SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Fatale #1 (of 12)A comic review article by: Nick Boisson, Nick Hanover, Shawn Hill
Nick B: Now I have not really read much from the team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I have not read Incognito. I have not read any of Sleeper. I read the first arc on Criminal, but never continued past (it came at a weird time for me when I was barely picking up comics, at all). But Fatale is a completely different animal from what I know of their other crime comics. It has got cults, horror, a character who seemingly has the gift of everlasting life... oh, and it's got a bit of that noirish feeling to it, too!
I truly did not know what to expect from this comic. Not only have Brubaker and Phillips kept the story pretty hush-hush since announcing the title, but they have also been saying that it is best to go into the title fresh. Which will make this review pretty hard to write considering those who may choose to read reviews before jumping into a new title. I almost feel as if I should just write, "This comic is really good! Just go buy it!" but the powers-that-be (i.e. Comics Bulletin's editors) say that we can't write reviews like that. So, bear with me as I try not to get too heavy into detail while trying to explain why you should pick up this title.
Ed Brubaker -- whom, if you don't read crime comics, you may know from his work on Marvel titles like Captain America and the Daredevil series in the latter aughts or his run on Catwoman and Gotham Central for DC -- here does what he does best: weaves a unique noir tale with twists and turns, good guys and bad and even a few characters whose motives (and, in one case, powers) you do not quite know of yet. Where Brubaker truly differs from his other works is also where the story shines: its mystic elements. We only get a glimpse of them in this first issue, but from the story that is laid out in front of us, there is a whole lot more to come. The story also takes place throughout time. We start in present day and end in the mid-1950s. And with a character who may very well be immortal, I could see this book going for quite a while in different time periods throughout history. There is so much that Brubaker could do with the tale that it could go on for quite some time and I truly hope, for all our sakes, that it does.
One thing that I cannot praise enough is Sean Phillips' art on this book. He brings this beautiful, pop art look to each and every panel, which works brilliantly for the story the team is trying to tell. The main character manages to also look different in the two time periods. At first, I just thought it was the clothes, but there is something in her eyes in the two time periods that we get. Almost as if she has gotten used to hiding what she has seen on her face by the time present day has come. That said, Phillips draws some beautiful faces in this comic. That does not mean that all the characters are attractive. It means that he uses this nice, minimalist level of detail that while also making every character look unique and interesting. And given the elements of the story, Brubaker is not the only one doing things differently here. The horror elements of the story have Phillips working on planes that he had not yet reached until this comic. We have seen him draw some gore, but never have we seen a monster out of him.
There are so many panels that I could point to which made me just stare at an open page for much longer than it takes one to read most comics. The one with where the plane is seen in the background of the speeding car. The close-up on Raines' face when he swears to protect Josephine. The one where Josephine quizzically glares at Raines. The one-pager with the World War II Nazi occultists and a monster that looks straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. And the panel with the city street is something that I want framed inside my room! I could go on, but this could take a while...
What we have here are two creators at their very best, and frankly, you would be a damned fool to miss this one! If this is what we get at the beginning of 2012, then I cannot wait for what the world of comics has to offer for the rest of this year.
Nick H: If there's a running theme to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' collaborative works, it's that the past is an often dangerous thing, full of deceit, narcotic in its appeal. The duo arguably released their greatest work on that theme last year with the masterful Criminal: Last of the Innocent but in their debut Image series Fatale, Brubaker and Phillips appear to be heading towards their darkest exploration of the past yet.
Set in a world that first appears to be more or less identical to our own, Fatale lulls the reader into a false sense of security before revealing itself to be a different beast altogether, a horror noir with Lovecraftian overtones. Like most Brubaker/Phillips stories, begins with a brisk, efficient set-up, introducing us to Nicolas Lash, our rugged protagonist, through a dismal funeral that leads to a tense chase sequence and ends with misfortune. But this is all a tease, a way of tricking readers into assuming that they know how the story will unfold with its standard rough, cynical lead and the femme fatale who uplifts his otherwise ordinary existence.
Last of the Innocent relied on shifts in visual aesthetic to make its juxtaposition of "innocent" nostalgia clear but Fatale finds Brubaker and Phillips working with a more complex narrative. To that end the reader is treated to an altogether different kind of meta statement than Last of the Innocent's Archie references, with Fatale taking the route of a split narrative that finds the reader discovering a "lost" text along with Lash, diving into the story as he does and potentially realizing the parallels to his story in sync with him. Brubaker's script makes it clear that Lash is viewing his experiences through the lens of literature, with the story's beginning matching the bestseller detective novel plotting Lash's godfather Dominic Raines got rich off of and which Lash looked down upon, while the second narrative follows the more reputable investigative journalism style Lash was seemingly unaware Raines had previously dealt in.
Where Criminal has been a forum for Brubaker and Phillips to experiment with and explore genre cliches, Fatale already seems poised to be an arena for them to experiment with the very concept of genre altogether. The first issue alone seamlessly shifts between pulp, realism and horror, with the link between the past and the present functioning as the anchor, particularly in regards to how an unknown past can rise up and disrupt the lives of those in the present. It's an ambitious story, certainly, but the extent to which Brubaker and Phillips have made such disparate elements merge together as a captivating whole is awe inducing.
Brubaker and Phillips are now at the point where they seem to have the kind of telepathic connection that great songwriting teams appear to possess, enhancing each other's strengths and pushing one another towards heights that may have been unfathomable otherwise. Working with the always impressive Dave Stewart, Phillips' art in Fatale is beautifully eerie, cloaked in a muted palette courtesy of Stewart that allows simple imagery like a shadowed figure smoking a cigarette to rise to the same level of dread as Nazi death cults and horribly mutilated corpses. There may not be a visual trick that's as obviously groundbreaking as Phillips' Archie Comics sampling in Last of the Innocent, but that in itself makes the work here more impressive since Phillips instead has to base his visual cues and parallels around character acting and synchronized framing.
Brubaker and Phillips have set the bar extremely high with the first issue of Fatale, but if they can reach their ambition, it's likely that this will be their greatest work yet, a deeply layered autopsy of fiction itself where the horrors of several generations' pasts collide. Given how successfully they achieved similarly lofty ambitions with Criminal: Last of the Innocent, there's little reason to believe that Brubaker and Phillips won't succeed here as well and perhaps in the process inspire other major level talents to flock towards the creator-owned sphere in order to release their own defining works.
Shawn: A funeral for a father, ill-attended and atheistic. For a crappy writer of mysteries. A beautiful damsel pursued by nameless thugs. A lost manuscript found in an old mansion. A car chase through the California cliffs. Nazis. Horrific dismemberments. All the elements are there, and frankly, they're all clichés. It might as well have been a dark and stormy night.
And yet, this is Brubaker and Phillips stirring up this mixture. The proven master of detective stories, and the proven illustrator of many vampish women. And there's that supernatural element that comes so naturally to comic books: her pursuers may be Lovecraftian demons, and she might be immortal. Secretive Satanic cults in the California hills are a cliché, too, but I'm not too worried yet. I can feel the masters at work, and I know they have a plan.
Phillips' art has become cinematic in an old school way. It's not quite Eisner, but it is Sekowsky, and maybe a little Kubert père. It's sophisticated while looking rough and ready, which is a neat trick. In other words, it's cool. That's an important part of the noir formula. Everyone must be too world-weary to care, except they actually care a lot, finding themselves trapped by love, or the love of money, or impossible dreams they'll never achieve.
It's too early to tell if "Jo" (Josephine? Joanna? Mary Joleisa?) is one of two types of femme (film) fatales. Is she the beauty who attracts trouble, mostly while struggling to deal with a heartless world on her own terms? Or is she the corrupt siren, luring men to their doom for her own nefarious purposes? Or she might be a third type, a literal vamp(ire), whose sultry appearance masks alien enigmas.
What is clear, from the cover, is that she has Bette Davis eyes. Or maybe they're Hedy Lamarr eyes. Whichever, they go very well with her shiny pistol, and she knows how to use all three. There's a reason those early cinema goddesses were iconic. I'm putting my faith in Brubaker and Phillips to have some new twists up their sleeves as they take on this particular icon.
Special kudos must go to Dave Stewart, whose colors are as definitive and important to setting the tone as the text or line art. Not settling for black and white or sepia tones, he instead creates a low-key palette where even yellow lights and green neon seem tainted and seedy. Shadows are blue and purple, bruised, stained. All the better to make the red, whether it be blood or lipstick, pop into messy life.
Nick Boisson grew up on television, Woody Allen, video games, Hardy Boys mysteries and DC comic books, with the occasional Spider-Man issue thrown in for good measure. He currently roams the rainy streets of Miami, Florida, looking for a nice tie, a woman that gets him, and the windbreaker he lost when he was eight. He sometimes writes things down on Twitter at @nitroslick.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.