Though it pains me to say it, the first volume of this series was somewhat of a letdown. After Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips consistently hit it out of the park with “Sleeper,” “Criminal,” and “Incognito,” I was expecting “Fatale” to do just the same. Unfortunately, the story, the setting and the characters all felt too conventional and familiar to really excite me. It was still very readable, but I was expecting this to be a shoo-in for my “Best of 2012” list. Vol. 2 doesn’t quite rectify that, though it is a step in the right direction.
Though the life of Nicolas Lash is still unraveling in the present day, Josephine’s -- the “femme fatale” of the title -- story jumps ahead twenty years from the last time we saw her to the 70’s. Now a recluse living in the Hollywood hills, her past catches up to her when a struggling actor named miles and a junkie prostitute named Suzy Scream climb up over her wall to escape some very bad men. Though Miles has always been the kind of person who puts himself before others, one look at Josephine and that thinking goes right out the window. Now he’s volunteering to help her go up against these bad men, members of a cult known as the Method Church -- the latest incarnation of the beings who have been hounding the this woman all her life.
The shift to the 70’s is quite welcome as the seedy atmosphere and signs of the times don’t feel quite as played out as the 50’s noir of the previous volume. Here you’ve got a plot that revolves around B-movies, hustlers and druggies trying to make it big in Hollywood where all kinds of depravity abounds, along with echoes of Manson Family-style cultishness. Josephine also comes off as a more tragic figure here, initially determined to shut herself off from the world due to her curse yet forced back into it due to circumstances beyond her control. We’re also given several effective reminders of the nature of her power, with the gardener who caught a glimpse of her once and keeps hanging around for more and in Hank’s return. It’s a brief scene, but the heartbreak in it is palpable as even though the writer hasn’t seen her for nearly two decades you can see that he hasn’t stopped thinking about her for a minute while Josephine can’t forgive herself for what she has done to him.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re just as interesting. When he’s introduced, Miles is shown to be the kind of person who’ll only do something resembling a decent thing when confronted with abject horror. When the struggling actor comes under Josephine’s spell, though, it’s fun to see him struggle with the idea that he’s slowly becoming a decent person because of it. There’s also Nicolas Lash, who is driving the story in the present day and whose life is constantly taking turns for the worse. I’ll freely admit that the rate at which his situation descends down the crapper is compelling in itself, yet it also results in some startlingly tense scenes such as one near the beginning of the volume when he finds out that he’s not paranoid and they really are out to get him.
Then there’s Hansel, the lead demon from the previous volume who has now reinvented himself as the head of the Method Church. As far as I’m concerned, “Fatale” has two main problems: one is that the stories here are pretty familiar in terms of subject matter and structure, and that the bad guys come off as awfully generic. Yes, they may be nasty Lovecraftian beings but they don’t have much personality beyond that. Brubaker takes some steps to rectify that here with Hansel’s struggle to cope with what was done to him in the previous volume. With his eyes gone, the demon has lost his connection to his overlords and has been desperate to get it back. This gives him purpose and direction while adding some dimension to his character as well. I can’t say that this really makes him distinct against all of the other evil supernatural beings who are plotting to destroy the world that I’ve read about in the past, but it’s a start.
Vol. 2 of “Fatale” ends with a virtual massacre at Josephine’s home which also gave me the series’ most indelible image so far. A single panel of Josephine grinning sadistically as she finally decides to stop running from her “curse.” Though the entire book looks great, Phillips really nails the character’s emotions here and sends the book out on a high note. That we might be seeing a more proactive version of Josephine in the future strikes me as a reason to be optimistic about the book’s future too. “Fatale” may not be in the same league as Brubaker and Phillips’ previous collaborations, but there’s still the potential for it to get there eventually.