Sin city: The Hard Goodbye is one of the worst comics I have had the displeasure of reading ever. It is a perfect example of how not to write noire and just about everything wrong with bad noire. Its only redeeming quality is the excellent artwork, which is not nearly enough to save this horrid work. The most surprising thing about this work is not the fact that Miller had the audacity to write such a tasteless work or that anyone would publish this story and adapt it into movie; no the most surprising thing about this work is that someone actual read and enjoyed it (I got my copy used). I had planned on reviewing this work much earlier than now, but actually had to stop and start reading it multiple times before finishing it due to how unpleasant and unrewarding it was to read. This comic clearly shows that originality doesn’t necessarily translate to a good story, and what happens when a noire work lacks a sense of humanity.
The only quality that can be praised is the artwork, which is not enough to redeem this work despite its quality. For the type of story this is the artwork is fantastic. The dark almost etching like style of the art perfectly portrays the light and shadow, and helped to really characterize the insane and grim lead Marv. The use of paneling and angles also makes this work very cinematic and it is isn’t surprising compositionally that it adapted well into a film. The stark black and white esthetic even works thematically as the work is very clear cut in morals, and tries its best (which sadly isn’t very hard) to convince you of Marv’s heroism and the villains evil. The art would have been much more effective for me though if it were conveying a much more meaningful and less offensive work. None the less the art is the only part of this book that left a positive impression on me.
It is hard to know where to begin with what is wrong with the story. There are so many basic problems with the characterization, and story themes that it is difficult to know where to start. The Hard Goodbye is basically the story of psychotic man who is framed for the murder of prostitute by another psychopath and is out for violent revenge. Marv wakes up to find the hooker Goldie (yes I’m totally serious this is supposedly her real name) he was sleeping with night before has been murdered. They collapsed the night before after drunkenly making love to one another and she was murdered with the police in on the set up plan. After escaping from the police dramatically Marv begins a bloody rampage in search of her killer, all while spouting some of the worst noire dialogue ever to be published and to proclaim his love for his her (despite having known her for less than a day).
Even in bad works normally I can at least pinpoint only a few problems thematically, this is sadly not the case with Sin City. This story is filled with troubling elements including being distinctly masochistic, glorifying violence and justifying murder, and treating women like sex objects. To start off with all most of female characters save for Marv’s elderly mother appear as prostitutes, with the only acceptation to this rule being lesbian parole office who is still highly sexualized, often appears nude, and is referred to by Marv using an insulting slurs and is eventually brutally murdered. Not one of these female characters really are empowered within story, and often when they even begin to show authority they are killed or shown to be powerless. The other aspect of this work thematically that is so appalling is how it glorifies violence and the use of revenge as a solution.
Worst of all though is that this work is a purely unpleasant to read with a lack of any sense of remorse, and is unquestioning and unjustified in its constant assault of tasteless cruelty. I got no sense of humanity from this work, nor the sense of mystery normally found in a noire works. Without this sense of any human emotion and taste, reading this work was extreme difficult. I often found myself wanting to put down the book and find something to distract myself from how unpleasant the story was. The violence was unpleasant and felt unjustified, and as a result the conclusion which could have been alarming never felt earned. Thematically this book did succeed I guess only in the fact that it was shocking, other than that I felt this graphic novel was appallingly bad thematically.
The characterization for The Hard Goodbye is just like the story aspects, horrendous. The only real character really worth speaking about much is Marv, with the rest of the cast mostly consisting of nameless police officers, ugly looking killers, or female bombshells. Marv is depicted as an unpleasant psychopath whose motivation is killing off a “bad,” psychopath as revenge, all while narrating in an over top noire style dialogue. This dialogue is such a poor imitation of Chandler dialogue that it is comical bad (the only funny thing about this distinctly painful read).
To explore why Marv is such a poor character where other similar psychotic characters are so much more successful, I feel it is good to compare him to other characters of this type such as Allan Moore’s antihero/vigilantly Rorschach. The character Rorschach faces many similar situations to Marv and it is that these situations and his character influenced this work a great deal, but he reacts to these situations in very different from Marv. Rorschach also has a number attributes that make him a much more effective character then Marv, other than the fact that I feel that his dialogue and narration are far better written.
First off the role played by Rorschach in Watchmen is not that of hero, but of a character sadly unable to come to terms with a black and white moralistic world view (he even states “Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”), to work or relate with others who are trying to help him, or to overcome his hero persona. Unlike Marv who escapes his police set up dramatically reflected an escape from a physical and mental fate, Rorschach is captured by his persona and his actions are meant to be seen as disturbing and morally questionable. In Miller’s comic, however you are never supposed to question that Marv is supposed to be depicted as insane rebellious hero (the exact thing Watchmen was criticizing and questioning) who the reader is supposed to at least sympathize with regardless of how gruesome and violence his actions are.
Another aspect that Rorschach and other successful insane characters have that Marv lacks is a sense of some sort of humanity or remorse. With Rorschach we are able to see how troubled his past is and how he developed his madness. While the scene where he recounts facing a murdering rapist with hungry dogs is one of anger, it is portrayed in Watchmen as horrific one with real and shocking mental consequences. In Sin City while a similar encounter to this with prostitute cannibal is portrayed as shocking and gruesome, it is used as a justifier for Merv’s acts of cruelty rather than as a way of explaining his insanity or exploring his past. This scene thus lacked power or the same sense of horror when compared to Watchmen scene, because Merv has already at this point brutally tortured and murdered a number of men without remorse. A third great example of the difference between a character like Rorschach and Merv is the way that approach violence. While both characters use violence remorselessly and kill, Merv takes a sadistic pleasure from killing, while to Rorschach violence is unpleasant but necessary part of being an effective hero and is never gleefully exalting in it.
The most telling difference between the two characters, however is that Rorschach despite his madness and efforts clearly has the sense of humanity. Rorschach shows this as he apologizes to Daniel his ex-partner, refuses to harm his landlady despite her lies about him when he is arrested, tries warning his old teammates when he suspects someone is targeting masked heroes, and pleads at the ending of Watchmen for his own demise. Marv is never portrayed to really have a shred of human compassion which is clearly illustrated in the way the ending of The Hard Goodbye is presented. While the two characters do have a parallel it is clear when comparing the two how little Miller knew or at least cared why a character like Rorschach was successful or existed in Watchmen. Miller instead tries to present his main character as an cool anti-hero who lacks human compassion and revels in committing violence against those more scummy then him, rather than a much more interesting, realistic and complex tragic figure. As a result I found Merv to be an unconvincing, flat and unpleasant lead character lead more by Millers selfish personal politics and simplistic moral code then by any sort of logic.
Other than the artwork this work presented me with nothing of appeal. The story is unbelievably crude and offensive, and the lead character is entirely disturbing, dislikable and unsympathetic. I fail to see why it is anyone loves this book, and personally it stands as a testament to me of how not to write a comic or a noire piece. It is clear that Miller uses this work as a platform for his own inner rage and moral agenda of vendetta. Instead of rising to the challenge of creating a thought provoking complex work or drawing and improving upon his influences such as Watchmen, Miller instead does the exact opposite and leeches the humanity out of them. As a result Miller’s personal deviance goes unchecked in this comic resulting in a grim, offensive, cliché and unpleasant mess of a work that gives no valid reason for its content. This work more clearly resembles Miller’s more recent streak of tastelessness found in works like Holy Terror then any of his earlier more enjoyable and overseen works such as his run on Daredevil or Batman Year One. While the art is excellent, this is a comic definitely better left unread.