés about “objectification” and “women in refrigerators.” For the purpose of this essay, though, I need only assert that whatever Marv thinks about women, he sees men as their natural protectors. Even though he knows, and often asserts, that he belongs to the dregs of humanity, nothing about himself arouses such self-loathing as the thought that his “macho pig” lust caused the death of a woman under his protection.

Anti-violence ideologues will argue that Marv’s guilt is just an excuse for the violent rampage that makes up the rest of the story. That’s an argument I’ve refuted many times. Withiin the scope of this essay, I think that Miller makes it quite clear that Marv is not a hero in the general sense, and that he doesn’t even think of himself as a hero. The “big man” behind Goldie’s murder, as well as several other deaths, calls Marv a “monster,” and all of Marv’s mental musings make clear that he’s heard this appellation before. Even his square-headed visage may owe something to the iconic head of the movie’s version of the Frankenstein Monster. In any case, Marv, according to my system of persona-types, is not a hero. He doesn’t care about justice like Batman or Daredevil; he doesn’t even care about the code of the professional investigator, like Sam Spade. Marv’s a human monster who’s never had a reason to exist, until a band of well-connected murderers try to make him their patsy. The resulting violence is immensely cathartic to the sympathetic reader, but it’s a catharsis that functions less like the justice-seeking tales of Batman than like the rampages of the Frankenstein Monster against the stupidity and venality of mankind.

HARD GOODBYE is filled with many keen psychological insights into the mind of Miller’s human monster, too many to explore in a short essay. Yet the story is primarily a sociological myth. In the world of the superhero, the costumed crusader arises to facilitate justice, simply because the Law Can’t Be Everywhere. But in the world of hardboiled crime, Big Law is bed with Big Crime. The only satisfaction left to all those under the thumb of Powerful People—from simple wage-slaves to the "dregs of humanity”-- is that once in a while, they can spawn a holy monster that can tear down the towers of the rich with outpourings of Biblical violence. Even so, the conclusion remains less than triumphant, for the monster is fated to be destroyed, as Marv is, while the dark crucible of Sin City endures, brewing its endless concoctions of corruption.


On a side-note, this is my 51st "mythcomic" analyzed for my "1001 myths" feature.

Only nine hundred and fifty to go now.

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