When people ask me who my favorite creative team in comics are, I never give them the answer they’re expecting. People think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby or Jim Lee and Geoff Johns when they think of great duets of writers and artist in comics and yet every time, without fail, I answer, “Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Hands down. 100%.” I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten a lot of argument on this but people still raise an eyebrow.
What makes these two a fighting force (for me as a reader) has always been how amazingly simple they make my favorite genres in comics. Pulp sci-fi, subtle horror, but most of all: crime and noir. There’s a talent in taking the underworld and making protagonists out of criminals and villains. You have to sell the reader on the idea that this killer, thief, or villain is someone that you should root for and sympathize with. With Fatale we see these skills coming to a head in a huge way.
The series is broken up into chapters instead of “issues” as Brubaker lays out what will effectively be each arc with a framing device and a different time period. The first arc set up our peripheral protagonist, Nicolas Lash, who upon the death of his father’s friend inherits not only the deceased’s estate but also his involvement with the mysterious Josephine (or Jo as she’s often referred). And as well, the men who are pursuing her. Lash stumbles upon her story and her involvement with a famous author, Dominic Raines, who knew his father. Upon further examination, though, we find Jo’s story continues from the ’30s through the ’50s and even into the late ’70s which is where issue #9’s story is hip deep in examining. When this arc began, we were introduced to Miles and Suzy, two kids just trying to get by in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. B-movies, drugs, smut films, cults… and something more sinister that is directly tied to Jo and her pursuers.
The mark of a great noir isn’t the mystery. People will sometimes get wrapped up in the whodunnit and forget that the hallmark of true film noir is the world steeped in dark corners and darker characters who commit deeds. It’s these characters and their seedy motivations that just add layers to that darkness. Brubaker and Phillips take this that one step farther by tapping into demonic creatures and an almost Lovecraftian bent to their nature.
Lash becomes the reader’s link to this story and through his exploration into the history of the ageless Jo, we are drawn deeper and deeper into that dark underbelly that noir hides within. By the time issue #9 arrives, we’re wading through Miles and his growing obsession with Jo (as is her effect on all men) while Suzy has decided to try to get away from what is too much for her fragile mind to deal with. This leads her back into the clutches of the Method Church and begins to reveal just how much they’re tied to the monstrous enforcers of Jo’s former captor.
The film Argo, really gave me a better feeling for this setting than I would have had just stepping into reading this chapter of Fatale. While Ben Affleck’s film gave you timely flashback to the late ’70s era of Hollywood and its desperation in just holding on in the wake of the end of the Carter administration, Brubaker and Phillips show an even dingier side with more drugs, human trafficking, and human sacrifice.
In an interesting twist, Brubaker allows the whodunnit to reemerge as a critical theme. We’re left wondering just who the antagonists that are pursuing Miles and Jo are working for, and how they’re tied to the previous arc from the story. And we’re also left wondering what groundwork might be laid here for future tales in Fatale. Recently, Brubaker announced the title would be an ongoing with no definite end issue in mind, organically continuing until an ending presented itself. While that might dissuade the casual Vertigo reader from wanting to hitch themselves to a wagon with no destination (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead), Fatale’s ability to jump around in time periods and tell tales without yet exposing all the players, might not need that structure of 60-something issues we’ve become used to.
I cannot emphasize enough how much Fatale is one of the best series on the stands and if you’re a fan of Criminal and Incognito, this is the progression in the repertoire of the best creative team in comics. The first trade is out, the arcs are broken up definitively, and each one offers a story that is a perfect jumping on point so that you can get swept up in the twists of a very mature narrative. You will not be disappointed.