So I’m finally back with something about comics, and this is one of the more fun posts I’ve had the pleasure of writing recently.
Until a few months ago, it’d been awhile since I’d read a comic from Ed Brubaker. I realize that’s on me but Image sold me on Velvet not just with Brubaker’s name, but with a killer concept: Ms. Moneypenny as super spy. Well, as fun as that book’s been so far, it also served another purpose, and that was to reintroduce me to the beautifully grim narrative voice of Ed Brubaker. Velvet is definitely more espionage than crime, but from there, I decided to try one of his many collaborations with Sean Phillips. Phillips is an artist whose work I hadn’t made myself familiar with yet, but who was obviously held in high regard by Brubaker himself, and this was obvious because of the numerous projects the two have collaborated on. There were so many to choose from, as they’ve worked on close to a half-dozen projects together since Brubaker started doing creator-owned work at Image a few years back, and because of a random Comixology sale, I decided to try out their latest book: Fatale.
Now, I’ve read gritty Brubaker before, Gotham Central and his brief run on Daredevil are some of my favorite stories in comics, but I’d never seen Brubaker uncensored. The Image stories he’s telling with Phillips all have the freedom to play with whatever they want to in terms of content, and it allows for a darkness that even Brubaker hadn’t been able to bring to his readers with the major publishers. The story itself is about a woman named Josephine, the titular femme fatale of the book, who somehow gets herself involved in an occultist plot that would be at home in either The Big Sleep or an H.P. Lovecraft short-story. It’s that combination of pulpy crime-fiction, and guttural sci-fi that makes the story boil over with content, both in terms of storytelling and character development. Josephine, or “Jo,” as she’s called by those closest to her in the book, is a mystery to both us and the men that she knowingly or unknowingly seduces through her travels. The time frame of the story starts in the present day, but bounces around the 20th century to illustrate what’s been going on in Jo’s life, which, as it turns out, is very, very long. She hasn’t aged since the 1930s, but even she doesn’t know why. Nevermind the audience that Brubaker’s telling this story to, even the characters in the book are confused by the extent of Jo’s importance to the organization that drives the underground narrative of the story. That could be an annoying aspect of the story in the hands of most writers, but Brubaker mercilessly drops enough hints throughout the series’ 20 or so issues (as of now) to illustrate that he does indeed have an endgame in sight and that even if we don’t necessarily know what that is, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t. This is Brubaker at his melancholic best, and the story that he’s constructed is so dark, yet so inviting that it’s impossible to not want to come along for the ride.
On another note, Sean Phillips is quintessential to the success of the book. I feel like an absolute moron for never giving any of the series he and Brubaker have worked on together a shot before now. They really are a match made in a bastardized version of heaven. Phillips’ line work is both dirty, but undoubtedly beautiful. It’s a dichotomy that serves this story in particular well, because with all of the miserable imagery associated with the occult, the central figure is supposed to be as desirable as any woman that’s ever lived. Phillips nails it, and when the violence in the story is warranted, he makes it as painful as any artist in the medium. His body language and facial expression are at their best when he gets to play with the sagging shoulders and contorted anguish present in every male that Jo has to reject at some point on her journey, and it helps you to connect with almost all of them, even if they are unrepentant monsters.
I can’t say enough about the quality of this book. As soon as it’s finished, I can’t wait to dive back through the Brubaker/Phillips catalogue with titles like Criminal or Incognito. They’re wonderfully complementary of each others’ styles, and it lifts the quality of this book to a level very few creative teams have been able to achieve, even with the ascension of creator-owned books in the last five years or so.