Drew: Without getting too abstract, I’d like to suggest that western art is really about the development of ideas. The beginnings and ends of our books, plays, symphonies, movies, jazz tunes — virtually any art form that can said to have a “beginning” and “end” — are largely prescribed, but everything in between is totally open. For someone who is largely suspicious of rules in art, those middle sections — the rising action, the development, the open solos — are my favorite parts, where the artists are free to express, explore, and fully realize their creative potential. Of course, that also means that I’m often bored by beginnings and endings; especially in genre fiction, where the rules of exposition and resolution are even more specific. What differentiates one noir mystery from another tends to be a little subtler than can usually be communicated in the first issue of a comic, which is why Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips The Fade Out 1 is such a pleasant surprise. The issue doesn’t shy away from its genre trappings — if anything, it leans into it — but the result is something that transcends its boilerplate outline, creating an alluringly familiar late ’40s LA.
The story hinges on a murder (I mentioned this was a noir mystery, right?), but one that ends up being covered up by the police in order to protect the film studio of the murdered starlet. Our protagonist, Charlie Parish, knows they’re lying, but can’t tell anyone without incriminating himself. Like I said, it’s a strikingly familiar set up — I could swear I’ve read this story before — but Brubaker manages to imbue it with new life. I’m not sure I can point to exactly how he does that, but there are a few notable idiosyncrasies to his approach that I think lend themselves to that feeling of newness.
The most striking is his warts-and-all take on late ’40s society, one that’s quite frank about the sexism, racism, and anti-Sematism of the time. It’s an unblinking indictment of the past that will be familiar to Mad Men fans, but is even less cute and cuddly here. It’s remarkable for all of the rough-hewn characters and situations we associate with noir, very few have aimed to address some of the less scintillating types of ugliness that defined the era. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate that The Maltese Falcon isn’t about race — but it’s remarkable how simply acknowledging those attitudes can bring this world to life.
Perhaps more important, though, is how much this story is about filmmaking. For as many noir stories are set in LA, very few have fully incorporated the world of film into their makeup. Sure, this character may be an actress or a director, but they’re typically characters in a crime drama, rather than a crime intruding on a story about filmmaking, if that makes any sense. Here, Brubaker flips that equation, making this story very much about Hollywood — everything from the party to the cover up are the result of studios and film stars, which leaves it in a tantalizing position to comment on noir storytelling in general.
That’s a bit of speculation on my part — any homage here may me coincidental to any modern noir story, and Brubaker doesn’t even suggest that the film Charlie is working on is noir — but man, that really feels like an exciting place for this thing to go. There are a few filmic nods — the “Cast of Characters” up front and the white-on-black silent film title cards — but not much else. There is a little bit here and there about filmmaking that may lend themselves to a fuller exploration of Brubaker and Phillips’ own creative process — such as the endless rewrites Charlie has been tasked with — but again, these are mostly hints of where this series could go, rather than anything present here.
Back to the issue at hand, the key element of the success of this first issue is Phillips’ art. It would be impossible to dismiss any comic as “generic” when Phillips imbues each character with so much personality. There’s no confusing any of these faces — they’re all clear and distinct characters, with enough personality behind them for you to imagine their life off the page. It’s rare that I’m this invested in fictional characters quite this quickly, and much of that is owed to Phillips design and acting work here.
With that, I’d like to turn things over to my buddy Ryan, who tends to go for comics with a similar cynical bent. Ryan, are you as hooked as I am with this issue? I have to confess a pretty superficial familiarity with noir, so please feel free to point out any references I may have overlooked. And what do you make of that close third-person narration? Maybe I’m overestimating the association of noir with first-person narration, but a third-person narrator seems almost willfully anti-noir.
Ryan: In the letters page of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America #2, fellow capes writer Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Marvels) comments, “[Brubaker] knows his way around shadows and pulp” and “teased us with the traditional…then embark[ing] on his own journey”. Though that comment was made in 2005, Brubaker has built upon his skills, found a great match with Phillips, and the result is The Fade Out 1.
The Fade Out 1 sticks to classic noir — unlike the more popularized American neo-noir — by utilizing a protagonist who is not a detective, but a victim or suspect. And, indeed our protagonist comes across with as little savvy while dealing with his circumstances as he has memories leading of their occurrences. Charlie Parish is also quite emotionally vulnerable, shedding the prototypical “hardboiled”, cynical persona associated with the genre. However, this slot is still filled by the Head of Security, Phil Brodsky, who embodies the hardboiled prototype with his casual, crass, and coldly practical stance on a young starlet’s death.
Brodsky seems to be Brubaker’s favorite outlet for the sexism and racism upon which Drew commented earlier. Even more interesting and welcome is the inclusion of Communist finger-pointing, hitting on one of the large fears of the time. Suspicions of Communism hit Hollywood especially hard during the 1947 investigation from the House Committee of Un-American Activities, and the inclusion of a character (Parish’s confidante, Gil Mason) with a pariah’s status due to allegedly supporting the Reds, lets the readers know that this witch hunt is ongoing and real. One can guess that the inclusion of McCarthyism will feature prominently in the remaining issues, helping to create a world wherein nobody is safe and the stakes are high.
The lengths to which Brubaker is going to contextualize this era is impressive, and to do so he enlisted the help of a research assistant: a noir film and old Hollywood expert. The attention to detail being reached seems to saturate the comic — even the art. Brubaker and Phillips have also been collaborating on another noir-themed Image comic, Fatale, and while both titles share the same dark sense of mystery, Fatale soaks in its muddy visuals which accentuate its macabre atmosphere. The Fade Out, on the other hand, seems to rejoice in its researched authenticity, and Phillips’ art is sharper and cleaner, showcasing every authentic sofa-pattern and whiskey advertisement. The result is a saturated, beautiful landscape in which the ensuing drama can play.
Lastly, this comic utilizes a third-person narrative to drive the story, as seen in the yellow captions. This may be surprising for many who associate noir with first-person asides and voice-over narration as trademark, but third-person was actually quite common with a specific type of noir popularized in the 1940’s: the semidocumentary. In this form, factual details or events are worked into a fictional story in the style of a newsreel/documentary, and to maintain the illusion of authenticity, the narration is couched in the third-person instead of first — as had become the custom when noir novels began translating over to radio drama. The final pages of The Fade Out 1 are dedicated to the true story of a starlet’s suicide, which Brubaker included to add more historical background to this era. This may go to show that this comic, like the aforementioned semidocumentaries, could be drawn from events more factual than not.
Brubaker and Phillips have laid the ground-work for a well-researched story drenched in “shadows and pulp”. How they take the conventions of the genre and make them their own is yet to be seen, but I am already hooked enough to want answers. What hand did our protagonist have in the murder? How will he navigate the impending fallout? To what other lesions on the underbelly of Hollywood will we be privy? Give me answers, Brubaker. You have us all in suspense.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?