Finn: Sin City

Being “good” in Sin City: morality, the individual and public authority

Richard Finn, Lancaster University

Summer 2010

Enough! Stranger, you disgust me!
You poison the air I breathe with this “story” of yours—this sordid, back alley filth!  (5.115)1

MarvSo speaks Don Magliozzi, a vengeful and murderous mob leader who is appalled by what he dubs the story of a ‘godless pervert’ (ibid.). The isolated irony of his hypocritical moral indignation, which parodies the potential for outrage among readers, extends more generally to the moral judgements which support Sin City’s pervasive theme of retributive justice. This theme seems to be implicitly—and once, explicitly (5.64)—based on the popular scriptural misinterpretation of ‘an eye for an eye’ as implying, not the intended limitation of retributive action, but rather a warrant for retributive brutality (see Leviticus 24: 19-21; Exodus 21: 22-5; Deuteronomy: 19). The moral systems based on the fallacious application of this quotation as a moral warrant set limitless cruelty and violence against limitless cruelty and violence, which in the majority of the Sin City narratives results in a series of ironically self-defeating moral conflicts.

Following Miller’s (USA Today, 2005) insistence that the narratives of Sin City ‘are morality plays as much as they are love stories and mysteries and crime novels’, and that his characters are ‘heroes’ (MacDonald, 2005: 42), I intend to investigate the problematic moral complexities proposed by the abovementioned moral conflicts. Drawing on Gert’s (2005) conception of morality, I will begin by examining the constitution of the distorted moral situation that Miller proposes as the basis of these problems in terms of the recurring noir theme of the ‘ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and society’ (Horsley, 2010: 137), before applying Foucault’s theories of discourse to the analysis of the discursive construction of this relationship, focusing in particular on the discursive delineation of the individual. Finally I will examine the formal and generic influence of noir and “comics” (McCloud, 1993:passim) on the presentation and interpretation of the moral situation.

Gert (2005: 27) defines morality as

an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.

For Gert, it is a human constant that is filtered through continuously evolving modes of social organization (2005: 11). This is integral to an analysis of Sin City because it separates morality from authority: while morality is a universal and informal public system of implicitly shared values which are grounded in the practicalities of human interaction (Gert, 2005: 5), authority is a separate phenomenon intended to supplement problematic moral judgements (Gert, 2005: 11). In Sin City, the moral ethos necessary for these mediatory authorities to function without distorting common morality is voided by a socially pervasive ethical egoism, which is based on an exploitation of the presupposition that those who adopt a morality must also abide by it (Gert, 2005: 8), as typified in the following outburst by the corrupt Senator Rourke:

Power doesn’t come from a badge or a gun. Power comes outta lying and lying big and getting the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeingwith what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you got ‘em trapped. You’re the boss. You can turn reality on its head and they’ll cheer you on. You can make a saint out of a gibberingnutcase like my high and mighty brother. You can beat your wife to death with a baseball batlike I did and leave your fingerprints all the hell over it and a dozen witnesses will swear on a stack of bibles you were a thousand miles away.  (4.65)

By undermining general co-operative principles of interaction and combining this with heightened access to means of popular communication from within systems of authority, the individual is able to exploit the power of such mediatory institutions as the police, the judicial system and the church for personal gain. Moreover, she/he can do so in the falsely attributed name of morality. While to some degree this serves a satiric function as a critique of contemporary social organization, the problem is notably hyperbolized in Sin City, where illegality is universally big business:

In this town just about anything you can name that’s worth doing is against the law. It works out better for everybody this way. Cops and politicians make their fortunes by looking the other way while crooks like Kadie get away with charging ten bucks a drink. (1.51)

The law is thus bribed into ineffectuality, and while the aforementioned institutions no longer operate as moral arbiters, they retain the power allotted to them for such purposes, which is wielded for individual gain as described in the above two quotations. This personal abuse of authority is evident at both the macro-level: Senator Rourke’s exploitation of the legal and church systems to protect himself and his family (4.65), and the micro-level: e.g., the transgender police officer who beats and arrests Wallace for predominantly personal reasons (7.36-46). It is this amoral (and often more specifically immoral) individualization of authoritative institutions that generates the grounds for the imbalanced conflict between individuals intent on asserting ‘what they know in their hearts’ and those individuals who control public discourses of morality. As Miller states: ‘You can’t have virtue without sin. And what I’m interested in is having my characters’ virtues defined by how they operate in a very sinful environment’ (MacDonald, 2005: 42).

However, true to the series’ noir influences, Miller does not reductively categorize this opposition of informal public systems (morality) to formal public systems (authority) as a simple good versus evil conflict; rather, he complicates this confrontation through the film noir inspired questionable morality, or ‘inner darkness’ (Fuller, 2005) of many of his “heroes”, born of the questionable moral orders which are shown to have gestated in the seedy world of Basin City, thus denying simple solutions to the moral problems posed. The fact of operating within a system that immorally wields the threat of the death sentence (e.g. the framing of Hartigan in “That Yellow Bastard” and of Marv in “The Hard Goodbye”) might be seen to justify a like-for-like warrant for killing, as the systems designed to negotiate the problematic morality of such issues have been effectively dissolved. What complicates the vengeful retribution of Miller’s protagonists is the manner in which it is often exacted. For instance, when Marv is killing the cannibalistic Cardinal Rourke, he takes discomforting pleasure from the act and deliberately prolongs and maximizes his victim’s suffering:

I stare the bastard in the face and I laugh as he screams to God for mercy and I laugh harder when he squeals like a stuck pig and when he whimpers like a baby I’m laughing so hard I cry.
He spurts and gurgles and life is good. (1.193)

The italics here mark not only the intensity of his enjoyment of the torture, but also the fact that he is addressing Goldie, the murdered prostitute whose death he is avenging (see also 1.15, 1.96). This “confusion”, which also leads him frequently to address her twin sister Wendy as if she were a still-living Goldie, is part of a wider theme of personal moral codes being falsely formed on a pseudo-religious basis. To Marv, Goldie is a ‘goddess’ (1.13) and an ‘angel of mercy’ (1.15), while his promises of vengeance in which he seeks to address her directly (as above) are coined in terms of the misappropriated religious concepts of “heaven” and “hell”, by implication drawing a distinct personal conception of “good” and “evil”: ‘when his eyes go dead the hell I send him too will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him’ (1.28). Another unique moral code manifests itself in the language, and actions of Manute, who serves the self-professedly “evil” Ava, in “A Dame to Kill for”, in terms of a similar pseudo-religious devotion (e.g., 2.170-1). This is part of a much wider theme relating to the popular misapplication of religion and religious discourse. The title and city name, Sin City, is a play-on-words (Basin City/Sin City) which suggests an arbitrary cultural link, rather than an inherent moral link, between the chosen attributive noun—“sin”—and the actual state of affairs. As above, religious discourse has filtered into popular discourse while retaining some of the original moral force of religion, which is misapplied. Similarly, the women of Old Town, who have established self-rule on the basis of a prostitution racket, have become their own moral arbiters through their separation from social authorities. As described above, this is based on a misinterpretation of the biblical and ancient legal concept of “an eye for an eye”: ‘Cops don’t come to Old Town. Not to do their jobs, anyway. We girls do our own policing. But we’re fair about it. Just like it says in the Bible. An eye for an eye’ (5.64). Yet this fairness is undermined by the nature in which justice is meted out within this private moral system, as typified by the character Miho, who, once again, exploits her vigilantism as an opportunity for violent cruelty and brutality, as when she toys with a hit-man, watched by her associate Dwight and Vito, an on-looking adversary:

Vito: “God—what’s she doing? Why’s she taking so long with him?”
Dwight: “I guess you’ve never lived with a cat, have you?”   (5.82)

She eventually kills the hit-man by half-severing, then kicking his head off—an absurd excess of violence that outweighs his crime of having threatened the lives of her comrades, a situation that was in fact devised by Miho and Dwight themselves. At the root of this moral problem is the misapplication of religion as a self-contained moral code. Gert (2005: 6) observes that ‘[o]ne of the major points of difference between morality and religion is that every feature of morality must be known to, and could be chosen by, all rational persons’, which once again draws on his distinction between “morality” and “general codes of conduct”. Religion and religious language are based on morality, but, as shown above, language is liable to misinterpretation, religious language is not available to all, and so is impossible to apply as a universal moral code, which necessarily invalidates any attempt to do so. Hence, the personal and informal moral systems which spring up as a result of the failed formal moral systems (particularly of the legal system) are undermined when they seek to justify themselves in religious terms, as they frequently do.

As in “The Hard Goodbye”, the massacre at the end of “The Big Fat Kill” is marked by an unsettling gratification: ‘The Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure hateful bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter and so am I’ (3.169). This differs in that, though vengeance motivates this delirium, it is not the principle incentive for the mass murder. Within the context of the gang warfare between the mafia and the women of Old Town there are forces more powerful than vengeance. The murders are financially motivated by the amoral external influence of the capitalist principles of the mob leader Wallenquist:

No escape. No surrender. No mercy.
We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them.
Every last one.
Not for revenge, not because they deserve it. Not because it’ll make the world a better place. There’s nothing righteous or noble about it.
We gotta kill them because we need them dead.
We need a heap of bloody bodies so when mob boss Wallenquist looks over his charts of profits and losses he’ll see what it cost him to mess with the girls of Old Town.  (3.165-6)

The first line in particular illustrates the amoral pragmatism driving this violent act. The distinction between the two modes of conduct is outlined by Wallenquist at the end of “Hell and Back”: ‘Revenge is a loser’sgame. There’s no percentage in it. All that matters is profit—and power’ (7.295). This implicit critique of capitalism also validates the general animosity shown towards hit-men, who are financially rather than morally motivated:

I love hit men. No matter what you do to them, you don’t feel bad. Fact is, the worse you do, the better it gets.  (1.59)

There’s nothing that breaks my heart faster than hearing a hit man torture himself over amoral dilemma.  (5.79)

It is the influence of this external, capitalist power that further corrupts the basic communal morality of the “losers” who seek vengeance within a social system over which money holds significant, if not absolute control.

Telotte (1989: 195) states that noir ‘tries to articulate the ways in which we are bound within a world that is both of our own making and yet already, perilously made.’ The narratives of Sin City are driven by this conflict between the social and the personal constitution of the individual which are reliant on the fundamental contingency of the individual as a discursively negotiated concept. In terms of this conflict, Foucault (1994:318) poses the following questions: ‘How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?’ I hope to show that it is by recognizing both the subjectivity of these constitutive processes and the influence of external forces thereupon, and by liberating themselves from the delineative constraints imposed by formal social systems that Miller’s “heroes” are able to operate on their own terms, problematic though these may be.

Those characters who feel morally obliged to mobilize against the corrupt Basin City authorities are required to do so on the authorities’ terms. The legal system functions so that despite its corrupt, individualized motivations, the institutions of the police and the judicial system remain sanctioned to define the subject status of any individual within their jurisdiction. This is most notably apparent in the narratives of “That Yellow Bastard” and “The Hard Goodbye” in which both Hartigan and Marv operate in direct opposition to the Rourke family, the principle controlling power behind the political, religious, law enforcement and legal systems. Within this framework of conflict, the power of the law to categorize an individual as criminal and consequently validate certain kinds of “processing” is exploited by the Rourkes as means of social self-protection. The gross imbalance of power is captured by Marv’s observation, following his murder of Cardinal Rourke: ‘I’m a monkey wrench stuck in a great big machine and I’ve caused some damage and it’ll take a good long time for the gears to grind me to powder’ (1.194), while the processes that generate this status are described by the symbolically incapacitated Hartigan:

Weeks slide into months until time has no meaning at all. The dull gray haze of post-surgery anesthesia gives way to the even more deadening process of legal this and legal that, of procedure after tired procedure, a dumb drama with an ending everybody knows before it even starts.  (4.75)

Anaesthesia is equated with legal procedure illustrating the impotence of any individual opposed to the ruling powers (Hartigan has severely disfigured Senator Rourke’s son, a notorious child molester), whose social misidentification is described as a foregone conclusion. When a corrupt policeman tries to extract a false confession, he explicitly confirms Hartigan’s non-subject status: ‘You’re done. You’re gornisch. You’re nothing. You ain’t a cop. You ain’t even a man’ (4.81). Hartigan only agrees to wrongly confess to Junior Rourke’s abusive crimes when doing so seems to suit his moral purpose. The pragmatic deep-structure of his “confession” to having abused Nancy is therefore very different from the superficial, social, discursively engendered message: he sacrifices his social identity to enable the enforcement of his personal moral code. Similarly, Marv has to come to terms with the fact that his identity and the nature of his actions will be distorted by the corrupt powers that he is opposing:

A long bad joke of a trial and a longer wait in a cell until they strap you into that chair and a million volts send you straight to hell and they’ll call you a psycho killer who got what was coming to him.
Picture it. Feel it. Get used to it. Then put it back inside where it belongs. You’ve got some people to kill. And if you do it right it won’t matter what anybody says. You’ll go to your grave a winner.  (1.151)

Here, in terms of the “them”/“me” opposition he devises, Marv reclaims moral impetus from society, favouring his personal moral convictions over the authorities’ power to misrepresent his actions and valuing the actual enactment of his moral convictions over the social recognition of their worth.

By sacrificing their social status in this way and choosing to operate outside of, or, indeed, in moralopposition to the definitive power of the law, Miller’s “heroes” are able to construe the conflict in personal terms. Therefore, the subjects and terms of the conflict are reconfigured, justifying the murder of those indirectly supporting nefarious actions—e.g., guards, the police, hit-men—as being part of the same immorally motivated organization. As Dwight observes:

It’s a great, big, wide world out there, gentlemen.
There’s all kinds of families in it.  (5.122)

In a climate of moral corruption, opposing social and moral orders are formed, either individually or collectively, to counteract the unjust imbalance of power which allows for the manipulation of the individual’s subject status by the law or powerful criminal organizations, by applying the same tactics of discursive manipulation and moral licensing to retributive attacks on powerful individuals or organizations.

Within the conflict framework described above, self-definition contradictory to the social definition of the subject is integral to all of the retributive narratives of Sin City. However, this liberation is reliant on a complex extrication of the self from latent cultural and institutional discourses. The moral considerations described earlier are complicated by Gert’s (2005: 6ff) assertion that morality is dependent on the rationality of the moral subject. While the terms of morality may be immutable and collectively understood, in Sin City they are controlled by corrupt social institutions. Likewise, the terms of rationality, the disavowal of which would disable the individual’s moral convictions, are controlled by the social institutions of medicine, psychology and by extension, the law. In Miller’s “hero” protagonists, this manifests itself as an internalized crisis of identity originating from medical and psychological discourses which posit the individual as subject and object of her/his own knowledge; the self is opened up and objectified through the pathological categorization of physical and mental phenomena by these discursively licensed institutions (Foucault, 2006; 2003). Within a noir context, these categories, as Horsley (1995: 160) describes, can be subject to a simplifying cultural delineation:

The polarised Good and Evil of the sensational thriller are commonly related to an opposition between natural and unnatural (psychopathic) violence and, even in the serious thriller, conventional imagery connoting psychological abnormality is retained to distinguish fascist violence (sadistic, brutal) from what Erich Fromm categorises as ‘benign aggression’.

In Sin City these approximations of “good” with “sane” and “bad” with “insane” are commonly internalized owing to a general acceptance of what Foucault (2006) saw as the moralistic authority of psychiatry, which replaced ‘enforced confinement with abstract, internalized methods of medical control’ (Erb, 2006: 56). This is apparent in Marv who describes himself as having a “condition” for which he is responsible, the unspecified nature of which illustrates his lack of comprehension of its constitution:

It’s my own fault and nobody else’s that I got confused. I would’ve been all right if I took my medicine when I should have.
I forgot to take my medicine.
When you’ve got a condition it’s bad to forget to take your medicine.  (1.83)

This psychiatric imposition on the way Marv relates to his own perceptions and mental processes leads him to question the reality that he is verbally reporting to us: ‘What if I imagined all this?’ (1.138). However, the veracity of his perceptions, though complicated by the narrative perspectivization through Marv’s apparently untrustworthy mental processes, is to some extent corroborated by the pictorial representation of action, which is comparatively reliable (Eisner, 1985: 122). Moreover, the pills that Marv takes to control his “condition” are said to come from ‘a shrink’ who ‘tried to analyze [him] once but got too scared’ (1.37), satirizing the psychiatric ‘medicalization of madness’ (Erb, 2006: 46; cf. Foucault, 2006) and questioning the status of Marv’s “condition”.

The culturally latent conventions of equating mental abnormality with monstrosity and animality (Foucault, 2006: 72; cf. Horsley, 1995: 160) are apparent in Marv’s continued self identification as a ‘monster’ (1.151) and as an animal or predator (1.164):

there’s no thinking and no need for it. The instincts take over, white hot, the animal in me I tried to drown in booze and bloody brawls, he’s back , he’s back and he’s howling, he’s laughing out loud, he’s crazy with the pure sweet hate of it all…  (1.70-1)

His socialized self, and socially liberated, autonomous self are construed within his narrative, through third person reference, as two separate entities. A similar identificatory phenomenon is present in Dwight’s language, particularly at the beginning of “A Dame to Kill for”, where he suffers a similar identity crisis to Marv:

I put the game on and pray it will chase away the memories. The damn Old Town memories, of drunken mornings and sweaty sex and stupid, bloody brawls.
You can’t just pick and choose. You can’t take the good without the bad.
Not once you let the monster out.  (2.13)

The sanitized social interest in sport is used to dull less socially acceptable urges, which once again are summarily dismissed as “monstrous”. As with Marv, Dwight objectifies himself in his internal monologue, but does so by addressing himself in the second person, a split in voices which is also marked graphologically by the use of italics: ‘Never give an inch. Never. Never let the monster out.

It’s Ava. Making you crazy all over again’ (2.42; see also 2.92; 3.90-4; 6.134). Dwight differs from Marv in that he is illicitly tricked into murdering an innocent man. So, while Marv, like Hartigan, achieves balance by sacrificing his subject status to the retributive mechanisms of the corrupt legal system, to do so, Dwight has to undergo plastic surgery and to alter his identity completely, effectively destroying his social self and forcing him to exist outside of society and the law. Though he isn’t put to death, the erasure of his legal subject status is equated to death: ‘That’s what I am. A dead man. And that’s how I want to stay. That’s how I have to stay’ (3.50). As Dwight isn’t specifically opposed to the corrupt legal system his moral self-justification is more complex:

Maybe once I let the monster out something bad was sure to happen, just like it always has. Maybe a killer’s a killer and I was just born that way. Maybe all you did was give me a target.
Maybe. But I’m going to go ahead and blame you anyway. I have to blame you. Hate’s the only thing keeping me going so I’m holding onto it.  (2.128)

Unlike Marv, he is unable to excuse his own monstrosity and so it endures as a form of deterministic self-critique. His continued existence is motivated only by hate and can only take place away from the formal public systems of society, where there is no place for him:

I was a fool. I thought there was a better world out there. I thought I could be a part of it.
I was wrong both times.  (1.145)

This is applicable to all of the “heroes” of Sin City, whom Miller, describes as ‘raging id[s] in a world of superegos’ (O’Donnell, 2005: 114). They don’t change the moral systems of society at the macro-level, merely challenge them at the micro-level, hence, there is no potential for social reintegration. On some level, the socially adjudged immoral subject must be destroyed.

As illustrated above and in keeping with the noir influence on the series, human communications in Sin City ‘carry a certain estranging force, one that renders all discourse precarious and every effort at human communication a risky wager against misunderstanding and alienation’ (Telotte, 1989: 30). In this final section I will look at how the comic book form and noir conventions impact on the transmission to the reader of this precarious communicative situation and what impact this has on the moral problems proposed by Miller.

Arnott (2008) discusses the effects of visual onomatopoeic sound representation in Sin City, focusing in particular on the presentation of the word “BLAM”, used to signify a gunshot, in the earlier volumes of the series. He notes that in many scenes, particularly in “The Hard Goodbye”, it is the most foregrounded element in the composition of certain frames, in some cases so much so that it protrudes from the frame—which commonly marks the limits of the reader’s vantage on a particular scene (Eisner, 1985: 38-9) —and overlaps with other frames. Moreover, he observes that through the use of shading, the word “BLAM” is given physical form (e.g., 1.62-4), which is uncommon to the other forms of sonic representation. This gives the sound of gunfire prominence over the sequential visual narrative and over the verbal narrative, i.e., internal monologue and (reported) speech. Rather than having any intrinsic meaning, the onomatopoeia employed in comics is a means of effectively providing sensory information (i.e. sound) that is otherwise impossible to communicate directly via printed media (Eisner, 1985: 18). Miller’s physical foregrounding of such relatively meaningless language challenges the status of the spoken and thought language that is communicated to the reader, but also, and more significantly, foregrounds the communicative power of violence, which in the hands of Miller’s “heroes” is more eloquent than the socially negotiated, and hence corrupted, spoken word. Within the individualized moral framework of Sin City, the pragmatic conviction of the “BLAM” of a gunshot or the “SKAK” of a boot through the windscreen of a police car is given prominence over the power to shape social meaning through language. This is even more forcefully communicated when Marv answers the question of a corrupt priest, ‘Is that corpse of a slut worth dying for?’ with three lethal gunshots, which replace the words of his inner monologue as a response (1.74). As figure one shows, the act of murder is serially encapsulated in frames composed of the repeated letters and symbols of “BLAM!”, once again illustrating the communicative power of violence, which is ironically opposed in the final frame to the corrupted and hence weakened force of religious discourse through the ironically solitary ‘Amen’.

In contrast to this violent transcendence of a corrupt social order, Fuller (2005: 16) observes a trait in the 2005 film adaptation carried over in particular from the high angle urban compositions in the comics: a visual symbolism within the framing of the scenes, a ‘relentless confining and framing—by frames within frames—[which] fruitlessly attempts to impose an Apollonian grid, or


Figure 1: 1.74.


Figure 2: Examples of techniques of obscuration.
Clockwise from top left: 2.30; 3.92; 1.135; 2.69; 4.214.

clampdown, on Sin City’s noble Dionysian underworld.’ This is complemented by the visual style, which confuses the reader/viewer’s attempts to distinguish visual elements primarily through the removal of colour, and secondarily through the high contrast which causes the images to be composed entirely of highlight and shadow, thereby juxtaposing extreme clarity with extreme obscurity, symbolically impairing the processing of whole images: the reader, like the Basin City civilian, is never privy to all available information. Figure two illustrates some of the other obscuring visual tactics used in Sin City. Extreme close-ups, obstructively angled or chaotic compositions and severe disfiguration are all used to impair the cognitive process of recognizing human forms in approximate or abstract images (McCloud, 1993: 29-33), further dehumanizing many of the images by closing the gap between the individual and her/his surroundings.

Additional interpretive conflict is generated by the combination of visual and literary functions. Borde and Chaumeton (1978: 58-9) describe ‘a total submission to literature’ in early film noir, which synthesis of visual and literary functions is reintroduced to literature by Miller. Most significantly, he retains the film noir voiceover narrative style used to convey internal monologue (Telotte, 1989: 121ff), which, when combined with external visual representation, creates a conflict between the narrative perspectivization and the gaze of the reader. Because of this duality of narration and observation, while the reader is encouraged to sympathize with the protagonists because of the outward orientation of the first person narrative perspective—a narrative strategy for which Miller is indebted to Raymond Chandler (Fuller, 2005: 14; MacDonald, 2005: 42; see also Telotte, 1989: 6-7) —the reader’s gaze is always external to the protagonist, which arguably encourages a more objective disassociation from the protagonist. This is complicated further by what McCloud (1993: 66) refers to as ‘human imagination in the gutter’ or ‘closure’. The “gutter” refers to the space or division between two frames, while “closure” refers to the cognitive process whereby the reader supplies, by inference, supplementary information to make sense of a partially represented image or frozen action. Through this process, the reader becomes imaginatively complicit in the brutal acts of violence that are committed in the comic. As McCloud (1993: 68-9) asserts, ‘to kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths’; each reader is a different kind of killer. Through these formal and generic features, the reader is simultaneously aligned with and distanced from Miller’s protagonists, involved in and withdrawn from the violence and brutality that are wielded in the name of morality.

As Horsley (2010: 137) states, ‘[instead] of terminating in satisfying narrative closure, [noir narratives] demonstrate the folly of thinking there could be any easy solution’. In Sin City, this lack of resolution stems from the complexity of the moral situation, which in turn is generated in part by the extreme nature of Miller’s appropriation of noir conventions. The realism that Chandler (1972) identifies with hard boiled fiction is disconnected from its historical context by Miller, almost to the point of parody. The conflict between the individual and society is blown up into out and out warfare and there is pervasive conservatism and fetishization of women (worthy of in-depth study in themselves), all of which further ironize any attempt to draw any satisfactory moral conclusion. Though most of the narratives are constructed in terms of an opposition between self-sacrifice and personal gain, as shown above, many of the tactics involved in these self-sacrifices pose morally irresolvable problems. Miller (Milo, 2003: 71, quoted in Jones, 2007: 19) has said that ‘I try to define a hero by the test he goes through’. Hence we are led to judge his “heroes” in relativistic terms on the basis of the absurd circumstances in which they find themselves, rather than judging them deterministically on the basis of pre-existing character flaws or in conventional moral terms, which are pre-emptively invalidated by the almost absolute corruption of Basin City society. The narratives are therefore driven by the irony that in the invented environment of Basin City there can be no satisfactory moral resolution. This conclusion which is borne out by the only formally comic resolution of the series, in “Hell and Back”, where the hero and heroine’s flight from Basin City illustrates that a world of ‘all sorts of things’ other than violence and depravity exist outside of its borders:

That rotten town. Those it can’t corrupt, it soils.
Those it can’t soil, it kills.
That rotten town. Miles behind us now. Fading into memory.
A Bright day dawns.
We talk about all sorts of things.  (7.296)

But for those who remain trapped inside, ‘the game is rigged’ (4.217).

Copyright © 2010 Richard Finn


Primary textual references are given as volume, then page number, based on the 2005 Dark Horse serialization.


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Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Miller, F. (1994) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 2: A Dame to Kill For, London: Titan Books.
Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 3: The Big Fat Kill, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 4: That Yellow Bastard, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 5: Family Values, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 6: Booze, Broads and Bullets, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Miller, F. (2005) Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 7: Hell and Back, 2nd edition, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Milo, G. (2003) (ed.) Frank Miller: the Interviews, 1981-2003, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books.
O’Donnell, K. (2005) ‘Interview’, in Rolling Stone, 25/8/2005.
Telotte, J.P. (1989) Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
USA Today (2005) ‘Seven Potentially Deadly Sins’ in USA Today, 1/4/2005.


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Crimeculture was created in 2002 by Lee Horsley and Kate Horsley. Our online magazine features reviews of film and fiction and interviews with writers as well as essays on crime fiction, crime films and representations of criminality. The site receives well over 5 million hits a year from all over the world. Our current series, Pulp Nostalgia delves into writers' childhood memories and their favourite books, films and bad girls.

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