Monday, October 01, 2007

Sin City: For Better or For Worse

First of all, sorry about the last post. What the bloody hell was THAT all about? I’ve been a bit disenchanted with comics and thinking critically about them. For the moment I’ve gotten over it and hope to entertain, bewilder, possibly inform and did I mention entertain?

So, over the last few weeks I’ve been reading the collected works of Sin City and Akira. Today I’ll be discussing Sin City. I finally got this written up after reading Chris Mautner's post, so I guess I should have proofread this thing to make sure it's sensible and all. Ah, hell, I spent too much time doing that in university, you're getting first draft stuff here - hey, it's the internet.

My understanding of the comic can be summed up like this: The less you know, the better it is.

Whenever you read about Sin City you’ll get mentions of Frank Miller’s noir vision and how he’s turned the volume of noir fiction way beyond levels safe for human consumption. That’s not a bad thing in a comic book. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s tougher than tough and sexier than sex. Everything is rough around the edges and as hard as the lines of the black and white artwork. Sure, it’s black and white but there isn’t a whole lot of lightness here. It’s the black, the noir, that takes centre stage in these stories. The guys with the white hats aren’t exactly the shining paladins of fairy tales. Nope, just like it’s the black ink that creates meaning when added to white paper, it’s the dark imagery of the Sin City comics that give it its voice and place in comics.

There is good here, but it isn’t done with a pure virtuousness. The good guys are just as brutal as the villains, they just stand up for something that isn’t totally selfish. They’re gullible, they’re heroic, but they’re not any less brutal. This is a milieu full of hard characters living hard lives and not apologizing for it. And that, along with the contrast based artwork, is what makes this comic seem to stand out from countless other tough guy morally ambiguous badass comics. These guys aren’t totally morally ambiguous, they are doing the right thing but are just brutal in their methods. They are the holy warriors on a righteous quest, unafraid to spill blood for their virtuous cause. They are the soldiers in the muck doing the brutal work of killing bad men and putting their own lives on the line – sometimes because they need to, sometimes because they just happen to be there. There is a real sense of duty in the white hats.

That being said, I found the more I read, the less I liked the Sin City comics. For me, they worked better when you didn’t know much about the place or the characters. Marv in The Hard Goodbye is one of the most memorable characters in comics. From his silhouette to his actions and dialogue to his motivations and how the story is drawn all contribute to that. I’ve been trying to distill what it is that makes Marv such a great character, and I keep coming back to the fact that it’s pretty much everything about him and the story. He’s not human in his actions or his look, which is what allows Miller to amp up all the action and dialogue in his story. Marv works because he simply doesn’t need to have any reasons for his actions which means he doesn’t need to be explained as a character thus freeing him to just get on with the story. And what a story it is. It’s horrific, it’s got the blackest of black humour, and it’s got the darkest of satisfying endings. In the end, it all works because all the elements reflect one another both writing and art-wise. The story has an internal logic and that is all it needs. When the story starts tying into outside elements, even other stories in the Sin City oeuvre they don’t work as well for me.

I’ve always enjoyed guest appearances in comic books, and it could simply be that today it’s not something special but a standard operating policy for superhero books, but in Sin City it works against the stories. It works against them because you’re suddenly drawn out of the story into something greater. Yes, seeing the other characters reminds you that this is all happening in one place but it also feels like continuity is being shoehorned into the story, and continuity doesn’t belong in any of the stories. Sin City doesn’t need to be a shared universe other than having one character show up as a guest. When we start having multiple takes on the same scene it makes the reader think about the last time the scene occurred and to start trying to place the current story into the timeline of the previous one, which is really a long way of stating that it takes the reader out of the story.

So the more I read, the less I appreciated the work. I find it hard to say I enjoyed the Sin City books. They’re just too violent and horrific to be considered light fun to me. I enjoyed reading them in the sense that I could appreciate aspects of the work. The more the stories started to connect, the less their internal logic held together. Marv doesn’t look human so it’s easier to accept the inhuman nature of his adventures, but Dwight, Hartigan and the other characters are all more normal looking, and thus make it harder to suspend disbelief, for me.

In addition to the character design, I felt that after a while I was becoming numbed to the excessive violence and the stark contrast of the work. Whereas there are countless pages from The Hard Goodbye that can be used as emblematic of Sin City the other stories tend to start to feel as if they are repeating themselves. There are only so many sexy lady silhouettes, slashing rain pages, or cars jumping over hills that I can see before they stop feeling like visual cues and start feeling like crutches to fall back onto. But I do have to say, the use of negative space is unbelievable and quite frankly, unforgettable. I find the hard lines and use of contrast inspiring me in my own approach to artwork. Simply put, I never really grasped the use of negative space until Sin City blew my mind with it.

I guess where the stories started to lose their interest for me was the MacGuffin ending to Family Values. On top of that the use of Miho as Robin from The Dark Knight Returns but with more decapitations and impalements felt like the story was simply phoned in, and there were suddenly pages in the text that weren’t using the high contrast style but simply line drawings, which made it feel more like a few pages from a sketch book rather than a completed work. Now, I did like some of the collected one shots and the comic book homages throughout some of the works but by the time I finished Hell and Back, I couldn’t think of a better title to describe my feelings of reading the story. At this point, it just felt like Sin City was too much a victim of its own success. The only thing left for it to do was to use full color, and in doing this it loses its unique voice. Contrasting black and white is what made Sin City work as a whole. The judicious use of a single tone of color (yellow, red, blue) helped focus attention and at times add to the contrast found within the dark stories, but when the only place left to push the boundaries places you back to what you were working against in the first place – your project has lost its purpose.

Sin City is a memorable place, just don’t overstay your welcome because you may just get a bit too familiar with the jaded citizenry.

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