Frank Miller’s Neo-Noirs: When Texture Meets Narrative
Q: Should comic book movies be realistic and gritty or should they lean into a comic book style?
A:So long as comic books are compellingly written and illustrated, I favor adaptations that stay loyal to their roots. Sin City (dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, 2005) exemplifies an adaptation that maintains the distinctive, hypertextured style of its original comics.
Sin City’s stylistic continuity was probable, since Frank Miller’s comics were ready-made for the silver screen. Miller was inspired by film noir, so the comics came full circle by being adapted into movies. (I’m only focusing on the first movie installment because I think the sequel is drab.)
In his review of Sin City (2005), Roger Ebert noted that “Some of the stills from the film look so much like frames of the comic book as to make no difference.” Miller’s edgy narrative and illustrative work do indeed saturate Sin City’s cinematic direction — no small thanks to Miller’s on-set presence as both director and comic writer. With the exception of some trimmed scenes and character modifications, the movie closely follows Miller’s comic book panels:
Source: YouTube | Side-by-sides of the film and the comic
Alongside his trademark isolations of color, Miller’s eye for texture defines Sin City’s beauty. His linework is a visual feast on-page and on-screen, harboring the torrents of his stories. To elaborate, I’ll look at how Miller renders rain. Drawn as sharp lines, his rain interrupts the physical boundaries between bodies and settings. His rain strikes human forms so fiercely that they appear corruptible and porous. This invasive aesthetic is apt for a world devoid of safety and integrity:
Source: Sin City, Vol. 1 (1992) Illustrated, Lettered & Written by Frank Miller | Two depictions of rain
Source: The Film Stage | Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City (2005)
While Miller’s illustrations of women’s bodies are hypersexualized caricatures (typical in the comic book industry), his handling of landscapes is remarkable. Miller excels at creating sensational environments — bending viewers’ eyes around his use of shape, contrast and exposure. With his techniques, 2D panels permeate a third dimension.
Miller’s legacy extends well beyond his own career. Sin City’s film debut whetted appetites for anti-heroes (dimming the shine of jocks in tights). His abrasive style resonates in The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008), a film beloved by comic book novices and savants alike. On top of Miller writing The Dark Knight Returns comic (1986), his cynical Sin City made way for Dark Knight’s sadistic Gotham. This is apparent in Knight’s crackly tone — in characters’ intensities, in the narrative’s gloom, in the gravel of Harvey Dent’s burnt skin…
Source: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (orig. published 1986), Illustrated by Klaus Jansen & Lynn Varley, Lettered by John Costanza, Written by Frank Miller
Source: The Film Stage | Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face / Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008)
Though it’s spoiled by incel overtones (and Miller’s real-life outbursts), Sin City is impressive for animating the gristle of its source material. If the TV series adaptation enters production, we may be able to spend more time in this universe — though I do hope to encounter more neo-noirs that don’t preserve the genre’s musty gender norms. There’s latent potential, for example, in queer neo-noir (see: Bound, dir. The Wachowski Sisters, 1996).
Liza Wemakor is a Fall 2020 film analysis intern. In addition to her interest in microcosmic films, she is a student of Black American literature and speculative fiction writing. Her hometowns are Syracuse, NY and Atlanta, GA.