Review: 'Big Damn Sin City' is a Must-Read Journey to a Dark Place
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I was too young at the time to pay attention to details on comic book splash pages like writer credits, but I still remember that moment — the issue that changed how I felt about, and read, comic books —Daredevil, after he loses his radar sense and goes back to his old master, Stick, to re-train and become a martial arts badass. This was both what was to eventually be called a mash-up,’ with the martial arts movies I was just then discovering, and the first comics book that had some Eastern philosophy in it. There wasn’t even that much fighting in that issue, just Matt Murdock fighting with his inner demons.

Whoah. That was deep. Comics could be deep!

The writer? Frank Miller. Which I only learned later when he blew me away again with The Dark Knight Returns. I’d been away from comics for a while, and they’d seemed to have lost their deepness for me. Then came a certain take on Batman, and a re-imagining of the DC world, so dark I couldn’t believe someone went there, was allowed to go there. And when Batman punched Superman, and made Superman feel pain, the light old-style innocent world of superheroes was gone, or at least changed, forever.

Who was this guy Frank Miller? Because now I was paying attention to writers. I went on to read his Sin City, the series he created after leaving the Big Two comics world (for a while).

But, I confess that I didn’t like the Sin City stories at the time as much as I liked Miller’s other work. First, I’ve never been into the ’50s noir detective novel/movie/style. But mostly it was that, like the artwork, the world of Sin City seemed to be basically black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, mostly bad guys, and the bad guys are bad just because they’re bad, and they’re aware that they’re bad, and revel in it. And thrive because of it.

I liked the more moral ambiguity of Batman and Daredevil, although the superhero genre too tends to be black and white. But that was the thing: Miller explored the grey areas. But now, with Big Damn Sin City, I realize there was something in Sin City that I missed the first time. Having all the stories together, some of which I actually had not read, helped changed my mind—helped me see the world of Sin City. And of Frank Miller.

Big Damn Sin City collects all seven of Miller’s Sin City books in one monstrous book, and I don’t think words can describe how big and heavy it is. I laugh every time I pick it up. If you fall asleep in bed reading this book, it might smother you to death. It is a work of art unto itself, and that is due to its editor, the legendry Diana Schutz, who has been more responsible than anybody for Dark Horse’s reputation as a quality publishing company.

The world of Sin City is timeless. It looks and feels like a 1950s Sam Spade detective novel most of the time, but Miller sprinkles in pop culture references, like Merle Haggard, the first Star Trek TV show, Star Wars, and — in later stories — a cellphone appears, as well as some high-tech sniper rifles. The point is that these stories could be taking place anywhere from the 1950s to the 1990s, but that noir never dies. Just as there will always be poor people, so there will always be gritty and seamy places like Sin City where people prey on and get preyed upon, each other, and where violence spreads to the nicer parts of town, where it maybe originally was spawned.

The four main protagonists in all the longer stories (there are some collected shorts towards the end) are male — very male. Two are more street thug-ish, one a detective, and one a former special ops soldier. All four are misfits because, well, they’re good. Because even though they all have a code of honor, a code of honor mostly doesn’t get you anywhere in Sin City.

Marv, from the first book, “The Hard Goodbye,” is maybe the most interesting character in this collection. Marv’s not that smart, though he knows right from wrong — or what he thinks (and I think Miller thinks) is right and wrong. His code boils down to: first, protect women, and second, repay kindness. Marv is just a raw man, and that is his problem. He wants to be “alive”, as he says, and the only time he feels that is when he’s fighting (for a good cause) and fucking. And if he can’t be alive, he at least wants redemption, which is a main theme in the Sin City world, at least for its male protagonists.

And if the word redemption sounds religious, it’s meant to be. Christian imagery, Catholic specifically, haunts Sin City, at least in the earlier stories. Marv wears a cross, displayed prominently, and it’s always white, even when he’s killing people, though he never discusses it, never even thinks about it in the thought captions we get from him. Which may be an example of the Dao De Jing’s “Those who know, don’t talk / Those who talk, don’t know” because some of the bad guys also wear crosses, and one of the main baddies is the local Cardinal, who talks a lot about God to justify all kinds of sick things.

But is Marv Christian? He certainly doesn’t live by the Golden Rule, nor turn the other cheek. Or, what does Miller think Catholicism is really all about? And yet, Marv is good, while those who profess to be Christians in Sin City (or those we see) are bad.

All of the protagonists in one way or another seek redemption (except maybe Wallace, the ex-special ops guy) and there are two main ways for men to gain it in Sin City. One of them is revenge, which both Walt and Dwight’s stories are all about. Which is, for them, justice.

But—you might say—”Justice and revenge–these are two very different things–.” Well, consider who does say that: the rich Senator Roark, who earlier in that story says that power is lying (see below). He’s the most powerful person in Sin City; therefore, nothing he says is true. In fact, Roark is a great example of what Nietzche pointed out those in power do—they create a morality for everyone below them to follow, which keeps everyone in line, and those in power, in power.

Which brings us to the second way to achieve redemption in Sin City: suffering. Which Marv does a lot of, and ends up a Christ figure. But is he dying for the sins of the sinners of Sin City, or merely dying because of them? To him, it doesn’t matter. Marv is redeemed in his own mind—which I think to Miller is what is really important—not what some potentially corrupt priest says, but what you feel about yourself. Which is maybe not Catholic, but maybe is Christian.

And yet, Marv (and actually, the other three protagonists) is held back still, by what others think is good and bad. He wants nothing more than to feel “alive,” which is to allow the animal instincts—to fuck and love (which to all of Miller’s male characters are the same) and to commit violence in the name of good—Marv is a hunter, a primal man, wanting to protect women and his tribe—whoever is “nice” to him. But modern society doesn’t condone that behavior, usually, unless you live in the dregs of Sin City.

And, like almost all the men in Sin City, Marv’s desire to fuck (which again, to him, is the same as love) is easily manipulated by women, most of whom don’t seem to view sex and anything but a way to get something else.

Like in all good crime thrillers, most of the action in Sin City takes place at night, when “the air cools. The sounds change. The suits and briefcases scurry to their fortresses and bolt their doors and balance their checkbooks and ignore the screams and try not to think about who really owns Sin City.”

So who does own Sin City? (And, if Sin City is a microcosm of the world—who owns the world?) Answer: Rich people. Specifically, the Roark Family, the members of which hide behind façades such as being a Senator or a Cardinal.

What’s really going on in Sin City is a class war. Rich people are both figuratively and literally eating the poor, and there’s not much more the poor can do besides either suffer, or, well, kill the rich. Though there’s probably another rich person ready to step in and take his place. Still, you will have gained redemption, and maybe protected an innocent (female) person, and/or at least avenged their death. In Sin City, that’s about the best you can hope for.

And here is where I maybe—or want to—part with Miller, because he sees rich people of consciously aware of the evil they’re doing. Here’s Senator Roark describing what power is:

“Power doesn’t come from a badge or gun. Power comes outta lying and lying big and getting the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you got’em trapped. You’re the boss. You can turn reality on its head.”

Whereas I’d like to see the rich as deluded—angry and scared and lonely, maybe, but in their own way trying to do what they think is right. But then I read Greg Palast’s book Armed Madhouse which in part exposes how the (rich people in the) Bush Administration really did lie to the American public about the invasion of Iraq and how all those (non-rich) people died, Americans and Iraqis, and our world starts to sound a whole lot like Sin City.

Another thing that originally turned me off to the Sin City stories was the portrayal of women. I was curious to see if I still felt that way, because Miller actually created two of the better female characters in the superhero genre: Elektra from Daredevil, and Robin/Catgirl from the two Dark Knight books. And by best I mean real in that they’re strong, but have feelings and weaknesses. That is, they’re human.

But, after re-reading Big Damn Sin City, here’s what I understand about women: 1. Don’t trust them. 2. They lie. 3. They’ll manipulate you with sex.

On the other hand, men have all the real power—money, authority, jobs.

So, that’s a lot like real life, I guess.

All of the women characters in Sin City are either strippers, prostitutes, femmes fatales (with all that implies) and/or trained assassins. True, the prostitutes of Old Town (a neighborhood in Sin City) have formed a cooperative—no pimps, no cops, they police and control their own territory. And they’re all packing heat and knives and they have female ninjas on the roofs, just in case. And so, if these women are with it enough to form and run a Prostitute Collective, why, really, would they remain prostitutes?

But if you go with it, if you take that turn with Miller from straight-up old-fashioned crime thriller à la, say, Jim Thompson, into an almost vaguely superhero-like world, then you will have a good read. The tone of Miller’s stories is dark and violent and serious—I’m not sure Miller could ever have written for Spider-Man, say, with all the wisecracking jokes—but after the first book you can sense that Miller was willing to lighten up and experiment a bit, and there are actually some funny visual easter eggs hidden throughout the whole collection, proving that even Miller doesn’t take himself, or the stories, totally seriously.

And that almost vaguely superhero? Miho, the petite Japanese ninja assassin who works with the Prostitute Collective, as their bodyguard and local vigilante. She is where your ability to suspend disbelief will, at first, be tested. She never speaks, never has to, and is a total badass, with katana and shuriken and every other kind of weapon she can find, though never guns.

With her, the Sin City world becomes, a little, of a mash-up—suddenly 1950s noir meets martial arts and the Green Hornet’s Cato. She has elements of both Elektra and Robin/Catgirl, especially when she dons her roller blades in “Family Values.” There the mood of the whole work shifts—now Miller is having fun, pushing boundaries, and though he risks verging on farce and the absurd, Miho overpowers me as well (sigh) and becomes my favorite character.

So, even if you don’t ‘agree’ with Miller’s world—that is, don’t agree that Sin City is a microcosm or stand-in for our world, it’s still a world. A big one. Reading everything in one massive volume only emphasizes that fact more. You might not like everything about it, but once you step into it, it’s engrossing and vivid.

And speaking of vivid, enough of Miller the writer—Miller the artist is amazing. The whole book, the whole big damn 1355 pages (!) of it, is all mostly black and white, with some tasteful splashes of color here and there, and he gets much mileage off of those two colors.

He can be both a minimalist and a maximalist, sometimes in the same panel, giving intricate detail to a person’s face but with maybe just splashes of details for her body—pieces of clothing or a thin curved line for a hip. Sometimes he reminds me of the old Chinese paintings of one leaf or branch, with just the barest (yes that’s a pun) of lines, except in Miller’s drawings, many of which are full one-pagers, instead of a branch it’s a stripper with a lasso. Or any other kind of various and sundry beautiful half-dressed women.

Most of all there is space, in the same way a page of poetry holds space, which allows—forces—the reader to fill in that space with her own thoughts and memories and imaginings.

Is Big Damn Sin City worth the $100 cover price? If you can at all afford this book, you need to buy it. This is a book you’ll keep and re-read your whole life. And if you can’t afford it, get your local library to buy it so other people can read it too. Everybody at all interested in reading comics should read this book. Big Damn Sin City is a classic collection, the kind that will—that does—define an era in comic books. Frank Miller is a master. Even if you can’t buy it, even if you can’t lift it, you need to read this book.

Look also for the new movie, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, based, like the movie Sin City (with Bruce Willis) on one of the books in this collection, co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, out in theaters soon.

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