It being the year 2015 and all, I shouldn’t have to tell you guys that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are collaborators of that rare type, like Miller/Janson, Lee/Kirby, and Morrison/Quitely who have discovered the ability to capture lightning in a bottle. Fresh on the heels of their last project, Fatale, Brubaker and Phillips are sitting on the first four issues of The Fade Out. The Fade Out is nominally the story of Charlie Parish, a Blacklist-era screenwriter who hasn’t been able to write a word in years, and who wakes up after one of his regular blackout nights to find Hollywood starlet Valeria Sommers dead in his apartment. Where a lesser team may have made this book a straight-up murder mystery, progressing in a straight line towards the end, Brubaker and Phillips are doing something more like expanding a sphere, touching all kinds of disparate points and bringing them into the storyline proper, until they reach the one point that solves the mystery.
Like many of Brubaker and Phillips’ collaborations, The Fade Out is an atmosphere and character piece, as opposed to a plot piece. The reason they can bring back older books of theirs like Criminal speaks to an enduring interest in those characters and that world, more so than an interest in what happened to the characters when the lights went down. The Fade Out shares that loving attention to detail (and if you haven’t been reading monthly, they’ve been including essays about that period of Hollywoodland lore, so I can’t recommend highly enough going back to grab those as well).
Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser are the stars of this show, if we’re being honest with ourselves. The perfect shots that noir films aspire to, where characters are backlit in doorways that splash color behind them, or they’re lit only by the lights of a swank party and their own ego, these two manage to manufacture those shots panel after panel with what must be extreme difficulty, but seems like ease. I draw the comparison from The Fade Out to Satellite Sam because, while Satellite Sam takes place about a half decade later, it attempts the same sort of Mad Men-esque (I’m sorry, it’s the best cultural shorthand I can come up with) rearview at history, right down to the black and white character sheets at the beginning of each issue/volume. But where Chaykin’s men all look like the same face with different hair, Phillips has designed characters that are recognizable (and able to be differentiated) from a distance. His work is truly a delight at every turn, and I can’t wait to see how much further they’ll go with these characters.
Now, all that is not to say that Ed Brubaker’s contribution to this project isn’t also substantial. At this point in their collaboration, it’s almost difficult for me to gauge where Brubaker ends and Phillips begins. I know I love the atmosphere of this book, and I know it’s easy to see Phillips’ contributions, but I think where Brubaker really shines is the pacing that serves the atmosphere. This isn’t His Girl Friday; people don’t talk in clipped rhymes and patter to make themselves seem smart, they just say what they mean, and it’s usually not pretty. Where Fatale had license to go off into flights of fantasy, The Fade Out is that much more grounded; for every weird set piece, every connecting sex tunnel into a dressing room, there’s a man struggling with very real PTSD; there are actors who are desperate to catch their big break before the studio system falls apart forever; and Brubaker captures every one of them in a lens that manages to be unflinching but still finds things to love about even the ugliest cast members.
For a person like myself, who’s not quite a history nerd, but who loves taking deep Wikipedia dives into weird parts of history, The Fade Out is just my cup of tea. It’s a dark chapter in American history, with a lot of grime around the edges, and that only adds to its oppressive and paranoid atmosphere. All that is to say, you should come to The Fade Out for the plot and the atmosphere, stay for the characters, and never think about McCarthyism the same way again.
The Fade Out - Vol. 1 Writer: Ed Brubaker Artist: Sean Phillips Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser Publisher: Image Comics Price: $9.99 Release Date: 2/25/15 Format: TPB; Print/Digital