By: Ed Brubaker (story), Sean Phillips (art), Elizabeth Breitweiser (colors)

The Story: You can’t wish on a fallen star.

The Review: I’d like to start off this review of Brubaker’s latest work by saying a few words about his last one. In the end, I’m not sure it was the most entertaining or impressive or even memorable series ever (already the why and how of Jo’s life is slipping my mind), but Fatale sure was different. It’s rare to come across a work so minimally derivative and also so well-written. Brubaker may not have gotten his point clearly across, but his storytelling was unparalleled.

With his elaborate, urgent prose style, Brubaker often comes across as a novelist whose medium happens to be half-visual. His choice of subject for The Fade Out is certainly untypical for a comic book, being firmly set in the real world, in a real historical period, with no fantastical, sci-fi twists or spins. There’s no invitation to suspend your disbelief; Brubaker challenges himself and Phillips to tell a purely human drama convincingly without the caveat of overt fictionalization.

Genre tropes play a role, of course; I’m not sure Brubaker can ever escape the niche of noir he’s carved for himself. Charlie Parish may not be a fedora-wearing P.I., but nevertheless into his life walks a beautiful dame who later ends up dead in the most sordid circumstances, and presto: we have a whodunit in which everyone, even Charlie, is a suspect.

To fog the mystery even further, the story is set in 1940s Hollywood, where everyone’s job involves deception in varying degrees. It’s not just writers like Charlie and Gil Mason, or actors like the debauched Earl Rath. Equally skilled in the art of lying is publicist Dotty Quinn, who embellishes the lives of the stars under her wing with abandon, and head of security Phil Brodsky, who may be willing to desecrate a corpse to protect the studio’s reputation. Their work is made easier by a credulous public. Charlie recalls a time when paranoid Hollywooders were convinced Japanese aircrat were flying in the darkened skies overhead, even though no sound could be heard. “There were no planes up in those skies, just stars you normally couldn’t see. This was just how it was here…something in the air made it easier to believe lies.”

Fade Out gets
its urgent pulse from the broken narrative, as Charlie struggles to pick up the pieces of his memories from the night of the murder. The skips back and forth across time may be jarring, but Brubaker’s grip on the story is so tight that you’re never left in confusion. There’s also a conviction and rawness to the characters’ emotions that saves the title from being a mere pastiche of Humphrey Bogart-era movies. The horror of the murder is both overshadowed and highlighted by the callously professional manner by which the characters discuss it. Charlie’s the only one who seems genuinely broken up about it (besides the temperamental Earl); the others express momentary sympathy at best and brazen uncaring at worst.

It’s a fascinating side of Hollywood that Brubaker’s presenting. Anyone who even glances at magazine headlines on a regular basis knows that scandal is the lifeblood of the Industry, but the idea that a person’s murder can be repackaged for easier absorption into the mire that is public consciousness takes things to a new level. Charlie’s search for answers tests whether any kind of truth, however fleeting, can survive in such an environment.

Phillips’ noir style, so heavily reliant on the play between light and shadow, is perfectly suited to a story set during the height of the noir genre. The women have classic, rounded features and pert lips; the men are either dashing and chiseled or everymen. To make the period piece come to life even further, Phillips adds all kinds of telling detail: the “Hollywoodland” sign in the background, the fringed lamps in every room, the prominence of the Brown Derby. Breitweiser chooses colors at home, rather than at odds, with the pervasive darkness in the issue, warm enough to bring a fragile life into this cruel world.

Conclusion: Brubaker and Phillips pull off a convincingly grounded mystery with the smoothness of two people who know exactly what they’re doing.

Grade: A

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Some excellent names in this series. Tri-syllable names have such a nice ring to them, don’t they? Of course, I’m a bit biased, having one myself.