by Bill Morse
March 27, 2005
Hello, and welcome to Talking Theory. This column intends to focus on the part of comic book art that is usually under-appreciated, if noticed at all. That is the art of telling a story through layout, composition, pacing, and mes en scene.
Since the film adaptation comes out this April I thought I would start with some comments on Frank Miller's Sin City. Frank Miller has been one of the great innovators in the American mainstream superhero genre for the last thirty years. Typically his work combines cinematic techniques with various other influences, most notably the work of Will Eisner and Goseki Kojima. He has been quoted as saying that "Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock interviews are the greatest reference for comic creators ever written," looking at his work it shows.
Sin City is Miller's take on classic 'film noir', cranked up to the max. He throws into it everything a film noir fan could possibly want, beautiful women, vintage cars, guns, martial arts, and lots and lots of violence. I feel that the most useful way to examine Sin City is to view Miller as a Romantic in the 19th century literary definition, characterized by an emphasis on subjective emotional qualities and freedom of form. Some of the best examples of this are Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Samuel Coleridge. Sin City fits this definition by being set in a corrupt pit of depravity with morality that is, at best, Nietzschien. There is no room for subtlety in the nocturnal city-state of Sin City, and Miller portrays this by his use of an extremely expressionistic style—blocking out space with overwhelming shadow, making an overexposed chiaroscuro.
The most obvious thing in a first look at any of the books is the palette. Sin City is deliberately almost monochromatic. Miller occasionally bring in a single color for effect - yellow in "That Yellow Bastard," pink in "Daddy's Little Girl" and blue in the various "Blue Eyes" vignettes—emphasizing the stark black and white that dominates most panels. The second most obvious thing is lighting and atmosphere. With the pervasive shadows you wonder if the sun ever shines on Sin City. Miller using everything from Venetian blinds to prison bars to affect what lighting is there. Miller also uses numerous effects to define shape and space, including cigarette smoke, snow, and rain. Scenery in this title is truly minimalist. Nothing unessential to the plot is shown. The pervading darkness and shadow is as important as anything else and hides everything that is unnecessary. A bedroom consists of a bed, a window, and darkness. The interior of Club Pecos, one of the only recurring locations in the title, only consists of the bar and a couple of tables. The crowd and the players stand in a dark smoke filled void.
The only times Miller shows us more detail is when extra information is needed. Establishing shots when the characters arrive at a new setting in "A Dame to Kill For" show us a hacienda style estate, and a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired fortress in "Family Values." He also uses details for character studies. When we first see Dwight's agent in "A Dame to Kill For," we are shown his office in sleazy, sloppy, detail. This tells us far more then we would ever want to know about the man, as if Dwight's narration was not enough to provide us with understanding. Miller takes his time telling his stories. He rarely uses more than three panels a page, giving his pacing a staccato strobe-like quality. Often the pictures are only illustrations for the clipped tongue-in-cheek narration. When Miller does use more than three panels on a page it usually shows the action or tension picking up, or the reaction of everyone present. Miller frequently slows down even more with groups of single panel splash pages focusing on items of interest, or punctuating an action so as to magnify the brutality, or sensuality, of the event. What Miller does with the panels on each page is further enhanced by what is going on in the panels. This particularly supports my view of Miller as a Romantic.
There is no room for subtlety in Sin City. Every gesture by the characters is 'over the top' and theatrical. When someone points or pull out a gun they thrust out their whole arm as if they were throwing a punch (which they do quite a bit in this title too). Talking seems to require the entire body. People do not walk - they stride, lumber and swagger. When someone shouts they look as if they are going to hurt their neck and vocal cords. When I read Sin City I have an impression of the cast belting out arias. Forget Sin City the movie, I want to see Sin City the opera! This is magnified even more by Miller's use of close-ups and medium shots in his panel composition. He usually only pulls back when he is showing crowds or car chases. This puts scenes that are already 'over the top' under a microscope and insures that they completely dominate our attention.
While I concede it is not for everyone, being unrelentingly dark and frequently depressing, Sin City is worth the effort for the careful viewer. And Miller also draws very very well!