Kicking Ass and Taking Names: Violent Females and Comic Book Film Adaptations

Chloe Moretz as superheroine Hit-Girl in the recent Matthew Vaughn film of Mark Millar's comic book, Kick-Ass

For Roger Ebert, there is something deeply disturbing about watching a young girl engage in a violent action film. His review of the film Kick-Ass says so repeatedly. However, it seems that if she were to be engaged in a highly sexualized role, things might change a bit. It might be a different story. To me, there is something bizarre and almost Laura Mulvey-esque about the fact that he seems critically “okay” with seeing young women put in positions of sexual submission and yet bursts out with fire and brimstone tirades upon seeing a female action hero of the same general age.

For a man who has championed such highly controversial films as Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), two films that center at least partially around extremely young women playing roles that are severely inappropriate for their Real Life ages, it seems raucously hypocritical for Ebert to label a film as “morally reprehensible” based primarily upon the fact that a young girl within the film is involved in countless acts of violence, both visited upon her and acted out by her.

Jodie Foster as street-wise hooker Iris in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)

Brooke Shields as prostitute-in-training Violet in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby

I contend that Ebert’s knee-jerk reaction to Kick-Ass comes primarily from a gender-based locale (although I will concede that age is certainly a factor), and that, while he may have taken the heavy violence in the film to task, he might not have had this kind of untamed response had the most charismatic and powerful figure in the film not been an 11-year-old girl.

To be perfectly honest, I take no issue with his enjoyment of the aforementioned films. They are, indeed, good films. However, based upon his Kick-Ass review that seemed more like an eruption than a piece of cinematic criticism, I have to wonder: what is it exactly about the representation of Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl that nearly causes an aneurysm while Jodie Foster’s Iris remains safely within the boundaries of acceptability?

At first, I bought Ebert’s “unholy amounts of violence” argument. Kick-Ass is, indeed, insanely graphic. While the comic is moreso, the film is definitely beyond the pale, even if it is done within a very “comic book-like” manner. But then I realized something: Taxi Driver is an incredibly violent film. And it was especially violent for its time! And in 1976, Ebert called this film a “brilliant nightmare” and “compelling.”[1] So, Rog, what’s the deal, dude? What’s up with the double standard?

Using Laura Mulvey’s seminal text, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and giving a brief study to ideas of scopophilia and feminist film theory’s discussion of the representation of women in film, we can, perhaps, see why the primary figure in Kick-Ass becomes so problematic for Ebert and several other major critics of the film. Regardless of her age or her uncouth tongue, she is not a figure who can be controlled. I believe that raises some issues for people in a way that no female superhero has ever really done before. These individuals chose to circumvent the more pro-active and narratively positive aspects of the Hit-Girl character in favor of pursuing the negatively charged arenas in which she dwelled. I won’t deny that Hit-Girl is a difficult character to come to terms with. She repudiates every single “sugar and spice and everything nice” argument that you could ever make for what little girls are “made of” and interprets femininity as tough-as-nails-independence. This certainly removes her from “object-to-be-looked-at” territory and places her firmly within the realm of “subject-that-acts-out” territory. And what the hell could be scarier than THAT?

Hit-Girl: Fear of a (Female) Pre-Pubescent Planet

Laura Mulvey writes,

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.[2]

Within the world of the superhero film, Mulvey’s discussion is extremely potent. If one were to do a visual archive of all the female figures within all the superhero films, it would be virtually impossible to locate a character who is not working within the spectrum of eroticism, male fantasy and “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

Like Superman can’t hang with the kryptonite and Batman has more psychological issues than a room full of PTSD patients, it is a well-known fact that, within superhero comic book culture, women have been consistently coded for the male gaze. Like the film industry, men have consistently been the main creators of the product so it is not a shocker that they draw and write what they want to see. Who wouldn’t? Additionally, the superhero-comic-reading-population has always been primarily male so the audience simply reflects the creators. We can clearly see the line of logic from production to consumption of women-as-object. While the female characters in these books seemed to be forces to be reckoned with, they were always coded for “erotic impact” first and character integrity second, thus diluting the power and impact of the given character. OK, so the male superheroes and villains are not reasonable representations of the average male either, but they are posited in such a way that they retain all power and are seen as Powerful Figures first and attractive/sexually charged second.

But things change. And sometimes when they change, they change drastically. I believe that in the case of Kick-Ass, this is precisely what happened.

Three covers for the original comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.

Three different poster designs for the Matthew Vaughn-directed film

Kick-Ass, the comic book is an entirely different monster than Kick-Ass, the motion picture. While I am certain that it would make Mr. Ebert and his supporters cringe at the thought, the comic book is actually a great deal more violent and delves even further into the realms of misanthropy than the film ever does. At the same time, the narrative scope of the comic travels squarely within a space that all of the characters share equally. It is a space that, incidentally, is more about adolescence, growing up and questioning ideas of violence and modern media culture than anything else.

The problem is that Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s literary Kick-Ass is not Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Just as in any cinematic adaptation from a literary work, there are changes made.  Pieces are added or detracted, transitional elements reworked and most times there are major conciliations made in regards to the character or thrust of the film’s focus in comparison to the originating text. The filmed version of the comic book, while attempting to bring as much of the written/drawn version to the screen as possible, did not do so because of one simple rule: the comic book was the literary version and belonged to Millar/Romita, Jr, et al; the movie was the filmed version and therefore a product of its authors.

Most of the general public operates under the assumption that “the book is better than the movie.” Primarily, the genesis of this comes from the fact that film has always been seen as literature’s poor and trashy cousin; a media form less worthy of cultural esteem. It has been this way since its birth. Thus, when people argue about the book being better, it generally comes mostly out of sociological training and not necessarily from actual personal experience with the literary text. The problem is, we are not instructed on how to appreciate these media forms on their own merits, thus they must be held up against each other. So, when one is adapted from another’s narrative, it is only natural that the “book is better” argument gets raised. While this aphorism is used often, it is also overused, tired, and extremely lazy. Each media is created and consumed through individual means and while they may share a story and even themes, it is much wiser to appreciate each piece upon its own value and not use the parent text as a jumping off place for criticism.

Millar’s Kick-Ass world will not be the bulk of what is discussed here, due to the fact that the things that he involved were of another ilk. From my perspective, even Vaughn’s Kick-Ass was a little bit hijacked by some of his actors. But I believe that once he saw what was happening, he went with it, and decided to amp it up a little, making it the picture we see today. I also believe that while Millar’s work was a total collaboration between himself, John Romita, Jr (artist), Tom Palmer (inker), and Dean White (colorist), Matthew Vaughn’s film was also communally created by him, co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, and the entirety of the cast but primarily Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass) and Chloe Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl). This “hijacking” as it were became more pronounced when it became clear that not only was the film seized from going the direction in which it was “supposed to go,” but through this accident of fate it essentially laid the focus of the film cleanly between the crosshairs of Chloe Moretz’s 11-year-old superheroine, Hit-Girl.

Millar & Company's Hit-Girl versus the cinematic equivalent. Clearly there were some...alterations.

I say “accidental” due to the fact that the story is, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be equally shared between several characters and the central figure (and voice-over narrator), Kick-Ass aka Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). However, it becomes stridently clear at a certain juncture within the film that this is really Hit Girl’s show and Kick-Ass is simply her foil. That said, having this be her film, it takes this piece to a whole different level and what was a simple film about a high-school loser trying to be a superhero and the trials and tribulations that occur in a somewhat Bizarro World-type set-up has now become one of the first films to feature a strong female superhero going about the business in a particularly hardcore manner, without being displayed with any sense of real eroticism.

Hit-Girl is, in fact, a cinematic disruption. She is, pure and simple, the antidote to the scopophilic gaze which Mulvey discusses in her article. While she may be on display, it is for no other reason than to reconfigure a kind of new type of feminine power structure. This interruption in the traditionally pleasured male-gaze is anarchic and insanely potent, causing the more-than-slight discomfort of Roger Ebert and numerous other critics.

Mulvey writes,

[t]he cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are instances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure at being looked at…the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect. The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form.[3]

If the audience finds pleasure in looking at Hit-Girl, one would hope it is not for her “form.” She is not rendered sexually attractive, she is posited in the manner that one would hope an 11-year-old girl would be: generally child-like. When out of costume, she has pigtails, scrunches her face up at things she dislikes, and talks about being rewarded with bowling and ice-cream sundaes for succeeding in tasks well-done.

Does it matter that those tasks involve wearing bulletproof vests and being shot with high-level guns? Maybe, maybe not. The basic idea is still there: she’s a kid.

Out of uniform, Mindy Macready looks average and amiable. However, the mask goes on and...buh-bye bad guys!

Can we say the same about Iris in Taxi Driver? Not so much. Nor can we dispense with the fact that Violet in Pretty Baby is still in for a life of prostitution, even as we watch her engage in childlike behavior. And as for the countless superheroines in the cinema…well, I believe that the casting of Malin Akerman, an actress in her late 20’s/early 30’s, to play a middle-aged retired superhero in Zack Snyder’s version of Watchmen(2009) tells you all you need to know (if her exceedingly tight and sexy latex outfits didn’t).

Cinematic interpretation of the Silk Spectre. I believe the line on the poster (clearly cashing in on an out-of-context line) says everything about the way that director Snyder translated this female superhero to screen.

This is the Silk Spectre in the Watchmen comic. Still sexily costumed, but the portrayal gives her exceptional depth and her physicality reflects the physicality of a real woman of that age and experience.

This is the Silk Spectre in the Watchmen comic. Still sexily costumed, but the portrayal gives her exceptional depth and her physicality reflects the physicality of a real woman of that age and experience.

These are displayed female figures, there for the looking at, the pleasure of their characters isn’t about their strength as heroes or their integrity or their interactions with the storylines at all but based on the experience of looking at them and, indeed, visually possessing them to a certain degree. This is due to the eroticism they have been endowed with which is innately tied into a “fetishistic scopophilia [which] builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself.”[4]

As a character, Hit-Girl exists almost entirely to frustrate that kind of satisfaction. This character does serve as a source of gratification, but it is in an entirely different manner than your standard young female character or female superhero, primarily because of the removal of the sexual element.

Blogger Kate Harding at Shapely Prose said it best when she was discussing Hit Girl’s presence and the construction of action films. She states that she generally hates action movies where women are the protagonists or “asskickers-in-chief.”

They’ve never appealed to me much, probably because they tend to be sold on the fuckability of the heroine more than the relatability of her; the primary market is still young, straight and male, after all, so a female lead is drawn to evoke fantasies…And because it’s all aimed at the same young, straight, male market, this doesn’t really go both ways. While I certainly don’t mind looking at Matt Damon or Clive Owen or Jason Statham fighting bad guys, I am generally not thinking “God, that was so totally badass, I want to fuck you right now”…If I like the film enough…then I am thinking, much like the young, straight men in the audience, “God, that was so badass, I want to be you right now.”[5]

Harding’s deconstruction of the viewership of the action genre is integral to the manner in which Hit-Girl is satisfying to the audience. She is, like any other superhero or action hero, an audience surrogate. Harding’s discussion in regards to fantasy vs. idolization is of particular value in this instance. Were we treading in Halle Berry/Catwoman waters or even dealing with Anna Paquin/Rogue situations, we would likely be experiencing a large percentage of fanboys/males drooling and female audience members frustrated once again at the over-sexifying of potentially powerful characters. It sounds essentialist, but if you ask most women who like superhero films, you will probably get more positive responses for the male characters than the female, having nothing to do with sexual attraction. I would much prefer to be or hang out with Professor Xavier or Batman than any of the female counterparts. They simply contain more substance. It goes part-and-parcel with Mulvey’s argument and Harding has clearly had her own experiences with the male gaze, as she notes above. Objectification is a nasty bugger. However, this type of reaction is not what occurs with Hit-Girl, with men or with women. And it is due to her lack of erotic exhibition. Because she is not eroticized, she is like a pint-sized icon for all members of the audience to enjoy together (in a somewhat wholesome way, if you disregard the foul language and violence), making this character’s gender-stereotype-destruction fairly radical.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to infer that this film is bringing people together in some hippie-dippie communal-type way. But it is creating a space in which gender is taking a back seat to character, and in many ways this is a big step. Sure, the excessive violence tends to make Hit-Girl much more problematic due to her youthfulness. But it is her gender that drew the ultimate amounts of attention and if the audience were now gender-blind for their female superhero, it’s no small feat that has been accomplished. As Julia Rhodes of the California Literary Review wrote, “Would critics be as upset if Hit-Girl were Hit-Boy? I doubt it…I can appreciate a girl who knows what she wants and gets it. I still spent parts of the movie chuckling uncomfortably with widened eyes, but I have a love for a girl who outperforms the boys.”[6]

A Superhero of One’s Own: Is Hit-Girl a Feminist Figure?

There has been much talk in and around Hit-Girl and whether or not she is a feminist figure. Many writers have found her to be quite troublesome in this arena, and I cannot help but agree with them. It is far easier to say that she is within the spectrum of feminist iconography due to her character’s basic skeleton structure. Hit Girl has numerous qualities (independence, strong survival skills, high intelligence) that female characters in films are generally lacking and she is presented in such a way that is not predicated upon some kind of sexual promise. But the real issue resides in the fact that we must differentiate between a strong female character and a feminist figure. They do not always mean the same thing.

Reading the reviews of this film from online magazines, newspapers and blogs, one can easily decipher the writers who qualify for the fandom category and those who are clearly part of the critical thinker section. While both groups have sincere and wonderful qualities and are valid sources for types of media scholarship, one is clearly a more problematic zone to operate from, due to personal bias. However, it is entirely possible to be a fanboy/girl and be a critical thinker (I consider myself part of this hybrid group), even if it is an extremely difficult location to exist in. It takes a great deal of training, and is one that I still struggle with on a daily basis. When dealing with a film like Kick-Ass, it is of the utmost importance that one attempts to balance these two sides properly and not just gush all over the page. There are too many dilemmas present for it to be treated in such a simplistic fashion.

In an article in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott discuss what they see as the new trend of hyper-violent young women in cinema. Together, they attempt to come to a conclusion in regards to whether or not these images and storylines are in any way, shape, or form forward-thinking. Dargis states, “Part of me thinks the uptick in bloody mama and kinder-killer movies is about as progressive as that old advertising pitch for Virginia Slims cigarettes, meaning not very. You’ve come a long way, baby, only now you’re packing a gun and there’s blood on your hands (or teeth).”[7] And she’s got a solid point. How does putting a weapon in a woman’s hand or placing a young girl in a violent situation transition them into becoming feminist icons? Just because Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill survived every single level of hell and then a few more doesn’t make her a feminist figure. She was still a revenge-driven former assassin who enacted hideous violence upon folks she was involved with. The desire to survive and the competence and know-how do not a feminist figure make. Add hyper-violent behavior into the mix and you’ve got some very big issues to contend with.

In many of the articles that I read, several pro-Kick-Ass writers mentioned the fact that if Hit-Girl had, in fact, been Hit-Boy, there would have been no controversy around the fact that she swore like a sailor and took a physical battering like a UFC champ. In this, I agree 100%. However, I would like to turn the tables in a very similar fashion and think about something. Many of these same reviewers saw Hit-Girl as a feminist figure. This was due to her physical dexterity, tenacity, independence, and uncanny ability to kick the shit out of men ten times her size and at least three times her age. Essentially, they based much of it on her physical performance which is narratively linked with intense acts of violence. They saw her survival instinct and intelligent battle tactics as symbols of Female Warrior-ness and not simply what they were: getting out of there alive and getting a job done. I submit to you, much in the “if Hit-Girl had been Hit-Boy” way, that watching a male figure engage in the very same behaviors does not make us consider, for one moment, that he is a symbol (on a larger scale) of Man At His Best and Someone We Should Look Up To.

Feminism is tricky, see. When I think feminist figures, I’m not sure I think a chick with a gun.

Somehow, I just don't think that this is the kind of riveting Rosie had in mind...

If I did, Ripley from the Alien series would totally be my goddess (even though she’s also tricky as she has feminist thematics running through her character arc, but that’s a whole other discussion!). Realistically, there is no shame in being a strong female character and THEY TOO are direly needed. But it is a huge and largely dangerous step for people to make the jump from kick ass, amazing and strong female character to Feminist Character. The problem these days is that the less boundaries that we have in films, the less of a gauge we seem to have to judge these things. While this sounds like I am advocating censorship or some conservative nonsense, I am not. The less classy our violence and gore gets, the less ability we have to see the difference between…well, anything. If I’m going to sound conservative at all, I’ll say this: in order to renegotiate feminism in the cinema, we are going to have to renegotiate our exploitation films, and Kick-Ass has many attributes that qualify it for exploitation.

In addition to our gauges being screwy due to our films being less classy, we have another major issue that can cause the feminist/strong female mix-up: women get shitty film roles on a regular basis. As Manohla Dargis says, “the American big screen has hasn’t been very interested in women’s stories, violent or not, in recent decades, an occasional Thelma, Louise and Jodie Foster character notwithstanding. There are other exceptions, of course, usually romantic comedies that are so insipid and insulting…”[8] So, essentially, if a woman isn’t being eroticized and sexualized and she’s not in a crappy romantic comedy, then…? Truly, there are precious few roles in any other category. Thus, this new “trend” that Dargis and Scott are discussing is fairly radical in what it is doing for femininity- but not in such a positive way.

Is it the violence? Yeah, partially. I don’t think that there is anything empowering as a woman about the ability to kill, maim or torture another human being. Do I like watching it on-screen? In my films? HELL YES!!! But that’s fantasy. It’s a fictional world. I find that there is a severe delineation between a woman of power who I recognize as a feminist character or simply a really great and strong female character who kicks a whole lotta ass. But I’ll admit: I don’t always want that to be the case. I just know that is the actuality of the situation. My fangirl side wants to claim all sorts of people as feminist figures like Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride from Kill Bill or Hit-Girl from Kick Ass.

The cinephile in me wants to claim The Bride aka Beatrix Kiddo from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill as a feminist figure. The critical theorist in me won't let me. It's a big struggle.

But I look at them again and use my better judgment. While they retain qualities of feminism, and perhaps in a different narrative they are feminist figures (post Kill Bill? What’s life like for Beatrix?), in the diegetic slices of pie we are given, they are simply extremely strong and vital female characters. They are just as worthy of respect and admiration, but they are more problematized due to certain aspects given to their respective characters within the storylines.

It is slightly disturbing to have Hit-Girl claimed by so many as a feminist figure. It seems to me that we must be really troubled and really out there in the desert dying of thirst when we must claim an 11-year-old child who presumably hasn’t even menstruated as a symbol of women’s strength and endurance for All Time. Call me crazy, but when I think feminist, I think Emma Goldman. I think bell hooks. I think Ida Lupino.

Ida Lupino, actress, filmmaker, feminist figure

I think Annie Sprinkle. Unconventional folks, sure, but still…they are all feminist icons in my book. And Hit Girl is exactly that: a girl. Her name says everything. So tell me- why we are claiming her in the name of feminism again?

Hit-Girl is not acting with any socio-political intent within the film and just because she is not sexualized or placed on erotic display like other superheroines does not make her part of the Feminist Club either. You do not become a feminist character simply because of what you are not it is what you are and Hit-Girl is a character that should not be burdened with the strain of Feminist Character. It places too much stress on what she represents and reveals a blatant refusal to look at the violence within the text and the actual narrative and her role within it which is far more important.

However, Hit-Girl’s aggressive presence in the film may simply be a way of garnering commercial success and playing into a new scheme of films and we might have to come to terms with that, making her even less potentially feminist-y than before. Dargis worriedly states,

It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen…I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing the same function for the presumptive male audience: it’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat- no worries, man!

If Dargis is right, and she very well could be, Hit-Girl’s character is actually quite damaging, as it is playing right into Hollywood’s grubby hands. With the recent slew of films that have come out that have featured Hit-Girl-like characters (Hanna, Sucker Punch), this worries me. Especially since people are jumping to the Feminist Character title and not looking at the situation critically.

In conclusion, I think I will have to agree with Carrie Nelson of the blog Gender Across Borders. While I don’t think that Hit-Girl is a feminist character, “the idea of superhero and action movies creating space for girls to play aggressive, powerful characters is innovative and refreshing.”[9] As a film, Kick-Ass is action-based and certainly not as meaning-heavy as the comic, but it contains some features that give it credibility. Hit-Girl exemplifies many qualities that adult women (and men, for that matter) should possess: self-reliance, determination, a certain dedication to improving one’s abilities. For many viewers, this was incredibly important, as I read in the comments section of a great many blogs and reviews. Realistically, there is no reason in the world that she cannot serve as a model in this respect. But to confuse her with feminist iconography would be a falsity and not one that an 11-year-old who drinks hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows would want; no matter how well she can handle that set of knives.


[2] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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.