Sunday, 4 August 2013

Sin City

Considering the nature of comics it’s surprising how often artwork gets overlooked. Good artwork gets pointed out, yes, as does bad artwork. But that’s praising or chastising the quality of someone’s work. It’s not looking at art as something that contributes to the overall feel of a comic. I think this is because all too often artwork doesn’t really add to a comic’s themes. It’s almost always there just to give form to the words of the author.

Take Watchmen, for example. Dave Gibbons deserves, and usually gets, just as much credit for the book’s success as does writer Alan Moore. Without Gibbons Watchmen would not be the book that it is but it would not be as different as it would be without Moore. With another writer it could have succeeded to the same degree. It might even have been better.

The point is that what Dave Gibbons did with Watchmen was sterling work, but he did nothing that couldn’t have been done by somebody else. He worked from a script written by Moore. That could have been done by anyone, professional artist or not. Watchmen’s art is good, but there is nothing about it that cultivates a feeling that Watchmen achieves something no other comic could have. The script may do that. The art does not.

Sin City is different because of its art. Writer-artist Frank Miller makes artistic choices that set the series apart from everything that came before it. The book would have worked just as well had another artist provided the visuals (Dave Gibbons, for example) but had they not made the choices Miller did the books would just be fairly well written crime capers.

So what are these artistic choices? Well, Sin City is drawn almost exclusively in black and white. This allows Miller to achieve a couple of things. Firstly, it evokes the feeling of crime noir films, all clever lighting and moody shadows. Even those who have never sat through a crime noir film will be aware of the visual cues the genre is known for as they’ve become common on film and television. Keeping his pages black and white allows Miller to make easy use of these cues himself.

The second thing working in monochrome (can art be monochrome?) lets Miller do is make clever use of colour. Every so often a character will be drawn partially coloured. In Daddy’s Little Girl it’s the titular girl appearing in pink, helping to establish a sense of femininity and helplessness for the titular girl. Blue Eyes sees streetwalker Delia drawn with blue clothes to match her famed blue eyes. Red is used sparingly in another tale to emphasise the lipstick and slinky dress of an unnamed femme fatale. The most extravagant use comes in Hell and Back where it’s used to depict the hyper reality of an LSD trip. It’s a fantastic approach to drawing a comic that creates a wonderful “feel” for the books.

Of course, looking at the examples in the last paragraph you may notice one of the book’s major downfalls. It’s fairly sexist. Women are depicted as either objects for men to lust after and fight over or battle-hardened Amazonian prostitute warriors. There is no middle ground and it’s noticeable. Male characters are slotted neatly (but less offensively) into camps too. They’re either corrupt officials or hard drinkin’ PIs with women troubles and hearts of gold.

But Sin City saves itself from being a vehicle for Miller’s rampant misogyny and right wing zeal by being a thoroughly good read. The misogyny and zeal are present throughout but they’re made just about acceptable because Miller is, with Sin City, striving to create a world without hope, overrun by greed and ruled with fear. His disturbing world views make him incredibly good at that.

All of Sin City’s seven volumes are set in the titular city. Its full name is Basin City, the B and A having been dropped by the locals when they realised the corruption had set in. Across the various stories Miller creates a fascinating metropolis. Characters reappear throughout, civic leaders are shown, and the various neighbourhoods are shown. Miller is creative when conjuring backstories for these areas and displays a knack for naming them too. He even sketches out the history of Basin City itself. It’s a compelling display of world building.

Characters deliver their internal monologues in short bursts, which helps it to be read in the staccato fashion you’d see in films. As mentioned, every male character seems motivated, in some manner, by his love for a woman. And practically every character a story focuses on is a cop or PI. If they’re not they probably meet one during the course of their yarn. But as repetitive as it is it never gets boring, I suspect because, being comics, they can be read quickly enough to not outstay their welcome.

For all its faults Sin City is a fantastic achievement in the world of comic books. It’s something that established its own visual style while at the same time evoking TV and film and drawing inspiration from comics of the past such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit. A visual style that borrows from film and TV is often taken for granted with modern comics, but it was a far rarer occurrence when Miller started this. If the black and white views on the sexes didn’t match the black and white art Sin City would be about as good as it gets. As it is it comes pretty close.

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