Bob's Comics Reviews August 2005 Arrows


Frank Miller : Sin City
Miho and victim You're bound to have strong reactions to Sin City, comic or movie; but some people's reactions are dumbfounding. They found it amoral; unreal; sexist. Don't people nowadays know noir?

Sin City is a straight-up hard-boiled detective story-- which, as Raymond Chandler explained in "The Simple Art of Murder", was an attempt to reintroduce realism into the mystery genre, which was in danger of drowning in preciousness-- impossible crimes, committed by unlikely upper-class Brits, solved by ever more eccentric amateurs. The hard-boiled detective story concentrated on the kinds of crimes and corruption that actually happen. The prototypical villains were those of the time-- gangsters and plutocrats. Plus a few murderous women, because who doesn't want to read about dames with gats?

The crimes were generally sordid, but the detective was not; as Chandler wrote, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." He can't be too virtuous, or he'd never enter this line of work; but he's the final judge, the moral authority (especially since the police in these works are no better than they have to be). He has to do right, and he does, even if no one but himself knows it.

Sin City is most like the early Chandler-- the short stories, where as he himself admitted, if he wrote himself into a corner he brought in a gunman and shot his way out of it. There's also a good dose of Mickey Spillane, and on the comics front, Will Eisner.

Of course, Miller is more interested in Chandler's methods than in his realism. Sin City is an exaggeration of everything that makes noir noir: the nastiness of the criminals and corrupt rich guys, the toughness of the good guys, the fatalité of the femmes. He also revels in the now-retro details, like the big '50s cars and the slang.

Miller's heroes aren't anything as mainstream as private eyes. The first, Marv, is a bundle of ugly muscle with no life, until a beautiful woman takes pity on him, has sex with him, and gets murdered in his bed. Dwight, the hero of several books, takes pictures for some underworld creep, and later serves as enforcer to a gang of prostitutes that runs part of Sin City. Wallace is a vet trying to become an artist. Hartigan is apparently the only incorruptible cop in Sin City. The villains, for their part, are pure scum-- serial killers, abusers of women-- you never have to pause to wonder if they deserve the ultraviolence; they do.

So it's not amoral; it's just the simple morality of "you do bad things to me, I do bad things to you". This has enormous narrative appeal; the only problem is that when applied to the real world, the results are invariably horrific. Whether it's the Bush administration or the Iraqi insurgents or the massacre in Rwanda, people applying this morality end up not being very particular about who they do bad things back to.

The worldview is recognizably the same in Miller's 1983 work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns-- a brilliant but achingly nasty-minded work, which did much to deepen and darken the superhero genre. But bad politics is good noir.

As for sexism, it's certainly true that the female cast spends much of its time underdressed. But these are post-feminist bad girls who can take care of themselves.

If you don't want to drop over a hundred clams on all six books, the best is the fifth, Family Values. (If you've seen the movie, it's not in it, so it'll be new for you.) In this Dwight is investigating a drive-by shooting at a diner, for reasons we don't at first know. His backup is one of the Old Town prostitutes-- deadly little Miho. Dwight gets beaten up like all self-respecting Chandler heroes, but Miho is the closest Sin City comes to a superhero; she doesn't even get blood on her outfit. And amid the violence there's some dark humor and surprising, lovely moments of tenderness. The final revelations are striking enough that I wondered if they shouldn't have been telegraphed earlier; then I checked and found that they were.

The art is black and white, with splashes of color. Miller is a good draftsman, but excels at stunning noir compositions. It's one of the few black and white comics that wouldn't be improved by color.

As for the movie, it's a fantastic adaptation, and as David Edelstein noted in Slate, Miller performed a virtuosity transplant on Robert Rodriguez, whose films have never been as focussed and visual as this. Probably we'll all get sick of this look and feel over the next few years, but for now, it blew me away.

Percy Crosby : Skippy
Continuing the theme of strips that begin with s and end with y... Skippy began as a cartoon in Life (the early-20C humor magazine, not the photomagazine) in 1923, and moved to the newspapers in 1925. For the next twenty years it was one of the most popular of comic strips, generating the usual assortment of books, toys, and dolls, and was made into a movie-- the 1931 Academy Award winner for Best Director. If it's remembered today, however, it's usually as a footnote noting its influence on Peanuts. (The panel below shows a rare direct steal: Schulz used the same gag, starring Lucy.)

Skippy anticipates Lucy
If you've seen such footnotes and wondered what Skippy was like, as a first approximation, the answer is "Like the first few years of Peanuts." Many of the gags would have worked just as well in Peanuts. Skippy and the early Charlie Brown are both a bit rambunctious, a bit apt to mess up their grand projects, not very involved with their parents. (Charlie Brown, with his round head with just a hint of hair in front and back, even looks like an abstraction of Skippy.) And both strips are blessedly free of Family Circus style mockery of children; the viewpoint is child-oriented, not parental. Crosby however never uses fantasy elements, and never quite achieves Schulz's psychological insight, or even his mastery of facial expression. Skippy connects amusingly to a child's experience of the world; Peanuts dives right down into the human condition.

A key difference is Skippy's almost complete lack of a cast of characters. We see his parents-- remarkably aloof; like Calvin's parents, they always seem too busy with their own life to pay attention to their son-- and meet a few of his friends (e.g. Sooky), but these have no memorable points. There's a consistent portrait of the neighborhood bully, Butch O'Leary, but he's really a role, not a character. His teachers seem to have no names.

Skippy himself is almost as sketchy in character as he is on the page. He's mischievous and a little cynical, but no more than any boy growing up mostly on the streets; he's no star at sports or schoolwork, but most kids aren't; he's sometimes romantic or dutiful or even kind-hearted, but so are we all. He stretches and dodges to meet Crosby's mood of the day.

Crosby's own story rises unusually high and falls unusually low. The strip made him rich, and he bought a 200-acre estate in Virginia and hobknobbed with celebrities. He wrote novels and a series of increasingly cranky political tracts, and started having Skippy fulminate on politics and religion. The strip lost readers, but Crosby apparently felt he was on high ground; ultimately negotiations with the Hearst syndicate broke down and he ended the strip, in 1945.

He struggled for some years without finding steady work, attempted suicide, and was placed in a mental asylum. Today this would probably be seen as a nervous breakdown and he'd soon be out; but he was diagnosed as a "paranoid schizophrenic" and kept inside for the rest of his life, till his death in 1964.

The only good taste of Skippy I've ever found is Jerry Robinson's 1978 book Skippy and Percy Crosby-- though even this may be hard to find.

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