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.

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.

REVIEW: Detective Comics #879

I almost never picked up the first issue of Scott Snyder’s run on Detective  Comics.  It arrived at a period when I was trying to trim down my monthly comic buying habits, and I had made myself a strict statement of intent that the only Batman comics I needed to be reading where whatever ones Grant Morrison happened to be writing.  His jawdropping, landmark run with the character is going to be looked back on one day as one of the all-time greats, and I felt that it gave me all I could possibly need as a Batman comic fan.  But after reading all the great reviews for Snyder and artist Jock’s debut on the title, I grudgingly decided to give it a go, just for one issue.

I’m glad I did: it’s become one of my most anticipated titles each month ever since, and on weeks when their respective scheduling means I can pick up both Snyder’s Detective Comics and Morrison’s Batman Inc, as big of a Morrison fan as I am, I must admit Detective gets read first.

Even more than Morrison did on his Batman & Robin run, Snyder truly gets into the psyche of Dick Grayson, and lays out what makes him unique, and different from Bruce Wayne, as Batman.  And more than that, over the course of his run he has made a potent statement about Gotham itself, with his first arc, “Black Mirror”, and its follow-up, “Hungry City”, both showing the city as almost a living entity, shifting  and changing to reflect the worst nightmares of its current protector.  I truly believe that, years from now, even once Bruce Wayne is long re-established as the sole Batman and the idea of Dick Grayson wearing the cowl has become an obscure, almost-forgotten historical curio, the strength of this story will be enough for it to operate outside of current continuity and have a healthy life in the graphic novel market.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed Snyder and Jock’s main storyline of Dick Grayson’s trials as the new Batman, I think the subplot involving Commissioner Gordon’s difficult reunion with his (literal) psychopath son James, Jr has been even better.  It began as the back-up story for the series, and when DC canned those, Snyder shifted things around  so that every fourth issue of the title would become a full-length Gordon story.  Issue #875, “Lost Boys”, was the first of these Gordon spotlight issues, and it still stands as the single best issue of this entire run, and quite possibly Snyder’s finest hour in any of his comics thus far.  Issue #879, “Skeleton Key” (after 4 paragraphs, he finally gets to reviewing the issue!), doesn’t quite top that masterpiece of comics storytelling, but is at least the best issue of Detective Comics SINCE #875.

A big part of what makes “Skeleton Key” – and the rest of this Gordon subplot – so brilliant is the artwork of Francesco Francavilla.  Jock’s interiors in the “A-story” have been great too, and rightly celebrated, but in my personal opinion Francavilla’s work might be even better.  Of course, it’s two different styles for two different stories: the kinetic, exciting layouts of Jock’s artwork reflects the high-octane acrobatics of Dick Grayson as Batman.  This Gordon story, however, owes more to the psychological crime thriller, even horror, and that is reflected in Francavilla’s heavy shadows and claustrophobic panel construction.

But perhaps more than his crisp, noir-tinged artwork, it’s Francavilla’s colors that really set the tone of his work here.  The use of bright neon pink, purple, orange, yellow and red (especially red, lots and lots of red) might initially be a bit overwhelming for some.  It reminds me of the original coloring for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  I know Bolland wasn’t a fan of that look, and had it recolored in more muted tones for the recent hardcover re-release, but I was always a fan of those original colors and the nightmarish funhouse vibe it gave the story, making it feel like a bad acid trip.  The word “nightmarish” also springs to mind for the effect it has on the story here, with Francavilla plunging us into a world that feels sinister and off-kilter.

Of course, much credit must also go to the writing  of Scott Snyder.  Here is a Batman comic where Batman doesn’t once appear, and thanks to the stellar characterisation of Gordon, we don’t miss him.  Jim Gordon is a character I’ve long been fond of.  As much as Batman: Year One is hailed as one of the definitive Batman stories, I think at it’s core it’s really a Gordon story.  Even in the films, as talented as Christian Bale is, I think Gary Oldman’s better.  Here, Snyder engages in something he has shown a skill for: opening up unexplored pockets of history and exploring how they impact on the present.  In Gordon’s case, he has brought back the long-absent James, Jr – seen as an infant in Year One, and rarely since then – as a malevolent figure.  For a while, the menace of the character came from us not knowing his true motives, and whether his words could be taken at face value.  After last month confirmed our suspicions about James, Jr’s true nature, here we see Gordon come to that same realisation.

The actual main narrative development of the issue is probably the weakest aspect of the comic.  When we discover what James, Jr’s plans are, it feels to much like a supervillain’s evil scheme.  A really clever evil scheme, it must be said, but part of what made James, Jr such an unnerving presence is that he didn’t feel like just another larger-than-life  supervillain.  He was a monster that was a lot more uncomfortably close-to-home than that, and as such Gordon – and by extension, us – didn’t know quite how to react to him.  By going from something not quite tangible to being “the villain”, the obvious solution becoms “flip on the Bat-Signal and call in Batman.”

No, the real strength and power in Snyder’s writing here comes in the smaller moments.  Perhaps most potently of all, near the end – once he learns the full extent of his son’s darkness and is rushing to stop him – Gordon is haunted by fragmented images of his son as a smiling, innocent child, a child that is now long gone.  If the overarching story of Snyder’s run is about Gotham acting as a “black mirror”, the corruption of his son is the ghoulish reflection Gordon sees staring back at him.  This is a story about parents and their children, and as such a large chunk of the issue depicts the relationship between Gordon and Barbara.  Snyder doesn’t hammer us over the head with it, a lot is left unspoken, but the absolute trust, faith and love the two have for one another is clear.  As the ever-worsening grimness of the James, Jr story plays out, this more positive relationship for Gordon serves as a beacon of light, however dim.

Oh, and The Joker shows up too.  The Joker is probably my favorite character in comics, if not all fiction, so I always love seeing how new writers and artists will handle him.  Here, hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter style mask for the entirety of his appearance, inhuman eyes bulging out of the narrow slits, he fits in effortlessly with Francavilla’s neon-noir horror vibe.  His words (lettered by Jared K Fletcher in their own distinct, ragged font, heightening the aforementioned “inhuman” effect) are an elaborate mind-game for his captors in Arkham, but take on a whole new significance when juxtaposed against the Gordon family drama: “It’s a story about LOVE!  LOVE!  LOVE!”  I’m of the opinion that every story becomes that little bit better if you put The Joker in it (The King’s Speech would surely have won even more Oscars if the Clown Prince of Crime went on a killing spree in the third act), and so I can’t wait to see how he works into the narrative in the remaining issues.

If you’ve not been reading Detective Comics these past few months, you’ve been missing out.  It’s a shame that we’re now entering the endgame of this  particular saga, with the DC Relaunch in September drawing ever closer.  The good news is that Snyder will be jumping over to Batman #1 with the arrival of the New 52, and so I’m pretty sure that title is in good hands.

REVIEW: Vic Boone #1

It’s been a real pleasure seeing 215 Ink grow over the past few months.  I’ve been excited about their ever-growing lineup of quality comics, and it seems more people are starting to recognise that.  Vic Boone in particular is a series that has had quite a bit of buzz around it, perhaps the most I’ve seen for any 215 Ink book thus far.  I was pleased to see that the first issue even got a (very positive) review in IGN’s weekly round-up.  I think this is a big deal, because in my personal experience at least, there have been several occasions where a highly positive IGN review has convinced me to try a comic I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.  Now, I’m no IGN, but having read the first instalment of this new series by writer Shawn Aldridge and artist Geoffo, I’m eager to join the chorus in singing its praises.

Shawn Aldridge knows his noir.  Here is a story seeped in the classic tropes of the genre: the beaten-down gumshoe hero, the mysterious and possibly dangerous femme fatale client, one case serving as a bridge to a much larger, nastier one, a collection of seedy underworld figures with a grudge against our hero.  All present and correct… only we’re in the future, hover cars buzz around a futuristic metropolis, and the population is peppered with aliens, robots and talking gorillas.

The mesh of pulp genres alone would be enough to give Vic Boone a hook, but Aldridge doesn’t simply rely on that.  He writes with an authority of a writer much more experienced than a relative newcomer like him, with hard-boiled narration and punchy dialogue evocatively bringing the eponymous protagonist to life.  He’s in turns cold, callous, principled, quick-witted, dumb, resourceful, and plain funny.  Speaking of funny, it should be noted that among the highlights of this issue are the occasional detours into the ridiculous.  Take, for example, Vic’s meeting with his tiny man-fly drinking buddy, or even better, his showdown with the magnificently unthreatening Raygun Radicals, who are totally going to kick Vic’s ass once their boss is done grocery shopping for his mom.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the humor that gives Vic Boone its niche.  Blade Runner ostensibly beat Vic Boone to the punch with the whole “noir against a sci-fi backdrop” idea, but in execution the tone is so different that Vic Boone never feels like it suffers in comparison to the classic.

Not that this is solely a showcase for Aldridge’s quality writing.  Far from it, the stylish art of Geoffo deserves equal praise.  The character designs are reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke by way of the loose pencils and free-flowing, sketchy style of Gabriel Ba.  The parallels to the latter are heightened by Aldridge’s often-psychadelic color scheme, which bring to mind the funky palette of Casanova back in it’s original two-toned run at Image.  Much of the art is simplistic, but Geoffo has a knack for boiling an image down to its starkest key components, allowing for maximum impact.

Perhaps my favorite page of the whole issue is the love scene between Vic Boone and the aformentioned femme fatale, Nina.  It’s almost entirely shadow, yet still Geoffo conveys all the important information, while at the same time artistically framing the page, crafting a tableau that, even without Aldridge’s strong scripting, would tell a compelling story all on its own.  The evocative use of silhouette reminds me of Frank Miller.

It seems that, in praising Geoffo, all I can do is compare him to other artists.  But Geoffo is not just a copycat.  Like the story itself, there are a lot of influences at work, but Geoffo’s art melds them all together into something individual that’s very much his own singular style.

Aldridge takes his time with this first issue, focusing on dipping our toes into this world and introducing us to our cast of characters, all while meticulously setting the pieces of the plot into place.  But by the shock finale, the stage is set for business to pick up in future issues.  A stellar debut, with this first issue Aldridge and Geoffo have given us a comic to watch in Vic Boone.