By Andrew Stevens. In Fatale, Sleeper, and Incognito, Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips dipped inside the fantastical: we got super-powers, immortal beings, and indestructible protagonists. In The Fade Out this creative team produces a direct mimesis of the Hollywood Golden Age (just check out this issue’s back-page essay on Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle). In The Fade Out #2 they identify the historical rods that control and catalyze actors, studios, and culture all with a grip on the fronts of our shirts, dragging us through their latest comic success.
Remember that we’re in a story where screenwriter Charlie Parish perilously confessed his knowledge of the murder and cover-up of actress Valeria Sommers to his best friend, partner, and drinking buddy, Gil Mason. Together, while attempting to get paid by a studio crammed with womanizing sharks and those eager to climb Hollywood’s ladder, Charlie and Gil are unsure of where they’re heading next.
Recently, America – a country roiled in ambiguous international conflict – set her cultural sights on the Cold War era. This focus in our culture posses a two-fold intent: one focus is recognizably staid, an analysis of fear during the Red Scare (a la The Crucible), where the other focus is slightly fresher, a de-mythologizing of World War II as “the perfect war.” We can see each of these artistic impulses in a range of media, from television (The Blacklist) to comic books (C.O.W.L.) and film (the upcoming Fury). We hunger for the blood, fear, and ghosts of this period. That hunger and creative effort might reflect a want for comfort in our present moment. With the past revealed as chaotic time of poor choices, fear and antagonism of which our ancestors survived and even prospered, our present moment, with its shadow of impending cataclysms, seems – if only by a hair – beatable. Phillips and Brubaker deliver on this want with The Fade Out #2: it advances a few inches with its crucial plot, while plumbing the backgrounds of Gil, Charlie, and Victory Street Pictures.
We learn of the intention toward this historical play in the first three pages, where we come in on the funeral of starlet Valeria Sommers and meet Mr. Thursby, the founder of Victory Street Pictures, and Jack “Flapjack” Jones (one-time child star from the Krazy Kids series). Thursby might openly weep at the funeral, but in later pages he exudes all the power one might expect from a studio head in this era, and demonstrates both the instincts that got him this far, and an intense connection to Sommers. Thursby, despite his present power, may lose status soon because of a recent anti-trust ruling against his production company, and others like it. (A point worth mentioning because, combined with his odd connection to Sommers, this cocktail of intrigue may prove violent.) Add in Jack Jones, who notes that the powerful studio founder paid for the funeral and had the starlet’s stage name etched onto the stone. In the end Jack, a WWII vet, says, “I just shouldn’t’ve come… I hate funerals… remind me of the fuckin’ war.” Mix this scene with the fact that many present at this funeral are actors, capable of manufacturing grief at a moment’s notice, and one can’t help but feel dizzy tracking each gesture in such a small amount of panels.
Brubaker and Phillips present Gil as a drunk devastated by his professional blacklisting. His foil, and partner, Charlie (our protagonist) proves himself to be a manipulator and betrayer of his friend Gil. The two support one another however, in a dynamic that reveals that Gil, despite his dysfunction in all other aspects, is a deft dictator of sellable scripts, placing Charlie in the position as a mere typist. Two events impacted each man and moved them miles away from their early camaraderie and success. For Charlie his experiences in France and Germany have left him emptied. (Charlie hand’t been able to write for years: “Whatever it was inside that made him a writer had been stolen over there…”) His “scarred veteran” status a subversion of the typical narrative of a G.I in this period. For Gil, his unjust blacklisting and loss of livelihood as a known writer, leaves him a drunken shell. The blacklisting is an event sparse on detail, but the impetus of which we understand fully by issue’s end.
This issue masters the art of juxtaposition. In almost every sequence, the placement of panels which represent multiple timelines communicates subtle relationships between characters, plot, and an overall theme of distrust and corruption. When I look at these panels I am reduced to the coos of a child (coupled with a lot of pointing), and because explaining a thing you love rarely communicates the experience of the actual exchange, I’ll just focus on one such instance in this issue.
In regards to the duo’s history, we get a quick panel of the two at work together, cigarettes burning in ashtrays, typewriters in full operation, and manuscript pages gathering at the elbow. In that moment Gil acted, as the narration puts it, as “the old pro showing [Charlie] the ropes.” On this page in the issue we encounter three timelines that crystalize the dynamic between the two men. At the top, the present: Gil passed out, yet again, in the back of Charlie’s car, the second (described above), the halcyon days of the two writers, and lastly a quick three panel movement through Gil’s blacklisting. In a single page we see a power shift, the destruction of a man. Charlie confesses to the FBI under Gil’s instruction, which compounds his sense of obligation to Gil. We sense that Gil rests on the drain’s lip, teetering back off this edge with careful prods from Charlie and Gil’s wife.
This careful inversion and dependency exposes Charlie as being crippled professionally, functioning only with the support of Gil, and Gil as being crippled in his interpersonal relationships, and any given social gathering (when not propped up by Charlie). This dynamic often places Gil’s wife in the confused and moderately reluctant arms of Charlie. Brubaker complicates Charlie, as indicated by the cover, when we see Charlie begin wearing the costume of dashing leading man Earl Rath’s character in the film. We watch as Charlie faces the mirror and wraps bandages around his head, rendering him not unlike the invisible man. (“[Charlie] imagined it would be a relief, to have a mask everyone could see… but that made them all look away at the same time.”)
We learn that others wear the bandage costume too, namely Earl Rath, and Rath’s double, which we know will cause uncertainty in the future when the identification of the murderer is brought to light. And guess what, this too plays out across two pages where the relationship makes one pound the table, do a spit take – whatever you need to do in order to understand that these images come together in a symphony of sight and story. This early planting of ideas demonstrates a complex character grappling with the past (Charlie), while also pointing out the brilliant plot layering of Ed Brubaker.
Artist Sean Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser make all the art and colors appear effortless, as if this story existed by sheer force of its creators will, and its pencils, ink, and brushes seem to have materialized within this sumptuous eye-feast. When one perceives a work that appears as effortless as the pages within The Fade Out, one realizes the work of masters. They keep much of this issue’s colors muted, saving their reds and oranges for the ire of Charlie’s temper late in the issue and for the blood spilled in its final pages.
An established creative team like Brubaker and Phillips accrues faith from its readers, and lesser creators might have spent that currency on minor efforts. This team is at their peak, a long peak really starting back with the comics mentioned earlier. What they’ve accomplished in their history together is to have readers attend to their work at the micro level. They operate in these early issues, on the plain of psychological realism where we not only sense the character, but their vulnerability. They build this tension with steady pressure, until we seamlessly sever our ties with the world we know and float away on unknown currents.
Written by Ed Brubaker.
Art by Sean Phillips.
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.
9 of 10