Sunday, April 11, 2010

Booze, Broads & Bullets: The Hard Goodbye

[The first 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.]

The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller. (1991-1992.)

My edition of The Hard Goodbye is the one that comes with the special edition of the Sin City movie. It's even smaller than the other repackaged Sin City books from 2005. I actually like the size of this one the best. It fits in my pocket. I remember taking it with me one night to the second night of this one-act play festival at my university. It was fourth year and it was my second year writing a play for the festival. The first year, I wrote and directed my play. That year, I wrote a sequel to the first play and acted in it with the two actors from the previous year and a friend directed. We went on the first night, but I showed up for the second because, after that night's showing of the plays, there would be awards. For the second year in a row, the lead actor in my plays won best actor and, that year, the play won best comedy. None of that really matters, except I remember waiting for the bus, reading my small copy of The Hard Goodbye... The paper is a little better and the size just feels better in your hands. The other books look small enough to be held, but are just a little too big. They dig into the skin between your thumb and index finger a little. I would probably shell out money to have the other six Sin City books at the size of the DVD copy of The Hard Goodbye.

None of that matters.

Seven days, seven Sin City books, seven posts. That's what I told David I would be doing. He e-mailed a bunch of us a week or so back... just around the time we posted our 11-part conversation and I mentioned to Tim how another idea was for us to do a cross-blog thing about Sin City with us each taking three books and doing the last one together. David, like the smart guy that he is, took that and made it bigger by expanding the range of discussion to all of Frank Miller's career and calling in some friends that are, honestly, more talented than I am. Thankfully, I get to run with this crowd now...

Since I liked the original idea, I'm sticking with Sin City. These posts will be pretty loose. Nothing too serious or in-depth since there's a loose feeling about these books. Not that they don't warrant serious thought, but I'm just having a ball reading them again. It's been a while.

Except I didn't reread The Hard Goodbye, I've just been flipping through it. I've read it a lot and seeing the movie a few times only makes me know it that much better. I had another copy of The Hard Goodbye before this: a regular comic-book sized trade that might have just been called Sin City. I gave it to a friend I got the smaller copy. So, it was my first exposure to Sin City and the only book I'd read of the series before seeing the movie. I wouldn't say it's my favourite, but I dig it a lot.

The only Frank Miller stuff I own is Sin City and his Batman work. I've read the Daredevil stuff and Elektra: Assassin. Actually, I own the first Martha Washington book and 300, too. I've skimmed that Wolverine series he did with Chris Claremont. But, yeah, Frank Miller, for me, is Sin City and Batman -- as he is for a lot of people.

The Hard Goodbye. An allusion to The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. If you haven't read it or seen the Robert Altman adaptation, go do both, because they're both fantastic. Some may tell you that the Altman flick gets it all wrong, but those people are the sort that complain when anything is changed in an adaptation of a book and clearly didn't understand what they read when they read Chandler.

In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder" (I think), Chandler talked about the private detective as the white knight in a world of corruption. That one guy that would stand up for what's right, fuck the consequences, fuck the authorities, fuck everyone. That's Marv. He may not look like the white knight, but he is. He's the guy who stands up for what's right, fuck the consequence, fuck the authorities, fuck everyone. And he dies for it.

The Hard Goodbye is a mystery story. I nearly did a post where I applied Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to it, but that was a little too dry for this week. Maybe another time. But, it's a mystery story: someone had Goldie, a prostitute that sought protection in the arms of Marv, killed. Marv wants to find out who to kill the bastard. I could have said "Marv wants to find out who to bring the bastard to justice," but it's the same thing. When he discovers the identity of the man behind the killing of various prostitutes, it's someone powerful -- someone so powerful that you wouldn't blame Marv for turning around and walking away, but he goes at the prick even harder. Because it's the right thing.

Marv is a funny guy. He's got personality. He starts his mission and nothing stops him. He gets beaten, he gets captured, he goes through all of the regular detective fiction bullshit. That he takes it that step further and kills in the process, willing to damn himself at the end is a nice distinction that reminds me of Altman's The Long Goodbye. In the movie, Philip Marlowe's buddy apparently kills himself after killing his wife, but Marlowe doesn't buy it. Seems like a frame job and, in the end, it was... but not really. Marlowe figuring things out is the part where the movie really deviates and he winds up killing his buddy in the end, because right is right. Miller's first Sin City story reminds me of that.

The Hard Goodbye has Miller finding his feet visually. He does a lot of big splashes, lets the story breathe, but he also does pages with five or six panels, something he doesn't do much of as the story progresses or in later volumes. Miller is finding himself in this volume as he realises that this is his book and he can spend pages on only two or three panels -- or just one picture and that's fine. He mentions at the end that the story was meant to be 48 pages, but it kept growing because of Marv. I don't doubt it, but I also think that it's because Miller realised that he could take his time, let the story unfold at a leisurely pace. It's a brief read as a result, probably a bit like what manga's like (I haven't read enough to say).

Miller also plays with the black and white art a lot here. Shifting from pages that are drawn like they were going to be coloured to pages where it's very impressionistic in its uses of shapes to suggest forms. The rain pages are gorgeous in that I've been in rain like that and haven't seen it too many other times in comics. Not everything works. Sometimes, the pages are just ugly and unclear. Sometimes, there just isn't enough there. That happens again in subsequent books as Miller continues to try things.

That's the first book. There's a joy and an energy in The Hard Goodbye. It's different from Miller's superhero stuff, but Marv isn't that different a character, not really. He's cruder, rough, uglier... but he's the white knight. I still love the joke at the end of the story.

Tomorrow, it's A Dame to Kill For. I love that title.