It’s kind of appropriate that Brubaker and Phillips set their crime-horror comic Fatale in the ’50s. A lot of the elements in the series resemble the classic pulp influence of EC, which had its dominance in that decade, and which itself built off the traditions of noir and gothic horror from the previous two generations. Of course, the duo are mostly known for doing comics in a noir style in their Criminal series of graphic novels, and Fatale is definitely along those lines, but they intercut the hardboiled detectives and femmes with cults and tentacles, making for one disturbing mix.
Up until this point, titular character Josephine has been playing cool. She’s got a plan, and the ability to use it. She’s even got a man, reporter Hank Raines, to do some of the work for her (while also engaging in an affair with him). But, these sorts of things always go awry, as the final chapter of this arc shows, and Jo’s meeting with her ex-lover, crooked cop Walt Booker, even highlights this. Jo glances away, to the ocean, when she says “You can never count on plans,” in a way resigned to how this is going to turn out. A familiar idea, but the art sells the way Jo, who has been playing everybody and thought she had the angles covered realizes that it was never that simple. As usual, the distinctive look of artist Sean Phillips and colorist Dave Stewart gels with Brubaker’s writing the way Steve Epting’s work did on the writer’s Captain America run. The art wears its ’50s influence on its sleeve, particularly in the first three pages, where a number of the panels look like something John Romita or Tony Abruzzo would draw (and Roy Lichtenstein would then… *ahem* … “recontextualize“). They venture into more bizarre territory when a man transforms into what looks like the love-child of Cthulhu and a Predator, a sequence that has the same tactile quality of the alien scenes from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and you can practically hear the slithering and the stretching of skin and rubbery mass, while making great use of shadows without making the page unreadable (like the majority of the 30 Days of Night comics).
Brubaker had to build to that, though. Too often, horror stories, be they comics or films or novels, are all about assaulting the audience with carnage and gore – IDW and Avatar notoriously – which isn’t scary. Startling, maybe, but not scary or creepy. Fatale started small, the discovery of a secret hinting at further, more horrible ones along the way. This issue is simply the point where the arc crosses the threshold and there’s no going back. Hank went looking for monsters when exposing crooked cops for a scoop, and now he’s got a dude with an octopus for a face (just for starters). Like its roots, pulling back the curtain in this series is the most horrifying thing of all. It’s significant that Brubaker and Phillips link the presence of the cult, and its demonic leader Bishop, to social corruption: the current storyline deals with Booker and his partner, and there’s an offhand reference to 1906 , when there was much corruption in San Francisco, and the earthquake, where it “nearly fell into the sea.” That the framing story, Hank’s godson Nick seeking the truth behind the reporter and Josephine, is set in the present implies that the process is starting again, and we’ll have to worry about old gods and other such evils.
EC would often use their output for social commentary, an idea which continued on through to the Big Two’s horror revival in the ’70s before the genre suddenly became the trash bin of the industry. For most of the ’90s and ’00s, the most clever idea for horror comcs would be pitting zombies against whatever or having vampires in Alaska. Just throw some blood at the cover and you’ve got a hit series and, more importantly, a movie deal. Fatale, along with a few other series, is a long-needed correction to that attitude towards horror, and a worthy successor to EC’s tradition.