Book Review: Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Artistically, one of the greatest noir graphic novels ever drawn with a solid crime story to back it up.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Marv is good at killing. Very good. With a military background, he is now a professional killer for hire. He has been doing it for so long, he no longer knows why. It doesn’t help that he has been on the receiving end of several violent encounters and now looks like a bloke who dunked his face in a blender just for laughs. Still, you know whatever he has been through the other guy is far worse off.

When he meets Goldie, a gorgeous prostitute, they get drunk and spend the night together. He can’t believe his luck. Is it out of pity? Or something more? An act mercy from an angel from heaven?

Three hours later, Marv wakes up with cement in his head from all the alcohol and realises that Goldie’s beautiful naked form is not moving. She’s dead. No signs of the cause of death. Looks like she died in her sleep except Marv, who has always felt in his gut when something is wrong, knows she didn’t die of natural causes. She was murdered.

When police sirens come hurtling his way, he knows he’s been framed.

Set against the backdrop of Sin City, a place where corruption, crime and depravity are as common as the foul weather and foul streets, we follow Marv on his quest for revenge. Finally, he is feeling something. He knows it is fleeting, but he has a purpose. A sense of clarity that allows him to raise his head above the stink and despair. Even if he knows he will likely be dragged back down in the sewers, he’ll embrace the hard goodbye.

Review

Frank Miller’s crime noir follows the well-trodden path of other stories within this genre. The main protagonist is instantly recognisable as a character who is barely holding on to the remnants of his sanity and soul in a city that wants you experiencing nightmares when you’re asleep and awake. Marv is a hulk of a creation that you gravitate towards even though you would never want to meet him alone in a dark alley. While there is a simplistic intellect about him, there is also a cunning and survival instinct honed from many years in the trenches. And through the many hells he has experienced, there is still this sliver of decency that seeks to rise out of the mire.

As Marv seeks to dish out his own justice for Goldie’s murder while evading (corrupt) authorities, his investigation eventually unveils not just an abuse of power but an evil that has festered in a way that makes Jack the Ripper look like a saint. The men responsible for Goldie’s murder and a string of other prostitute deaths is a serial killer named Kevin and a powerful cardinal of Sin City named Roark. Turns out Kevin and the Cardinal have a very sick relationship where Roark believes Kevin has a divine voice that only speaks to him, and they go about not only killing prostitutes but eating them and keeping the heads as trophies. Divine cleansing through cannibalism… like I said, sick.

Though Marv achieves his revenge and Kevin and Roark are taken down in suitably gruesome ways, he cannot escape the underlying corrupt power that runs through Sin City. He is eventually forced to sign a false confession for the murders of Goldie and the prostitutes in order to protect his innocent mother. And the story arc of Marv comes to an end when he is sent to the electric chair.

The narrative is well written and places you in Marv’s head. His willingness to not care about his own fate in order to get his hands on Kevin and Roark is both noble and distressing. But what truly elevates this above the standard crime noir is Miller’s art.

Never before have I seen a graphic novel that uses black and white in this manner. The ability to create light and shadow through stark straight lines, and the striking complex mix of silhouette and distinct physical character traits (e.g. the folds of Marv’s trench coat, the cowboy hat and lasso of an exotic dancer, the solid black outline of a revolver held by Marv’s parole officer etc.) evoke an atmosphere that fits so snugly in Miller’s crime noir story that you’ll be convinced the genre could never be depicted in any other way.

But what probably is most stunning of Miller’s art in The Hard Goodbye is how he captures rain. And how he uses rain to create outlines of the characters that are walking through it. It is an astounding effect that captures everything that is hellish about Sin City and the people who seek to survive living in it.

While the writing is evocative and done with loving care, when combined with the art, this first volume of Sin City will grab your throat, reach down into your guts with a vice like grip and keep your eyes glued on its pages even when the voice in your head is screaming for you to look away.

Good luck trying to resist buying the rest of the series.

5 out of 5.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller

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