by Alec Berry and Chad Nevett
Week 2. The final week?
( we totally missed the deadline )
Alec Berry: We’ve
made it clear in the past that we’re fans of this creative team, and
I’m happy to say that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips aren’t OK with growing comfortable. Fatale is
quite ambitious. Ambitious for its interest in melding genres, but more
so for its approach to assembling the story and the range of its
fictional landscape. Plus, according to Brubaker, this project just
keeps growing and growing, pushing from 12 issues to 15 and now to
whenever he feels it’s done.
There’s no doubt Fatale does tread some familiar ground, but the series doesn’t feel like an exercise in recycling. Instead, Fatale pushes
the interests of the creators and expands the territory those interests
can walk upon. The whole thing’s about a femme fatale, but so far we’ve
seen that one thing interact with horror, Lovecraft, 70s Hollywood and a
time hopping narrative (with surely more to come). Plus, Brubaker and
Phillips have shed light on the fatale’s POV which opens up a whole
other angle in terms of a noir staple.
importantly, it’s all a juggling act on their part. They have to keep
all of these objects in the air and synchronize them for our reading
pleasure, and so far, though with a few slight slips, they’ve done a
pretty nice job of making all of this work. At moments, it may seem fair
to ask, “what is going on?”, but with each subsequent issue I’ve found
my questions answered, and at this point there’s a confidence in this
series. Brubaker and Phillips want to build Fatale this way, and the reading experience is a much more involving one for it.
For some reason, I expect you’re about to disagree with me, so I’ll hand it off to you, Chad.
Chad Nevett: Did I talk about Fatale
with you and Joey? I honestly can’t remember, because I wound up
talking to Tim and Joey the following night after some online RPGing
fell through and I might have talked about it with them.
I like Fatale.
I think. I’m at the point where I’m putting aside issues to read in
larger chunks, because I find myself drifting when I drop in for single
issues. Part of the problem, I think, is the ambition of the series and
the unfamiliar ground for this team. Not as much Phillips as Brubaker.
Phillips has drawn stuff like this going back to Hellblazer,
but Brubaker still seems like he’s trying to find a way to pull it all
together. The noir stuff works, just not when it’s run aside the rest.
There’s such a large mythology looming in the background that he doesn’t
want to simply throw in our faces that he’s forced to tease it out
and... it’s not entirely successful. It feels half-formed at times,
walking that line between the familiar and unfamiliar in a fashion where
you can see the line and where he’s comfortable as a writer. It almost
makes me wonder if he would have been better served just diving straight
into horror and leaving noir behind, because the comparison isn’t
always flattering; he would always face the comparison, but to have it
in the same comic?
don’t know why entirely, but every time I read about Brubaker expanding
the book, it seems wrong to me. I know that paid off in Captain America,
especially when Steve Rogers died. However, one of Brubaker’s biggest
strengths has always been structure and being able to tell a story well
within the structure he’s set out. Criminal
stories were very specific in their size and that was a tremendous
asset and appeal of the book. He could make stories sing and hit the
right beats at the right time when he had the structure nailed down. So
far, Fatale has meandered a bit more and hasn’t landed as strongly at the end of issues always. There hasn’t been the same “I need to read the next issue!” hook when I finish an issue.
interesting that, instead of making this a book where he and Phillips
would revisit the world and characters in separate minis, it’s just
being expanded into a default ongoing series with no end in sight. Like
the mash-up of noir and genre, that’s a little unfamiliar territory for
the two given their collaborative history, and that’s both exciting and
not. I genuinely love seeing people push themselves and try new things.
The downside is that the work isn’t always as good. The next series
where they try this will go better, no doubt. But, Fatale? Victim of experimentation, perhaps? (Too early to tell, obviously.)
you mention Brubaker walking the line between noir and horror, leaving
you a little uncertain, well, that’s the point. I’ll agree with you in
that Brubaker hasn’t necessarily picked an area of interest, but in
terms of that being detrimental, I just don’t see it. The horror comes
across sharper because of Brubaker walking that line. You’re left to
believe this is just another Brubaker/Phillips collaboration, but at
certain moments something horrific happens and you question what this
series is. They ground so much of this story into a setting you may find
predictable or familiar, yet when a monster shows up or a sacrifice
occurs it only feels more eerie because it’s surrounded by so much of
what’s familiar. They create a sense of invasion with that approach,
suggesting these supernatural elements are alive and at any moment could
fuck with what appears to be a recognizable existence - which is
and I’m pretty sure Brubaker has mentioned this somewhere in the
backmatter of this series, noir and horror just seem to mesh. Josephine
is the one character who embodies elements of both subjects, and her
dilemma shows what can be horrific about the noir style. She’s a femme
fatale, and as we’ve seen she lives a life in which she’s afraid to act
because of how her actions tend to affect others. With this, Brubaker
and Phillips have also built in a sense of sexual repression/motivation -
which tends to be a big theme in horror films and noir. Fatale hosts
a lot of sex scenes, and that’s not a coincidence - that’s the common
ground Brubaker and Phillips are working from, attaching horror and
But there are other ways in which Fatale has
shown noir to be horrific or horror to be sort of like noir. The
cynicism of noir isn’t exactly hopeful. The subplot of the corrupt cops
in the first arc shows us that. The melodrama and spectacle of horror
sort of fits the dramatic tone of noir. Look at any big reveal moment in
which a supernatural element is shown in this series and compare it to
moments when the reveal is a drawn gun or human-versus-human conflict.
They all have that same sense of shock value.
You’re right that this crew usually works within a set structure, but as we’ve discussed with Sleeper,
it isn’t unknown for them to wander a bit. Will there be mistakes? I’m
sure, but I’m OK with it because I tend to enjoy works with flaws as
long as the overall project pushes. We both agree that Fatale pushes,
and on my end I feel it’s been very interesting. Especially in terms of
the character development. Because of the space, Brubaker and Phillips
have given us some time to spend with Josephine and just sort of watch
her, and it never feels to grow old. She’s a character who’s cursed with
immortality, so it’s important to feel some of that time she’s forced
to exist within. In the second arc, the scenes of her in her big,
lonesome house just supply a sense of dread and imprisonment. Phillips
draws her always near or in a window, framing her twice through both the
panel and the window. He’s trapping her, and that’s a great, visually
traditional way to speak of her situation.
the line went silent for a few days …
Well, I just finished reading the second arc, which just finished up
this week. There’s something off with this comic. Off as in... I don’t
it. I love Phillips’s art, of course. I love the way he draws Jo; it’s
somehow more expressive and deeper and softer than women he’s drawn
before, which lends to the idea of her as this irresistible femme fatale
that fucks up men forever. The writing, though, just leaves me so cold.
The horror isn’t horrific, the noir is barely there... It seems more
like bad melodrama much of the time. There are moments that work, mostly
the stuff in the ‘present,’ but so much of it feels like it’s reaching
for something that it can’t quite grasp.
Let’s see if I can write an explanation that I don’t know yet...
Stone partly hit the nail on the head recently when discussing the
finale of the second arc. He said, basically, that, up until that point,
Jo’s agony over her situation was boring. We saw a man
influenced/trapped by her and not liking it, while we saw her not liking
it either. Worse, the situation is one that isn’t inherently
interesting. A woman who gets men to fall for her and do dumb things
turned up to superhuman levels? That actually takes the edge off in a
way. It’s less compelling when there’s something supernatural at play.
She’s not complicit (except when she is) and that lack of intent much of
the time creates a very passive story.
horror/supernatural stuff feels like a crutch here that allows things
to happen because they happen. There isn’t much bite, or even actual
exploration into the cult in the second arc. There’s almost a “You know
what this is...” assumption made. And we do. So, why should we care if
nothing is really being said?
sums it up for me: aside from the ‘present’ sequences, nothing is being
said. At least nothing that I haven’t seen Brubaker say before -- and
doesn’t have to be complicit for it to be interesting. Actually,
it's more interesting that she’s not and that the supernatural element of
the story forces her hand and seems to be out of her or anyone’s
control. That’s horrific - the fact that she feels bad, yet she must
continue to do what she does because of a primal need/cosmic force. If
she just agreed with it and fed into it, she’d just be any other villain
or femme fatale.
may be right in Brubaker using supernatural excuses as a crutch to move
the plot and establish its conflicts, but at the same time isn’t that
the same of any genre? And even here, the characters, or at least the
villains of the story, seem to be in possession of those supernatural
powers, sourcing their own motivations to insight the action/conflict.
The cult has a motivation. They want Jo. Why? We’re not sure, but we’re
not supposed to be sure because this thing’s a mystery too, and that
provides some of the suspense. Why are they after her? Keep reading.
As for saying something new, I’ll give you that. Sleeper said
all of this better, but at the same time the message or grand thought
doesn’t seem to be the reason for this series. Above, I made the case
for Fatale being
an exercise for Brubaker and Phillips to further indulge their
interests and entertain those interests in different ways. Through
execution, that is so. We’re seeing this team sew this plot together in
an ambitious fashion along with entertaining numerous characters and
powerful forces that still remain in the dark. Yes, at the end of the
day, the grand message isn’t exactly brand new, but we’re still seeing
these creators construct a story a little differently, and I find it
worthy of reading.
for your complaint of the horror not hitting, I really don’t know what
to say except that it does for me. Difference in what we find horrific, I
glad you brought up Phillips, though. We needed to cover him. This is
arguably some of his stronger work, and I find that his usual use of the
grid and smaller panels has really taken on some new life here. There’s
something about that tightness to his layouts and page design that
works toward the claustrophobia the Josephine character experiences.
You’re spot on about how Phillips portrays Jo as visually soft and
delicate, but outside of his line the pages sort of work to choke and
suppress her. Visually, you get a sense of her almost fighting against
the page as she tries to break free of the circumstance.
Stewart’s also grown on me. I still miss Val Staples as a piece of this
team, but Stewart is slowly becoming the look. Although, it does feel a
tad less special. Stewart colors so many books, and it’s certainly
possible to take it all for granted.
So Fatale clearly isn’t a favorite of yours. Is this the worst Brubaker/Phillips project? What could have made Fatale better for you, to put it neatly?
CN: I’m with you on Val Staples. Something clicked there with Sean Phillips -- like Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary/Laura DePuy on The Authority.
I really liked the colouring (and inking) on Hitch’s other work, but it
was missing some intangible -- perhaps simply the one in my head. Same
thing here. But, that’s me...
is not necessarily the worst Brubaker/Phillips project, but it’s
definitely the one where I find myself pulled in two directions the
most. As you point out, Phillips is continuing to grow and improve as an
artist, doing some of his best work here. While Brubaker is leaving me
cold on almost every level. That gap between writing and art has never
been so wide and that’s disappointing. I think, on the whole, Incognito
underwhelmed me more. I guess my problem is taking noir tropes and
splicing them with other genres. They already do straight-up noir crime
comics so well that it feels like watering those stories down with genre
conveniences. Or cutting the comics with something bad.
also the limitation of how much you’re willing to let any artist
re-explore the same ideas again and again. I have it seems almost
infinite patience for Warren Ellis exploring similar ideas in new ways,
but not Ed Brubaker? That’s certainly a possibility. Not really fair,
I’m perfectly fine with watching this team as well as Brubaker himself
re-explore a certain number of thoughts. To me, it’s no different than
what plenty of other writers do. Brubaker has his interests, and he
expands on them through familiar stories. It’s what writers do. Some
just work better than others.
If I were to provide a ranking, I’d put Fatale somewhere
in the middle of the list, maybe near a spot in the upper half. It’s
not the all-out strongest in terms of impact, but its playfulness and
sense of chance make it fun to read and watch develop. It’s definitely
better than Incognito, but it doesn’t really challenge the likes of Sleeper or Criminal: Lawless either. More like a Criminal: Bad Night, than anything. Though, all subject to change if coming issues really pull this thing over the top.
We’ve claimed Fatale as
being some of Sean Phillips’ stronger work, but why? For me, I see his
sensibilities and style of storytelling very effective with this type of
tale. We’ve both discussed his attention to the main character, but the
time-hopping also allows Phillips to draw, at least so far, two eras he
excels at: the 1940s/classic film noir era and 70s Hollywood, a time
period that goes along well with Phillips’ work drawing Criterion
covers. The settings are to his advantage, but we’re also getting his
take on horror and more specifically the supernatural. I’m sure those
areas were covered in his Hellblazer
issues, but here it’s at work again, and it’s unsettling how similar it
is to his take on crime comics. It seems unintentional and more a case
of an overpowering visual style, but no matter the case Phillips’ style
forces him to blend the noir and horror further. His pacing is no
different here, and he approaches horror reveals very much like he
approaches moments of reveal in a crime story. In fact, Fatale may just show us how horrific Phillips has been drawing crime all along, showing us a true terror we can actually experience.
and all, this book just involves all of the right elements for
Phillips. He’s drawing plenty of interesting stuff - from setting to
objects to characters - along with constructing everything effectively.
And that line and those inks are just at work. Very rich and at times
I see two potential reasons for why I think this is Phillips’s best
work (well, there’s a third, too): it’s his most recent work and I’m of
the mind that he keeps getting better. Or, there’s the lack of
connection with the writing, making the art seems better because it
needs to compensate more than usual. The third reason could be that it is
better for many of the reasons you gave. I don’t believe Phillips has
ever done a character as well as Jo. She is singular within this world
visually and that impresses me quite a bit. She’s different from the
others, but not so different that it looks like a completely radical
style that clashes. I rather like that.
and with that, old man Nevett exhaled, and the room went quiet …