Stepping back from the supernatural shenanigans of Fatale, The Fade Out marks a return to prime noir territory for Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips – one of the most durable and reliable creative teams in comics.
When superstar scribe Ed Brubaker was a wee young shaver, his family get-togethers must have been a bit of a hoot. While his dad worked in US Naval Intelligence and one of his uncles was a “big mucky-muck in the CIA”, another uncle was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Paxton, who made a name for himself in the post-war years in the shadowy world of film noir.
And that Hollywood milieu is the inspiration for The Fade Out, Brubaker’s first new series with long-term collaborator Sean Phillips since the pair signed a five-year deal with Image Comics at the start of the year (and on the shelf before poor old Fatale is even cold in its grave).
Our guide through the murky world of 1948 Los Angeles is hapless screenwriter Charlie Parish, who wakes up lost and hungover after a showbiz party the night before. However, as he puts the pieces together, he makes a horrifying discovery: the body of a young actress, strangled just yards from where he’d been drunkenly slumbering.
As Charlie flees the scene and panics about what to do next, it soon becomes apparent that larger forces are at work. The police record and report the woman’s death as a suicide, while the studio ploughs ahead with its production, barely pausing to work out how to complete the film without its female lead.
As in a lot of film noir, what looks like the main plot may actually turn out to be a bit of a MacGuffin. While the plot here is rooted in a particular time and place, the real story is an altogether more universal one: the rich and powerful will do whatever they have to to get what they want.
And people like Charlie – at the very bottom of the Hollywood food chain, as a lowly writer – can easily find themselves being thrown on the sacrificial altar.
If you come to The Fade Out hoping that Brulips will have reinvented itself somehow for the launch of a brand new project, you’re in for a disappointment. With its ‘voice-over’ narration and solid artwork, the comic looks, feels and ‘sounds’ exactly as you should probably have expected.
However, that’s no bad thing. A quick check on my bespoke database reveals that Brubaker and Phillips have produced approximately eleventy gazillion pages of comics together down the years, so what you might lose on the swings of surprise you gain on the roundabout of, um, two sympatico creators working together like a well-oiled machine.
Sean Phillips really is the mountain goat of comics: he never puts a foot wrong. Backed up by the sensitive colouring of Elizabeth Breitweiser, he’s got a particularly uncanny skill for evoking period and place. (He’s also up there with Howard Chaykin for giving good suit).
The atmospheric opening arc of Fatale, set in 1950s San Francisco, was probably my favourite run of the whole series, and Phillips bottles the same lightning here.
And he’s aided by the inestimable craft of Brubaker. Sure we’ve heard the narration before, but Brubaker takes charge from the first two pages, which use an entertaining wartime anecdote to slip home the key thematic fact that in LA, “Something in the air made it easier to believe lies”.
He also solves the perennial problem of exposition in an elegant and fitting way, as Charlie’s fractured drunken memories gradually coalesce to reveal at least some of what happened the night before.
Part of this is probably down to Brubaker’s familial link to the subject matter, but it also owes a lot to the creators roping in Amy Conduit, the manager of the LA Police Museum, as a research assistant. And the employment of David Brothers as an editor has probably helped to tighten the work even more.
As with their previous series, Brubaker and Philips are doing what they can to entice sales of the monthly issues, courtesy of exclusive contextual articles and artwork: this time round, film writer Devin Faraci provides ‘The Lonesome Death of Peg Entwistle’ – the sad tale of the ‘patron saint of stalled stardom’, who famously killed herself by throwing herself off the H of the Hollywoodland sign (as it was then) in 1932.
It might sound a strange recommendation to say that a comic was pretty much just as you expected it. However, when that means that it was a classy and intriguing bit of storytelling presented immaculately, you know it’s just another book from Brubaker and Phillips.
Ed Brubaker (W), Sean Phillips (A), Elizabeth Breitweiser (C) • Image Comics, $3.50, August 20, 2014