“Criminal” was consistently excellent. I can’t wait to see what happens next in “Incognito.” “Sleeper” is one of my all time favorites which I also loan out to friends with an interest in reading comics. With a history like that, my expectations for this latest collaboration from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were sky high. They were further raised by the good reviews and word-of-mouth that have been circulating about it since the first issue dropped earlier this year. So if you think that I’m about to tell you that this volume didn’t live up to my high expectations, then YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.
As I’ve talked about in my reviews of other comics he has written, Brubaker’s writing is primarily defined by his love of “noir.” Good guys thrust into bad, unwinnable situations, bad guys finding out that they’ve got a soul after all, the good and the bad dames that love them, all set in the dark corners of society where light doesn’t often penetrate. Above all is the moral ambiguity that every Brubaker protagonist faces. From Holden Carver trying to survive in a one-man undercover operation, to Tracy Lawless out to right wrongs done to people who may have had it coming. There are no easy choices for the main characters in these stories, though “Fatale” is a little different.
The series is centered around Jo, a woman who has the ability to captivate any man and bend them to her will. Even if that’s not her intention. Nicolas Lash gets a taste of this when he encounters Jo at the funeral for his godfather Dominic “Hank” Raines. It’s nothing compared to what happened when Hank first met her back in the 50’s and wound up embroiled in a mess of crooked cops, cultists, and monsters. Actual monsters.
You see, the hook for “Fatale” as it were is that a lot of the noir conventions are made explicit through the use of the supernatural. Jo’s way with men isn’t due to her crafty feminine wiles, but a mysterious ceremony she was a part of some years ago. And that shady criminal pulling the strings is actually some kind of demon with his own set of identical, ageless henchmen. It’s a new approach to the material, to be sure, but it doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting. At its core, the story is a fairly standard one about what happens when people go poking their noses where they don’t belong or into things they don’t understand.
The only advantage gained in this approach is with Jo’s character as she’s probably the most sympathetic “femme fatale” ever created. Though she has these powers over men, she can’t control them in the way she wants and as much as the men will bend to her will, they’ll also do just about anything to get her attention as well. Yes, she can drive men to leave their wives just by thinking about it, but it’s something she does out of (what she thinks is) necessity rather than “because she felt like it.” Conversely, the demonic opposition isn’t very fleshed out at all and come off as ciphers acting at the plot’s whims. There are also some hints that some of them were working with the Nazis in World War II, which is as exciting as it is surprising. Something does happen towards the end which may make their leader more interesting in future stories, but they come off as dreadfully generic in this first one.
Still, it all reads well which is further proof that Brubaker is incapable of writing something truly “bad” as the story progresses in a way that keeps you turning the pages to see what happens next (even if you’re pretty certain about what you’ll find there). “Fatale” is also further proof that Sean Phillips can do no wrong. Phillips nails just about everything here, from the expressions on the faces of the cast, to the period details in the 50’s scenes. He’s an incredibly versatile artist whose style can work in just about any genre and sometimes more than one at once as is the case here. There’s a creepiness to some of the scenes with the monsters that really gives you the feeling that the unnatural is intruding on places that we once thought were “safe.” Even if the story’s genre-blending approach doesn’t pay off as anticipated with regards to its narrative, it still gives Phillips a chance to really show what he’s capable of. I honestly can’t imagine another artist pulling off this book as well.
So even if it fell well short of my expectations this first volume of “Fatale” is still a decent read. It could be that this first volume suffers from the time it takes to set up its world and characters and will really show its true colors next time. Still, when it comes to Brubaker and Phillips, you immediately expect “greatness” rather than “good enough” and it’s hard not to feel a little let down by what I got here.