Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Booze, Broads & Bullets: That Yellow Bastard

[The fourth 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 does Spawn/Batman (which I need a copy of, fuck!) and Sean Witzke joins the fun.]

That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller. (1996.)

This is my favourite Sin City book. Miller is really on his game here with the visuals as he begins to play with double-page spreads and layouts to create these big, bold images that are very simple in their line work, but complex in their conception. It's also a story that manages to hit a lot of the same notes regarding the tough guy and the woman who worships him/he loves, but does so within a framework that makes sense. That's not to say there aren't any problems, but this is the best Sin City book as far as I'm concerned.

That Yellow Bastard seems like Miller's attempt to do the final Dirty Harry Callahan story. Bruce Willis played Detective John Hartigan in the movie, but this is clearly Clint Eastwood being a badass cop one last time. It's almost impossible to read it any other way -- and I liked Willis in Sin City as Hartigan. (Just read that Miller pretty much says as much in the commentary to Sin City, which I've never listened to...) Hartigan is pushing 60, grizzled, less than a day until retirement, but he throws all that away to save an 11-year old girl from the pedophile son of Senator Roark. The cops turn the other eye, but Hartigan is an honest cop on a corrupt force, unwilling to let a little girl get raped and murdered no matter the consequences.

Visually, this is the book where Miller hits his peak as far as Sin City is concerned. The pacing is spot-on. In the first issue, Hartigan suffers a black-out from his angina and Miller shows it over a series of pages. First, the full page shot of him feeling it, lots of text as he talks it through, reacting, screaming in his head -- then another full-page shot where it really hits and there's just a loud grunt/moan/yell. Then, he does another single-panel page, but it's a smaller panel with a couple of inches of black gutter around it as he clutches the wall. Then, another single-panel page, but it's a small panel in the bottom right-hand corner as he leans against the wall, eyes rolled up in pain, mouth open, caption reading "NOT NOW." Then, all black, except a small caption near the bottom repeating the "NOT NOW." Miller then cuts to the little girl, Nancy, and what's happening with her -- is it really happening or is it what Hartigan imagines, because the next page is another totally black page with a single caption: "NO." Over the next page, staggered, tilted caption boxes and panels have Hartigan take his pill and lead to a splash of him in extreme contrast, mostly white, crawling, thinking of the girl, recovering, about to save her. Two more splashes as he gets up and then stands proud.

It's a sequence repeated in chapter six when Hartigan is left hanging in a motel room to die and the way that Miller draws it with single images and text make it seem like Hartigan's had it. A caption that reads "THE END" could mean the end... But, no. Two facing pages show Hartigan from the shoulders up. The first, he's facing our left, looking defeated, about to die. The second, he's facing our right, determined, not dead yet.

Miller uses space on his pages here better than anywhere else that I can think of.

I mentioned the double-page shots. Each issue begins with one, but the first page is mostly eaten up by CHAPTER [NUMBER] in big text. The second issue has the first real double-page spread which shows Hartigan sitting on the dock, Nancy hugging him after he saved her. It's shown in silhouette with the dock and those on it in block white, while the background is all black, small white dots in the sky for stars. The second double-page spread comes in the third chapter and it's one of the most famous images from this book: the downward view of Hartigan in his jail cell, a square area with bars that reach up into the sky, no roof. White bars, a little bit of shadow on Hartigan. Extreme contrast with the most basic outlines of objects. He sits there dejected, trapped by these bars that go up forever. Hot damn what an image.

I'm not going to give every double-page shot, but chapter six has a few great ones on the Farm where Hartigan encounters the barn. Again, like the prison, Miller is using straight lines to great aesthetic effect. Lots of white, minimal black to suggest shapes. In the first shot, Hartigan approaches the barn, dwarfed by its size -- he's coming from the bottom right, heading to the top left. In the second shot, it's a level shot, directly facing the barn as Hartigan approaches the door, again minimal blacks, the barn looks massive, like a castle or something.

The comic ends with three double-page shots. One: Hartigan points his gun at his head. Two: BOOM. Three: Hartigan on the ground, dead. Powerful stuff. Miller giving the actual shot two pages of sound-effect like that is an interesting choice -- a rare shying away from violence with a suggestive presentation that is, possibly, worse than seeing it happen. It's almost more shocking to be confronted with two pages of


Beyond the two-page shots, Miller's control over black and white is stronger in this book. He uses a lot of contrasts of extreme black and white to suggest shapes and figures, but, unlike previous attempts, they're clearer here. It's rare that I have to struggle to tell what I'm looking at, which was a problem in places previously.

One of my favourite sequences has Miller keeping the perspective fixed when Hartigan is in the hospital and Senator Roark is in front of him, telling him what's what. It's only four or five pages of three-panel pages (with some small insert panels to show extra movement) of Roark pacing in front of Hartigan and talking about the power he has. The power of getting people to go along with whatever lies he tells. It culiminates with three panels of Roark leaning in so we only see his head with a sea of blackness in the background. Very good stuff with Miller giving Roark a lot of good acting bits. He continues that perspective for some more panels as other people are in Hartigan's room and it's really effective.

He also uses colour for only the second time. He previously used red in "The Babe Wore Red" (collected in Booze, Broads, & Bullets) and, then, in subsequent stories with blue, pink, and orange (and the Lynn Varley painted pages of Hell and Back). As the title suggests, here, he uses yellow. Junior, the pedophile, is brought out of the coma that Hartigan put him in thanks to medical science and his genitals are even repaired/grown back after Hartigan shot them off, but he's this bald yellow creature with big eyes and a bigger gut. He doesn't look natural and the yellow Miller uses is effective for this. He stands out in this world of black and white. It's jarring when he shows up -- and he stands out on every page he's on.

Junior's appearance/recovery is one of the problems of this book. It pushes things beyond the realm of believability (yes, a nearly 70-year old Hartigan going like he does at the end is more believable). Another problem I have is with a point that the plot turns on: Roark and company can't figure out who is writing the weekly letters to Hartigan in prison. I've never understood why they didn't just know it was Nancy, the girl he saved. It always seemed so obvious -- and these guys don't seem like the types that would require absolute proof before just killing her. I think they gain a certain satisfaction out of getting Hartigan to confess to crimes he didn't commit, but them needing him to lead them to the letter-writer never worked for me.

The writing in this book is some of Miller's best when it comes to Sin City, partly because the male/female dynamic is interesting and not as problematic (or, at least, it's problematic in a different way than the usual Miller thing). Hartigan sees Nancy as a daughter or granddaughter. Someone he's proud of and loves in a way that has nothing to do with sex. Nancy loves Hartigan in a way that has everything to do with sex, because he saved her. Their eventual reunion is awkward and fantastic, because he's scared shitless for her, just wanting to make sure she's safe and she's Nancy! Nancy the stripper Nancy! His reaction is priceless and, when she sees him, her immediate reaction is to jump at him, kissing him, and he goes with it.

Hartigan's not comfortable with Nancy's affection and seems to want to go with it, but can't. He still sees her as the 11-year old girl he rescued and getting the 19-year old woman mixed up with that is weird and creepy -- and he knows that. She doesn't see how it would be weird for him. It's an odd dynamic you don't often see as Hartigan tries to maintain that fatherly/grandfatherly love for her despite everything telling him that he should forget that and embrace the romantic/sexual love she has for him. And, then, does she really love him that way or has his rescuing her gotten her all mixed up? He did one action that makes all other men pale in comparison -- she knows little about him, she's made him the ideal man, one that, obviously, no one her own age can live up to. More than that, Hartigan having sexual feelings to her while thinking of her as the 11-year old he saved puts him in similar territory to Junior...


That's how he puts it to Nancy and she responds by telling him she loves him -- and he loves her with all his heart, but it's a different kind of love.

That Yellow Bastard is a case where the man protecting the woman doesn't seem patronising or odd. Nancy isn't a tough Old Town girl that goes from dominant to subservient the minute Dwight shows up. She was an 11-year old saved by a cop... and, later, she's saved again while being an active participant in her rescue, doing everything she can to slow down Junior.

Miller really nailed it with this book. If only they could have gotten Clint to play Hartigan, y'know?