Marv takes a stroll through Sin City. Artist: Frank Miller.


Original Medium: Comic books
Published by: Dark Horse Comics
Creator: Frank Miller
First appeared: 1991
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From Johnny Dynamite to Ms. Tree, hard-boiled crime stories have been part of the comic book scene for a long, long time. The hard-boiled style has even been applied to horror, as in …

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DC Comics' Hellblazer. But it's difficult to imagine comic book crime stories more hard-boiled than those found in Sin City, created, written and drawn by cartoonist Frank Miller.

Miller (who is not the Frank Miller that created Barney Baxter in the Air decades ago) began his comics career in the early 1980s by introducing hard-boiled crime elements into Daredevil, a long-running Marvel Comics title that had been on the skids before he revitalized it with that new approach. Then he did a hard-boiled take on Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, which, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, was one of the most talked-about comics of the mid-1980s. Sin City is what these projects seem to have been leading up to.

Sin City isn't the real name of Miller's fictional locale. That would be Basin City, but nobody ever calls it that because the shortened form describes it perfectly. The politicians, police, business leaders and even religious hierarchy of Sin City are all corrupt beyond belief; and in response the ordinary citizens have become jaded and cynical. As for the outright criminals — in Sin City, no crime is so depraved or horrifying as to be capable of shocking anyone. Even the local prelate, Cardinal Roark, has eaten succulent young murder victims. As writer Mark Evanier (Groo the Wanderer, DNAgents) put it, "When you live in Sin City, you can get shot fifty times, stabbed through the thorax and have a few body parts chopped off. And then, if you're not careful, someone might try to kill you."

The Sin City series doesn't have a full-time star, but it's loaded with recurring characters — few if any of which are heroes. The one most frequently used as protagonist is photographer Dwight McCarthy, who commits the occasional murder, sometimes followed by a grisly cover-up, in addition to covering the news. But he wasn't in the first story, which starred a brutal, borderline-sane killer named Marv.

Sin City first appeared in Dark Horse Comics' anthology title, Dark Horse Comics Presents, which had already introduced Concrete and The Mask, and would later feature Mike Mignola's Hellboy and Adam Hughes's Ghost. Sin City didn't start in a regular issue, but in Dark Horse Comics Presents Fifth Anniversary Special (April, 1991, celebrating the company's "wood anniversary"). The story continued in regular issues 51-62 (June, 1991 through May, 1992), and was collected in graphic novel form shortly afterward. More stories followed, sometimes as mini-series (also published later as graphic novels) and sometimes as oneshot comic books (later reprinted in collections of Sin City short stories).

Miller uses a chiaroscuro art style in this series, telling the stories through the interplay of starkly contrasting lights and shadows. Thus, when Dark Horse Comics (which, like other comic book publishers that began in the 1980s, started out with less expensive monochrome printing) mostly switched to color, Sin City remained black and white. Miller, who owns the series and therefore doesn't have to answer to a marketing department, chose that appearance as most appropriate to the type of stories he's telling.

The movie version, too, was made in black and white. It interweaves three of the comic book stories. Marv was played by Mickey Rourke (with Jaime King as Goldie, the woman who drives his plot), Dwight McCarthy by Clive Owen in a storyline taken from Miller's The Big Fat Kill, and John Hartigan, a Sin City cop in Miller's That Yellow Bastard, by Bruce Willis. It premiered in Los Angeles on March 28, 2005, with the general release following on April 1.

Miller himself co-directed it, along with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Some film critics, possibly jealous of credit in their medium going to a mere comic book guy, have alleged, without citing evidence, that Miller's directing credit was purely honorary. Others (generally those familiar with the comic before it became a movie) say it's the most faithful adaptation of comics to film ever — high praise, considering the pains taken in producing Li'l Abner, Dick Tracy and a few others. One reason for that might be the creator having had a real directorial impact on the final product.

Sin City comic books have been on hold while the movie was working its way through the pipeline. Dark Horse has been keeping them in print, but no new ones have come out since 1999. But now that it's made the leap to a new mass audience, there's no telling what developments are in store.


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Text ©2005-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Frank Miller.