Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Sin City:
That Yellow Bastard

2005 (re-issued)

Written and illustrated by Frank Miller.
Editor: Bob Schreck.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (1996)

240 pages

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Softcover price: $19.00 USA (or nineteen bucks, as the back cover says)

Frank Miller's Sin City stories are a series of mini-series and one-shots set within the same corrupt, violent, film noirish city. But the central characters can change from story to story.

That Yellow Bastard, the fourth TPB collection, focuses on Hartigan, one of the few honest cops in Sin City. He's nearing retirement but determined to capture a child murderer who everyone knows is the son of a corrupt senator -- but Hartigan's the only one prepared to do anything about it. Hartigan sets out on his last day and rescues the killer's would-be victim, Nancy, and leaves the killer in a coma (Hartigan may be "honest", but in the world of Sin City, excessive force isn't seen as necessarily a bad thing). In revenge, the senator has Hartigan framed for the very crime he prevented and he ends up in prison, his only friend and contact being the letters Nancy writes him over the years. But when the letters stop, Hartigan realizes she's once more in danger and works to be released...

Sin City has gained a huge burst in its mainstream recognition thanks to the successful movie inspired by its various stories (including That Yellow Bastard). In fact, filmmaker Robert Rodrigues publicly emphasized how faithful he was to the material, right down to the dialogue and camera angles -- so much so, he credited Miller as co-director! Not the sort of respect Batman and Spider-Man writers and artists usually get from Hollywood, is it?

It's easy to see why Rodrigues was impressed by the visuals and intrigued to see if they could translate to the screen. That Yellow Bastard is in black and white, but it's a shadow drenched imagery, where the sharp contrast between light and shadow is everything, defining the shapes as much by what you don't see as by what you do. To be fair, it can be problematic, as there were a few panels where you have to stare at an image for a few minutes, trying to figure out what you're looking at. Nonetheless, it creates an intriguing atmosphere, letting you realize that despite Miller's deceptively rough and crude style over the years, he really knows his stuff, since to use such a technique means you really have to understand how shadows contour to a shape.

The one exception to the black & white is that Miller employs one colour -- yellow -- to define one character. It's a cute trick, lending a certain foresight to the reader. The yellow character doesn't crop up until almost half way through, and we aren't sure who he is or what his significance is, but because he's yellow, and the story's called "That Yellow Bastard", we instantly know he'll be a pivotal figure (granted, he turns out to be less surprising than we might've hoped).

Story-wise, Sin City is meant to be pure, cliched, hardboiled pulp fiction, full of fallen women and crooked men. Miller writes with energy and enthusiasm, keeping the mood and flavour alive, and not letting the energy lag -- even when it's a sequence of Hartigan by himself in solitary confinement. Granted, if you're familiar with Miller's work, the strings become a bit obvious, even distracting, as you recognize familiar stylistic tricks. And the story itself is, well, fairly simple. The snazzy visuals lend it an air of sophistication the story itself doesn't really have (it's perhaps unsurprising that, though well over 200 pages in comics form, an adaptation of it only comprised part of a movie).

The villains are just villains: vile, despicable, irredeemable -- in short, one dimensional. Even Hartigan doesn't really change or evolve much over the story. His determination to do what needs to be done, no matter the personal cost, and his sense of personal honour, is a part of his character right from page one and doesn't waver much. And the actual plotting, though serviceable, is likewise pretty basic (in chapter four Miller throws in a character who's supposed to be a staunch friend of Hartigan's...but didn't appear earlier!) The framing of Hartigan is predicated, not on some clever manuevers, but simply the fact that so many people and institutions in Sin City are corruptible, Hartigan is convicted even without evidence. There are aspects to the story that seem to function more in a slightly surreal way, such as action scenes where the aging Hartigan leaps about like a young man, or the notion that Nancy writes him every week for years, yet we are told (so the bad guys won't know) she writes in such a way that she reveals nothing about herself (uh, just what was in those letters, then? Pancake recipes?). And there's a plot aspect later in the story -- I don't want to give too much away -- which boarders on making very little sense, as Hartigan is tricked into doing something...that the villain could've done himself!

And as we move into the climactic confrontation, this lack of cleverness leads to a certain ho-humness to what should be the tense climax.

There is an intriguing, interesting story twist involving Nancy part way through -- actually a two-pronged one. But I can't comment without giving too much away. But that's problematic, as a lot of people probably know them anyway. And one I sort of spoiled for myself, by flipping through the book prior to buying it, but the other Dark Horse comics has to take responsibility for, as it's kind of revealed on the back cover! Though even then, Miller doesn't really do anything with it, one way or the other, and it has little impact on the story, per se.

That Yellow Bastard is very much a mature readers comic, with brutal violence (albeit, stylized), profanity, and nudity -- including a rather extensive sequence of a stripper that makes no pretense to be anything other than titillation (as Miller indulges in full page illustrations, and does succeed at making it sexier than the art style might lead you to expect). He also throws in some male nudity -- though of a decidedly less sensual intent.

An interesting sidepoint is that in the movie, the stripper (played by Jessica Alba) kept her clothes on! As well, for all that Rodrigues wanted to capture Miller's visuals on film, based on the clips I've seen of the movie, I'd say he didn't quite, as the stark light and shadow contrast was just too difficult to recreate on film.

Ultimately, That Yellow Bastard succeeds on the basic level of keeping your interest, revelling in its unapologetic luridness and style, full of effective atmosphere. But the rudimentary story, and only partially defined characters, work against it being anything more than a breezy, if entertaining, read.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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