I was fully expecting the upward trend which started with the second volume to continue here, but that doesn’t quite happen. Rather, we get a flattening of the quality curve here as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips take some time to tell side-stories of the “Fatale” universe and show us that Josephine’s “condition” has not only been going on for quite some time, it’s not even a unique one either. Though these are some interesting diversions, this was probably the wrong time to take them as their ultimate effect is to stall the series’ momentum.
The first story, “The Curse of Alfred Ravenscroft” is the best of the bunch as we get our earliest look at Josephine, when she was still learning about her powers and how to control them, and comes across an old pulp writer who knows a thing or two about them. Not only do we get his story, but Brubaker also manages to fit in a subplot about a policeman brought under the fatale’s sway only to meet a more dire fate than most of her victims. It’s a densely constructed yarn that sheds a little (but not a lot of) insight into the otherworldly forces at the heart of this series and features some incredibly creepy scenes involving these entities, fully realized by Phillips.
“A Lovely Sort of Death” takes us back -- way, way back -- to the France of 1286 A.D. as we meet Mathilda while she’s being burned at the stake. That she survives such an inconvenience should be a foregone conclusion and the woman flees through the forest to meet old, one-eyed Ganix who takes her in and also demonstrates that he’s immune to her charms. Brubaker establishes a credible relationship between the two which is put to the test when things go south. It’s also nice to see the author stretching in terms of setting and style here as a lot of what’s here has more in common with “Berserk” than his usual crime/espionage interests.
This stretching continues in “Down the Darkest Trail,” a western story about an outlaw known as “Black Bonnie” who was told by a fortune teller that she would die three times in her life. While we don’t learn the specifics behind the first deal, it’s clear that’s what gave the woman her powers over men... but didn’t do anything for her terrible aim. After a native american man shows up to bring about her second death Bonnie meets up with “Professor” Smythe and gets her involved in a plan to steal a certain book from a group of crazed cultists. It’s the most action-packed of the stories in this collection, yet the insight it offers into the larger narrative is cryptic at best.
Finally, “Just a Glance Away” provides some real insight into one of the key relationships of the first volume as we see Josephine’s first meeting with Walt Booker in WWII. Though we first met Booker as a dirty cop with a hold over the femme fatale, we see him as a more tragic character here. His ability to see the hidden secrets of the world is what saves him from being driven insane as one of his army comrades was and puts the man on track to rescuing a captive Josephine. In addition to some solid human-on-Nazi-demon action, we see that Booker and Josephine’s relationship was actually founded on the potential for love rather than intimidation. It puts a new twist on their antagonistic relationship in the first volume as it becomes clear why she would consider staying with him for so long. So the story works because of the way it illuminates a previously told story as opposed to providing any build-up for what we can expect next.
That’s the problem with this volume as a whole. As solid as these stories are, they don’t do a good job of getting me excited for the title’s future. Hints are dropped here and there, but this third volume lacks any real “Ah-ha!” moments to illuminate the story as a whole. The importance of the book which appears in three of these stories is obvious, yet there’s precious little insight given as to why that is so. Personally, I think this was the wrong time to deviate from the main story as its momentum was just starting to pick up. I also wasn’t as impressed as everyone else has been with this series at first, so your mileage may vary. I’m still onboard for this title as there’s plenty to recommend it, but it continues to be a source of frustration for me. “Fatale” is just a decent-to-good series from a team that has consistently given us greatness in the past.