Historically speaking, the 1970s are sometimes regarded as the crash of the 60s. The gains made in the civil rights movement and the euphoric sense amongst anti-war protesters that they could change the world with peace, love, and understanding gave way to Charles Manson, the ignominious end to the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the birth of modern cynicism. Punk rock outfits like the Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, and the Clash kept that spirit of revolution alive, but it was a lot more bitter and angry. This was the age of the video nasty and grindhouse, which sets the stage for the sixth issue of Fatale to drop us into the dark side once again.
It’s mostly a setup issue, with Ed Brubaker establishing the story of a B-movie actor named Miles finding himself on the run after discovering a friend of his (named Suzy Scream). bleeding profusely and standing over the bodies of two cultists she’s killed, then putting them on a collision course with seemingly immortal femme Josephine. Sean Phillips and Dave Stewart’s artwork is a lot dirtier and more loose than in previous issues, often with the backgrounds of 70s Hollywood blurring together in a fog of neon lights, ozone, and impenetrable blackness, recreating the grainy style of low-budget exploitation flicks like those of Tobe Hooper and George Romero. Even if Miles didn’t find himself going to a cult party in the hills, looking to score coke to get him into a better party, it’s hard to shake the feeling that anywhere he could have gone would unearth something horrifying just lurking beyond L.A.’s glamour. His arrival at the party even has something happening in the background that is unsettling in how casually it’s treated, gradually revealed by placing the narration on the opposite side of the panel from it, letting the eye work its way to Miles and then the element in question. All this allows tension to build as the reader is led towards that moment where Miles encounters the horror he is in for (or at least part of it). Even images inspired by romance comics, like a memory Josephine has of a late night swim, seem awash in doom.
Like Lovecraft or Poe, there’s an air of inevitability to the events on the page, and that none of the characters are in control of their destinies: in the prologue, Nicolas Lash’s search for Josephine leads to a harrowing encounter with one of the mirror-shaded cultists from the first arc, which he survives by pure dumb luck; Josephine herself has hidden away, content with living a hermit-like existence watching late night TV and drinking tea so as not to harm anyone else with her curse–“She’d become the strange old lady,” Brubaker writes, which is true in spite of her youthful appearance, a representation of Boomer despair in the 70s–only to find Miles and the bleeding Suzy, which makes her realize there’s no escape from her past.
A significant image in the comic’s pages is that of a film. When Miles discovers Suzy, one of the bodies is seated, staring lifelessly at a projection of something we don’t see, but which visibly disturbs the actor. The contents also interest Josephine, who had been watching a movie Miles stars in (coincidentally), and the cover shows her standing in front of the Hollywood sign, which looms like an evil spectre against the oily blue/black background. Lovecraft’s gothic fiction often used art — paintings, sculpture, music, and even books — as markers of the effect his creatures left (Call of Cthulhu) or where they were intruding into our world from beyond (The Music of Erich Zann). The use of film for the same effect, like what John Carpenter did for his underrated In the Mouth of Madness, follows this tradition and highlights that connection with the perverse content of the video nasty. That Miles has the same deer-in-headlights expression on his face as the seated corpse when he sees the film indicates it’s more than just some shameful secret he’s witnessed, but something that rots through to the soul. Fitting that this arc is titled The Devil’s Business.
What’s important to note is that Miles and Josephine both despair, the former taking whatever shortcut he can to regain what little glory he lost and the latter willing to shut herself away and clutch at her memories (she keeps a copy of her previous love’s book). Neither has the optimism of the previous decades, like Lash in the present, and have settled for merely surviving the cold, cruel march of history. Like the Boomers and the punks, they have to find out just what that survival means.