REVIEW: Fatale #2

Fatale is an unusual beast.  Given the massive sell-out success of issue #1, it seems like this could be the biggest popular hit yet for the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips creative team, but if the plot of the first two issues is anything to go by, it is simultaneously their most difficult, least mainstream comic.  It’s an interesting contradiction, and one that might result in reading figures not remaining so high.  It would be a shame if curious new readers did drop Fatale, though, as in a lot of ways this is Brubaker and Phillips’ most ambitious project yet.

I mentioned in my review of the quietly gripping Fatale #1 that the ending was quite low-key, without much in the way of a hook or an attention-grabbing cliffhanger to demand that people return for issue #2.  That is followed up by a slightly jarring opening for this chapter.  No present-day framing devices to put everything into context for you here.  And I’d say a reread of the previous issue before starting this one is advisable, as there are no concessions made to a new reader or one with a foggy memory of last issue’s plot developments.  Indeed, even with issue #1 fresh in your mind, Fatale #2 may yet put you on the backfoot.  Pivotal events that would traditionally be given a lot of time to brew and build happened off-panel in the time between last issue and this one, and character dynamics have made sudden shifts when we weren’t looking.

I was put in mind of a British film I watched recently called Kill List.  Great film – check it out if you haven’t seen it.  Like in that film, Fatale starts out as a crime story, and the tried-and-true tropes are there to be seen.  But something’s not clickng.  The rhythm is off, characters aren’t quite acting like they’re supposed to.  It’s like the story has been poisoned by something much darker, which gradually starts seeping in through the cracks as things start to take a turn for the nightmarish.  By the end, Kill List has descended into nerve-shredding horror, and it would appear that Fatale is taking a similar route.

The impending darkness is given more tangible form here with the introduction of our presumed Big Bad: a frightening gentleman called Bishop.  I say “gentleman”, but the glimpses we get of him suggest he is a demon taking the thinly-veiled disguise of a man.  In fact, I’m guessing this is the “Cthulhu-Face” of the issue #1 cover.  I still think Cthulhu-Face is a better name than Bishop.  Brubaker does an excellent job of imbuing this guy with instant menace, building him up off-panel before making a seemingly low-key entrance still feel laced with dread.  Credit also goes to Sean Phillips, who frames the character in a way that smoke and shadow seems drawn to him, with the occasional flash of red eye or forked tongue adding eeriness to an unexpectedly average-guy character design.  It’s also thanks to Bishop that the conclusion of issue #2 is a lot more memorable – and skin-crawling – than the end of issue #1.

But our main character is still very much Josephine, our eponymous Fatale.  Even when she’s off-panel, she seems to dominate proceedings: she’s all anyone can think about or talk about.  And when she is on-panel, she’s a fascinating character: simultaneously a victim and a manipulator, an assured demeanour hiding seemingly brittle, desperate state of mind.  She’s an enigmatic mass of contradictions, much like the book itself.  And the way Phillips draws her, she seems to leap off the page.  Look at the way he draws Sylvia: it’s much like what we expect from Phillips’ minimalist noir stylings.  Then compare that to how he’s depicted Josephine: she looks like a Darwyn Cooke character has just walked into Phillips’ pages, full and vivacious and richly-colored by Dave Stewart where most other things (apart from the gore) have more subdued colors.  You do get a tangible sense that this is the kind of person the residents of this grim, murky world could not help but fall in love with.  Already an intriguing, memorable character.

Beyond the characters, Brubaker’s plot is chugging along.  It’s quite dense, with references to World War II and a mystery involving cults in San Francisco, but you do get a sense that Brubaker knows what he’s doing, and this is the opening salvo of something that’s going to be very big and immersive once it all comes together.  Phillips’ art remains moody and atmospheric too.  He might not always get mention among the contemporary greats, as his stuff isn’t showy, and he isn’t prone to splash pages or adventurous layouts, but as a storyteller – quietly confident and understated – there are few out there who are more consistent.

Once again, the Brubaker/Phillips single issue package is a worthwhile purchase, all the more enjoyable for me this time round as the subject of Jess Nevins’ horror essay was Edgar Allen Poe, a favourite of mine.  It’s quite appropriate as well, because in spite some of the Lovecraftian imagery we’ve seen, there’s something about the intimite horror of human frailty in Fatale that makes it feel more akin to the works of Poe.  I’ll be interested to see if Stephen King is the subject of one of Nevins’ future essays: too often people dismiss King as a purveyor of bestseller puff, but I think his popularity overlooks the immense quality of his work, especially his earlier stuff, which in my opinion is more than enough to earn him a place among the “masters of horror”.

Fatale #2 remains a slow-boil, substituting immediate thrills for more of a slow, creeping dread.  It’s not the easiest sell, and I imagine it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  But this elusive tale is growing on me, and I get a real sense that we’re going to be rewarded in the long run for sticking with it.  Image has a big year ahead of it in 2012.  But Fatale has already set the bar high.

Fatale #2 hits stores next week.

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