Frank Miller thought, at first, that his visit to Sin City would be a brief stay: “six eight-page chapters,” he said recently, and nothing more. The story was introduced with little fanfare – as one of myriad tales appearing in April 1991’s Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special, its title teased last on the cover’s lengthy list of goodies promised inside.
But as he approached the story’s end, or so he thought, Miller realized “this was my vehicle,” he says now. “And I wasn’t going to have to throw away a car I made especially for myself.”
That inaugural Sin City story, later rechristened “The Hard Goodbye,” wound up filling more than 400 pages spread across a dozen issues of Dark Horse Presents in ’91 and ’92. It introduced characters with whom Miller and readers (and, eventually, filmgoers) would live for decades, among them Marv, the violent do-gooder with dementia who looks like a giant slab of raw beef that’s been dragged for miles behind a sedan, and twin sisters Goldie and Wendy, the prostitutes who (up)end Marv’s godforsaken life. And it fulfilled the increasingly confident Miller’s long-held ambition to write and draw works that rivaled the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the films of Fritz Lang and Howard Hawks and the comics of Will Eisner and Scorchy Smith creator Noel Sickles.
“I knew I was coming back to Sin City well before I finished it,” Miller says. “I knew the characters would be returning and that it would jump around in time bit. Marv dies at the end of the first Sin City, but he shows up as a guest star in the second. When you create something, it can’t just be a cage. It has to be a playground. I let it be a living thing so I could take it anywhere. Sin City was the project where I came into my own.”
Long before his first trip to Basin City, the setting for Sin City, Miller was already acclaimed, revered, oft-imitated. His Daredevil runs and Batman mini-series The Dark Knight Returns and Year One turned the spinner racks into tornadoes that leveled everything that had come before. But Sin City, a tale told in midnight blacks and radiant whites, a story that swapped capes for trench coats, changed everything. As writer Brian Azzarello said in Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Hard Goodbye Curator’s Collection, “Sin City is the sinewed masterwork of a champion.”
For years, Miller has kept most of Sin City’s artwork close to his chest, tucked safely in the archives. Only now does he bring four of the series’ most coveted images to market, each among the centerpiece offerings in Heritage Auctions’ Nov. 17-20 Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction.
From 1992’s Dark Horse Presents No. 62, “Sin City: Chapter 13,” comes the striking image of Marv holding in one hand the head of bespectacled serial killer Kevin and in the other the saw he used to do the gruesome deed.
“The main thing I’m doing when drawing a page like is trying to live in the moment as thoroughly as possible,” Miller says. “I do complete, often very complex, pencil drawings, then as I apply the brushwork, I will put all these crinkles and wrinkles to show Marv as weathered as possible, then pull out the blessed white paint and remove a great deal, especially of the outline. It excites the eye a great deal, drawing a lot more in white than in black. Before the white paint, that was an extremely murky piece because I had taken it way too far.”
The rendering of Kadie’s Bar stripper Nancy Callahan from Dark Horse Presents No. 54, otherwise known as “Sin City: Episode Five,” is the opposite. Her hair, her fringes, her lasso – it’s all a dizzying tempest of white lines that pops out of the inky black that renders the Bristol board almost rigid.
Says Miller, “That’s one of the thickest originals you’ll ever come across.”
Here, too, are the original works made for trade paperbacks: Goldie, packing a smoking pistol, as seen on the cover of the fourth printing of 1994’s Sin City; and this stoic and heroic rendering of Marv from the trade splash page. The latter, from “The Hard Goodbye,” is a summation of all Sin City has to offer – what Jim Lee called “a stark, brilliant chiaroscuro [that] remains a defiantly timeless, handcrafted love letter to the days of old in an increasingly slick and digital world.”
Miller once said Sin City represented “the biggest jump” in his career: He’d spent two years working on RoboCop 2, trying to make art by committee, when he sat down to begin drawing Sin City. Alone with the characters who’d long haunted him and the setting he’d long imagined, Miller was reborn.
“When I came up with Sin City, I developed a style to draw in that was quite different than what I had done before,” he says. “It was a purer version of what I’d done before. It was very derivative of the old crime movies I always loved, that I’d seen on late-night TV during my early days in New York. And I remember feeling just restless and a bit cocky and tired of having so many bosses.”
In time he will return to Sin City; it has become, he says, “a living thing I can take anywhere.” He loves these doomed, broken characters and this grim, violent place he’s created – this restless, relentless pastiche he made all his own.
“I had to hammer away and find my way to the work that became Sin City, and after all these years, living with these characters is utterly joyful,” Miller says. “When you have developed this kind of work and these characters, they keep giving to you. It took me a while in doing Sin City to realize what I was after visually: The stories would be full of horrors, weirdness and unspeakable violence, but the idea was to make it look as glamorous as possible.”