Monday, February 20, 2012

Fatale #1

Image Comics, 24 pages plus extra material, $3.50

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Dave Stewart

“The past haunts, things you kept inside come out to make things worse, and it all ends in tears,” Ed Brubaker told me about what he called “the heart of noir” in the context of a 2007 interview. “I think that's why I love it, because within that structure, you can tell almost any story.”

And boy, does the past haunt in Fatale. Just take a look at the very first panel of the very first issue.

Someone—a guy by the cheerful name of Dominic Raines—is being put in the ground. Who was Dominic Raines? Why is Dominic Raines dead? We don’t know, but something in that picture tells you the narrator won’t like the answers, even before you read that first line of narration: “So here’s how my entire life went off the tracks in one day.” When it rains, it pours in Fatale, and the protagonist starts losing well before the story gets properly underway.

His name is Nicolas Lash, and—perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, given that first panel—he won’t make it through the 10-page prologue in one piece. In the course of the prologue we learn, among other things, that his father has “been in an institution for over a decade,” that Nicolas is the executor of Raines’ estate, and that there’s a manuscript of an unpublished novel evidently written by Raines in 1957, years before his writing career started officially. And then Things Get Worse for Nicolas Lash, just before the story skips to its proper first chapter, set in 1956.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you’re probably aware of Brubaker and Phillips’ previous collaborations, Sleeper, Criminal and Incognito. They’ve worked together on other comics before and since, but those are the ones that put them on the map as the go-to writer/artist team for well-crafted noir stories.

And once you’ve done your share of superhero noir (Sleeper, Incognito) and plain-vanilla crime noir (Criminal), I guess the horror noir of Fatale is a perfectly logical next step. As Brubaker says, within the particular structure of noir narratives, “you can tell almost any story.”

Indeed, much of Fatale reads like a textbook illustration of how to do a noir story with the trappings of the horror genre. Basically, Brubaker and Phillips’ approach here is to put a face on those things that come back from the past to haunt the characters. In Fatale, they don’t manifest as crimes or superhuman powers, but in the types of visuals, characters and creatures known from horror stories.

To those genre tropes, the creators apply the logic of noir: The further back the story reaches, the more horrific the manifestations become. In the present-day prologue, the horror consists of a couple of creepy-looking identical guys with black hats, coats and glasses. In the 1956 section, it’s a graphic murder scene right out of a Poe story. And in a flashback to events that occurred in World War II, it’s a Nazi cult led by a creature from the Lovecraft playbook.

Once again, as with most of their previous work, it would be an understatement to say that Brubaker and Phillips “know what they are doing” here. On a craft level, Fatale is as good as anything you’re likely to find in North American genre comics right now. The creators’ page-to-page storytelling is top-notch, and their firm conceptual grasp of the material is evident in every aspect of the work.

As with some of Criminal and Incognito, though, the characters and events in this debut issue aren’t as immediately fascinating as in the creators’ most effective work. The cast consists of well-rendered archetypes rather than genuinely three-dimensional people, and nothing particularly surprising or insightful is happening yet.

Intellectually and esthetically, Fatale #1 is exciting. It lays the tonal and structural groundwork for the story in a solid and appealing fashion. Ultimately, though, when all ends once again in tears, the payoff will hinge on whether readers are left with a sense that there’s anything worth crying about.

Grade: B-

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