Frank Miller. If that name means nothing to you, you’ll probably just want to pass on by…nothing to see here, folks.
I’ve recently finished both 300 and the complete Sin City series. At his best, Miller is a genius. Unfortunately, he isn’t always at his best.
300 is one part genius, one part gimmick and one part sloganeering. The tale of the Spartan 300 is a perfect tale for Miller’s gifts. The gimmick is the oversized book; it doesn’t actually fit on a bookshelf very easily. The larger page format lends itself to some impressive pages—the art (done by Lynn Varley, Frank’s erstwhile wife) has has room to breathe and the book has a vastness to it. The heroes are heroic, the villains are villainous. It rings throughout with a clarion call for Freedom from Tyranny. It’s a good book, on the verge of being Great, but not quite there. Why not? That’s what I can’t pin down. What is here is done well, but in the end, it just feels…light. An odd thing to say about an oversized book, but the tension of the stand at The Hot Gates is lost in a show of bravado; the treachery of the hunchback is lost in quick cartoonish scenes; the vastness of the Persian army is lost in the rush to show them being beat and so on. Labored over a bit longer, this book had the potential to be not just an interesting bit of art and storytelling, but something which would have risen to the level of literature. Instead, we have the visual representation of a campfire tale—nice enough for what it is, but it could have been more.
Sin City? There are 7 volumes in the series. The last three are pure mail-it-in efforts. The Worst of Frank. Seriously, there is no reason for volumes 5-7 to exist. They milk the franchise in tired stories with tired artwork. Sad, to be honest.
The first two volumes are stunning. Volumes 3 and 4 are a bit derivative, but still good it their own way.
What is this series? Imagine Raymond Chandler come back to life as a comic book artists in the 90s and you would have exactly these books. The heroes are detective-like, terribly flawed individuals, living is a very sordid city specializing in depravity. In one of Chandler’s stories, Marlowe tumbles into a pornography ring. In the 1940s, when Chandler wrote, the details of the crimes were left unstated. In Miller’s Sin City, the details are graphically displayed. (This is not a book for children, in other words.) Miller’s fictional world is much like Chandler’s fictional world, so the difference here is simply the difference of the half-century in which the two authors wrote. All in all, I prefer the restraint of Chandler’s world. And, I feel very sad thinking of all the adolescent boys who are excited by the umpteenth portrayal of an unclad prostitute.
Setting aside the pornographic angle, however, the art here is interesting. The books are all black and white (well, there is some yellow thrown in volume 4—the later volumes have more color, but the less said about them, the better). I would have never thought one could do so much in black and white, but Miller (who both wrote and drew the books) has a masterful way in both the black on white and white on black panels. There is a range of emotion expressed here which is really quite fascinating to behold.
When the plots stick to the realistic, they are really quite good—again, worthy of Chandler. As in 300, the heroes here are heroic—good men fighting their way through a very bad world. Somehow, in the midst of all this evil and depravity, these heroes keep their souls intact, saving the damsels in distress.
Can these books be recommended? Herein lies the problem: Not really. Too much gratuitous nudity. Too much depravity in the villains—I’ll spare you the description of their evil deeds (be glad). These really aren’t the sort of books you want to be reading in public. It’s too bad. At his best in the first four volumes here, there is much to recommend these books, but you have to take the over-the-top with the good. With a bit more restraint, these books could have been great. So, why don’t the books have that restraint? The problem is at the heart of the message of the book: these are not cases of vile books in the service of a greater moral lesson. They are vile books in the service of anarchy. There is a nihilism at the core of the books. And if all you have is nihilism, why not just include yet one more sketch of a prostitute or a tortured corpse? So much talent in the service of…nothing. A waste. Truly a waste.
By the way, I never got around to reading these earlier because a few years back I saw the movie based on the books. To call that movie bad would be an understatement. It has all the lurid detail of these books, with none of the literary or graphic art. Suffice it to say, the books are vastly better than the movie.
Frank Miller is an intriguing guy, in the end. Someday there will be an endless stem of doctoral dissertations on him. I am not sure if that is a compliment or not.
I suppose I am obliged to link to Frank singing about a guy from Sin City.