Image Comics began with the X-odus, so named because so many of its founders worked on Marvel’s X titles before defecting to form their own company. Over the years the company has gone from a struggling shared universe to a collection of imprints to a remarkably well-respected company, championing creator-owned series and taking chances on strange new series.
These strange and unexpected series, each in their own continuity, range from Westerns to Fantasies to Science Fiction to Horror to oddball combinations thereof… and just about everything else in between. Jeff Smith’s Bone went from independent to corporate under Image. Matt Wagner’s Mage has had a successful run since the closing of Comico. Recent new and impressive offerings like East of West, the Dream Merchant, and the subject of this review, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ title Fatale (now a quarter into its second year), Image may be poised to be something more akin to the next Vertigo.
Fatale is the story of a seemingly immortal femme fatale of the 1940s style named Josephine who hasn’t aged from the age of Noir to the present day, jumping between time periods as it tells her bizarre story. Issue #14’s story “Just a Glance Away” kicks off a new story arc that sets Josephine in Nazi-occupied Romania in 1943. Phillips’ detailed artwork (amplified by Elizabeth Breiteiser’s darkly beautiful color schemes) is incredible to witness in these pages. Phillips is as adept at drawing the jagged destruction, rubble and smoking shells of buildings in war-torn Europe as he is at capturing the delicate and eye-catching beauty of Josephine’s face.
Told with as many shifts in time as Reservoir Dogs, Brubaker’s story begins with the point of view of dejected American soldier Walter Booker. His war-hardened grim visage seems to have seen it all until a murdered soldier from his unit points the way to a subset of Nazis who are literally are monsters. Yes, monstrous jaws, nazi helmets and Cthulhu tentacles are all in the villains’ makeup like something straight out of the first story-arc from Hellboy.
Phillips’ artwork and Breitweiser’s colors, rife with negative space and 2-D imagery, both aid the comparison to Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s work. However, the similarity is an echo in an original, not derivative book. Brubaker brings in elements that would have fit well in Raiders of the Lost Ark with its arcane rituals and mystical Nazi quests, along with an underground cave chase straight out of The Temple of Doom. However, Josephine, for whatever she is, is neither Hellboy nor Doctor Indiana Jones. Josephine proves to be a daring, if flawed, heroine of her own story, hungrily on the trail of whatever arrows these weird Nazis have hidden in their quivers, even, and especially, if something about this quest leads to more answers to who or what this Fatale might be.
Josephine is far too tough and adventurous a woman to play the “damsel in distress”, but when circumstances dictate a need for rescue, Brubaker is not afraid to set the proper dominos up to realistically show that Jo may be immortal, but she’s hardly infallible.
Where the story and art meet, Fatale #14 firmly cements itself in the Noir genre. Even amid the monstrous and warlike surroundings, the tough-as-nails gumshoe-style narration, told in the omniscient narrator’s voice, but from Walt Booker’s point of view, actually outnumbers the word balloons in every frame. Brubaker’s storytelling is beautifully complemented by Phillips’ command of light effects, primarily with his excellent use of shadow. This coupled with Breitweisers often monochromatic coloring, give many of these pages’ single frames a stark and electrifying, creepy look, like something from the original run of Eerie, Tales from the Crypt or even Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula.
The beauty of Fatale #14 goes beyond the classic “horror comic” look of its art and extends to the narrative itself. For the past few decades, the trend in comics has been to maximize profits by extending story lines over multiple issues and giving the reader only small amounts of the story in each twenty-odd pages of each issue. Fatale may be doing the same thing, considering that even a long, detailed adventure within the life of Josephine, is still just a tiny part of her story. However, the point is that with Fatale, Brubaker and company are giving us a long, detailed adventure, all within the pages of the fourteenth issue. In this way, they are reaching back to past trends to give the reader a complete and thrilling story in one issue. Interestingly enough, this maximalist approach to single-issue storytelling is even more enticing to the reader to force the pick up of the next issue.
Much like a 1940s serial, Fatale #14 is packed with thrills, chills and derring do, with the added ingredient of some terrifying paranormal mysteries. Brubaker remains one step ahead of the audience at every twist and turn and manages to deliver a very surprising and sexy horror adventure tale with classic artwork and very modern storytelling. This may be part of a bigger trend with Image and Dark Horse, to give uncommon (and even throwback) sagas a chance at the comic rack, but that doesn’t mean that there is any stagnant sameness to these titles. There isn’t really another title like Fatale on the racks today and while Josephine stands with her less common brethren, Fatale is not following other trends, but is a part of its own.