Review: Fatale #1

For years, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been making, on and off, what may be the best straight crime stories in post-Code comics. Criminal, at the very least, runs neck and neck with Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s work on 100 Bullets and, although the two series were good at very different things and had very different styles, publishing schedules, and kinds of serial narrative, they shared the same sort of mentality, a quality that I’m just going to go ahead and call “high pulp.” Now, pulp has come to mean a lot of things and, although I’m sure this will be maddening for some you, I’m not going to fight through an attempt to actually define it, only to come up with an overdetermined clunker or a meaning so broad as to be functionally useless. Instead, I’m going to hope that some of you have read Criminal and 100 Bullets or both and know what I mean, that is, that the two share a general luridness and violence which is definitively in the grand tradition of the lowbrow dime-store novel but done so well, with such care and of such obviously quality, that they force a reader, even a reader disinclined towards comics, to remember that sex and murder are two of the great themes of Western literature. Thus, high pulp. 

Of course, the fact that 100 Bullets and Criminal are pulpy doesn’t say very much about their genre, but you don’t have to think very hard to realize that both are, over and above their general pulp qualities, ultimately crime stories (that is, as opposed to detective stories or procedurals). Similarly, although clearly influenced by pulp super heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow rather than their perhaps better known comic book counterparts, Incognito, the second creator-owned universe to spring from the imaginations of Brubaker and Phillips, is unquestionably a superhero story which strives towards (and achieves) a specific kind of aesthetic, a certain recognizable quality.

All of this is basically a long way of saying that pulp, although you sometimes see it used this way and despite the fact that it has some relationship to genre (or at least a certain number of genres which, at the beginning of the twentieth century through to today, tended to be published in anthology magazines or inexpensive paperbacks on low quality paper), is definitively not a genre in itself, not a word that can be used to describe the type or essence of a thing, but one that can be used to describe the way something looks and feels. Or, at least all of this is typically true: with the publication of their new series, Fatale, Brubaker and Phillips have brought their considerable collaborative talents to Image, and have turned those talents away from legitimizing pulp (something I would argue that they were successful at, although, if I’m being completely honest, its pretty obvious that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have a lot more to do with this cultural shift than any writer or artist of comic books, although I would also argue that Brubaker and Phillips and Azzarello and Risso and also people like Warren Ellis were at the vanguard of a movement to repulpify comics after the more overtly grim ‘n gritty realism of the eighties and the stylistic excesses of the nineties) towards attempting to transcend pulp’s almost century old status as a style, as a mere lowbrow window dressing, and to reframe it as a genre in itself. 

I know this is a pretty bold claim, and I am also going to admit upfront that what I’m going to talk about has pretty obvious precedents (Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy being examples that I can think of without having to strain myself). But, with that said, bear with me for a second. Fatale is a pretty clear coming together of many of the stock elements that make up pulp stories: there’s the accidental protagonist, there’s a mysterious and beautiful woman (presumably the Fatale of the book’s title), and that woman may or may not be the same as another woman who’s a damsel in distress, there’s a reporter who is nosing around in business that he shouldn’t be, there are crooked cops working a gorey and occult multiple homicide, and an oblique reference to World War II and Occult Nazism and very mysterious strangers and magic and so on. Even more than that, though, I think Sean Phillips has expanded his style a little bit, so that it has the not only the stilted action and comics classicism that is essential to the “high pulp” of Criminal and Incognito but also what looks to me like influences from romance comics, so that not only is the story (that is, the literal story, the plot) a chop shop coupe, but its not trying to hide it, either, and, in fact, it takes a certain pride in emphasizing what it is. Now, the kinds of stories that are labeled “pulp” tend to share elements; this is why I think sometimes the description ends up being totalizing (well, that and the fact that some people just dismiss stories that carry such a label out of hand), but what is going in Fatale is different because it doesn’t appear to have any recognizable genre, or, maybe, because it has bits and pieces of so many recognizable genres and because none of those dominate it, that calling it a horror-romance-procedural-noir seems absurd and that calling it pulp is so much more reasonable and satisfying. 

Here, another comparison with Azzarello and Risso seems enlightening: their new series, Spaceman, is also a nine issue mini (or does nine issues a maxi make?) that features the two creators operating inside the language of dystopian science fiction, that is, outside their typical location at the intersection of sprawling crime epic and allegorical (and, initially, startlingly real) ethical dilemma. Now, if you’ve read 100 Bullets or some of their other work, together and apart, you might be able to see why the two of them might be attracted to this new genre: the application of allegory (a technique, I might that add, that is complicated and almost by its very nature highbrow) was something of an innovation in crime stories, but is a basic part of what makes sci-fi tick. It makes sense, too, that the two creators have added some crime and procedural elements to Spaceman as well. Despite this, however, the story is definitively science fiction, although I suppose the argument could also be made that its a crime story merely set in the future, but it does beg to be labeled as one or the other. Fatale, on the contrary, seems perfectly happy to just be a pulp and, more importantly, pulp seems to be a perfectly satisfying way to describe it.

The two books have other things in common as well, namely a problem with pacing: the second issue of Spaceman followed through on a couple of elements which were introduced in the first, but some of the others were left by the wayside for the third issue. Azzarello and Risso handled it pretty well, though, and it wasn’t as disastrous as it might have been, and that gives me hope for the next few installments of Fatale; still, I would like to have seen some more definitive horror elements. Presumably, they are coming, but after seeing everything else fall into place so nicely, there is a sort of interesting, if expected, small reveal at the end, in the place of what I had hoped would be a much more shocking, much more clarifying, ending. One of the joys of serial storytelling, however, is that pacing is important in the long run as well as in the short and, since one of the other joys of serial storytelling is the consistently awesome team-up of Brubaker and Phillips, I have little doubt that they’ll recover with no problem and in good time.

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