Review by C.J. Bunce
Jason McClain is a big fan of Ed Brubaker’s writing. He’s mentioned his appreciation for Brubaker’s Sleeper books here at borg.com more than once. So when I saw the enticing noir cover art on the first issues of the new series Fatale, I figured this was a good place to start. I picked up Issues 1 and 3-5 and it took me awhile to track down #2 so I only this week could read the first story arc straight through. The new story arc starts with the next issue, coming out soon.
Based on the noir covers I was looking forward to what I have found in my favorite film noir–Otto Preminger’s Laura, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Dial “M” for Murder and Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart in Call Northside 777, also Sorry, Wrong Number, Elizabeth C. Bunce’s fantasy noir Liar’s Moon, and in a strange way, even the voiceover version of Blade Runner. For the most part these are all crime noir stories. A dangerous damsel–the Femme Fatale as in Double Indemnity–plus a Dana Andrews-looking character in a gray fedora who is usually a cop or newspaper reporter, and a dangerous city full of secrets and dark, wet streets–all of this is the stuff of noir. But I was thinking about this all wrong. I had no idea Ed Brubaker and artist partner Sean Phillips were creating a supernatural 1950s pulp horror/thriller, not a noir pulp crime novel. None of my favorite film noir has anything supernatural so from only a few pages in I was thrown a bit. Fatale is noir, but it is just as much supernatural horror. So I read the story once and was confused a bit. Then I figured out what genre I was reading and read it again.
If you like supernatural horror and you like the 1950s underworld as your setting, Fatale is a very interesting read–almost like revisiting a lost story type. The supernatural bits remind me of the TV series Medium, which often contained surprisingly dark and gory crime moments juxtaposed with the lives of good, caring people. Same goes here. Like the movie Skeleton Key, where a man and woman use voodoo to switch bodies and live forever, and like Rosemary’s Baby and The Others, Fatale’s characters are sucked into shocking and frightening situations and as readers we aren’t supposed to know all that is going on until the end.
Fatale has the requisite fascination of an otherwise boring man with an attractive, inaccessible, mysterious woman. Nicolas Lash meets Josephine at the funeral of his godfather, Hank Raines. Raines once knew Josephine back in the 1950s. She’s blackmailed by a detective in the 1950s world of the story, Walt Booker, and both Josephine and Walt have this unnatural power over each other. Is Josephine a “pusher” in the X-Files sense or does she just bring out something in others innocently? What are these occult priestly fellows in red showing up dead everywhere and this fanged beast who kills Raines’ wife? I’d need a few more re-reads to really catch the complexity of what happened here. Each issue from #2 on has a lead-in paragraph at the beginning to explain what happened in the prior issue. I found myself puzzled by these summaries, as in “oh, is that what happened last issue?” Since I read these through in one sitting, I’d think I shouldn’t be surprised by a summary of what I just read, yet I was. Usually if stories suffer it’s through too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” Here I think this story has the reverse problem, but only a bit, and could stand to explain a little more plainly what the heck is going on with the mass suicide, magic dagger, old novel script and some pile of papers that need translating. At times I felt I was totally in sync with the story–there was a 1960s James Bond aura at different points along the way that created a cool vibe. Then with the symbology and strange beast who was also a leader that looked like Hitler, I was out of sync again.
Without question, the best part of Fatale is Sean Phillips’ 1950s style art. If I wasn’t following a scene from the dialogue then I could usually get there with the visual storytelling. Fatale looks like the noir I’d expect to see, for most of the scenes. Dave Stewart’s coloring creates a world familiar to fans of Edward Hopper’s paintings. I think the storytelling has some jarring moments, however. Things like expletives that seem out-of-place and -time bothered me here. It could be because, even if people used expletives in the real 1950s, 1950s movies never did, and so the aura of 1950s drama seems more accessible to me than what might have been real-life lingo (although I refuse to believe folks in 1950s swear as much as, and with the exact same colorful metaphors as, we have today as this work reflects). So I love the look of Fatale, but am not sure of how much I like the story and whether I would recommend it to others not familiar with this genre. The “voiceover” parts were quite good (the “it was a dark night in the city when I first met her” kind of thing). Are Brubaker and Phillips’ other works supernatural horror like this? I’d be willing to try more of their works to find out.
Fatale did make me think a lot about characterization, mood, and what makes something a crime novel vs a horror novel vs a supernatural thriller. In a different kind of way, it made me think about complexity of story much as I did reading and watching the Watchmen graphic novel and film adaptation. Anything that makes you think like that is probably a good thing.