“There were no planes up in those skies, just stars you normally couldn’t see. That’s just how it was here… Something in the air made it easier to believe lies.”
Unless you’re a comic book aficionado, the name Ed Brubaker may not ring a bell. However, if you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’ve seen an adaptation of his work. What the film doesn’t convey is Brubaker’s bone-deep love of noir, which has permeated his work ever since he broke into comics. Whether he’s working with the properties of The Big Two or his creator-owned stuff, Brubaker’s stories are drenched in the tropes and trappings of the genre. Now, Ed Brubaker has just entered into a contract with Image Comics, where for five years they’ll let him do whatever the hell he wants, and the first comic under that contract is The Fade Out, a straight noir set in late ’40s Hollywood, exploring the dark underside of the film industry.
Comics are a visual medium, and I would be remiss to talk about The Fade Out without touching on its artist, Sean Phillips. Now, Phillips and Brubaker have been a powerhouse team for a long time now, working together on several highly acclaimed series, usually with one word titles. (Criminal, Incognito, Sleeper, and Fatale) Phillips’ people are very solid, fleshy in a way comic book characters usually aren’t. His women in particular look like they come from live reference, like people who actually eat food. There’s a lot of detail, but he isn’t afraid to let a background express the feeling rather than a place, oftentimes drawing light as bulbs of energy eminatting from their source. (And on that note, colorist Elizabeth Brewster brings a loose, almost watercolor feeling to the pages.)
Darkness is an important component of the first issue. The first thing we see is our protagonist, screenwriter Charlie Parish, waking up in a bathtub after getting blackout drunk, the word association reminding him of the mandatory city-wide blackouts during the war. As the aforementioned Charlie Parrish quote implies, darkness doesn’t just conceal, it makes certain things easier to see. The film industry is built on light, and when those lights go out it’s possible to glimpse some of the things they were overpowering.
Lies are another paramount facet of The Fade Out. They range from the minor (a publicity girl, Dotty Quinn, has to make adjustments to various stars’ biographies depending on whatever picture they’re promoting, or the secretly debauched parties at star Earl Roth’s mansion) to the major. When Charlie wakes up in a Hollywood bungalow after a hard night of partying, he discovers that an up-and-coming starlet, Valeria Sommers, has been murdered; strangled to death. Charlie quickly wipes the place clean of his fingerprints, of any trace that anyone was there, and later, in an discussion with the studio’s head of security, Phil Brodsky, discovers that someone has gone a step further and staged Valeria’s death as a suicide. At the same time Charlie is involved in some subterfuge of his own: he’s secretly working with the blacklisted writer Gil Mason, who was sold out to the House of Un-American Activities on suspicion of being a communist. The two still have fights in public every now and then, just to keep up appearanes. Performance, on or off the screen, is another lie, and as Charlie tells us in that quote at the top, there’s something about Los Angeles that makes lies very easy to believe, and tell.
One art sequence of particular note comes after Charlie realizes the studio is trying to cover up Valeria’s murder. Charlie is walking off the lot, but the backgrounds are black and white “film stills,” which kind of correspond with his thoughts. An image of two men sword fighting accompanies the caption “He knew exactly what they were doing,” illustrating the truth struggling with the lie. A gangster firing a tommy gun out the side of a car accompanies some thoughts on on studios had been covering up rape and murder since the roaring twenties. Finally, as he muses on his part in aiding their cover up, the still behind him depicts a lone cowboy riding through a Southern California desert. Yet as he starts to think about her the cowboy is turning his horse around (in a very nice visual queue to a flashback). Yet the cowboy in the still was moving toward the camera, so is his turn simple a sudden pause or is he going to run away from whatever lies ahead?
We’ll see where things go in Issue #2.