Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing The Fade Out 4, originally released January 7th, 2015.
Patrick: I was at my parents’ house this past week for a funeral. My grandmother passed away at 96, so I flew from Los Angeles to Milwaukee, reconvened with my family and then drove down to Dixon, Illinois for the service. There were a lot of people at the funeral that I hadn’t seen in decades — friends, family, that bizarre mix between the two. Over the course of catching up, I found it difficult to express who I am right now. I’ve lived a couple different lives since they knew me last: student, musician, legal secretary, Hawaii, Chicago, California. How much of any of that is the person they saw in front of them on Thursday? The Fade Out 4 pushes these questions to the forefront as Charlie’s past versions of himself — be they heroic or black-out drunk — clash with the Charlie Parish he’s presenting.
Of course, the biggest hiccup here is that Charlie may actually want to access some of those parts of himself. Namely, the stinking drunk mess that saw… something. Much of this issue revolves around Charlie trying to kickstart his fuzzy, fuzzy memories of the night Valerie was killed. Some of this is happening all by itself, as he’s awoken in the middle of the night with nondescript visions of faces. Those faces come ever-so-slightly more into focus when he recognizes one of them in a picture at one of Earl’s skeezier friends’ house. Charlie’s not much of a detective: despite wanting to know what happened to the young starlet, all of his best clues come to him as if by accident. He’s a frustratingly inactive character, and it seems like most of this issue is based around lining up coincidences to force him into a place of action.
When Charlie does finally act, it’s because he’s drunk again. But, like, he’s not even in control of his decision to get drunk — he’s stress-drinking after having his World War II experiences thrust back upon him by an accidental run-in with Clark Gable. Normally, that’s not what I’m looking for in a protagonist, but it’s clear that we’re only starting to see Charlie back on his heels; he hasn’t quite reached the point where he’s backed into a corner. Before Steve Turner’s house burns down, Charlie’s able to pretend that his life is exactly as it always was.
I love this focus on altered states of consciousness and being. Charlie himself takes on so many forms and has to deal with the baggage of all of his experiences. Sean Phillips is a master at causally tossing off stunningly diverse styles to set off those different filters for Charlie’s perceptions. First, and my favorite, is black-out drunk Charlie
Not only is this gorgeous, the point of focus for both of these panels is a burning cigarette. The cigarette obviously casts smoke all over the room, and all the edges are appropriately soft. Smoke ends up being the perfect symbol for the both the debauchery at the party and the incomplete nature of his memories. Oh, and, like I said: gorgeous.
We also get a little glimpse into Charlie’s past — something that’s teased on the cover. He was in the air with Clark Gable filming bombing runs for a documentary the star was producing. Phillips drops most of the detail from his character’s faces during this illustrated flashback and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser slides into a somber gray-scale. Breitweiser also lets the colors extend past Phillips’ lines, lending a sense of artifice to those memories. Or maybe it’s not exactly “artifice,” maybe Charlie’s lionized these memories and they’re part of a man he no longer is. The third-person narration beautifully articulates this same point.
So what roll does Charlie need to play in order to clear his own name and get to the bottom of things? The hard-partying man-about-Hollywood? The war hero? If you look closely, he’s not the only one faking his way around town. There’s a cute little story that plays about in the background between Maya Silver and young leading man Tyler Graves whereby he has to defend her against a staged attack on her honor. Again, it’s a beautifully heightened moment, benefiting from Breitweiser’s non-intuitive color choices.
It’s a fun mix of roles that people elect to take on and roles that they are forced into, and Charlie might be the strongest example of the latter. I look forward to seeing that shift to the former, and Charlie taking a more active role in his life. I mean, come on buddy, you can decide for yourself if this is a real date with Dottie.
Drew! I like this issue a lot, and I can’t wait to hear your insights, but please humor these two dumb observations. Observation number one: Steve’s house looks a lot like the house your brother (and former Retcon Punch writer Scott) used to live in. Observation number two: between this and Heroes, I know never to trust a dude in horn-rim glasses.
This should have been an adorably near-sighted building, or at least a photo of some kind of absurd decoration (or college prank). The internet really phoned this one in.
Anyway, Patrick, I’m more intrigued by the issue of roles you bring up, which in Charlie’s case, I think we can safely call an identity crisis. It’s not that he doesn’t know what front to put on — indeed, I might go so far as to say he’s one of the few characters here not mugging for some camera — but that he doesn’t know who he is. He’s a writer who can’t write, a propagandist who can’t celebrate his victories, a witness who can’t remember what he saw. You’re absolutely right to call Charlie out for not having any agency, but I think it’s because he doesn’t have an identity. It doesn’t make him the most compelling protagonist, but it does make him a bit of an ideal audience surrogate.
That leaves Charlie’s extended cast — and Hollywood itself — as defining the true character of the story, which is where the theme of identity takes on a third dimension. I mean, can we blame Charlie for not having more of an identity when everyone around him is such a fucking phony? L.A. is the ideal setting for that kind of story, but I think its important that none of the acts we see in this issue are on stage. Earl acts the charmer, but he’s really a pervy lech. Maya plays the damsel in distress, but she’s just looking for a little more buzz in the gossip columns. This side of Hollywood blurs the lines between fact and fiction, making Charlie’s confusion as to what constitutes a “real” date understandible (and interesting that you noticed this confusion upon leaving L.A., Patrick).
Actually, Charlie’s confusion may just be another manifestation of his audience surrogacy. At this point, Charlie is the only one we know for sure doesn’t know more than we do, making his confusion ours, and vice versa. We’re right there with him when he asks what he got himself into.
Only, he doesn’t ask what he got himself into — the narrator does. I’ve been intrigued by the omniscient third-person narration from the start — it’s a mode that’s virtually disappeared from comics — but Brubaker allows the objectivity of the voice to crack ever-so-slightly, pulling it closer in line with Charlie’s perspective. Take a look at how the narrator reacts to Earl’s bullshit.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Charlie’s subjectivity creep into the narration — it’s always been a decidedly close third-person — but here, it works to put us that much closer to Charlie. This are still his thoughts by way of a narrator, to be sure, but if you squint just right, you might forget that. Moreover, you may have found yourself thinking the same thing before you read it.
Like I said earlier, Charlie is the ideal audience surrogate, with no distinguishing characteristics, and ultimately, no control over the story he finds himself in the middle of. He’s intrigued by the mystery, for sure, but he has yet to exert any real control over the events. I suspect the implication that he’s at the center of a much bigger cover-up is the call to action he’s been waiting for, but again, maybe that’s just me projecting myself into Charlie. At any rate, I’m sure as hell ready to find out just what the hell Charlie’s stumbled into.
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