Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips stretch their considerable creative muscles to make Fatale #1 an electric and delicious start to their newest project together.
I’ve been a fan of this creative team since they first came to my attention on Sleeper, followed them singly and together on pretty much every other title they’ve worked on, and cite their ongoing Marvel/Icon book Criminal as my current favourite ongoing title. “I like it so much I started a blog,” I’m tempted to say.
None of this is news if you’ve been reading me for any length of time at all, so I won’t bore you with further explication of the esteem in which I hold Brubaker and Phillips’s joint comic work; just take it as a given that if they are working together, you’re going to be reading comics in the finest tradition in terms of style and substance. Single issues that read well all by themselves no matter where you are in the storyline, complex characters that surprise and delight; lush, convincing images that invite you in to the world being created before your eyes.
Fatale, like Sleeper and Criminal (oh, and Incognito, too, yes) does all that, and does it all quite well. But it also goes places Entrancin’ Ed and Sure-Fingered Sean never have before; the duo set their new book in a dark world of mystery and horror inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (another of my favourite writers). This isn’t the icy, brutal sexual terror Alan Moore delivered in his excellent Lovecraft homage Neonomicon, however; Brubaker and Phillips craft a more baroque feel for this new world we’re discovering, all dark corners and unknown terrors that invite exploration. The mood is set from the very start, as a dour group of people gather in the rain for a funeral. Strangers meet, words are exchanged, and questions quickly arise. And just like that, we’re immersed in a new world of darkness and wonder.
The first-person narration of main character Nicholas Lash feels comfortable and intimate, but the strange things that begin to happen to him unfold so quickly that you’re as disoriented as he is by the way the world turns out from under him. As he immerses himself in a story-within-the-story in the form of a previously unknown manuscript brought to him by a beautiful and mysterious woman who may be much more than she suggests. The scenes depicted from the manuscript really give Phillips a chance to show what he can deliver, as we get a luminously noir scene-setting city street depiction so detailed and visually stunning that it’s also called-out for the issue’s back cover illustration. We see truly creepy thugs reminiscent of The Strangers in Dark City or The Gentlemen in the “Hush” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but by way of Herge’s Thomson and Thompson. Visually witty but still filled with horror and dread.
How does the story Lash reads relate to the death of his godfather? Who, really, is the beautiful and intriguing Jo? Why does the gore and spatter emitted by a chest-wounded thug seem…wrong, somehow? Lots of questions, and you’ll want to read further and get the answers. Brubaker’s best comics writing by now has the same spare confidence and bravado of a master musician, and Phillips brings a level of detail and verisimilitude to this story that is virtually unknown in regular monthly comics these days.
Fatale #1 delivers value for the dollar, too; in addition to a longer-than-average story (24 pages instead of the usual 22 or more recent usual 20 in some titles), Brubaker writes an introductory text page, something that is always welcome, especially in a first issue, as it provides context and communication with the reader that is always off-putting when absent. Additionally, the always-excellent Jess Nevins has been tasked with writing an essay explaining Lovecraft and his works, a piece accompanied by a truly stunning and evocative Sean Phillips illustration of Lovecraft and his greatest, most fearsome creation.
Fatale #1 is exactly the sort of comic readers need; an engrossing story, superbly illustrated, sharply written and with enough substance and ancillary material to justify the cover price. Any publisher wondering how to do it right should explore every aspect of this issue. Any reader wondering why comics don’t satisfy them anymore should compare Fatale #1 to any other book on the stands, because it blows them all away.
— Alan David Doane
Addendum: Ed Brubaker responded to this review on Twitter, saying “You got one detail wrong, but you’re sort of meant to. The ’50s part of the story is not the manuscript he reads.”