Saturday, April 17, 2010

Booze, Broads & Bullets: Hell and Back

[The seventh 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. He's discussed All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, so go read! Go! Oh, and Sean has a couple of new posts, too. So go quicker!]

Hell and Back by Frank Miller with painted colours by Lynn Varley. (1999-2000.)

And so it comes to an end with the largest Frank Miller project there is, I believe, aside from his Daredevil run, but that wasn't exactly planned out like this. Nine 30-plus-page issues make up Hell and Back. Like other Sin City stories, this one is fairly simple and doesn't necessarily require the length it has, especially since it falls apart somewhat at the end. But, it's an interesting book. It reads like Frank Miller's greatest hits at times as he alludes to various past works throughout.

Wallace is an artist (who I wrongly called a photographer in my A Dame to Kill For post -- what, I thought he was a photographer... it had been a while) who saves Esther, a suicidal woman, from killing herself. While getting to know her later, he's shot with a tranq dart and she's kidnapped. When he investigates by filing a police report, he's hassled by crooked cops telling him to drop it, so he looks into it further and discovers a group doing some really nasty things. Not necessarily a plot that seems like it requires nearly 300 pages, but, you know, Frank Miller likes to have his room to breathe.

Hell and Back is driven, largely, by what Frank Miller feels like drawing. There's the chapter where Wallace is drugged and Lynn Varley does painted colours as Wallace hallucinates, seeing dinosaurs, little angels and fairies... his former army buddy shows up to help him, arriving in a splash page, looking like Leonidas except with a big-ass gun -- he quickly turns into Lone Wolfe & Cub, Captain America, Rambo, Big Guy to Wallace's Rusty, Wonder Woman, Marth Washington, Harry Callahan, Moses, Hellboy... Delia (Blue Eyes) shows up as Elektra... they go through a Dr. Seuss world in one panel... it's wacky and absurd, Miller drawing whatever comes into his head and having fun. It's a weird chapter and one that doesn't contribute much to the story. It's fun and stupid and really nice-looking.

Wallace is probably Miller's dullest leading man. He's so pure and without conflict that it's hard to get behind him. Hartigan was pure, but there was at least some tension between his love for Nancy and her love for him... there was some internal fucked up shit going on. Not with Wallace. He's ultra-capable (more so than any other Miller protagonist) and ultra-pure/focused. Delia poses as Esther's roommate and tries to seduce him, but he doesn't even seem tempted so taken by this girl he knew for one night that needs rescuing. When he seemingly succumbs to temptation, it's just a ruse to get Delia handcuffed to a bed.

As far as ability, a Vietnam vet, Wallace has no problem taking down four cops at once in a combination of Daredevil and Jim Gordon -- or taking out a sniper in a dark room with one shot through the scope. The drop is gotten on him once through a somewhat careless mistake, but it's not a case of someone being better than him or even outsmarting him. But, he's too good, too pure. Marv was amazing, but fucked up in the head. Dwight wasn't as skilled as Marv or Wallace and pretty fucked up. Wallace takes out Manute without any problems... something only Marv could do, because Marv is a fucking freak of nature. Even when Wallace works his way through the drugs, he's too aware, too strong-headed, too resistant...

It's a fine line between having a capable protagonist and one that's too capable. Maybe it's that Wallace has a dull personality. It's hard to get into him when he's so singularly focused -- the closest thing we get to a personality fault is at the beginning where he rips up a painting out of some urge to fuck with an asshole. But, the minute Esther comes into the picture, he's in full white knight mode and doesn't deviate from that path...

The connections to the other Sin City stories are tenuous. Manute appears, placing this before The Big Fat Kill. Wallace visits the bar from Family Values with the big-nosed bartender and a slightly younger drunken single mother. Delia and the Colonel appear, but both die. It's pretty stand alone -- set solidly within that world but without strong connections.

Delia appearing is interesting since we know who she is immediately because of the blue colours. That tension is great since we keep waiting for Delia to reveal herself an assassin and working against Wallace. Turns out, he figures it out pretty quickly, but goes along with it until he can get her alone and question her. Miller plays with our expectations well there, making us think one payoff is coming and then subverting it.

After Delia is killed, Miller introduces another woman assassin, Mariah, the opposite of Delia. Delia has blue eyes, wears blue clothes, has short curly/wavy hair... Mariah wears sunglasses, is coloured orange, has long, straight hair... Delia is subtle and submissive with her sexuality, while Mariah is overt and aggressive with hers... the character never really goes anywhere beyond being the opposite of Delia, but Miller introducing her only after Delia is dead is a sign that, maybe, he wrote himself into a corner. Delia had to die, but he needed a female assassin, so maybe the opposite of Delia would do a better job against Wallace?

Miller's art has that ugliness, that grotesqueness to it that Family Values had, but Miller pulls back and uses heavier blacks. More contrasts, more suggestive shapes... this looks like an integration of older techniques with the new. He also seems willing to play with white spaces more. In the police station, backgrounds are white, few shadows, just outlines of objects and their details. Very stark pages from Miller.

Really, though, this is one of the least interesting works from Miller visually. After the hallucination chapter, his art begins to look rushed and becomes blockier in the way "The Babe Wore Red" was. It's not good-looking, like he was under a lot of pressure to get the book finished. Pages look dashed off. Maybe his heart wasn't in it... maybe it was... I don't know, I can't speak to motives, just that the work is some of Miller's weaker art.

In the book as a whole, there aren't many pages or images that stand out in my head like there are from every other Miller-drawn comic. Maybe some of the painted pages, but that's it. If there's anything that tells you the quality of Hell and Back, it's that.

Hell and Back isn't bad. I enjoyed reading it, but it's forgettable. Maybe I'm wrong and missing the brilliance. That's certainly possible, but I look at it and just hope that it isn't the last Sin City book. It's a goofy, absurd work that clearly shows Miller having fun, but it's a lesser work. He doesn't seem to have anything to say here like he usually does.

Thanks for joining me in my rereading of Sin City. Remember, go check out the Booze, Broads & Bullets index at 4thletter for the rest of the posts done for this week of Frank Miller.