Cover to Cover: The Palimpsestic Identity of Sin City

We’ve all heard it before- there are no new stories, just new storytellers. While people may buy into this theory, seeing only familiar plotlines, tired characters and repetitious outcomes, many times it is in the retelling of a familiar text that innovative styles and new diegetic constructions are born. Raymond Chandler once said that a good fiction “cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”[1] And what is a distillation but a condensation or a purified form of something? Keeping Chandler’s argument in mind, we will explore the various and sundry ways by which stories travel.

Raymond Chandler

In the worlds of literature (which includes comic books), and film, a certain story or media item may bounce back and forth and back again. While we have recognized that there is the distinct possibility that all stories may be within the category of “already told,” the process of distillation and retelling catalyzes a new product that carries with it characteristics and features exclusive to that telling. One could almost say that these are simply new blankets out of old wool.

In his work Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative, Will Eisner explores the differences between film and comic books. He states that there is a “substantial and underlying difference,” between the two art forms, most notably in the way in which each separate text is consumed. Films, he says, are a non-participatory art form, while comics leave the reader “free to roam, to peek at the ending, or dwell on the image and fantasize.”[2] While Eisner’s definition of cinema spectatorship can be problematic, his conception of the active and participatory comic book reader is useful as far as comparing the different texts of Sin City . Within comic books, the reader must decide for him/herself how they are to interpret the visual representations of a car slamming its brakes, or a word balloon with the word “BAM!” in the center of it. Aural interpretation in film is not quite one of those aspects up for discussion. Brakes sound like brakes, and thunder sounds just like, well, thunder! The disparity between these two audience interpretations does seem to follow the idea that, as far as sound is concerned, there is more creativity and freedom within a literary text.

These differences in audience participation can also be applied to ideas of motion. To state the obvious, in the cinematic text, motion is the defining feature. Unlike painting, sculpture, or literature, it is this series of moving images that sets the cinema apart from all other art forms. Ricciotto Canudo wrote that movement in film “possesses the potential for a great series of combinations, of interlocking activities, combining to create a spectacle that is a series of visions and images tied together in a vibrant agglomeration, similar to a living organism.”[3] As a living organism, the function of each separate part is not as dynamic as the execution of the whole. While comic books work on a similar principle, Eisner’s idea of the “trapped spectator” of the cinema is applicable here. The time function of film, an aspect that has no bearing in the world of comics, does not allow for the luxury of individual image evaluation. One must experience all the images at once, sequentially and within the allotted cinema time, before any interpretation may take place. Tragically, this can be seen as Sin City’s undoing, as far as a successful interpretation of a comic is concerned. While the film may trump many other comic book films in its ability to faithfully take original imagery and project it cinematically, it also loses something in that process, due to the way that the audience is able to interact with the material. Long story short, there will always be a difference between the book and the film.

So what happens when a comic book, a forum meant for uninhibited and participatory readership, is put into cinematic form? What occurs when the boundaries are set? In the DVD commentary track for Sin City, Robert Rodriguez states that his selling point to Miller was the ability to translate the comics through new technological advances. Rodriguez states that he felt that the Sin City comic text was so similar to cinema, that, through the use of green screen technology, they would, in effect, be drawing the comic book cinematically. Essentially, all they needed to do was translate the comic book panels, and paint them onto the film, using a digital camera as a brush.[4] By doing this, the comic book was literally translated. But only visually. Eisner reminds us that there is more to comics than just the visuals. On the other hand, the painting that was created by Miller and Rodriguez was a crucial one to the development and future of comic book cinema.

It is worth noting that the key word that both Miller and Rodriguez use within the DVD commentary track is, in fact, translation.  The use of new media technology (few sets were built for this film, it was all done through computers and “green screen” use) and meticulously faithful visual replication done in conjunction with the artist/writer of the originating literary text, makes this film the closest visual representation of a comic book that Hollywood has ever produced. It is completely possible to read along with the graphic novel (one of which is conveniently included with the Director’s Cut DVD…can we say synergy, boys and girls?), and match panel to screen, with just about every shot. I know. I’ve done it.  Sin City, the film, looks EXACTLY like the comic book. As Nick Nunziata write, “Sin City isn’t a movie, it’s a pulp Frankenstein, black and white pages of comic book paper strapped to a gurney and electrocuted into pulsing life by the lightning of Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself…It isn’t an adaptation but a physical manifestation of the comic.”[5]

While Nunziata also states that what worked within the confines of a comic book doesn’t necessarily work within the moving picture format; the one thing that cannot be denied is the appropriateness of Sin City as a translational text. Born out of the melding of a multiplicity of different media forms and genres, it is only fitting that it be re-presented in the context of a melding of forms. It is Sin City’s nature, for better or for worse.

Out of the Past: Sin City’s Historical Precedent

Really, it all makes perfect sense. Sin City is a translation in and of itself. Frank Miller, a seasoned comic book professional, knowing full well what he was doing, decided to take on the film noir genre directly with Sin City. Why not? He had already been doing it in one form or another for years. He had spent time with Batman, in the seminal Dark Knight Returns, a character who can best be described in the way that Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton describe the private detective in noir films: “midway between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink, sometimes unscrupulous…fulfilling the requirements of his own code and of the genre as well.”[6] Before Dark Knight, Miller’s work with Daredevil had also proven his ability to create the ideal noir protagonist, as Matt Murdock (similar in many ways to Batman) was a “brooding, isolated individual…a deeply tortured soul, torn apart by his own internal contradictions as a lawyer and an extralegal vigilante.”[7] In other words, Miller had had enough practice. With the comic book Sin City, there was no pretense. He was not going to mask his love of pulp fiction under the guise of superhero comic, nor was he going to cater to traditional comic book visuals. He was ready to walk (or draw, in this case) down the famed “mean streets” that Raymond Chandler wrote of.

So he did. But to be perfectly frank (pun intended), as a comic book, Sin City not only broke ground in the way it was written and drawn, but also in that it was a translative experiment that went horribly, horribly right. If Miller had just wanted to take pulp fiction and make it into a comic book, he could have done just that. If he had just wanted to put film noir into comic form, he could have done that alone, too. However, what Miller did, was to breed the two texts into a third. Why not have your cake and eat it too? It is part of the magic of the comic book medium, after all. Sin City is a visual-literary work that combines all of the rough and terse dialogic properties of a Mickey Spillane novel with the existential angst of film noir characterization. Within the comic text, Miller manages to deftly mate the “hard-boiled” James M. Cain-style violence with the German Expressionist visual tendencies innate to film noir. This hybridic work translates the two artistically different forms into one. Is it a coincidence that this melding of forms mirrors a period in time where a series of films sought to translate gritty crime fiction and post-war anxiety into a highly stylized media format? I think not.

Visually, the comic book of Sin City kept the same cinematography through drawings that film noir had through a camera. Each panel has “constant opposition of areas of light and dark,” and the reader constantly bears witness to the bars of shadow that visually slice bodies up, and create “jail bars” for the characters. Additionally, as Janey Place and Lowell Peterson have noted about noir lighting, these small, tight areas of light, and the overwhelming spaces of black  serve to create a “closed universe, with each character seen as just another facet of an unheeding environment that will exist unchanged long after his death; and the interaction between man and the forces represented by [the] noir environment [are] always clearly visible.”[8] As Miller very clearly understood, the format and structure of sequential art, the panels themselves, can be used to emphasize the sense of claustrophobia and confinement that film cameras and lighting crews worked diligently to achieve.

The most salient example of Sin City’s relation to the crime fiction and film noir worlds can be found within the very inhabitants of Sin City, itself. Almost every character in the diegesis is a crime fiction/noir archetype. The character of Marv literally depicts the figure that Robert G. Porfirio has called the “Non-Heroic Hero.” Marv is a man whose world is “devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero. He has been wrenched from familiar moorings, and is a hero only in the modern sense in which that word has been progressively redefined to fit the existential bias of contemporary fiction.”[9] Marv’s inclusion in this filmic category is evidenced by the remark made by Dwight, in A Dame to Kill For. His narration states, quite simply:

Most people think Marv is crazy, but I don’t believe that…There’s nothing wrong with Marv, nothing at all—Except that he had the rotten luck of being born at the wrong time in history. He’d have been okay if he’d been born a couple of thousand years ago. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield, swinging an ax into someone’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking a sword to other gladiators like him. They’d have tossed him girls like Nancy back then.[10]

In addition to his “anti-hero” status, Marv also falls into the category of unreliable narrator, not unlike those described and written about in great detail by crime fiction writers like Jim Thompson, or those that figure prominently in films noir like Detour or In a Lonely Place. As defined by Philip Hobsbaum, the unreliable narrator “may be identified as one whose vision is disturbed…The unreliable narrator may not be insane, but he may, if we take the text as ‘centre’, be eccentric. The unreliable narrator tends to be embittered (rather than disillusioned); paranoid (rather than wary); inexperienced (rather than innocent); self-absorbed (rather than self- aware).”[11] In The Hard Goodbye, the first book in the Sin City series, Marv is searching for the person who killed Goldie, a woman he was enamored of. While driving along, he thinks he sees Goldie, and thinks to himself,

That wasn’t Goldie back there. I let myself get confused again. It’s okay when I smell things that aren’t there or even when I hear things. But it’s pretty serious when I see things…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 your medicine.[12]

This excerpt, exposing his dependence on pills for coherence, and his off-hand admission of hearing voices/smelling things on a more than frequent basis establishes his position within both Frank Miller’s work as well as the noir world at large. Marv’s unreliable narrator and anti-hero status help to emphasize Sin City’s position as a new text that actually really is based “out of the past.”

Sin City as Palimpsest

Literally, a palimpsest is defined as a “manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.”[13] Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City is nothing short of a cinematic palimpsest. From the original papyrus of hard-boiled fiction to the films in the 1940’s and ‘50s known as film noir to the most recent cinematic amendment in 2005, Sin City meticulously wends its way around all of these culturally significant texts, emerging as a multilayered work, containing not only the original “writings” but each subsequent “rewrite.”

Distinctive and dynamic, the gestation of this film is nothing short of organic. While it erupted onto the silver screen in 2005, its birth was the culmination and third stage of a very involved process. It can be argued that Sin City symbolizes the final step in the staircase of literary and cinematic crime fiction. The first rung on the ladder towards what Troy Brownfield refers to as the “noir movement,”[14] is the literary stage. This refers to the pulp fiction and detective novels that very heavily influenced Frank Miller’s work. These short stories and novels created a literary category that served as the foundation for the cinematic genre known as film noir.

As has been established by countless film academics, this literary tradition of crime fiction catapulted film noir into existence. Whether it was through film adaptations of books like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, or by the filmic participation of individuals whose identity was pre-established in the literary crime-fiction world, it is an undeniable fact that without these writings, the cinematic landscape of film noir would not have been fully realized. Through this second stage, the transition from book to film, the noir literary canon helped to establish a singular narrative style and technique of describing this dark world and its inhabitants. The effects of this can be seen not only in the dialogue of the films, but also in the plot structure and character dynamics.

This step pushes us forward onto the next stage in the process: re-membering and re-visualizing the literary and filmic products. Already a recombinant product, film noir was reunited with its bookish origins in 1995, when Frank Miller began his run of Sin City. Frank Miller, an avid fan of film noir and its lineage, took the literature and films and sewed them into a comic book text, maintaining and reaffirming the stylistic and thematic properties of both. As Brownfield aptly observes, “There is influence. Influence and tradition. Sin City swims in influence and tradition and Frank Miller knows it. His collection of mini-series and short stories are a modern monument to the hard-boiled school and film noir.”[15]

Leafing through the comic, one is exposed to literally dozens of references to the books and movies that made up this “movement.” Sometimes blatant, but always respectful, the film of Sin City displays its ancestry from the very beginning. The first scene in the film, taken from a short story that Frank Miller wrote entitled “The Customer is Always Right,” is a direct nod at Billy Wilder’s film, Double Indemnity (which itself was an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel of the same name). As the film opens, we watch as a man and a woman stand on a balcony, blanketed in standard noir climate: darkest night and steady rain. The scene, complete with voice-over, matches the visuals and the dialogue in the comic, perfectly. The couple “tenderly embrace, and, as they do, he shoots her in the stomach. This reenacts the fatal embrace between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray near the close of Double Indemnity.”[16] Opening the film in this manner introduces the viewer to the process by which Sin City, as a film, came into being. While the multi-textual references in this opening scene may not have been caught by the vast majority of the audience (tragically, not many folks out there do a whole lot of time with the work of Wilder or Cain), this scene graphically and contextually underscored the evolution of Sin City, both as homage and as palimpsest. By calling forth James M. Cain and Billy Wilder in one fell swoop, this scene shows us how Miller and Rodriguez intentionally reworked and involved the literary and film noir genres within the boundaries of new story structures.

As Frank Miller stated in an interview with the Comics Journal in 1998, working with established generic formulas should not be dismissed as a kind of “pandering. I believe that genre is a structure that one can work within.”[17] Using genre as his tool of choice, Miller constructed a world in which the written word as well as the highly stylized visual form held sway. In the previous incarnations of crime novels and films, this bifurcated power structure was not at all present. Miller’s comic rewrote the past, putting a new “skin” over these previous manuscripts. It was scarcely a hop, skip and a jump to the final stage in the process: the cinematic translation of the comic book text.

Frank Miller makes the statement that “[Sin City’s] springboard is film noir. There’s nothing nostalgic about Sin City, it does use echoes of old movies and old books but it uses them in new ways and I think that the result in this film is quite startling…very fresh…it does not reassure the audience…our hero does not end up being applauded by everyone in the room or getting a medal.”[18] In the final stage of comic to film, we can see this unusual history literally illustrated. From literary to film genre, from comic book series translated to film, there is a level of refraction that occurs in this process that establishes Sin City’s identity as a text that has experienced multiple inscriptions, all the while never erasing the remnants of that which came before.


[1] Chandler, Raymond. Letter, March 7, 1947. Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962). The Columbia World of Quotations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. www.bartleby.com/66/. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

[2] Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 1996.

[3] Canudo, Ricciotto. “The Birth of a Sixth Art.” Quoted in Cinemas of the Mind: A Critical History of Film Theory. Ed. Nicholas Tredell. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd., 2002.

[4] Rodriguez, Robert quoted in Sin City. Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.  Feature Commentary with Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson. 2005. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005.

[5] Nunziata, Nick. “Review: Frank Miller’s Sin City.” CHUD.com- Cinematic Happenings Under Development. http://chud.com/index.php?type=reviews&id=2099 (accessed June 28, 2006)

[6] Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

[7] Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[8] Place, Janey and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[9] Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[10] Miller, Frank. A Dame to Kill For: A Tale From Sin City. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 1995.

[11] Hobsbaum, Philip. “Unreliable Narrators: Poor Things and its Paradigms.” STELLA: Software for Teaching English Language and Literature andIts Assessment. http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLl/STELLA/COMET/glasgrev/issue3/hobs.htm (accessed on July 3, 2006)

[12] Miller, Frank. Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 1991.

[14] Brownfield, Troy. “Sin City’s Family Tradition.”  Newsarama. http://www.newsarama.com/movies/SinCity/SinCityAnalysis.html (accessed on June 28, 2006).

[15] Brownfield, ibid.

[16] McCartney, George. “Sin City.” Chronicles Magazine. http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/cgi-bin/movies.cgi (accessed on June 27, 2006).

[17] Groth, Gary. “Interview with Frank Miller.” The Comics Journal Library-Frank Miller-The Interviews:1981-2003. Seattle: Fantagrahics Books, 2003.


[1] McCloud, ibid.

[2] Eisner, ibid.



[1] McCloud, Scott. Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1993.

[2] Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 1996.


[1] Sin City. Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.  Special Features: “How It Went Down.” Perf. Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson. 2005. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005.


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3 Comments

  1. [...] Schudson at Sinamatic Salve-ation comes back with just…one…more on Sin City the way stories travel. Saturday, February [...]

  2. This is a really amazing essay. Thank you so much for putting the work into this.

    Sin City (the film) is very nearly “hyper-noir;” practically everything Miller touches is “hyper” something but by translating Sin City from comic (where Expressionist exaggeration and hyperbolic machismo have become more or less mainstreamed since Miller redefined everything in the 1980s) to film, he and Rodriguez brought the hyperreality of comics expression to the movies.

    They weren’t the first, obviously, but when you think of the Zack Snyder types currently working, the Crank series, and the epidemic of big studio genre mash-ups (Lincoln fights vampires! Sci-fi action Western!) as summer tentpoles, you can sense it all leading back (more or less) to other pop cultural revolutions like Miller’s work in comics.

    It’s both exhilarating and a bit disheartening to think of Sin City coming to define “film noir” for a generation of young film-goers. I know from my experience in school that a significant portion of kids who look at Sin City or Pulp Fiction as examples of noir and then go back to The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity are at least a little disappointed by their comparative insipidness. Although I love Sin City and other hyperreal genre forms, because they’re not moored to actual historical or cultural referents, it’s easy to get lost in the tide of 60+ years of pop/pulp reverberations.

  3. I agree with you fully on all points. I think of Zack Snyder as the guy who essentially spays/neuters all the pieces that he tries to adapt. It upsets me. Sin City as a comic has so much history there. The Double Indemnity bit is just one of many. It didn’t work for many people on the screen because it worked so well as a comic and the great irony was that the comic was based upon screen texts AND literary texts. Oh culture! I feel that the hyper-ness is definitely present, but the homage is there too. There are so many other factors leading towards the kids not being able to see that the older films, while perhaps less bloody, are actually a great deal more disturbing & violent!!


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