Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Cover by: Sean Phillips
Hot off the heels of Criminal “The Last of the Innocent”, the team of Brubaker and Philips are back with a creator-owned take on crime noir fiction and horror. There has been a considerable amount of buzz and hype on this comic online, so much in fact that it sold out at the distribution level even before it showed up at comic book shops. My copy actually got sold out from under me at the shop I go to even though I had out it on my pull-list a full three weeks prior. It forced me to grab a digital copy to satisfy my curiosity. It should be obvious by now that I’m a big Brubaker and Phillips fan. Ever since a friend lent me Sleeper, their gritty crime stories, capers gone wrong, and black-ops super hero epics have hooked me. Add to that the fact that there is a Lovecraftian type monster with a tommy gun on the variant cover and I was ready to devour this comic. I couldn’t wait! Who doesn’t want to see C’thulu with a gun?!
So now that I’ve read Fatale the big question is does the comic live up to the hype? For the most part, yes. Brubaker jumps straight into the set-up with the funeral of pulp noir writer Dominic Raines, godfather of the lead, Nicolas Lash. Weird cult-markings on the tombstone spark the curiosity of Nicolas, as his godfather was an atheist. Pretty ironic for a godfather, seeing as how they are supposed to be responsible for the spiritual guidance of the godchild. Anyways, he meets a stunning brunette named Jo at the funeral that just floors him. She’s able to shed some light on the markings; there’s a connection between her grandmother and Dominic, something they shared in the past. The rest of comic builds at whirlwind pace. An unpublished manuscript of Dominic’s is discovered, men in black attack, a wild shoot-out erupts, and then there’s a car chase, a plane crash and an amputation. The manuscript is then used as an exposition dump to further unravel the back story of Dominic and Jo’s grandmother, with hints of Nazi cults, bizarre love spells, ritualistic killings, and squid-creatures in military regalia. What the reader is left with is a monster of a whodunit and a dash of “what the fuck” to dwell on. Unfortunately, I noticed a bit of repetition as well.
While Fatale is a weird and uniquely voiced comic, Criminal “Last of the Innocent” has a similar structure. A funeral sets the stage and an Archie-styled comic strip is used as a window to the past. The strips are used sporadically as a b-story in Criminal. This contrasts to the manuscript in Fatale, which is a chunk at the end of the first issue, but you can draw parallels between the two literary devices. It’s evident that Brubaker is riffing off of earlier work. He’s included some other elements from his bibliography as well, such as using a writer as a main character (from earlier volumes of Criminal), Nazi occult (from Fear Itself: The Book of The Skull), and of course a dark-haired femme fatale (from Criminal, Incognito and bunch of other books). I suppose it’s much the same way an artist will paint variations of a subject he’s interested in. You do it further your studies and refine process and style. If I hadn’t just re-read “Last of the Innocent” I probably wouldn’t have even picked up on it. Instead I’ll quote Roast Master General Jeffery Ross and say “Too soon.” It distracted me from the storyline and made me think about technique. As a fan of his work I was happy to get an interesting story but I wanted a fresh approach as well.
Sean Phillips has a great mastery of light and shadow, and his work on Fatale brings grit and mystery to this occult noir potboiler. His character designs add a sense of visual realism to the narrative. Jo looks like a knock out femme fatale. Nicolas Lash has a Dr. Strange-style white stripe going through his otherwise black crop of hair, giving him a hint of magic and intellect. Even the squid-man, who only shows up on a one-page montage, is rendered with a frightening expression and a commanding posture that gives us a glimpse at the maniacal presence he will surely have in the upcoming arc. There is one panel however that didn’t go over too well with me. It’s a minor detail, but the way he rendered the girl waking up from a dream, she looks like she has a pig snout. Unless of course this is a peak into the future and she really does turn in to a pig-girl creature. Maybe pig-girl and squid-man hook up and do some nasty cult shit together, but I doubt it. It’s probably just a rushed panel. The fine-line pen work also appears done by a Pigma Micron pen; they tend to leave a dead flat line and bleed a bit at intersecting points giving an unpolished quality. Those nit-picks aside, there are some really nice compositions and renderings in this comic. I found the crime scenes particularly well executed and was taken aback by their raw graphic nature. Phillips doesn’t pull any punches when drawing corpses. They are bleeding hunks of meat so real you can see the stink. His action scenes are just as intense, you can feel the adrenaline of a car chase and experience the shock of a plane crash. Improbable circumstances and situations transition effortlessly as a result of hard work from a seasoned storyteller. The flair and panache that Phillips adds to this title is clearly just as crucial to its buzz and success as Brubaker.
While not flawless, I anxiously await the next installment of Fatale. I know I’m getting a killer one-two combo from two of the leading creators in the business. It will be interesting to see where the story goes, if it’s headed toward familiar waters or will veer off unexpectedly into some uncharted territory. Will the pulp back story every catch up with the present? Will we see more of Nazi squid-face? Will Squid-face and pig-girl hook up? Also, what about those cult symbols found on the tombstone? And what’s going on will all these killings and sacrifices? If any on this weirdness interests you, I recommend checking out Fatale. That is, if you can track down a copy of it.
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