“Walk down the right back-alley in Sin City, and you can find anything.” We revisit Frank Miller’s original Basin City outing.
For the last two-and-a-half decades, geek god Frank Miller has treated readers to the polar-opposite of DC and Marvel’s light and colourful fairytales; decaying cityscapes, shady hoodlums and defiant anti-heroes.
With Sin City, his most famous contribution to the artform, Miller brought the gloomy excess of Hollywood Film Noir to the page. It’s like the work of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane with an added dose of hyperbolic cynicism. In most respects, The Hard Goodbye (the first title in the series, if not the first story chronologically) is not for those looking for cartoonish action or happy endings. Basin City isn’t a place you’ll want to visit for a romantic getaway. It’s filled to the brim with low-lives, murderers and rapists. There’s even a cannibal or two. To retain that Noir aesthetic, the talented Miller drew his tale in pure black-and-white with little to no shading.
The Hard Goodbye was originally published in 1991 under the Dark Horse banner, quickly gaining praise from the comic community. It’s a rich introduction to Miller’s universe, creating memorable and iconic characters, and forming a vivid picture of the city itself. A few pages in, Miller tells us everything we need to know. This is a place without remorse; a world removed from the one we know, but close enough to spark worrying comparisons. There’s none of the good-natured joviality found all too frequently in Marvel’s output. Sin City tries its hardest to be as grim as possible. No wonder maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez saw some worth in the material, tapping into its potential for the 2005 adaptation. The Hard Goodbye is just one of three tales adapted for the big screen. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the best in Miller’s entire oeuvre.
The story is sparse but brilliant. Gargantuan thug Marv wakes up to discover prostitute Goldie lying dead next to him. An ugly, hulking brute of a man, Marv is hardly the type that gets close to female flesh very often, and he’s more than a little annoyed. The murderer killed her while they slept, without breaking a sweat, leaving Marv to face the music. Clearly someone wanted the hooker out of the picture, and Marv is determined to find out who. Evading the police (who show up on his doorstep), Marv hits the backalleys of Basin City with revenge in mind.
The Hard Goodbye begins without build-up. From the opening panels, we know exactly who Marv is and what the focus of the entire story will be. Miller has a knack for building momentum. His escape from the apartment is brilliant – bursting through the door, he takes a leap down the staircase before diving head-first through a window, landing with a bump in the rubbish. Clearly, Miller isn’t attempting to tell a realistic tale, and Marv seems to possess superhuman strength. Thankfully, this only helps to up-the-ante. The frenetic pace is maintained with the stakes rising terrifically. Thanks to Miller’s typically hard-boiled dialogue, the reader just goes with it.
It also helps that Marv is such an intriguing anti-hero. He’s violent, merciless and utterly insane. Throughout, we’re never sure if the events being presented are really happening – the character has forgotten to take his medicine, giving the narrative a skewed tone. Marv is unpredictable and more than a little volatile, but under his brutish physique, there’s a sense of loyalty, passion and devotion to giving wrong-doers a taste of their own medicine. His strong moral backbone redeems him somewhat, even though he creeps us out on a regular basis (he names his gun “Gladys,” and enjoys torturing his enemies). He’s a roaring rampage of revenge. No wonder Mickey Rourke jumped at the chance to bring him to life – Marv leaves a lasting impression.
While the tale is told from his perspective, there’s a cornucopia of peripheral characters in The Hard Goodbye who have major roles to play or take on greater significance in later instalments (including stripper Nancy, made infamous by Jessica Alba’s partially-clothed portrayal). The sub-plots also give Miller an opportunity to introduce Basin City’s key locations, the most notable of which is Club Pecos, located in Old Town (the home away from home for the city’s many hookers). The writer crafts a fully-formed view of the endemic corruption destroying the city. No-one is happy, thieves always stroll the streets, and there’s a perpetual darkness; you wouldn’t come here looking for a tan! The prostitutes are also a dangerous bunch, governing their turf with unbridled force.
As you’d expect, Sin City is hypnotically violent. As Marv hunts down his prey, the blood really does flow like wine. A good example would be the segment in which he dispatches a pair of hapless hitmen, gunning them down with zero remorse. Yet, the real grue is left for Marv’s first confrontation with villain Kevin – in which our “hero” is cut to shreds. Kevin is a sinister creation; a silent cannibal who lives in the countryside and sharpens his nails to cut through flesh. He even collects the heads of his victims, placing them on the wall for all to see. Naturally, he gets exactly what he deserves…
Despite the thrilling narrative, it’s Miller’s artwork that really makes The Hard Goodbye a classic graphic novel. He gives each scene a stark, moody finish, with the black and white images working to full effect. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the story in colour – not only does it further the Film Noir influence, but it fits the tone of Miller’s world like a glove. His use of shadows and negative space is superb. There’s a sense of depth here, and the detail is pretty astonishing, from the expressions on Marv’s twisted face, to the clothing each citizen wears. Miller also conveys a large amount of information within a few panels, giving each image equal importance. The story flows smoothly, building to a grim but satisfying conclusion. It’s intricacy also makes those repeat readings a pleasure. Flicking through the book, one could easily take a page and frame it. The artwork is that good, and there’s plenty of memorable panels here. The best is probably the segment in which Marv stands in the rain. “Rain doesn’t come to Sin City real often,” Marv tells us, no doubt due to the effort it takes to draw such elements. The result is a world that seems alive – it pulsates with a life all its own.
The first Sin City is riveting stuff; a slice of brutal Americana that broke a little ground in 1991. Fans of hard-boiled fiction will love Miller’s first trip to Basin City almost as much as his legendary contributions to Batman and Daredevil. It’s a graphic novel that works perfectly on its own, but becomes more satisfying when tied to the series as a whole.
If you’ve yet to catch up, say hello to The Hard Goodbye.
- The Hard Goodbye won a prestigious Eisner Award in 1993.
- Miller didn’t think anyone other than Mickey Rourke could play Marv, later calling his performance “somewhere between Karloff playing Frankenstein and Bogart playing Sam Spade.” The writer/artist also chose to cameo in The Hard Goodbye segment of the feature film, as a priest shot by Marv.
- The remaining titles in the series are A Dame to Kill For, The Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard, Family Values, Booze, Broads, & Bullets, and Hell and Back.