Writer Ed Brubaker is always good when he’s writing for the Big Two comics publishers, but his creator-owned stuff with Image is great. His partners in crime on Fatale, artist Sean Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser (chosen as one of the five best colorists of 2013 here on Comics Bulletin) are equally amazing, making this fourth volume of the Fatale story, Pray for Rain, just as dark and gloomy as the previous collections.
Brubaker loves the old noir detective novels (check out his other Image series Velvet) and likes to meld that genre with other genres, usually superheroes, but Fatale is more of a H.P. Lovecraft-type story, which are always ‘none, none more noir’ anyways. The femme fatale of the title is Josephine, a woman (cursed?) with a power over men that can be an inspiration and/or an obsession. Her power comes from her involvement with some kind of demon cult, though Brubaker keeps the actual demons from appearing too much.
The story, or rather, stories, are usually from the POVs of the men ‘Jo’ meets through time, including Nicolas Lash. Lash’s story happens in real time, but after he ends up in prison and maybe goes mad (as many Lovecraft characters do), Brubaker went back in Volumes 2 and especially 3 to tell more stories of other men involved with Jo before Lash — including his father. In doing so, we readers end up knowing (a little) more about Jo than Jo herself, since she ends up periodically losing her memory as a result of traumas, such as torture, she’s endured.
“Who is Jo” is better phrased as “What is Jo,” though not even she knows what she is. Brubaker gives us hints, and if you’ve followed the whole series, especially Volume 3, you know that her story pretty explicitly relates to European fairy tales, though not the cute kind—the old-school kind of fairy tale that can be gruesome. That is, she could be some kind of fairy folk, — and not the Tinkerbell kind.
Why are the demon-tentacle dudes pursuing her? That’s unclear, though again the readers know more than Jo or Lash. The tentacle dudes want to sacrifice Jo, but to who or what remains unclear. Some kind of bigger tentacle thing—a god, or demon, or combination of the two. But again, why? It’s the driving question of the story, and we may never get an answer from Brubaker. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. Horror is more horrific when unexplained, or unexplainable.
But Jo is some sort of magical creature. She can’t die, at least not by any ‘normal’ means, like being shot, or stabbed, or, say, burned at the stake. She can control men, mostly, unless they know to take precautions, though she can’t control their obsession with her. Just seeing her drives them crazy, though there are hints, remarks from the bad guys, that it might not exactly be sight, but smell: when they find men who have been with her, a common remark is, “I can still smell her on you.” Though, that said, in Pray for Rain, even a video of her, dancing, if played on, say, MTV, has the implied potential to destroy the whole country.
One thing emphasized here in Fatale Volume 4: Pray for Rain, though hinted at before in other volumes, is the possibility of Jo being, at least in part, some kind of Muse, in the old Greek god sense. The band she hooks up with hasn’t done anything creative in a while, but once she shows up, their songwriter suddenly gains inspiration. We’ve seen this before in other volumes, when Jo inspires writers, though their successes, whether novels or comic books, supposedly based on fictional stories, are really just “true” stories involving Jo and/or this magical/horrific “level” of the Real World. She inspires creativity, yes, but also madness, and Brubaker seems to be equating these two things—the impulse to write a song may be the same that causes one man to kill another.
In Pray for Rain, the main thread has us flashing back to the 90s grunge-rock Seattle, and the band looks a lot like Nirvana. Jo has once again lost her memory, and is still being pursued by the tentacle-god-cult dudes. The second main thread picks back up with Nicolas Lash in real time, as he’s broken out of prison by, and on the run with, a maybe madman. Plus some other surprises.
All of which is a lot of explanation and summary, but if you haven’t come on board from the beginning, it’s kind of necessary, since Brubaker doesn’t spend a lot of time getting his readers up to speed. I think Pray for Rain is good enough to be enjoyable on its own, not least because of the always-great gloomy artwork and coloring, but knowing the storyline coming into this volume makes for a better experience. The ‘band’ thread works on its own, but new readers might be a little confused as to who Lash is, and why he’s important.
Which brings up the question of, why bother with the individual issues that make up these four collected volumes? Brubaker’s story, like most of his stories in any of the genres he works in, reads better in a larger volume. The ideal way to read the Fatale series would be in a collected omnibus, but it doesn’t exist, yet, and you don’t want to wait that long. Still, Brubaker’s reputation is such (I mean, I think) that it seems he could just release graphic novels and dispense with the single issues. But that’s because I, as you’ve already surmised, like his stuff a lot. The benefit of still having single issues is hooking in new readers, those living in caves who have somehow not discovered him. I hadn’t, until maybe five years ago, so had the pleasure of reading Sleeper and Incognito in graphic novel form. Which I recommend.
The main way Brubaker can get away with people enjoying the single issues, even if perhaps lost on the story line is, again, the artwork, both the penciling/inking of Sean Phillips, and the moody coloring of Elizabeth Breitweiser. Those readers who place more emphasis on the artwork will be very satisfied, but the whole series is just my ideal combo of everything—all the creators involved are doing great work and, just like with a good Seattle grunge band, the whole is greater than any of the (great) parts.
[Note: I pillaged some of these sentences and ideas from my 400 word review of Fatale #19 featured a couple of weeks ago—couldn’t stop thinking about this one!]