Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Fade Out, Volume 1: Act One Review (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips)

Hollywoodland, 1948, the tail end of the Golden Era of Film. Charlie Parish is a screenwriter for Victory Street Pictures, one of the largest studios in Los Angeles, who, after a wild party, wakes up near the corpse of his latest film’s starlet, Valeria Sommers. She’d been strangled and left on the floor, just feet away from a passed out Charlie! Besides a police investigation, the death of the leading lady means expensive reshoots for the studio and rewriting for Charlie. 

But then later he sees the police report on Valeria: “suicide” with the death photo showing her hanging from a door - there’s corruption afoot! Rape, murder, alcoholism, drug abuse, hell, abuse of all kinds - this is show business, where behind the glitz and glamour lurk dark secrets, mysteries, and danger. What’s Charlie stumbled into? 

The Fade Out is a stone cold masterpiece. 

Before the first chapter was down I knew this was going to be epic, and, WOW, it is one helluva ride! It’s a corny thing to say but it’s true, and that’s The Fade Out is like a portal into the past. Really! Sure there’s a plot here but Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser have gone further and somehow brought the past to life. They’ve created a living, breathing world that’s so richly atmospheric and real (Brubaker was so committed to period detail he hired a research assistant for this project), it envelopes the reader completely. 

And what a fascinating - if sordid - world! Brubaker takes us behind the scenes to reveal drunken brawls between movie stars in studio bungalows, starlets lining up to service celebrities and studio execs in sleazy sex parties, substance abuse, violence, and studio PR hiding it all from the press, including keeping closeted famous actors in the closet (of course none of these things happen in today’s Hollywood… coughTomCruisecough). 

While the mystery of the dead starlet plays menacingly in the background, we get to know the key players in the series. Our protagonist is Charlie, the screenwriter who was so traumatised by his experiences in the war, he’s unable to write. So how is he kept on the payroll? His buddy Gil secretly dictates the scripts and Charlie types them up. It’s a shadowy partnership because Gil got blacklisted from all of the studios during the McCarthy witch hunts. But who sold out Gil? 

There’s Earl Rath, a Gregory Peck lookalike who’s always chasing the ladies; Maya Silver, Valeria’s replacement and a starlet who’s willing to do anything to get to the top; and Thursby, the studio head, whose own past is mired with illicit dealings. There are more but those characters’ pasts are explored the most in this first volume. Real movie stars like Clark Gable are thrown in to make the world that much more convincing. 

The characters are so compelling. They easily make this book stand out as a high quality work and Brubaker ensures no-one is free from blame - not everyone is a villain but everyone’s complicit in the harsh reality of make believe. 

The Fade Out is such a smooth read, it doesn’t feel like reading. With the words on the page, it’s more like watching a brilliant, stylish subtitled movie (about the movie business!) so it’s easy to take for granted Sean Phillips’ artwork. But every single page is first rate and, coupled with Brubaker’s script, they fly by. 

And then you come across a panel without words and the imagery stops you dead. For me that panel was Charlie stepping into his apartment building at night in a dingy part of town, and it was stunning. So elegant, so understated in its beauty - amazing. Colourist Elizabeth Breitweiser is the icing on the cake with her choice of aquamarine for the sky and the land, the colour bleeding together in the panel? Inspired! 

In The Fade Out, everyone has secrets and there’s a tantalising mystery at its core, but this first volume doesn’t have much of an arc. That’s fine though when the characters are so well created like they are here. It’s the first volume and I can’t wait to read more about both the plot and the characters. 

I loved Criminal (which is getting relaunched this year, hooray!) but The Fade Out, for me, is now definitely the best of the Brubaker/Phillips collaborations. James Ellroy fans especially will get a kick out of this as it’s very much in the vein of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia, though I recommend this book to EVERYONE! Besides being Brubaker/Phillips' finest, The Fade Out is easily one of the year’s best comics! 


The Fade Out, Volume 1

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