Monday, April 12, 2010

Booze, Broads & Bullets: A Dame to Kill For

[The second of seven posts on Frank Miller's Sin City as part of a larger, cross-blog thing. David Brothers has the index over at 4thletter. Go check it out for his posts on Ronin and Elektra Lives Again.]

A Dame to Kill For by Frank Miller. (1993-1994.)

A Dame to Kill For probably ranks near the bottom of the Sin City books for me. I enjoy it and love how, rereading it, I could see how it's the one book that connects to every other Sin City book, but, man, that story... the story is just way too far gone. Even more so than The Hard Goodbye, this seems like a dry run for stuff Miller would do later. Dwight becomes a more entertaining and engaging character by the end and continues on in that fasion in future stories. The photographer stuff is handled better in Hell and Back. The problems between police partners is returned to in That Yellow Bastard (with one of the same cops). Even Miller's art is weaker here as he tries new things out.

I don't like Miller's art in big chunks of this book. At the beginning, he tries to mix a minimalism in thin line work with the extreme contrast of black and white he often has, and it doesn't look as good. The thin lines give it a look of incompleteness, like it hasn't been finished, just rushed through. Around the edges of characters, lines will disappear in places... I've been trying to think about why Miller used this style. He jumps around a lot in Sin City books, alterning lighting and how characters are expressed from panel to panel. I'm not sure I always understand why (other than him liking the way that looks), but this other style confuses me more since I really don't think it's good.

It continues throughout the book at different times. One place where it mixes with something I really like is the scene where Dwight and Ava meet in a bar and Miller does a fantastic effect to show the smoke-filled room. It's just these horizontal chunky lines of white that take out parts of the art. Like a heavier, thicker version of the very straight lines he used for the rain in The Hard Goodbye. It makes for a gorgeous, overpowering look, the way the smoke would overpower you. But, that's sometimes coupled with that contrast that doesn't work. Manute, the black servant of Ava and her husband, poses a problem for Miller it seems, because of his skin colour. Miller never really draws Manute in an attractive manner, the black and white parts of his face never really working for me.

I guess A Dame to Kill For represents that tension I've always had with Miller's Sin City art that I didn't often have with the art meant to be coloured. In his extreme contrasts, Miller can be very hit or miss. Sometimes, the pictures are gorgeous and stop you dead. Other times, they're muddled and unclear and you just want to push past them. I do like how he keeps trying new ways to work with the black and white art, though. He keeps trying to find new ways to show people with different variations on shading and lighting and line thickness. It doesn't always work -- even he doesn't expect it to, I imagine (I hope!) -- but it is interesting.

Beyond the art, the writing in A Dame to Kill For is hit or miss. Dwight is a character that ends in a very different place than where he begins and, from what I can remember, he never returns to that initial starting place. The face change he receives is a plot device, but also something I think Miller uses to get rid of that other Dwight. It's like Miller could sense the character wasn't working, wasn't someone that could be used beyond this story, and changed him to someone more interesting. That 'man with a problem with women and booze, has a monster inside' thing works... once. And once Miller introduces Dwight's relationship with the women of Old Town, you realise that this is a character that could be used again in the future, so why not keep him around?

I usually find myself laughing at the original Dwight and his over-the-top 'can't let the monster out' bullshit. It's cartoony and over-the-top. So is Ava. The femme fatale that makes any man do as she wants simply because she feels like it. Miller playing with a trope, but he does so in a way where she's two-dimensional. You never get the sense that she cares about her husband's money or anything other than fucking with people. Dwight's reaction to Manute's crazy rantings about her being a goddess is how the reader should react: what a load of crap. She's a convenient plot point...

If anything A Dame to Kill For feels like one big exercise in play. Which is fine. It's entertaining and has some great art sometimes, but I just can't get beyond a lot of the more stupid elements. Dwight going from Ava's slave to bossing around the women of Old Town... yes, it happens for a reason, but, like I said, this guy is two characters. The minute his face is made to look monstrous, he becomes a different character. So, I'm left wondering what the point is. Why not begin there? Was Miller going along and realised that things weren't working, so changed mid-course?

As I said near the beginning, A Dame to Kill For is a foundation for the rest of Sin City as Marv's involvement shows. Here, Miller begins to build up the idea of the world. Marv is Dwight's pal and helps him out; later, we see scenes from The Hard Goodbye, which is happening at the same time as the second half of this story. Funny how the old Dwight and Marv are gotten rid of at the same time. It's a sign that the new Dwight is the hero of Sin City (kind of)... an attractive young hero to replace the bruttish thug of Marv...

I'll talk more about the new Dwight tomorrow with The Big Fat Kill.