I’ll be real with you: I didn’t have the highest expectations for Fatale. I think of Ed Brubaker as an okay writer at best, and I largely believe the “Image Revolution” has been overhyped claptrap that bears nothing if not a resemblance to an NBC Wednesday night lineup that has a bizarre fixation with tits and lasers and Electra complexes.
But actually? Fatale is pretty good!
it’s pretty good
Fatale’s plot is so diffuse that it’s hard to summarize precisely, but it essentially takes place in California across the 20th century and stars a beautiful, unaging woman with mysterious hypnotic abilities that she can’t seem to get a grip on. The comic deals with her and her unwilling involvement with a chthonic doomsday cult throughout the ages, and the various men she seduces and winds up accidentally destroying over the course of her insane life.
Fatale has all the problems I’ve come to expect from this breed of genre cross-pollination, and more specifically with Brubaker’s writing as a whole: the dialogue is sort of shitty, the characters don’t have much motivation beyond Gotta Do The Next Thing and there are a number of lazy/gross potboiler conventions that take one out of the story, the most obvious being when a journalist’s pregnant wife is butchered so that he can Learn To Weep The Weepy-Weep Way.
Yet the comic transcends these errors by being the only thing this type of story can have any real pride in being: readable. Brubaker’s dialogue is blocky and unnatural, but it works well with the staccato pacing of artist Sean Phillips’ page layouts, which trend towards breathy grids that retain symmetry but allow for flexibility regarding a scene’s spatial requirements.
Phillips and Brubaker have been working together long enough that their chemistry is undeniable; they know exactly how much to give and take so as not to overshadow their respective collaborator. Each panel pops with a couple of sentences at most and lets the reader’s eye soak in the shadows and curves of the environment without rudely hurrying them to the next story beat. Mainstream American comic writers have a bad habit of flooding their scripts with exposition, but Brubaker has enough faith in Philips to let his art carry as much of the comic as the writing.
It also must be applauded that the cosmic horror elements are used with a level of restraint that is, again, uncommon with this kind of genre narrative. Tentacles are only to be seen maybe 2 or 3 times in the entirety of the first 12-chapter volume, leaving most of the intrigue to rest on the shoulders of the common lunatic: the cultist, the junkie B-movie actor, the crooked cop and unhinged Vietnam veteran. Fatale is distinctly a neo-noir with supernatural elements and not the reverse, making for a refreshing change of pace from comics that claim to have an emotional core but become bogged down in fantasia 15 pages into the first chapter.
If there’s one area where the comic seems incapable of making up its mind it’s in regards to Jo, the comic’s eponymous femme fatale. There is something to be said for playing your hand close to your chest with noir stories, but, at least in the first volume, it’s never explained to the reader’s satisfaction how Jo keeps winding up in these mortifying situations. If her character is meant to send up the idea of noir women who can’t accomplish anything without the use of their feminine wiles, no one sent the memo to anyone else in the story. She’s a waifish nincompoop who by now would have been ritually disemboweled dozens of times over were it not for the saving graces of the grimy men in her life. Jo seems more like a useful contrivance for setting up creepy crime vignettes than a thoughtful, realized character in her own right; considering she’s the consistent protagonist and title-bearer of the comic’s front cover, this strikes me as a deep flaw in the story’s DNA.
But that’s Fatale for you: this is a comic that can get away with a lot that others of its ilk couldn’t (and shouldn’t), simply by virtue of having an uncommon level of craftsmanship. It plays with well-worn toys and it’s the furthest thing from unexpected or unpredictable, but it’s creepy, it’s lush, and it keeps the pages turning. For something that sells itself as “Lovecraftian Noir,” you’d be a fool to ask for more.
Originally published as “She Kills Sanctuary: ‘Fatale’ is imperfect but ultimately compelling cosmic noir” via Medium 5/7/16.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.