Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
by Frank Miller
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
I'm going to be coming back to Sin City frequently for now since it won eight Eisners across five completely different stories and I recently purchased a full set of the stories. The last time I read them was when the books were new and my younger self found the stories to be totally awesome. Today I still find them infused with a kind of pulp chic but with fifteen years of hindsight I am also filtering them through the perspective of Miller's downward spiral and his fetishes. A reader not familiar with its context wouldn't notice anything odd about A Dame to Kill For; I wound up saying to myself, "More ninjas, prostitutes, and ninja prostitutes?"
Dwight is a photographer who ruined his life with drink. He's been working to improve his life but he still fears losing control. Dwight's been reduced to photographing philandering husbands to make the rent. Ava was his lover but left Dwight for a rich man. She contacts Dwight and tells him that she fears her husband's S&M sex games are escalating to the point that her life is in danger. Dwight starts to look out for her and finds himself pulled back into a destructive relationship with Ava.
I know this is a personal reaction but reading A Dame to Kill For again made me think, "Yes, this was when Frank Miller started going off the rails." The initial chapter is is a good example of this. It's almost completely extraneous since all of the character establishment gets repeated in the next chapter anyway. It exists almost entirely for a very long scene in which a man handcuffs a prostitute to a bed and then gets his money's worth. Our hero Frank... er... Dwight has to save her from a bad situation that follows and she has a heart of gold just like the many, many other prostitutes in the story. In isolation of just this story it's part of the gritty Sin City setting; in context it looks a lot more like the author's fetishes put on display.
And that continues through the whole book. There's a theme of masochistic sex that dominates the book. This is a story about people hurting themselves (intentionally or otherwise) for sex. I'm wavering back and forth on how sensationalized it was against how it was used as an intentional theme and that says to me that Miller did use it well. Sin City is firmly attached to its pulp roots and sensationalistic is exactly how to connect to them. Being able to convey that theme of sex and pain so that it comes through the fetishizing of it means that it has been done well.
That theme wouldn't have worked if the main cast weren't so well defined. Dwight, Ava, and most of the rest of the major cast are pulled into destructive orbits and the reader gets a front row seat to that. It's an interesting examination of those self-inflicted wounds.
I did have a bit of a problem with the pacing of the story. Besides the almost redundant first chapter there is a long stretch toward the end of the book where the plot seems to be spinning its wheels. This was originally an eight issue miniseries but it feels like it's six issues worth of story.
It goes without saying that Miller's art is still just as nice to look at as it was in the last Sin City book. You could copy and paste my comments on that. It still features the heavy black inks with the definition in the picture provided by the white negative space. It still features the strong layouts and striking images. Even when I have problems with Miller's writing his artwork is consistently strong.
I know I'm down on A Dame to Kill For but I am going to recommend it anyway. My problems with it are mostly metatextual and without the same context what you'll have is an exciting pulp story which handles some mature themes well. It's not my favorite Sin City story but it is a good one.