The Hard Goodbye

by Frank Miller

Cover image

Series: Sin City #1
Publisher: Dark Horse
Copyright: 1991, 1992, 1993
Printing: February 2005
ISBN: 1-59307-293-7
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 208

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The Hard Goodbye is the first story in Frank Miller's Sin City series, originally collected as simply Sin City before Miller went on to tell other stories in the same setting. It was originally published in twelve issues of Dark Horse Presents and the anniversary special.

The protagonist is Marv, a huge, ugly bruiser with mental problems (most likely schizophrenia based on hints in the story, although I don't recall if this is ever clearly said). The story opens with him waking up next to a beautiful, naked, dead woman, killed in his bed while he was sleeping off a drunk. The woman is a prostitute named Goldie. Despite having first met her the night before, Marv is obsessed with Goldie in a way that's not entirely sane and devotes himself to finding her murderer and avenging her death, while both the police and her actual killer are looking for Marv. Despite being dead, Goldie repeatedly tries to kill him, or maybe those are hallucinations due to not taking his medicine. The trail leads him higher and higher in the hierarchy of power in the city. It also leads through a growing pile of dead bodies, many of them tortured by Marv.

The Hard Goodbye is a sort of noir detective story, but with a psychopath as the detective. Marv is a type of protagonist common in "street-level" comics: he's not superpowered, exactly, but he's preternaturally strong, takes an unrealistic amount of injury without dying, and does a few impossible things through sheer brute force and blind determination. He's just a bit larger than life, not to mention uglier, meaner, and more vicious. But more on that in a moment.

The most original feature of Sin City, and the feature one notices first, is the art. The Hard Goodbye was written, drawn, and inked entirely by Miller in a distictive style that makes extensive use of dark backgrounds, large fields of black with slashes of white, and scenes drawn in outlines or simplified lines that hint rather than detail. It's pure black and white (no splashes of red here), and Miller uses silhouette and chiaroscuro heavily. Few scenes are shown in detail, almost nothing is fully visible, and many of the panels are more stylized than representational, sometimes to the point of obscurity.

It's a dramatic enough change from the normal comics style that it can be off-putting at first, but it's remarkably effective. Some of the panels are simply beautiful, particularly scenes of Marv in the rain and some of the nudes. There's quite a bit of female nudity in The Hard Goodbye, but mostly in silhouette, shadow, or white outlines. I think Miller does well at walking the line between coy and blatant. It's nudity intended to be erotic, even for the women who aren't prostitutes (which isn't many of them in this story), but it doesn't take over the story. It's used to highlight Marv's perceptions of beauty, or to emphasize helplessness.

It's also exploitative, as is much of this story. While The Hard Goodbye is not entirely devoid of strong women, they're present mostly for Marv to rescue or avenge and they're nearly all prostitutes. (The only memorable female character who isn't a prostitute is a lesbian who spends most of the story naked or half-naked.) Marv himself is sexist in a twisted chivalrous sort of way — he tortures people with glee and abandon but he won't hurt women — and the plot of the book revolves around his obsession with the only woman who would sleep with him. It's also extremely violent. Wikipedia helpfully puts the body count at 28, and a lot of them die grusomely or after extended periods of torture (mostly off-camera).

This is one of those stories that occasionally made me want to wash my brain with lye. Every major character in this book is horribly violent, and the heart and climax of the story feature what's best described as a torture spree. Given that sort of the protagonist, Miller has to reach for worse taboos to emphasize the villains; Marv may be a brutal thug, but hey, he's after something horrifically worse. The part where Marv discovers just what the villains do was one of those "I'm not sure I want to be putting this into my head" moments.

The art, however, makes this oddly tolerable. The lack of color flattens and distances some of the brutality and the shadows and silhouettes make it easy to not think about what's going on. It helps that violence to Marv (which is a large percentage of it) is treated as having little consequence: he can't possibly get any uglier, and he seems nearly immune to any other effect of physical injury. In that sense, The Hard Goodbye is not as focused on gruesome violence as, say, a splatterpunk movie. But if you stop to think about what's going on and let your imagination engage, the effect is increasingly disturbing.

My chief complaint about The Hard Goodbye, though, is the story, or rather the archetypes that the story uses. Marv is a quintessential anti-hero. More, out of the two basic types of anti-heroes, Marv is the more troubling kind: the anti-hero who revels, who behaves essentially the same as the villains except with a socially acceptable target. The other type, an anti-hero who is drawn to evil acts in the name of good but struggles with the morality and the stain, can turn into annoying angst, but at least it attempts to recognize a moral compass and can say interesting things about the shades of grey in a moral system. There isn't any grey in The Hard Goodbye. It's pure good versus evil pulp with the entire spectrum shifted into evil.

It's somewhat unfair to lay this complaint at the feet of this story; Miller is hardly alone in writing it. I am, in a sense, only accusing him of writing an exceptional example of its type, a type that I happen to dislike. But because it's such an exceptional example of its type, this is a good place to say why I'm running out of tolerance for it.

The primary merit of the anti-hero archetype, in my view, is its use in exploring the difficulties of moral structures. An anti-hero can show where good isn't necessarily good, where doing evil things can be more effective, where society's rules may prevent society from defending itself. But more valuably, it can also show where evil isn't necessarily evil, show a hero who is a blend of both and who struggles with it, who has to face the consequences of actions. In other words, the anti-hero can question black and white morality.

There's none of that here. Miller may have picked a protagonist who's a psychopath by the standards of normal society, but he proceeds to build a world to justify that. Sin City is so hopelessly corrupt that no one would do anything about Goldie's death if it weren't for Marv. No tactics other than Marv's brutality would be successful. The actual villains are given actions so far beyond the pale as to make Marv's torture look good. His actions are approved of, or at least shrugged at, by every other sympathetic character in the story.

This isn't anti-hero as examination of the grey areas of morality. It's anti-hero as revenge fantasy. It doesn't matter what Marv does to people; they were scumbags and they deserved it (once just for being rude to him). The morality is so bright that it demands the reader accept Marv's actions as justified, and the narration is first-person to push one further to Marv's side. The anti-hero becomes a sort of twisted Christ figure, who acts out all of the sins that we deny ourselves but which, deep inside, we think someone should do anyway. The world is carefully constructed around the revenge fantasy to justify and support it.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying there's something inherently wrong with this as entertainment. The worst that I'm accusing this story of is being unrealistic, escapist literature that ignores all the reasons why Marv's sort of avenging investigation doesn't work. Not every story needs to aspire to saying profound things about morality. I'm just personally rather tired of this pattern. I think it's too easy, too simple, and too dehumanizing. It divides off a portion of the world as undeniable, horrific evil and then gloats over repaying it in kind. It's deeply appealing. It's just deeply appealing to a part of me that I don't want to encourage.

The Hard Goodbye is a beautiful work of art. It's deservedly famous for its graphic style; as mentioned, parts of it are simply gorgeous. Sometimes the style fails, but it succeeds rather more often. It's a classic in comics on those grounds.

The story is a mixed bag. Some of it is appealing no matter what you think of the archetypes. It's impossible not to admire Marv's dogged determination, and his obsession with Goldie can be strangely sweet. Parts of it have the appeal of an action movie, of seeing the hero survive despite everything the villains can throw at him. But it's also pure revenge porn, it's exceptionally brutal, and it bothered me more and more after I finished reading it.

It may well not bother you, in which case the art makes The Hard Goodbye well worth the read. Hopefully I've given you enough information to make up your own mind.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-01-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21