FADEOUT_04_300_464By Andrew Stevens. With writer Ed Brubaker, artist Sean Phillips, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser resuming their Hollywood noir The Fade Out with issue # 4, the artistic and narrative dexterity remains at the high-water mark. Over the past three issues the scope of what at first appeared to be a mere whodunit has sprawled into an epic that meditates on many things, including a woman’s place in Hollywood, the specter of McCarthyism, and the inevitable decline of the Hollywood studio system.

Throughout the issue slick narration glides with all the cynical flourish one expects of the noir genre. Noir generates its power through atmosphere, and in the past three issues the creative team has meticulously constructed the web of lies, the power struggles, and the character flaws which ensnare Victory Street Pictures. All of that narrative work is wrapped up in a city that shines with a guild so bright that one knows it can only be rotten underneath. A guild that slowly chips away as we move deeper and deeper into this story, and rot has never seemed so enticing.

Issue #4 opens with Los Angeles at its violet hour. Breitweiser douses the cityscape in bruised purples and pinks, and leaves our protagonist, Charlie Parish, and movie star, Earl Rath, looking drained and lifeless, vampiric even. The two travel to the house of Stevie Turner,  photographer of the stars. Rath has business there, and on the way over Charlie remains preoccupied with a date that may or may not be the real thing with the studio’s PR girl. In the pages that follow we glimpse characters in either the similar muted tones of the opening pages or  in a scarred and stark chiaroscuro shadow style. Everyone either feels less than human, broken, or vaguely predatory. Sometimes certain characters may exude all three.

the-fade-out-4---memories-117023Early on the narrative momentum teeters toward a downslope when Charlie glimpses a familiar face in Turner’s back catalogue of photos. Turner’s primary income is the sale of portraiture that features naked, spreadeagled starlets, and while Rath negotiates the price for all prints and negatives in that vein – permanently cementing himself as a slime ball in the process – Charlie paws through Turner’s older, above-board work. These other pictures are mostly black and whites that feature Hollywood elites, photos as classy as the others are sleazy. Charlie pauses, bug-eyed, when he spots a familiar face from his blackout (the one that happened on the night of Victoria’s murder). The contrasts of smut, art, and revelation form a potent narrative cocktail that stands as the comic book’s signature.

One can sense that young girls selling their bodies is a microcosm of the dynamics at play in the studio system drama Charlie stands embroiled in. The cost of films, as imagined in the narratives we have witnessed so far, churn up the souls of their creators, and even extinguish the lives of their most treasured stars, requiring the subtle compromises necessary for success. When rendered in the blunt language of a review these themes might seem simple, obvious or even trite. However, the talented creators of this comic bury these themes and suggest them with oblique narrative cues and visual patterning. This allows the themes to grow in the reader’s mind. As a satisfying result of that labor, these thematic angles register more as feelings than intellectual epiphanies. (Though Brubaker rises increasingly higher in the neo-noir pantheon with each project he completes, supplying sharp barbs as “… its like his brain wants him to remember just enough to stay miserable. That goddamn thing always had it out for him…)

 

When Rath and Charlie reach the Hollywood party, the garish parade seems to be in lockstep, and Brubaker uses the opportunity to inject an actual historical figure into the narrative. This reviewer will let the surprise stay a surprise, but will admit that I have a soft spot for the presentation of actual historical figures in comics. They lend the comic a temporary gravity – for a moment the fictional orbits the actual, and as readers, we glimpse a side of their personality that was once previously unavailable.

In the case of Charlie, we glimpse the landscape of his past. The comics visual style shifts, one of two shifts present in the issue, and we flip from the crisp twilight of L.A. over to black and white screen shots of old films, charred with age and blurred in Charlie’s memory. The narration walks us through the borderlands of another story. This burst in the shaky facade of the Charlie we met in issue #1 hints at the origins of his current drunkenness and ineptitude. And, like any good protagonist in a noir, Charlie shows us all the weight he carries on his back, garnering more of the reader’s emotional investment in the process.

the-fade-out-4---drunk-117022Issue #4 ends the comic’s first act with a blur of addictive pages that only engendered in me the desire for more. Much like Charlie at the end of this issue, I stood with the “ground dropped out from under [my] feet.” Brubaker succeeds, as he always seems to do with Phillips, in his crisp management of expectations combined with the deployment of pertinent information meted out for satisfaction.

While those narrative highs stand as the major reason to enjoy The Fade Out, Sean Phillips art crashes across every page, effectively electrifying the story. Phillips crams in more than enough kinetic energy, even in the most droll of conversational moments, and as a result each panel crackles. Whether with a house fire, a thrown punch, or two men sitting idly inside of a car, the readers feel an unleashed urgency that pulses through the issue. Things are not what they seem in The Fade Out, and at every opportunity we are shown that. Each two page spread simultaneously offers backstory, shines light on the plot that lies ahead, and thoroughly develops its characters. (A feat that most can’t pull off on a good day.)

For Charlie it seems that the red scare, a wilderness of secrets, and lack of dating skills will be the least of his problems when he advances into Act Two, but this likely ensures for the readers that whatever teems beneath the Golden Era of Hollywood will burst forth in the next issue.

Image Comics/$3.50

Written by Ed Brubaker.

Art by Sean Phillips.

Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.

9 of 10