Thursday, April 15, 2010

Booze, Broads & Bullets: Family Values

[The fifth 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. David has some thoughts on The Big Fat Kill, while Sean does That Yellow Bastard.]

Family Values by Frank Miller. (1997.)

123 pages. The longest sustained story with no seralisation or chapter/issue breaks of Frank Miller's career. In Eisner/Miller, this is the book he brings up the most, discussing how exciting it was to work on a project like this where he didn't really show any of it to anyone while he was working on. He just let it breathe and, often, would expand sequences because he felt they needed more room. The result is, honestly, a little bloated, but it works. If there's a Sin City book that I'd suggest someone start with, it would be this one -- partly because it's the cheapest, but it's also pretty indicative of the rest of the series.

Dwight is on a mission for the girls from Old Town with Miho as back-up. He's curious about a shooting at a local diner from the other night. We eventually learn that one of the Old Town girls was caught up in it and he's there so her lover can get revenge on the mob boss that ordered the hit to begin with. In the process, Miller explores the idea of family.

Artistically, Miller's art is somewhat ugly here. While Dwight was fresh-faced in previous stories, Miller's cross-hatching and use of lines on the face make him look a little worn down, approaching middle age. It's an ugliness that would carry on to The Dark Knight Strikes Again -- one that I dig. It's an attractive ugliness. One that works with the story. This is a story that lives in seedy bars and seedy places with crooked politicians and mobsters. The only attractive character throughout is Miho, who Miller draws in a blocky style with no shading, just outlines. She stands out from the rest of the characters. This little violent angel that radiates white light... speeding around on roller blades the entire time, slowly undressing as the story progresses. That's something that caught me off guard when I first noticed Miho's nipples popping out of her shirt, so I went back and, yeah, I hadn't noticed the half dozen times it had happened before. Ever notice how Miller always draws these big, thick nipples on women? I find that interesting.

The pacing here is relaxed, especially when we get to the end. Miller even jokes about it somewhat in a sequence where Miho is taking on one of the gangsters and Dwight keeps telling her to wrap it up, but she keeps toying with him. You can almost see the two sides of Miller: the one that wants to get on with the story and the one that's just having fun drawing a Japanese girl on rollerblades use a sword to fuck with this ugly brute of a man that keeps hurling racist comments at her. It's just absurdly stupid... but fun.

That's the key word here: I think Family Values is the Sin City yarn (as Miller calls them) where he's having the most fun. The freedom to just do what he wanted without worrying about issues or limitations really gives the book energy. He plays around with page layouts more, staggering panels in ways he doesn't elsewhere. He loses panel borders more than before. His work is sketchier, rougher... like he couldn't sit still long enough to do extreme contrasts and more purposeful compositions.

The writing has a playful quality to it throughout as well. The dialogue between Dwight and the woman in the bar is a little sad, but also very breezy, very musical. Some nice banter. Dwight really gets going when he's nabbed by some mobsters and keeps talking about how much fun he'll have driving their car, or talking out loud about how the one guy shouldn't keep mouthing off to Miho as that's only pissing her off. Dwight is having fun with this mission. He's enjoying fucking with the mobsters. Other stories have had him very serious (and rightly so), but he's so confident here that he can afford to be cocky and funny. There isn't anything on the line, no immediate deaths or broken truces... it's just some good ol' fashioned revenge, so why not fuck with them while you're doing it?

I love the bartender Miller draws. He begins with a cartoonishly big nose, but it gets bigger and bigger until it's bigger than his head. I love it.

Miller uses families a lot here, showing the connections and what matters -- ultimately, it's a lesbian relationship between two prostitutes that matters the most, which is Miller's punchline. Families come in all forms and what does the term 'family values' even mean? What family? Whose values? The politician that spouts off about 'family values' cheats on his wife openly. The mob is a family and it all begins with a hit gone wrong thanks to a mob Don's niece being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- same thing with the slain Old Town girl, wrong place, wrong time. There's a nice symmetry there.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to Holy Terror, Batman! was the chance to see Miller do another graphic novel with no chapter breaks or issues. Just watch him go as he sees fit, because I really dig it here. If you haven't checked out Sin City yet, drop the twelve bucks on this one.

Tomorrow, a bit of everything with Booze, Broads, & Bullets, a collection of just under a dozen short stories.