By Andy Wolverton
I believe Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips could infuse their noir talents into just about any genre and come up with a winner. They’ve proven themselves in the past with crime noir (Criminal, Scene of the Crime), science fiction/superhero noir (Incognito), espionage noir (Sleeper), and now supernatural noir in the form of Fatale, a series begun in late 2012 from Image Comics.
If you’re familiar with previous Brubaker/Phillips collaborations, you won’t be surprised to find Fatale a dark, violent and utterly compelling work for mature readers. Brubaker mixes pulp crime stories with the otherworldly atmosphere of Lovecraftian horror in a way that gives equal weight and honor to both. Add to this Phillips’ gritty art style that leans heavily on revealing just enough light to make the areas of darkness absolutely terrifying.
In the first two volumes of Fatale (Death Chases Me and The Devil’s Business), Brubaker and Phillips introduce us to Josephine, a true femme fatale: a woman no man can resist, regardless of the consequences. Fatale weaves back and forth through different decades of the 20th century, always showing a Josephine who never ages, yet is constantly pursued by a mysterious cult of evil men and creatures that would make Cthulhu proud. The third and most recent trade paperback, West of Hell (collecting Fatale #11-14) takes something of a break from the main story arcs and provides answers to some of the questions we’ve had about Josephine as we learn more about her powers, limitations and history.
West of Hell opens in 1936 Texas as Josephine tracks down an aging writer of pulp tales who may hold the key to understanding who (or what) she is. The volume ends with Josephine in 1943, caught in the midst of Nazi-controlled Romania. Sandwiched between these segments, Brubaker and Phillips give us the stories of Mathilda, the survivor of a witch hunt in 13th century France, and Black Bonnie, an outlaw from the Old West in 1883. Are these different incarnations of Josephine or simply her predecessors? Is the cult seeking her in the 20th century the same brotherhood attacking Mathilda in 13th-century France?
Each of the four stories examines the relationships between these various femmes fatale and the men in their lives, not all of whom react to the women in the same way. Part of this is explained, part is not. Brubaker and Phillips are masters of pacing and suspense, and like Josephine, they entice us to keep the pages turning.
The two Josephine stories that bookend the volume show us the character’s growth and development between the 1936 and 1943 stories. In the first, Josephine is filled with surprise, shock and fear as she begins to discover her powers. In the second, seven years later, she’s become hardened, almost too complacent in her abilities, so much so that the presence of the Nazis awakens her to realize she’d “forgotten what real danger felt like.”
One of the hallmarks of the Brubaker/Phillips collaborations is their unique layering of words and pictures. Brubaker frequently superimposes narration boxes with a point-of-view character’s thoughts over several consecutive panels, foregoing word or thought balloons. The pictures alone are powerful enough to tell the story and the narration in isolation delves into the depths of the narrator’s mind. Yet the blending of the narrator’s thoughts with pacing of each panel’s art provides enormous power and impact both satisfying and unsettling. This is what good comics do and average ones don’t.
Regardless of the era, Phillips’ art effortlessly displays marvelous period detail in clothing, cars, hairstyles, weapons, and more. The one constant, however, is his feel for noir in each time period – the shadows, darkness, and sense of impending dread.
I want to point out something that may seem small, but elevates Fatale beyond an ordinary mash-up of horror and noir. Sure, we accept that Josephine is a femme fatale, that she has some mysterious, undeniable quality that men cannot escape. It’s something of a given. Yet Phillips gives us a couple of close-ups of Josephine that depart from his regular stark, gritty style, showing us a woman who is absolutely stunning. The different style forces you to dwell not just on the change, but on how beautiful this woman is. You begin to understand how no man could resist her. Again, Phillips didn’t have to include these panels, but he did.
This installment of Fatale may seem something of a holding pattern for some readers, but the glimpses into Josephine’s past(s) and the implications for the future are fascinating. I normally don’t recommend starting a series anywhere other than from the beginning, but West of Hell is not a bad jumping on point for readers who may be curious about the series. Brubaker and Phillips prove with this volume that they’re still at the top of their game. I’m not sure where they’re going to lead us, but I’m confident it’ll be a great journey.
Complete your collection of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips noir: