The Fade Out
By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
An actress strangled. A writer suffering from PTSD. A bungalow owned by a production company in its last gasp before the end of the studio system. The executives don’t care what happened, but maybe the writer does, and maybe he’s determined to find out, even if it means exposing his darkest secrets to a late 1940s Hollywoodland gripped by the Red Scare.
Charlie Parish – What war does to a man. A once promising screenwriter whose creative voice was silenced by the horrors of WW2. Already wracked by soldier’s guilt, he must find a way to cope with his complicity in letting the studio cover up Valeria’s death, knowing he was passed out drunk in the next room when it occurred.
“Well, I like you just fine. It’s just, I liked her too.”
“No … Not even close.”
Gil Mason – Another writer and early victim of Hollywood’s Red Scare, Gil was tagged as a commie and run out of town. He finds a way back in through his friend Charlie’s writer’s block. He needs to stay invisible. But spiraling alcoholism prevents his righteousness and talent from finding a better life.
“They take everything from me – Now they rape and kill this girl and --”
“They didn’t take everything from you, Gil.”
Victor Thursby – Studio head and possible sexual deviant with an eye for talent and a desire to keep his pictures on track and free of tabloid attention. His motives and morals remain hidden, perhaps even to himself.
“Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a child … Christ.”
Phil Brodsky – Head of the studio’s security, Brodsky understands a thing or two about discretion. In covering up Valeria’s death as a suicide, he is also charged with keeping everyone quiet, and he’ll do anything to keep the crickets chirping.
“Well think about that a bit harder next time, Asshole. You know how the old man feels about sympathizers.”
Valeria Sommers & Maya Silver – Two sides of the same coin. Valeria was murdered and Maya will replace her on set. Maya struggles to be something more than a sex toy for powerful men to get ahead, and within her trials, Valeria’s own tortured past is revealed.
“I don’t want to be famous, Charlie.”
“Then why’d you run off and join this circus?”
“Christ … I can’t even remember anymore.”
“Worse than the sick realization that someone was strangling this girl while he was passed out just twenty feet away, [is this]: He can’t call the police.”
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create another interesting, well wrought noir comic with absorbing characters and an original plot. The headline itself seems trite now. How do these two continuously challenge not only a comic genre that borders on hackneyed, but also push themselves to further heights?
Their latest work, The Fade Out, does just that. 1948 Los Angeles is perhaps the most overused setting in all of noir, but it’s also one of the most inspiring, and Brubaker skillfully renders it as the major set piece for the extensive research he has compiled on the era. No grizzled Marlowe-esque P.I.’s sleeping with dames, no drunken but good-hearted Bud White types on the beat, steaming for a fight or an arrest. Not here. The Fade Out steps away from the comfortable trappings of the police/P.I. procedural and embraces the murder mystery, delicately excluding the need for cops by putting his would-be hero in a compromising position from the onset, preventing him from relying on anyone other than himself to solve the inexplicable death of an up-and-coming starlet.
Appropriately, and unsurprisingly, Sean Phillips has cast the authenticity of 1940s LA as a major character. Nestled between the subtle dialogue panels and crying women, he delights viewers with cable cars, signage, and the pleasant accouterments of everyone’s favorite time in Hollywoodland. The suits, the dresses, the night clubs and drunken brawls, they are all here, and given loving treatment by one of the few masters of minimalism in comics today.
In some of their previous partnerships, we’ve seen Brubaker and Phillips tackle the modern crime tale in Criminal and combining the dark supernatural with noir in Fatale. Throughout both, we see strong characters and acute realism, but also, growing complexity. Brubaker’s yarns have always been interesting and multifaceted (See: Captain America), but it is a wholly different thing to touch on a multitude of characters, each with very limited panel time, and have the reader understand their value to the plot and at the same time, have them interesting enough to keep exploring. No doubt, Phillips’ closely rendered portraits help aid their urgency within the plot. At once repulsed and intrigued by Victor Thursby’s secret passage into his stars’ changing rooms, captivated by a two page flashback where Valerie and Maya commiserate on the audition process even though the reader knows one will die and the other will benefit, it is in these moments, the subtle characterization interspersed between the blood and fists that Brubaker’s universe comes alive.
The book’s only limitation is the same as Fatale’s. The episodic nature of single issues lessens the impact of key scenes and reveals without extensive re-reading. If only the entirety of the book could be eaten in one gulp, the way a proper pulp was always meant to be consumed. Understanding the economics of it all, it’d still be nice if twenty four issues of Fatale or the extent of The Fade Out were available in one sitting.
As it stands, we’re left waiting, wanting, trying to make sense of just who is that man standing with Ronnie Reagan, what does Clark Gable have to do with all of this, and of course, how and when will Gil and Charlie’s secrets unravel their friendship and ultimately their lives? Oh, and the murder too of course.
As with some of TDC’s previous reviews, those who are fans of the genre but not of comics would do well to see what the pillars of the community are doing. Creativity in the noir genre doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Not if Brubaker and Phillips have anything to say about it.
J. J. Sinisi
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.