Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sin City, Volume 6: Booze, Broads and Bullets Review (Frank Miller)

Booze, Broads and Bullets is the only Sin City volume that’s a short story collection. It features some characters from previous volumes like Marv from The Hard Goodbye, Nancy from That Yellow Bastard, and Dwight from A Dame To Kill For, and some new ones like Blue Eyes, a voluptuous assassin.

This is also the last great Frank Miller book. Miller would go on making comics for years afterward - The Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman and Robin, and Holy Terror for example - but they never recaptured the brilliance of his glory days and many were just plain terrible. Even Hell and Back, the final Sin City book, was slow and overlong and is the only Sin City book that could be considered boring. 

So what makes Booze, Broads and Bullets so damn good? The stories are simply awesome. The Josh Harnett short that opened the 2005 Sin City movie is here in “The Customer is Always Right”, a mere 3-page story that grabs you instantly. A handsome, James-Bond-ish man stands behind a beautiful woman on a balcony in the rain, they talk cryptically and breathlessly about death, they embrace and then - BANG - she’s dead and lying in his arms. He’s a hitman and she was his target. 

The book showcases Miller’s adeptness at the short story format, each one coming at you like a string of bullets and each one hitting the target square on. Rats, a 7-page story, depicts a claustrophobic, nightmarish dark room where the mere thoughts in the man’s head are enlarged captions in the panels showing how quiet it is. It’s intimated the man is a Nazi officer in hiding - another man appears, and kills him with the oven, in the same way the Nazi must’ve killed Jews in the death camps. Another story, Daddy’s Little Girl, a 9-pager, shows how a sick couple get their rocks off with strangers. 

If you love characters like Marv and Dwight then you’ll be delighted with their stories here. Marv is at his laconic best, having drinks while watching Nancy on stage doing her act, gleefully getting into fights with mobsters and police alike in “Just Another Saturday Night”. Later on he appears as an avenging angel, rescuing a little girl from sexual slavery in a near silent story appropriately called “Silent Night”. Dwight meanwhile continues his streak of bad luck with women in “The Babe Wore Red”, picking up a woman in trouble, gallantly fighting off her oppressors. 

The black and white art is perfect. The scene where the man and woman kiss in the rain in “The Customer is Always Right” is iconic and was replicated by Robert Rodriguez for his film; “Silent Night” uses full page panels to tell its story and the way Miller draws the heavy snow captures its remarkable beauty juxtaposed with the ugliness in the stories’ conclusion; Miller’s only use of colour is with regards to the women, using blue, pink and red for their dresses as if saying the only joy in this grim world lies with the women. 

So what’s the effect of this stylised art and storytelling combination? Sin City is genre writing, specifically hard-boiled noir. Miller is writing in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and numerous others, albeit in a heightened manner as to almost parody the genre. Narrators frequently speak in clipped sentences, rarely stepping outside the bounds of what the reader needs to know to follow the story, occasionally tossing in a melodramatic metaphor in the style of noir. Miller’s characters are deliberately exaggerated: the men are either men’s men like Marv and Dwight who can fight, drink and love like gods, or else they’re degenerate slobs, ugly on the inside and the outside; the women are generally beautiful with perfect figures. They are extremes of characters to match the extreme stories Miller tells - life and death stories, people who are either about to die or about to kill. There are no half measures in the storytelling therefore there are no half measures in the characters.

The art style matches this approach - simple black and white for 99% of the books. Characters are either good or bad, black and white, their morality and world depicted in the stark absence of any grey. The bad are punished - badly - by the good. And because Basin City is so full of bad people, the books’ art is drawn heavily in black with slivers of white used for definition - the title of the series is called Sin City for a reason. 

I can understand some readers’ reactions to Miller’s work as unimpressed with its portrayal of men and women, but when it comes to Sin City, readers should go in knowing that what they’re about to read has nothing to do with reality, or even subtlety, and everything to do with the noir literary genre. Noir is not reality, it’s a cartoonish viewpoint of larger-than-life characters that’re cynical and world-weary, the stories containing extreme stakes, soaked in seedy sex and dive bars surrounded by the pallor and whiff of stale cigarette smoke. In this sense, Miller’s Sin City books are a triumph, especially Booze, Broads and Bullets that are enthralling melodramatic stories told in perfectly measured pages where no panel is wasted and the art and writing compliment each other to enormous effect. 

Miller may have become a crazy person in the years following this book’s release, producing some of the most mocked comics ever, like All-Star Batman and Robin (“I’m the goddamn Batman!”), as well as a flat-out offensively racist book in Holy Terror, but his Sin City books are flawless and represent the pinnacle of comics art. They’re a good example for me of loving the art, hating the artist. I may not care for Miller as a person but the comics he produced in the 80s and 90s are undeniable in their artistry. 

Booze, Broads and Bullets is the last gasp of Miller’s incredible talent but it’s a helluva great book to leave on. I’ve re-read it many times over the years and it still manages to hook and draw me in, holding me in my seat as I go through the book in one relentless sitting every time. The Sin City books are among the comics I turn to after reading several bad comics to remind me what a great comic looks like and how great the medium can be. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favour and check it out today; if you’ve read it before, it’s definitely worth re-reading again.

Sin City Volume 6: Booze, Broads, & Bullets

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