Looking for a beautiful dame to die for, weird cults and Lovecraftian monsters wrapped up in a solid mystery? Of course you are, and writer Ed Brubaker (Captain America) and artist Sean Phillips‘ (Hellblazer, Marvel Zombies) intelligent, noir influenced comic FATALE has them all. It also leads this year’s prestigious Eisner Award selections with five nominations, including best writer, best penciller/inker and best continuing series.
Fatale tells the story of the forever youthful Josephine, a woman cursed to destroy the men who fall in love with her. Fatale’s storyline moves from era to era, revealing details of Josephine’s tragic history; tales set in the 1950s and 1970s have more recently given way to stories from medieval times, the American west and the Second World War.
Originally a twelve-issue limited series, Fatale’s critical and commercial success have led to it becoming an ongoing title. WEST OF HELL, the highly recommended third volume that collects issues #11-14 of the series, hits stores this week, along with Fatale #15.
Brubaker and Phillips recently spoke to Rue Morgue about their respect for their readers, getting beyond influences and Don Quixote…
Ed Brubaker: I think comics works well for any kind of story or genre, really. But with horror, one of the things I’ve noticed is how you can control what the reader is seeing, and that’s almost as effective as how they do it in movies. You’ll never get that sharp terror of a shocking moment with a sudden soundtrack spike like you can do on TV or film, so you have to learn to use the tools of comics to keep the tension there. But it allows you to expand the story and slow down and examine the characters in more depth, like you would in a novel.
I talked to Joe Hill about this when I was first starting Fatale, to get some advice from him, and he told me once you get the mood established, the most important thing is to remind the readers from time to time that anything could happen, that you could turn a page and have your main character get his leg hacked off by a propeller. I rely on the noir and the characters more than the horror, and I think that’s part of what makes it work as a comic. So the horror is at the edges. It’s like when we (me and Greg Rucka and Michael Lark) were doing Gotham Central. In a police comic, Batman can be scary, because he’s barely there. In an issue of Batman, you’re in the Batcave hanging out with him and hearing his thoughts, and there’s nothing scary about him then.
Sean Phillips: On a purely visual level, comics are good at horror and other genre stuff, because what might look goofy in cinema can work on the page when assimilated into an artist’s style. Super-hero movies have gone to extraordinary lengths to make what we just accept in the comics look less than ridiculous on the big screen. Horror works in comics in a similar way. You can’t see the joins and a lot can be implied in acres of black ink.
Why do you think noir and horror, both with strong roots in pulp magazines and early cinema, have not been combined more often?
EB: I think they have been combined to great effect a few times, though, that really leap out – Rosemary’s Baby and Angel Heart, off the top of my head, are two great horror-noir movies. And in comics, Steve Niles has been doing horror and noir and every other genre rolled together for as long as I’ve known him. But I came to it for this because I was thinking about Lovecraft and how so many of his stories are essentially detective stories, with people investigating old letters or diaries or old objects. And then I started thinking “what if in Double Indemnity the woman needed to have her husband killed because he wanted to sacrifice her to his demonic gods?” and it all started falling into place.
How much research goes into creating Fatale?
EB: For historical stuff, a fair amount. But otherwise, not too much.
SP: At the beginning of every arc I buy a pile of DVDs for research, for example, films made in ’70s LA for the second arc, and almost never get round to watching them. In the grind of monthly comics, there just isn’t the time for loads of research. Ed will occasionally send me a jpeg or two if he’s got something specific in mind, but mostly I just wing it.
EB: Starting in issue 15 is “Pray for Rain” which takes place mostly in ’90s Seattle, but also picks up the modern plotline with Nicolas Lash, who we last saw in jail awaiting his murder trial somewhere in middle America. But in ’90s Seattle, we meet a one-hit-wonder grunge band, who are turning to crime, and then Josephine comes into their lives at the exact wrong moment and we get to see a side of her and her effect on people in a way that we never have before. I don’t want to spoil it, but this is where we see what she’s really capable of. This is the weirdest story so far, lots of sex and violence and insanity, and there’s a serial killer, because it’s the Pacific Northwest in the ’90s, so there were at least a few active ones then.
For someone who has read the first three volumes of Fatale, and is thinking about following the series monthly, what is the benefit of reading the single issues?
EB: There are a lot of benefits, really. First, you get the story every month, as it’s told, and in the back of our single issues, we almost always have extra content, some text pages from me, and an article about something noir or horror-related by me or some writer friend, and those are illustrated by Sean. But the best benefit of getting the single issues is that you ensure we get to keep making comics. We earn most of our living on single issue sales, because there’s no big company backing us. The way Image works, you’re basically publishing with them, not working for them, so those single issue sales are what keeps this train running, and our readership has really supported us over the years when our projects weren’t as successful as Fatale has been. It’s important to point that out from time to time, because I feel like sometimes we take stuff we read for granted, not realizing our patronage is what makes those books possible.
When Fatale is finished could you see yourselves working together on another supernatural/horror project?
EB: Maybe at some point, sure. The plan is to either do a sci-fi or a period piece crime story after this, though, depending on what feels most ready whenever we get to the end of Fatale.
EB: That would be nice, and we’ve had a lot of interest so far, but I don’t count on anything in that world. I think there are some ways it could be made a really compelling show, especially as each season could be a totally different era.
What influences – writers, artists, filmmakers or anyone else – have had the largest impact on you as a creator?
EB: I think at this point, I’m beyond any conscious influences, I hope. When I first started out as a writer, Ross Macdonald and Jim Thompson were really influential, but I’d count my influences as everything from Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, to tons of noir films, and The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and Hammer horror movies I watched as a kid, and even stuff like The Night Stalker was probably influential on me as an artist, because it got me interested in supernatural noir to begin with, back when I was like 13 watching it on late night TV. But I tend not to think about influences and just write whatever I have the urge to. Everything is influenced by something, really. We’re all still doing the bible and Don Quixote, right?
SP: I’d like to think I’ve gotten past any specific influences too. I’ve read and made comics as long as I can remember, so that, along with every movie and TV show and piece of art I’ve seen, must have informed how I draw comics in some way. The biggest influence is always the story. Any changes in my art style are always in service to the story. My job isn’t to do flashy drawings, but to make the reader forget they’re reading a comic, to get totally involved in what is happening in the story.
What is your favourite thing about creating comics?
EB: The immediacy of it, probably. I mean, I’ve loved the medium of comics since the first time I saw it, when I was 3 or 4, but having now worked in film and television, I definitely love how three people – me and Sean and Bettie [Breitweiser], our colourist, can do a comic all by ourselves, and get it on the stands within weeks of finishing it. With no compromises to anyone but ourselves.
SP: With the books Ed and I do together, it’s having total control over what we do. Whenever I occasionally revisit corporate comics the hardest part is doing what I’m told…
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