Riding the Goddess: The Women of Frank Miller’s Sin City Part 1

The upcoming film Sin City: A Dame To Kill For will be based on the 1993 Sin City miniseries of the same name. In light of this, I felt it was appropriate to cover the original comic series in my first series of articles. Frank Miller, the creator of Sin City, has always been vocal in his belief that superheros are the modern-day version of mythology and in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, he proves equally adept at placing certain conventions of myth and legend in the unconventional setting of the film Noir genre.

The first page opens with protagonist Dwight as little more then an observer. He is poised above the action, sitting on the skylight, ready to capture the action with his camera. He is there to collect photographic evidence of an extra-marital affair between a businessman Joey and an Old Town working girl, Sally.

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This opening sets up the three mythological archetypes Miller explores in the first chapter – that of the chivalrous and apparently chaste knight or Lancelot figure in the form of Dwight, a threatening wildman antagonist who embodies uncontrollable sexual desires and finally, the fallen goddess.

Dwight’s role as that of a noble knight is set up by his refusal to sexualize the prostitute Sally in his thoughts. Frank Miller’s text, whilst typical of the film Noir and pulp fiction genre, is also oddly chaste. The narrative is told from Dwight pov and he thinks of the Old Town working girl as having “the kind of figure you notice” and possessing “a little girl’s voice” filled with “false innocence.” At no point are the more intimate details of her nipples or private parts described.

In contrast, the businessman Joey is set up as a bubbling fount of frustrated male sexuality and power. His foreplay consists of telling Sally repeatedly how no one, not his workers and certainly not his wife, appreciates his hard work and his economical might as a successful businessman. In modern society, a position of economic power is often associated with virility and yet no one seems to associate this with Joey. Except Sally who repeatedly tells him that he’s the boss and allows him to handcuff her before they engage in sex.

Joey, unlike the almost completely hairless Dwight, is shown as small, stunted and hairy. He has facial hair and the proportions of a troll. If Dwight is the clean-cut knight figure ready to serve the goddess by rescuing her, Joey is a squat troll who will demean her with his touch.

Yet even here, Miller continues to tease us by juxtapositioning Sally’s job as a sex worker with her female power. Sally, even while handcuffed by the hideous Joey, is still set up as sublime. And tellingly, in the panel just before Joey mounts her, he appears to be kneeling before her as if in worship.

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Dwight proceeds to photograph the sexual act. Despite Sally’s apparent submission (“Then she’s moaning and saying “Boss” in time with his grunts”), Joey’s performance is unimpressive.

“It’s all over pretty quickly” Dwight wryly notes. Once again, Sally’s role as fallen goddess is reinforced by the panel in which Dwight photographs the action. Camera held up to his eyes, his silhouette could almost be that of a penitent clutching a rosary in prayer. Penitence is another of the themes that echoes throughout this chapter.

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After the brief and sweaty sexual encounter (which isn’t shown in detail), Joey then tries to kill Sally. The reason? His wife suspects the affair and a divorce would cost him everything. His wife, Gloria, has assumed near omnipotence in his mind. There is no doubt that she will destroy him for not honoring his wedding vows. The reader never sees Gloria but she is described as an irresistible force of vengeance, the Hag aspect of the goddess.

Joey’s murder attempt is the cue for Dwight to shift from passive observer to rescuer, crashing through the skylight and saving the girl. What’s interesting is the similar change in Sally from passive receptacle to vengeful harridan. Understandably, she urges Dwight to kill Joey. Dwight refuses – “Nobody’s killing anybody. Not while I’m around.” – further cementing his role as being a light, a somewhat dubious force for good in this soulless city.

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After safely returning Sally to the stews of Old Town, Dwight drives away. However, Old Town (a “sea of flesh”) has woken something in him. We see the veneer of chaste knight begin to crack and he is haunted by memories of his own days in Old Town, days filled with “drunken mornings and sweaty sex and stupid, bloody brawls.” The link between sex and violence is once again emphasized. Dwight is haunted by having a monster inside, presumably one that has an appetite for both sex and violence. It seems that indulging his sexual appetite, as he was tempted to do in Old Town, would prove fatal – “You can’t take the good without the bad. Not once you let the monster out.” Dwight’s horror at this prospect shows genuine repentance for his past.

There’s a brief scene in which he drops off his film with his grotesquely overweight boss, Agamemnon. Agamemnon is yet another example of raw if debased masculinity and his home is a temple to the female form. His walls are adorned with images of ideal womanhood, his floors with empty bottles and pizza boxes. He clearly lives, eats and sleep in his shrine. He is both attempting to trap and dis-empower the goddess by reducing her to pornographic images and yet at the same time, he is in thrall of her, in fact trapped in the shrine he has created.

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Dwight leaves Agamemnon, disgusted with his boss, his occupation and himself. He contemplates the “numb, grey hell” he has made of his life and what he’d sacrifice to “cut loose” one more time. Under his self-imposed chastity and nobility, Dwight is a conflicted man. Stopping the car, he throws himself onto his knees, again the penitent, vowing to never let the monster out.

Later that night, he receives a call from his old flame, a woman named Ava. She is first introduced into the comic as a close-up of luscious lips. This image is both disturbing and somewhat carnivorous. Throughout her conversation with Dwight, her face is never shown – she is a shadowy figure, an unknown quality. Despite his better judgment, Dwight agrees to meet her at the seedy Club Pecos.

The club’s interior is shown as hellish, redolent with the smell of “sweat and vomit and booze and blood” and it embodies everything from Dwight’s past that he seeks to escape. And yet at the behest of the irresistible Ava, he has been drawn back into this world. In the club he encounters the most blatant example of the masculine wildman yet.

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Marv is a reoccurring and ultimately tragic figure in the Sin City series. He embodies raw masculine energy, vigor and strength without any restraint or common sense. In many ways, he is the modern-day equivalent of the wildman found in past myths. He is Iron-John, fresh from the forest, or Enkidu from the Epic Of Gilgamesh. Previously in this chapter, all the other male figures were debased – they embodied the worst side of Dwight’s masculinity.

Marv is the more positive force, being chivalrous towards women and an impressive physical specimen. Dwight is still quick to dismiss him as “just another loser in a joint that’s full of them.”

Privy to Dwight’s innermost thoughts, we discover more about the mysterious Ava. She left Dwight four years ago for a richer man, breaking his heart in the process. An entire splash page is devoted to Ava entering the club and she is shown as an intimidating and sensual figure, although still faceless. She is more then just Ava – she is every woman who nearly destroyed a man.

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She then undermines her initial powerful appearance by taking on the role of damsel in distress, pleading with Dwight to love her again or at least forgive her. His chivalrous demeanor evaporates and we see his anger bubble to the surface along with his libido.

“I could slug her” he thinks when she starts to plead with him and when her pleading culminates with a desperate kiss, he threatens to kill her if she does such a thing again.

Ava begs his forgiveness, telling him that she knows she’ll never truly die as long Dwight remembers her. This dramatic declaration is interrupted by Manute, Ava’s husband’s valet, arriving to take Ava away.

Manute, like many other male characters encountered by Dwight, represents a threat and Dwight responds by stepping into his role as a Lancelot figure. He tries to protect Ava from Manute but she voluntarily goes with him, returning to her possibly abusive husband. This sets up a dynamic that echoes the opening scene of this chapter. Ava is in need of rescue from a threatening male force and Dwight is left with the option of trying to play the white knight and save her.

Miller makes it clear that Dwight’s darker appetites are not completely suppressed. Marv appears behind him, telling him that Ava is a “dame to kill for.”

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The chapter ends, leaving the reader wondering whether or not Dwight will use Ava’s plight as an excuse to finally cut loose.

LJ Phillips
About LJ Phillips (81 Articles)
LJ Phillips is an ex-bodyguard and professional artist who has had three solo exhibitions. He has also published numerous articles and pieces of short fiction. His interests include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, over-analyzing pop culture and staring into the abyss. Currently he lives in SA and spends his free time working on his various creator-owned comics.

4 Comments on Riding the Goddess: The Women of Frank Miller’s Sin City Part 1

  1. I think that Dwight’s interpretation of Marv and the other people around him is definitely a reflection of his self-disgust and his sense of helplessness. I would hypothesize that his role as Lancelot is a construct he embodies to deal with his frustration at his life and his perceived lack of choices. Some people drink, some smoke, some are heroes. It’s kind of interesting how many of our heroes come by their heroism as a coping mechanism for their personal traumas/frustrations.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. Looking forward to the next one!

    • LJ Phillips LJ Phillips // April 18, 2014 at 4:20 pm //

      Self-disgust is one of Dwight’s driving forces. In the second chapter of A Dame To Kill For, he briefly projects this self-disgust onto Ava. Both this and their coupling is meant to be cathartic. However, Ava is simply playing a game with him and her games are always rigged.

      I liked your idea of his Lancelot role being constructed to deal with life’s frustrations. It’s interesting how this same coping method also stifles him and ultimately proves a failure when too much pressure is applied.

      Thanks for the comment and I hope you’ll enjoy the newest article

  2. Ryan Brooks Ryan Brooks // April 5, 2014 at 2:58 am //

    Very intriguing article. Love the deep analysis of the characters. Marv was always my favorite character. Would you say he this embodiment of the inner-man? The savage nature that modern man suppresses to function in society.

    • LJ Phillips LJ Phillips // April 18, 2014 at 4:15 pm //

      He’s a fascinating character. On one hand, he is deceptively simple but closer analysis reveals hidden depths. I agree with your statement whole-heartedly. Marv is positive male energy – he possesses the raw power to destroy his foes and offer protection to those close to him. But sadly, there’s no place for him in the modern world. I’ll be writing about him in more detail in my third article.

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