REVIEW: Fatale #1

Image has been doing some heavy marketing for the slate of big-time new releases headed by major creators due out in 2012, the year where the 3rd-biggest American comic publisher celebrates its 20th anniversary.  They’ve helped create a real sense of buzz around the world of creator-owned comics, and first out of the gate for what Eric Stephenson calls Image’s “rocket ship into the future” is Fatale, the latest collaboration by the powerhouse pairing of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips.

Now, don’t throw bricks at me, but I’ll admit that up until recently I haven’t been the biggest Brubaker/Phillips fan.  That’s not to say I didn’t like them.  I had read the respective first volumes of Criminal and Incognito, and I could respect each as cleverly plotted, stylishly drawn comics.  But while I approved of the craft on an intellectual level, I wasn’t really grabbed on an emotional level enough to feel compelled to read either story beyond those first volumes.  Recently, however, two things changed my mind, and had me eagerly anticipating Fatale.  First, there was the preview for Fatale that ran in the back of Image comics last month.  While many comic previews are just the first few pages of the first issue, this teaser took an almost cinematic approach, peppering brief sequences from the comic with critic’s quotes, giving (like the best film trailers) little sense of plot but providing a strong sense of atmosphere.  Impressively, it showed that a comic can be sold on the strength of the creative team, rather than on the concept or the character’s involved, with the Brubaker/Phillips pairing presented as a kind of badge of quality.  Second, I read the latest Criminal volume, The Last of the Innocent.  It was one of the best comics of the year, and demonstrated that Brubaker and Phillips had refined their collaborative powers to a whole new level.

The stories of Fatale #1 already being a sell-out smash hit suggest that it is a triumph of marketing, but does the comic itself succeed?  Overall, I’d say yes.  The opening is excellent.  We get an atmospheric intro that immediately raises intriguing questions, before launching into a bare-knuckle action sequence that leaves you breathless.  But the pace then slows down for the second half as we flashback to 1956, and if I have any nitpick about the plot, it would be that the ending is a bit low-key rather than offering a more exciting hook to draw people back for issue #2.  However, there is still plenty of mood and mystery on display throughout this first chapter, and even if it is a slow-boil, I’m already compelled enough to keep on reading.

I get the sense that Brubaker is carefully laying out the first pieces of an intricate puzzle, and that this will all make sense as part of a larger tapestry.  For now, though, it feels like we’re dipping our toes in a dense, multi-faceted mythology.  The structure is quite ambitious, with Brubaker splitting up voiceover duties between four different characters over the space of a single issue.  But the central figure appears to be the enigmatic Josephine, the femme “fatale” of the title.  She seems to be eternally young and beautiful, with the power (or, as she seems to view it, the curse) to make any man fall madly in love with her with as little as a glimpse.  It’s early days, but so far I like this idea of Josephine being equal parts victim and threat: should make for a compelling character.

It cannot be emphasized enough just how much Sean Phillips brings to these collaborations.  The distinct aesthetic Phillips provides is such a perfect compliment to the noir-tinged writing of Brubaker that it has certainly become one of the definitive partnerships in comics today, so much so that Brubaker’s most successful collaborations in his Marvel work have been with artists like Michael Lark or Steve Epting, who are somewhat able to channel that Sean Phillips vibe.  Phillips is undoubtedly the quintissential Brubaker artist.

I love the way Phillips lays out his panels, with a meticulous, grid-like structure that puts one in mind of Dave Gibbons’ masterful structure in Watchmen.  Though he can lay out a splash page when the moment requires it, typically his pages have 6-9 panels, and each one is deceptively packed with detail, which makes for an immersive reading experience.  A single issue of a Brubaker/Phillips comic never feels like a quick read, you feel lke you’re getting your money’s worth.  But what I’ve noticed with his more recent work is that Phillips is open to experimentation.  He had a hard-boiled style which worked perfectly well, but with The Last of the Innocent we saw him toy with a faux-Archie style to reflect the rose-tinged memories of the past.  And here he seems to channel Darwyn Cooke a little, bringing a subtle sense of ’50s pastiche to the past-set sequence.  And his art looks even better when paired with the muted pallette of colorist Dave Stewart, which bursts into flashes of alarming vibrancy in moments of high drama or dread.

I mentioned above that it feels like you get your money’s worth from a single issue of a Brubaker/Phillips comic.  That goes beyond the density of plot and detail of art, however.  The wealth of floppy-exclusive backmatter provided in their single issues has become something of a trademark, and that tradition carries over to the first issue of Fatale.  As well as an afterword by Ed Brubaker, we have a fascinating essay by Jesse Nevins on the legacy of H.P.Lovecraft on the horror genre.  Speaking of Lovecraft, the eye-catching, tommy-gun wielding monster on the cover (who, sadly, doesn’t feature in this first issue outside of a single fleeting appearance) should totally be called Cthulhu-Face.  Make it happen, Brubaker!

It’s certainly holding some cards tightly to its chest in an understated opening chapter, but Fatale is off to a strong start.  If this is any indicator of what’s to come, Image is set for a very good 2012.

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