Review: Fatale #1

By | January 5th, 2012
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Sean Phillips


Nothing the BEST-SELLING and AWARD-WINNING creators of SLEEPER, CRIMINAL and INCOGNITO have done so far will prepare you for the explosive debut of FATALE!

A reporter in 2012 stumbles on a secret that leads him down the darkest path imaginable… to a seductive woman who’s been on the run since 1935, a mobster who may be an immortal demon monster, and the stories of all the doomed men who’ve been caught in their decades-long struggle.

FATALE blends noir and horror to tell a riveting epic unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent was, hands down, my favorite miniseries of 2011, and perhaps my favorite comic in general. Now those two favorite collaborators of mine are returning to the creator-owned sphere with something a little bit different. Still in the field of crime fiction, Fatale strays from the grounded in reality – or, at least, the illusion of reality – approach of the duo’s Criminal series in order to step into another classic pulp tradition: that of occult conspiracy.

The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is “Does it work?” Follow the cut and we’ll find out.

This first issue of Fatale is like a kind of stew. Bear with me for a moment. First, we have the ten-page prologue following Nicolas – not Nick, mind you – and his encounter with a mysterious manuscript and an equally mysterious dame. From there we jump a bit between said dame, Josephine, bent cop Walt Booker, and in-over-his-head reporter Hank, as their paths intertwine, their encounters only just beginning to hint at something big, something secret and guarded that’s being disturbed when it shouldn’t be, and we aren’t exactly being told what it is. And why should we be? Ancient mysteries are prone to losing their glamour when they’re told straight up to the reader. For now, Brubaker and Phillips are just letting things simmer, giving us the slightest taste of each character through various vignettes that sample the upcoming blends of pulp adventure, noir grit, and Lovecraftian horror that is to come.

Brubaker and Phillips are showing as little of their respective hands as possible in this first issue, giving just enough information to get the story going, and that’s what makes this such a solid first issue. Compared to many comics of this day and age, it seems like there’s almost no exposition at all, if only because the reader isn’t being smacked upside the head with it. The information that needs to be known is folded into conversation or narrative seamlessly, without screaming “Look, this is necessary information for the plot, so don’t miss it!” in neon hot pink. The exposition of Fatale is more like the bits of conversation you pick up from across a crowded room – or a smoky bar, since we’re talking about the Criminal crew – just slipping in and out of your hearing, until, by the end of the night, you have at least a rough idea of the desperate circumstances that guy in the brown coat is finding himself in lately. This is where Brubaker demonstrates his strength as a writer, because he knows that a few hushed whispers and supposedly unseen winks and nods grab the average passerby’s attention far more easily than a loud, drunken toast. There’s plenty of space in upcoming issues for the story to be fleshed out more fully, but with this issue Brubaker only needs to drop enough hints to catch our curiosity, enticing us to follow him and Phillips until we find ourselves in over our heads – in, of course, the best way possible.

Tonally, Fatale is very clearly the successor to Criminal. Purely looking at the plot, there’s a massive distinction – suicide cults, Nazis, and Cthulhu-esque man-beasts don’t necessarily seem like they would fit into the world that Brubaker and Phillips had previously crafted, and I can understand if many Criminal fans passed on this series because of this. Still, plot is rarely the most distinguishing quality of good storytelling. Fatale certainly steps into the more fantastical and adventurous, but the story itself – in this first issue, at least – is told just as straight-faced as any Criminal story. Just because the duo is using this as an opportunity to break the bonds of reality a little bit doesn’t mean that they’re taking what they do any less seriously. A similar story told by a different team might be a bit self-aware, coming to terms with the fact that what they’re doing is impossible and letting it show in their work. Here, though, we’re being told a story that should be wholly unbelievable, and yet the cold honesty with which it is told just leads us to think “So is that a Nazi murder/suicide cult? Okay, got it,” without even having to willingly suspend our disbelief.

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Brubaker is, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers, and one of the first that I “followed” when I got back into comics. I have to admit, though, that I look forward to each Criminal, Incognito, and Fatale just as much for Sean Phillips’s outstanding art as for Brubaker’s ice cool writing – perhaps, with no disrespect meant, even more. If you follow Phillips’ art blog, you have probably seen his life paintings, highlighting his attention to anatomy that is echoed in his published products. There is, of course, more stylization in his comics, but it’s never at the expense of the core human figure. What makes his style perfect, though, for the gutters of crime fiction that he tends to work in is his flawless attention to lighting. A lot of comics artists that try to reflect the high contrast world of film noir in their work can be prone to just slapping a bunch of black ink everywhere, with no attention to light sources and direction (apologies if my terminology isn’t correct, I’m a layman myself). Phillips’s art, though – while certainly dark and often heavy on the ink – is always shaded naturally. The shadows aren’t there for effect, they’re there because they would naturally be there. The pages in Jo’s bedroom, in particular, have some excellent use of light and shadow, and those pages alone are sufficient proof that Phillips just takes his job more seriously than a good deal of artists in the industry. I don’t mean to bag on those artists, of course – Phillips just has a dedication that few can match.

If you’ve read any of Brubaker and Phillips’ collaborations before, I shouldn’t even need to convince you to buy this. Fatale is dark, sexy, discomforting, and above all, one hell of a read. Brubaker and Phillips have proven themselves to be two of the strongest collaborators in the industry time and time again, and Fatale proves to be the rule rather than the exception. Were I a retailer, I would guarantee your money back with this purchase were you unsatisfied – not only is it that good, but it follows Criminal in being one of the best deals on the shelves. Even your wallet will love it.

Final Verdict: 9.3 – Buy it!

Walt Richardson

Walt is a former editor for Multiversity Comics and current podcaster/ne'er-do-well. Follow him on Twitter @goodbyetoashoe... if you dare!