Why is the movie that most comes to mind while reading this an old Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn comedy? My mind files all California settings in the same drawer, I guess, but hear me out. Foul Play was also a murder mystery, a film noir in a 1970s sort of hipster way, and it was both sexy and scary at different points. Chevy’s sardonic tone didn’t undercut the chemistry he had with a still red-hot Goldie, and he made a passable action hero, too. The tone wasn’t as consistently dark as Fatale, but I’ve been expecting albino assassins and Mikado performers in full costume to show up any issue now.
Other films also come to mind, from Vertigo to Kiss Me Deadly. Brubaker and Phillips have conjured a sense of desperate danger, and of hidden mystery, since the excellent first issue. Since then they haven’t missed a beat, introducing us to the denizens of this Pacific Coast Highway noir, a moody California that occurs only by night, bereft of the light of day. There was a potential glimpse of sunlight in the series, in a domestic scene with Sylvia Raines, the pregnant wife of Fatale dalliance no. 2. She discovered bad news while doing her laundry, and then her day just got worse with a knock on the door. We find out what happened to her unborn baby this issue. The nicest thing the creative team has done is at least keep her murder off-panel. It was even more horrific just hearing all the grizzled, corrupt cops that worked the case talk about the crime scene.
Maybe that hodgepodge of film references comes up because this series is a mix of stereotypical motifs that just shouldn’t work together. There’s endless life in the noir detective, of course, and probably plenty of room left for his nemesis/ally the femme fatale. But when you fold in satanic cults, ritual sacrifice, ghosts and zombies, actual demons and maybe even elder gods? You could get a silly mess, at best. But with the Brubaker/Phillips team, what you get instead is surprises and new horror twists always waiting to unfold. And all of it is anchored in a consistent world of its own creation. Fatale knows itself very well already.
An amazing amount of credit must also go to colorist Dave Stewart, who is at a career best on this series. The covers play it simple, mostly monochrome, with hints of vibrant color (usually red) played down for maximum effect. And that could have worked for the inside, too, but not as well as the muted pastel shades that barely alleviate all of Phillips dark, fragmented brooding black shadows. There are a lot of sleepless insomniac nights in this book, and Stewart lets us see the faded pajamas and the puce colored wallpaper as privacy is invaded. The only bright spots of color come from seeing Josephine herself. Nothing crazy, she’s not a red carpet diva, but her dresses usually are an off-shade of pink, and with her pale skin and Snow White features, you start to understand what her paramours see in her. She’s literally the only beautiful creature in the books.
Not that there aren’t other interesting characters, as the creative team makes time for the sort of expert walk-ons that used to keep those old noirs so full of texture. Witness Daisy, one of several memorable minor characters to make an appearance in the series, who goes about her business with simple efficiency.
The story turns out to be one of three of Jo’s lovers from different times, men for whom she is an unchanging anchor of need and partnership and dependency. Is it down to pheromones? Magic potions? We don’t know yet, and neither do they.
The oldest is jaded cop Walt Booker, dying of cancer, for whom she was clearly the best thing that ever happened. The second was Hank Raines, struggling novelist drawn away from his 1950s dream family into Jo’s curse. And the third is his godson and executor, Nick, whose relationship with Jo takes place decades later. The more we find out, the more we’re left to wonder about. Somehow, the blame never falls on Jo herself, because we’re starting to meet the demons who are chasing her. And their crimes are truly heinous and inhuman. As guilty as she looks on the cover of issue 5, she doesn’t lose our empathy.
The finale of the arc finds us running through underground catacombs, in a sequence that Orson Welles would have loved to film. Well, if he had CGI. The true face of evil shows up, and Walt and Hank are both down
in the dungeons, fighting alongside Jo for all their lives. There’s no sentiment to this story, however, so you know not everyone is going to make it. Each player, actually, acts in accordance with their own fate and basic personality, which is exactly as you’d expect from a noir. By the end, we have a few answers, and a lot more questions. Which is great, because it’s clear that Brubaker/Phillips/Stewart have just gotten started.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.