I read The Fade Out, Brubaker's new Hollywood noir when it first hit the shelves, and wasn't in love. It was beautifully drawn and featured Brubaker's signature command as reigning King of Comic Noir, but it felt overly familiar and didn't have the same frantic sadness that Satellite Sam won me over with. Regardless of this, The Fade Out showed an artist who thoroughly knew the period which he was writing for, researched and natural, the mark of a good period writer. Empress is another noir mystery, featuring a vanished actress instead of a murdered one, but here without the research or clear knowledge of the culture of the both very specific and yet strangely vague chronological setting. An actress has vanished from a movie set with one scene left to finish the picture. Stock sleazy studio head hires stock private dick and attaches stock woman who complains about dick being an asshole, to go on a search for the actress to save the picture. However, something is lurking beneath the surface of the story, involving the actress's resistance to the future of sound films and a supernatural presence she can't explain...
To start off, you have to deduce what time period the comic is set in. There are no text boxes to inform us and the comic's cover gives little hint that the interior is a period mystery, looking more vaguely like pulp faux-Lovecraft that has been a popular subgenre recently. The film talk concerns itself a lot with the rise of sound film, which would have to put it after 1927, but also presumably before 1929 when talkies asserted their dominance as the preferred medium of general audiences. The car designs seem to be accurate to this, but the fashions are low cut, revealing a very non-20's level of cleavage and the hourglass figure of 90's swimsuit models. The men's fashion seems similarly out of place, more 40's and 50's to fit the anachronistic noir story, similarly matched by the “say doll, how 'bout you scram” dialogue.
This may come across as nitpicking, and it is somewhat, but for a period piece that seems to take itself seriously, it is distracting to play the “what time is it” game, especially when the written story is pretty much dead on arrival from the first page. If a world is established to be a totally fantastic alternate timeline, such as nearly all of steampunk or decopunk films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, then anachronisms can be excused as symptoms of a butterfly effect or simply a “fuck it, it's fantasy” approach. The problem is this comic takes quite a lot of its plot and dialogue from a real, very small, window of time while trying to tell a story in a genre that’s most recognizable traits wouldn't exist for another decade and change. This could be intriguing, but it also requires a much smarter and educated approach to the period, being able to enrich a world of the past with more than just what one knows about Hollywood in 20s from watching Singing in the Rain.
Writing wise, it's stock. You've seen this, you know the archetypes, and you know the feisty woman won't appreciate being called doll, wokka wokka. Art wise, the heavy shadowed lines can look good at times, while certain parts near the middle are memorably ugly. I don't think it'd have been so bad if properly attended by a talented colorist however. Here, skin tone is always skin tone regardless of lighting and atmosphere, despite some pages very clearly showing characters with black shadow dividers suggesting alternating strong colors of light, leaving with jagged lightning bolts of darkness down the middle of flat lit faces. A scene set a party is filled with arbitrary fuzzy light glow, done in what looks like beige. Maybe the artist didn't notice, maybe he approved. Either way, he could have been served better, as could we.
I don't like to be so meticulous on a negative review of an indie project, true condemnation should be reserved for those with endless pockets and a casual contempt for their customers and the medium. Despite this, period is important, and even if the book was better written and better illustrated I'd still feel like the author hadn't done the basic due diligence of mild historical subtly. There are so many ways the upcoming supernatural bend could be tied into the massive cultural upheavals of the time. Standing on a precipice of replacing a decaying Imperial order of things, the rise of a steeping Evil of the Future, and a war that would annihilate the Old World in favor of the strange new one on the other side of the 20th century.
But you know, we'd have to know when the book was set for that.
Writer: Chuck Amadori Artist: Marcelo Salaza Publisher: Isle Squared Comics/Cruel Productions Price: $3.99 – Print/$1.99 – Digital Website