In the mid-1980s there was a comic book series called Wordsmith (by comic book company Renegade). The title was apparently never very popular (you can still pick up a copy, for less than the cover price), but I quite liked it since it followed the hard work of a pulp writer in the 1930’s-40’s. Ed Brubaker’s comic/graphic novel series The Fade Out reminds me of Wordsmith in some very basic ways.
In The Fade Out, we follow Charlie Parish, a screenwriter in the late 1940’s. Charlie works for one of the largest studios in Los Angeles and we meet him as he wakes up after a wild party. Near him is the corpse of the female star in the new movie currently being filmed. She’s been strangled and the way she’s been placed near Charlie looks like he’s been set up, but the police report lists her death a suicide and Charlie knows that there’s something afoot.
In addition to the police investigation and Charlie’s trying to stay out of the lime-light, the starlet’s death means extra script-writing work for Charlie as he must rewrite the film that has been underway. When it is clear that someone within the studio must be behind the girl’s death, Charlie looks for answers, but he discovers that getting those answers won’t be easy.
The setting is dark and classically noir. It’s a perfect setting for a mystery set in 1948. The glitz of Hollywood, paired with the dark world of greed and murder post World War II is a nice combination. This book is so wonderfully drawn, both with pictures and with words, that you can practically breathe the misty sea-salt air and smell the booze from a Hollywood party. The characters come across as real — determined and flawed, as if they came out of a Tennessee Williams script.
The initial mystery hooks us immediately, but the further Charlie gets in to his exploring, the more we are drawn in to the story. All the characters are interesting, including the dead starlet we never get to know well.
The art is beautiful. It, too, has the perfect combination of capturing the dark noir of a ’40’s mystery and reminding us that we’re in Hollywood, where glamour sets the stage.
This book is Volume One, which collects the first four issues of the comic book series. The story is just beginning, so don’t expect and neatly wrapped up ending here. This bothers me a little, as some of you may know from reading some of my past reviews, but I accept the convention much better in a comic book/graphic novel series than I do in a book.
The Fade Out is easily one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a long time, and the team of Ed Brubaker (author) and Sean Phillips (illustrator) should be kept together as long as possible. They seem to understand what the other is working toward.
Looking for a good book? The Fade Out is a graphic novel that should appeal to lovers of mysteries as well as to comic book/graphic novel readers. It has a strong story, gripping action, believable characters, and stunning art.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Fade Out, Volume 1
author: Ed Brubaker
artist: Sean Phillips
publisher: Image Comics
paperback, 120 pages
The Fade Out is a stone cold masterpiece.
Before the first chapter was down I knew this was going to be epic, and, WOW, it is one helluva ride! It’s a corny thing to say but it’s true, and that’s The Fade Out is like a portal into the past. Really! Sure there’s a plot here but Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser have gone further and somehow brought the past to life. They’ve created a living, breathing world that’s so richly atmospheric and real (Brubaker was so committed to period detail he hired a research assistant for this project), it envelopes the reader completely.
And what a fascinating – if sordid – world! Brubaker takes us behind the scenes to reveal drunken brawls between movie stars in studio bungalows, starlets lining up to service celebrities and studio execs in sleazy sex parties, substance abuse, violence, and studio PR hiding it all from the press, including keeping closeted famous actors in the closet (of course none of these things happen in today’s Hollywood… coughTomCruisecough).
While the mystery of the dead starlet plays menacingly in the background, we get to know the key players in the series. Our protagonist is Charlie, the screenwriter who was so traumatised by his experiences in the war, he’s unable to write. So how is he kept on the payroll? His buddy Gil secretly dictates the scripts and Charlie types them up. It’s a shadowy partnership because Gil got blacklisted from all of the studios during the McCarthy witch hunts. But who sold out Gil?
There’s Earl Rath, a Gregory Peck lookalike who’s always chasing the ladies; Maya Silver, Valeria’s replacement and a starlet who’s willing to do anything to get to the top; and Thursby, the studio head, whose own past is mired with illicit dealings. There are more but those characters’ pasts are explored the most in this first volume. Real movie stars like Clark Gable are thrown in to make the world that much more convincing.
The characters are so compelling. They easily make this book stand out as a high quality work and Brubaker ensures no-one is free from blame – not everyone is a villain but everyone’s complicit in the harsh reality of make believe.
The Fade Out is such a smooth read, it doesn’t feel like reading. With the words on the page, it’s more like watching a brilliant, stylish subtitled movie (about the movie business!) so it’s easy to take for granted Sean Phillips’ artwork. But every single page is first rate and, coupled with Brubaker’s script, they fly by.
And then you come across a panel without words and the imagery stops you dead. For me that panel was Charlie stepping into his apartment building at night in a dingy part of town, and it was stunning. So elegant, so understated in its beauty – amazing. Colourist Elizabeth Breitweiser is the icing on the cake with her choice of aquamarine for the sky and the land, the colour bleeding together in the panel? Inspired!
In The Fade Out, everyone has secrets and there’s a tantalising mystery at its core, but this first volume doesn’t have much of an arc. That’s fine though when the characters are so well created like they are here. It’s the first volume and I can’t wait to read more about both the plot and the characters.
I loved Criminal (which is getting relaunched this year, hooray!) but The Fade Out, for me, is now definitely the best of the Brubaker/Phillips collaborations. James Ellroy fans especially will get a kick out of this as it’s very much in the vein of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia, though I recommend this book to EVERYONE! Besides being Brubaker/Phillips’ finest, The Fade Out is easily one of the year’s best comics!