When it comes to the noir genre, my mind immediately goes to things like black and white movies, Orson Welles, the disembodied voice of a private eye morosely narrating in the background, femme fatales and the hard boiled detectives who love them, high stakes, sex scandals – maybe even a little touch of the supernatural. At the center of every good noir, there’s usually a mystery, often revolving around someone’s death (most often a woman’s), and the gruesome crime unites the remaining characters to uncover the truth.
The Fade Out, a new series published by Image Comics and written by Ed Brubaker (Velvet, Gotham Central, Captain America) with art by Sean Phillips (Hellblazer, WildC.A.T.s), is an engaging story set on the set of a late 1940s Hollywood noir film trapped in an endless cycle of reshoots after numerous disasters ultimately interrupt filming. At the center of the inconvenience is the untimely death of promising new starlet Valeria Sommers, and the circumstances surrounding it are more than a little suspicious. Charlie Parish is a Hollywood screenwriter, plagued by his memories from the war and out of touch with the life he led before it. At the beginning of the story, Charlie suddenly finds himself neck deep in a potential murder conspiracy when he wakes up in the dead girl’s apartment, and the movie studio later covers it up as a suicide.
It’s a unique look into the sometimes ugly, behind-the-scenes realities and corruption of old Hollywood, and the then-still-very-present horrors of World War II, most clearly illustrated in Charlie’s inability to shake the nightmares and losing touch with his reality. Anyone interested in history will fully appreciate how well crafted this is, a story that is true to its historical roots and unapologetic in its telling. It’s the late 1940s, World War II is in the rear view mirror after the surrenders in Japan and Europe just a few years prior. There’s a new tension and dividing clash in the social classes during this time, between those that went to war and those who stayed, those who fought the enemy abroad and those who fought their own neighbors at home. There’s an even wider social gap between those struggling and those more fortunate, the extravagant debauchery of the rich and famous as unrelatable as the broken soldiers trying to find their place again in the world once they’ve come home from the war, only to be faced with a changed culture that’s left them behind.
Brubaker and Phillips have also collaborated together on such incredible works as Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, and Fatale before embarking on this newest crime noir journey together. More recently, they have also signed a five year deal with Image Comics, with The Fade Out being their first project under it since the announcement. Brubaker’s writing is thoughtful and pointed, as mysterious as the tale slowly evolving on the page, and brutally honest compared to the deceit displayed in most of his characters. His third-person narration also illustrates the sort of dialogue you might hear in a noir film, without being too distracting or cliché. He doesn’t shy away from bringing out the beauty as well as the inner ugliness in his characters, something that is perfectly complemented by the art.
Phillips displays the contrast between the seedy, darker side of Hollywood to the more glamorous one that people know perfectly with his style of art, the celebrities in Hollywood drawn with a sort of intangible flawlessness, while everyone else is more visibly flawed. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s (Fatale, Velvet, Winter Soldier) colours also display a range of storytelling. Unlike most standard noir stories, the only usage of the usual black and white is in flashbacks; the rest in minimal, often pastel colours to illustrate the darker aspects of Hollywood and the shady people in it. Some of the scenes with the token celebrities and their elaborate parties are more bright and lush in colour, like we’re seeing them through the eyes of someone unable to see the truth through all the lies. If there’s one theme that stays true throughout the book, it’s that everyone in Hollywood is a liar.
Another hidden gem about this series is the back matter. One of the real tragedies of the paperback collection is that the single issue back matter is not usually included when a series is collected. In the case of The Fade Out, you’re missing something crucial without it. In the back of every single issue is a different essay pertaining in some way to the times that this story is written in, as much of a history lesson as it is an opportunity to see how these aspects of our history are reflected in the story. Essays about different figures in the 1940s Hollywood scene (from Errol Flynn to Jimmy Stewart), the war, black cinema and the blatant racism in it; one of the essays that I think fully encompasses the spirit of the first arc is Megan Abbott’s “What Is the Secret of the Lost Girl.” In it, she talks about the Jean Spangler case, and being captivated by the vanishing of a well-known Hollywood actress that seemed to disappear from the headlines almost overnight, as fast as she herself was gone from the world. Despite the media circus of Elizabeth Short’s murder, coined the “Black Dahlia” just two years prior, hardly anyone paid attention to the life of this actress once she was presumed dead. A “lost girl,” much like the actress Valeria Sommers, whom everyone else has already forgotten about except for Charlie and Gil Mason, the two men who’ve become haunted by her.
The way Brubaker tells this story is as much for nostalgia as it is for a close examination of this period in time, the way we idolize and become grossly fascinated by the rich and famous. He also dissects the way we romanticize, even normalize, the death of a beautiful woman in the media we consume. It also offers plenty of nods to some of the greats that the reader will recognize from our own history, from Clark Gable to Humphrey Bogart, making us feel as much a part of this story as the vividly-crafted fictional characters. Brubaker and Phillips are a dynamic duo of all things noir, with Fatale already under their belts; The Fade Out further solidifies their domination of the genre. And there’s even more conspiracy and intrigue to come! One could argue it’s deserving of an Eisner just by acknowledging the creative team alone, but this book is also a masterpiece of nostalgia and cinematic history that sticks with you long after you’re done reading it.