Sin City (Vol. 4): That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller
This is the fourth volume in Frank Miller’s SIN CITY series, about a grizzled old detective named John Hartigan who decides that on his final day before retirement (due to severe angina) that he will take down the evil son of the most powerful man in Sin City, Senator Roark. Roark Junior, knowing he is protected by his father, rapes and kills young girls with impunity, and Hartigan decides that someone finally has to do something about it. When he hears that Roark has another victim, 11-year old Nancy Callahan, he tracks him down to a warehouse guarded by several goons. He manages to save Nancy at the expense of his own body and does great harm to Roark Junior as well, setting the stage for the main story 8 years later.
That Yellow Bastard is a straight-up hard-boiled noir story of revenge. Much like The Hard Goodbye, it pits a lone man out for justice against powerful and corrupt criminal forces, and though this book is about a cop and the other story is about a lawless brawler, they have much the same attitude. They cannot stand rich and powerful figures that are above the law, and especially brook no violence against women. The world of SIN CITY is fairly simplistic and archetypal – lone tough guys who stop at nothing to protect voluptuous female victims and bring down those who think they are invulnerable.
In this particular story the twist is that Hartigan initially protects a young and innocent 11-year old girl, but eight years later she has grown up into a gorgeous but innocent exotic dancer who continued to write her hero Hartigan during the eight years he spent in prison for harming Roark Junior. Hartigan refused to reveal the whereabouts of Nancy despite constant torture by Senator Roark, who wants revenge on Nancy for what happened to his precious boy.
When we finally see Nancy at age 19, Miller devotes multiple full-page panels to her dynamite naked body, dressed up in cowgirl attire and twirling a lasso for the drooling losers at the saloon (including Marv from The Hard Goodbye). There is a very strong element of creepy wish-fulfillment here – grizzled old guy saved the life of a young girl, who has now become this impossibly sexy but somehow innocent stripper, and who remains infatuated with her savior. But to Miller’s credit, he does not allow Hartigan to indulge in actions that would sully this pure relationship.
Instead, Hartigan and Nancy have to face the vengeance of Roark Junior, who has changed quite loathsomely in the intervening 8 years. It’s not hard to hate Junior – he is vile in every possible way. So it’s easy as a reader to want Hartigan to deliver extreme justice to him, especially as his father has covered up his murderous activities for years. When the final confrontation occurs, it is just as violent and brutal as you might expect. Again, it’s clear that Miller has a penchant for vigilante characters (including The Dark Knight Returns) pitted against corrupt and powerful figures. Again, the wish-fulfillment element is very strong here, as he sees evil men remaining above the law by corrupting the cops around them. Everyone is on the take, so only the most brave, reckless and selfless men would dare to take them on. It reminds me of James Gordon in the Gotham TV series and Batman: Year One.
That Yellow Bastard also formed one third of the ground-breaking 2005 Sin City movie. Following the comic structure, the early story of Hartigan saving 11-year old Nancy forms the initial story in the film, and the final pursuit and battle with Roark Junior is the final third of film (to be precise, a short piece called “The Customer is Always Right” book-ends the film, but it’s fairly short and insubstantial).
Detective Hartigan is played perfectly by the grizzled and wise-cracking Bruce Willis, who is exactly the person you’d want to pursue justice against a vicious killer. Then we have the sensuous yet vulnerable Jessica Alba playing 19-year old Nancy Callahan. She certainly has the dance moves but also the wide-eyed innocence to capture the role well. And then we have Junior Roark, played by Nick Stahl, who gives us the title figure of That Yellow Bastard. The film is beautifully monochromatic, with stark blacks, whites, and grays that perfectly capture the essence of crime noir and the seediness of Sin City. Junior is an odious character and Nick Stahl infuses him with the spoiled arrogance that only a child of a powerful man could have. He is not only vicious but also extremely insecure, and seething with a desire to get revenge on both Hartigan and Nancy. In both the comic and film, he is given a sickly yellow color that leaps out amid the black-and-white images. It’s a very cinematic touch that gives both the comic and film a distinctive look.
Overall, That Yellow Bastard is a very effective and well-drawn tale of revenge. It deals in moral blacks and whites and glorifies vigilante justice, but if you’re in the mood for such a story you won’t be disappointed.