It's Frank Miller's definitive work. Sod the rest, even the good stuff. This is what he was born to write. No superheroes, no powers, no tights. Just utter bastards who might as well be cavemen in the 20th century. Miller had grown up on noir cinema and that was what he first drew, as per this quote:
"When I first showed up in New York, I showed up with a bunch of comics, a bunch of samples, of guys in trench coats and old cars and such. And [comics editors] said, 'Where are the guys in tights?' And I had to learn how to do it. But as soon as a title came along, when Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it."
Incidentally, there are seven Sin City collections and I'm only discussing the first, The Hard Goodbye. (I own the 1992 trade paperback, which is only called Sin City. It got a second title in 1993.)
It's controversial in some quarters. It's like Miller took all the macho, bloody noir tropes in the world, then crushed and compressed into the ultimate in pure pulp. Pretty much every man we talk to is a criminal, scumbag and/or mass murderer. Every woman is naked, a stripper and/or a prostitute. Sin City is a disgusting pit of sleaze where cops and the church will have you murdered. All this doesn't always go down well these days, especially with readers who don't know good trash when they see it.
Make no mistake, though, it's brilliant. Both the art and the writing blew the doors off the comics industry. No one had ever seen anything like it. Its anti-hero is Marv, a big, ugly thug who's not too intelligent and whose only skill is killing people. He often tortures them first, in disgusting ways, and he'll have two outrageously evil victims where Marv's really there for extended mega-torture and the death is just the bit at the end. "The killing, no. No satisfaction. But everything up to the killing will be a gas. You can scream now if you want to."
He'll say things like, "I love this stuff. It cuts through meat and bone like they was butter."
He's a terrifying person. And yet...
He's not a one-dimensional protagonist. I love his relaxed conversational style when he's either committing or about to commit ultra-violence. He's old-fashioned when it comes to music, coats and cars. ("Modern cars. They all look like electric shavers.") His view of lesbians could be described as "unreconstructed", if one's being polite, but he's paradoxically a complete gentleman. He hates violence towards women. You can get your tits out in front of him and he won't lift a finger. Going home and seeing his elderly mother makes him cry.
He gets scared. "I throw up a couple of times and then I'm ready."
He's also got mental problems and is serious about taking his medicine. "It's okay when I smell things that aren't there or even when I hear things. But it's pretty serious when I see things."
Meanwhile, the art's even more remarkable than the script, making inspired use of black-and-white, silhouettes and negative space. (It's interesting to note that this style works less well in the woods at the start of part 6. Miller's woodlands aren't pretty enough to make much of a contrast with Marv's silhouette. These pages eat and defecate urban environments and are less effective with natural beauty. Even its hot women don't strike me as sexy, to be honest.) I'm not a huge fan of Miller's coloured art in the later Dark Knight books, but this is the kind of comics art you show to sceptics to change their minds about the potential of the medium.
It's a lawless world, where the only thing you can rely on is violence. The police are death squads. Authority figures will arrange your murder. It reminds me of the Wild West, with no meaningfully functioning civilisation at all. (Marv has a parole officer, but she trusts the police. Uh-oh.) The ending is PERFECT. Black as hell, but perfect. The series has its detractors, but it walked off with lots of Eisner Awards.
Oh, and the 2005 movie adaptation's pretty good too.