By Andrew P. Stevens. “I’ve said from the start this was going to be a sprawling epic of noir, and here’s where we see our canvas begin to expand.” Writer Ed Brubaker makes good on his word with issue #3 of The Fade Out, and it’s here where writer Ed Brubaker’s noir canvas gets big. We get a handful of new characters who take the spotlight, while more familiar faces slide into the background, but even more than that we receive another chapter of a truly great comic.

Our generation has done a disservice to the word “epic”: either we’re using it to describe uneatable meals on YouTube, or to lazily describe an experience with a piece of art, or maybe – to those special among us – we’re using it to dress up a sexual act. In spite of this, the term aptly applies to The Fade Out in two ways.

First, there’s the more ancient Homeric sense: we have heroes (perhaps only anti-heroes in this case) operating in the historical past of a given nation. Hollywood, especially in its Golden Age, functions as a major component of the American identity. The levels of fame, styles of dress, and status of hard working Americans converge in a vision of what we are at our so-called best. Add to that the knowledge that many in our country hunger for this time, and string together tautological assertions (men were men, women were women, cars were cars on into infinity) that translate into an America for the chosen few.

The second way the word “epic” functions here is in the number of characters The Fade Out employs. In issue #3 Brubaker widens the canvas, and what that really means is that we’re introduced to many more people. What makes an epic succeed is when an author can then balance the interactions that are quickly multiplying (how character A interacts with B,C, and D, and B with C and so on) without causing the reader to give up in frustration. This is a feat writer Ed Brubaker, artist Sean Phillips, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser seem more than capable of pulling off.

FadeOut03-Page2-783bfIn issue #3 we follow three characters, all at different economic levels and statuses. We’ll get to their specific names and titles later, but here let’s think on them in the abstract: we have a rising starlet, a powerful security officer, and the husk of a man who also runs a Hollywood studio. The first has little power beyond that which her body can supply, but by issue’s end, there are other avenues she may soon employ. The latter two wield power in different ways. While the owner exerts rule over his studio kingdom, Brubaker demonstrates a different sort of power for the security figure, and if we examine him closely enough we see he represents the hollow and impermanent nature of those who wield power without dark knowledge and threat of force supporting it. When these three people are pulled together one can anticipate glacier-sized ideals colliding over the heads of these gorgeously rendered characters.

Brubaker handles the addition of his new characters with an issue heavy with narration and veiled exposition and sparse on dialogue. That combination might have proven fatal for other creative teams, but here it works beautifully. With these stylistic choices, Brubaker, with the help of Breitweiser and Phillips, meditates on the position of women in the early 20th century. In both the narrative past and present of a young Mr. Thursby (the Founder of Victory Street Pictures), women function as set pieces that highlight his enthusiastic, passionate youth, contrasted with Thursby’s forced march away from such a life into the soul-suck of Hollywood.

The issues title “The Replacement Blond” references the character who stands as the crux for all a lot of thematic weight, Maya Silver. As an actress waiting for her big break, her role in this melodrama is that she will fill the void left behind by the murdered actress Valeria Sommers, an individual it turns out is as close to irreplaceable as they come. (A careful reader will notice the way that Silver complicates her status as a sex object by disrobing for the forces that have shaped her career.) Silver too manifests a dark agency that bespeaks the traits of cruelty that come as a result of a woman’s treatment in this Hollywood (and historical) environment. This writer would be very interested in seeing the how a male-dominated genre – concerned with correcting the mistakes of its misogynistic past – juggles the flaming swords that come with representing an oppressed group. Thus far, Brubaker seems able to handle that tightrope act, and utilizes the excess heat from such an effort to propel his story.

FadeOut03-Page5-f019bThe only anxieties the issue provokes in that vein are the presence of tropes used in earlier works, namely Fatale, where hordes of nude bodies and secret societies – that run dangerously close to being just an excuse for boobs (à la HBO) – function as quick characterization tools, mostly for Mr. Thursby. As readers, we are to understand the Dionysian excess (re: boobs) and contrast it with the shriveled old man we see in the story’s present. While the plot point stands as interesting, the presentation seems more of a pyrotechnic ploy rather than a substantive addition.

The issue turns the rest of its attention away from Thursby and Silver and onto the character who seems to be providing The Fade Out‘s connective tissue: Victory Street’s Head of Security, Phil Brodsky. As a man, he functions as your typically cruel brute, but too represents the force of amoral carnage that allows a machine like a Hollywood studio to function. While those more abstract pieces of his character operate at the macro level of theme, closer to the ground Brodsky is the character that has contact with almost every other person in this story. His reach extends, unlike Thursby, beyond the studio’s walls. As such he reveals himself as major force in this issue. Alongside Brodsky stands Tom Greavy (middle-aged talent agent) who seems simultaneously leacherous and ineffective. Together the men paint the opposition for what we assume Silver, Charlie Parish, et al will face as this story widens and progresses.

Overall, the complaints highlighted in this review reflect the more paranoid reading habits of this writer than the quality of this months The Fade Out. Brubaker and Phillips, with fifteen years of success behind them, manage – as always – to produce what readers of comic books care about most: a good story. With little doubt, one can place The Fade Out among the pantheon of this team’s other successes, and rest assured that this series will continue to sell huge numbers and gain readers. But, even more importantly, this noir and its cerebral practitioners stand at a continuously escalating peak. These two continue to do their homework, and have earned this moment of limelight.

Image Comics/$3.50

Written by Ed Brubaker.

Art by Sean Phillips.

Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.

9 of 10