Though it’s far from their first, second or even fifth project together, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips‘ Image series “Fatale” continues to be a lynchpin title for the creators. In over a decade of creating comics together, the noirish horror mashup will likely end up being their longest single series collaboration. Last month, the title’s first trade “Death Follows Me” hit stores, and just this week, issue #7 ramped up the snuff film facets of the current arc, which sees mysterious, cursed femme fatale Josephine come out of the shadows to drag a broken down actor into a world of cult intrigue.
Of course, for Brubaker “Fatale” represents a different shift beyond a new phase of his longtime collaboration with Phillips. The writer announced earlier this summer that aside from continued work on Marvel’s “The Winter Soldier,” the success of “Fatale” has led him to do all creator-owned comics work for the foreseeable future. Combine that with a wave of incoming Hollywood prospects like the chance to draft a screenplay adaptation of his and Phillips’ “Criminal” arc “Coward” for director David Slade, and the writer’s career is entering a new phase after eight years headlining superhero books like “Captain America.”
CBR News spoke with Brubaker about “Fatale” #7 and his writing in general, and below, he digs into the differences his new ’70s Hollywood horror story holds from the book’s launch, describes some of the real-life occult crime that inspired him, announces a new run of one-shot stories that will expand “Fatale” beyond the scope originally anticipated, reacts to the massive amount of talk caused by his dedication to creator-owned comics and teases where he’ll go next in comics, film, TV and beyond.
CBR News: With this week’s issue #7, people are well into the second arc of “Fatale.” This story is a continuation of some elements from the last story, but in other ways, it’s a whole new story with a largely new set of characters. Part of that piggybacks on the fact that, like a lot of Image books, you dropped a complete trade just before this story started. But I wondered if the clean break from the ’50s story to the ’70s story is just how you and Sean are used to structuring things since you worked on the more loosely connected “Criminal” books?
Ed Brubaker: Partly, I wanted to figure out a way to do an epic that had many stories within it. There are threads that carry over from each arc, but I wanted each arc to take place in a different time and a different location and even be a different kind of noir story to some degree. While I stuck to most of that plan, the characters started to take over. Josephine’s life got bigger and bigger because there’s so much stuff that happened between these two arcs that you haven’t seen yet. I’ve got all that written in my notebooks, and I’m trying to figure out how to dole that out properly.
With each issue that I write of “Fatale,” I feel like the grand scope of the story gets bigger and bigger. We actually just decided last week that instead of doing only three arcs that tie together, there’s also going to be four stand alone issues in between the second and third arcs that all take place in different time periods. Those are about Josephine and other people, and they’re all linked to this story, though they’re important stories on their own. So now we’re going to 19 or 20 issues. [Laughs] It keeps getting bigger because my juggling so much between plot and character stuff gets harder and harder. The characters just take over, and I don’t want to be forced by my own narrative structure to end it abruptly or push to a part of the story I’m not ready to be at yet.
This ’70s storyline, some of the stuff that’s in it is based on stuff I started researching 20 years ago, unbelievably. I had a weird obsession with Satanic cults and various multiple murderers in America. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s been percolating in my head for years about weird cults and weird murders and Manson and Son of Sam — all sorts of stuff. Some of this is based on real stuff that actually happened. I’m just changing it to make it happen to new people.
I’ve always viewed groups labeled as “Satanic” to be more agnostic or pagan than people who actually believed in the occult, but lately I’ve read some accounts of the earliest followers of Aleister Crowley in California that portrayed them as really believing in the mythology of all this. What was your impression of the people in the real world whose lives synched up with what you were doing?
Part of this is Hollywood. There was a lot of weirdness in the drug culture and sex culture of Hollywood in that era. A lot of that tied in with serial murders, and the Method Church in the book is my take on an actual religious order that was around from the ’60s and into the ’70s. Depending on who you listen to, Manson was a member of it, and the conspiracy that ended up resulting in the Son of Sam murders was part of their East Coast branch. There’s a famous book called “The Ultimate Evil” by Terry Maury that’s about the Son of Sam murders that gets into a lot of that stuff. But it also posits the theory that one of [Francis Ford] Copolla’s producing partners on “The Cotton Club” was cut up into pieces and buried in the desert. [Film producer] Robert Evans had to testify at the trial, and it was apparently a coke deal gone wrong. But supposedly this guy was a collector of snuff films and was involved in Satanism.
But yeah, they call anything that’s occult or weird “Satanism.” I don’t think it has anything to do with Satan or that anybody actually believed Satan exists. [Laughs] There’s only like five people who believe that. Most of the people you meet who are supposedly Satanic, occultist people are like you say — agnostic weirdos who don’t believe in heaven or hell or Jesus or God. It’s more about questioning everything. But in this version of reality I’m writing, they actually believe in demons and worship various occult things they do sacrifices to. I like that creepy version of reality for storytelling. I don’t believe in God, but I’ll watch the “Exorcist” any day or “The Omen.” There is nothing creepier than the Anti-Christ. [Laughs] There’s just something about that stuff, I guess because I was raised going to church, that has ingrained a fear in me.
So there’s a certain amount of all that in this story. I’m trying to tie a lot of things together in my head as I make this story. I’m taking a lot of things I’ve always been fascinated with and putting them in a blender. I’m fascinated with “Rosemary’s Baby” kind of stories and Lovecraft. I just wanted to figure out a way to merge those into one thing.
In this arc, our new male is B-movie actor Miles. He seems to function as almost an inverse to the men Jo met in the first arc because his life was falling apart when he met her. Her influence forces him to act in an almost more noble fashion rather than take his good life and shatter it as he fell for her. What about the era and the genre inspired that particular flip on the story?
I really liked the “down on his luck” actor type, which you can only do perfectly in a ’70s noir horror story. But I wanted to do this in a different way. Part of the power of Josephine is her effect on people, and I wanted to show how that effect could bring out good in them too. She’s not just a corrupting factor where people abandon their wives and change their whole lives because they’re under her spell. Miles is like a scumbag out trying to score drugs, but he ends up saving his friend from getting caught after she’s essentially murdered some people. They stumble into Jo’s back yard, and issue #7 was basically the story of Miles falling under Jo’s spell. You follow him all day as he is doing uncharacteristic things and not understanding why he’s doing them. I just wanted to take a different tack with it.
But then there’s also Nick [in the present], and we’re going to find things out about Nick in issue #8 because it’s opening is all about what happens to him after the beginning of the second arc when he realizes he’s being followed by these creepy guys. And we’ll also see Nick in the ’70s as a little kid. We see bits and pieces of the guys from the first arc. The scope of this story and Jo’s character let’s you into so many worlds if you want to go there, and I love that.
It feels with each new story like we have two levels of players — people who are involved in the occult briefly and people who are possibly immortal like Jo seems to be. There are the men with the glasses and now “Hansel” who’s the seemingly immortal the master behind the whole conflict. Aren’t you building the whole book around their stories too?
Yeah, that was the big reveal at the end of #7. Hansel is the reborn Bishop from the first arc. He was reborn into Hank’s baby! [Laughs] He was able to take over the body of this little kid, but he has no eyes. That gets explained more in issue #8 — what happened when Booker, the cop from the first arc, cut the Bishop’s eyes out. Him losing his eyes definitely comes around in a big way. I love leaping ahead 20 years to see what’s happened to that guy as the leader of this weird religious sex cult.
And will all these roads lead to Nick’s predicament for the series finale?
Yeah. There will be a big modern story as Nick and Josephine meet again. He’s been searching for her and getting close to her, but we won’t see it until the final “Fatale” arc which will be all in modern times. Actually, I’ve been debating how that happens, so we’ll see! [Laughs]
You recently did an interview with Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter about the book where you revealed that you’ll be going fully creator-owned outside “The Winter Soldier” at Marvel for the foreseeable future. And I’ve got to admit, I kind of assumed you were doing that anyway, so when that was big news, I felt like an idiot. [Brubaker Laughs] But it was big news! Afterwards, guys like Grant Morrison and Rob Liefeld kind of got caught in the snowball you started down the hill by declaring the same thing for their careers. What’s been your impression of the response you’ve gotten?
I don’t know. I was kind of afraid to talk about it even because I’m obviously still doing work with Marvel. They knew I was doing this. I had a long talk with [Marvel Publisher] Dan Buckley about where I was going in my career. More than anything, I’ve got these opportunities to write for film and TV that I’ve had things for years where a lot of things almost happened, but I couldn’t really give my time to it because of my comics workload. So I wanted to pursue that stuff, and I was feeling kind of burnt out on writing superheroes anyway. “Fatale” being a huge hit was this great thing because it made me go, “Maybe I can just do a couple of the comics I own as half of my time, and then I can devote the rest of my work time to stuff I’ve been putting off for years and years.” I explained all that to Dan Buckley.
And it was interesting because our interview happened right after the whole Chris Roberson thing, and everybody had been talking about these ideas. There was the scandal surrounding “Before Watchmen” and then Roberson’s move, and then everybody was going “Brubaker’s quitting Marvel!” I’m just ending my run on “Cap” after eight years and doing “Winter Soldier” for a while, but any new comics I do will be creator-owned. And who knows? Like Mark Millar has said in his interviews, sometimes it’s fun to go back and do those other stories. Right now, my well is pretty dry on doing superhero stories. Honestly, I feel like it’s been a struggle ever since my dad died. I don’t know why that is. Just since then, I haven’t had as big a jones for writing superheroes as I used to. When you’re sitting there at someone’s death bed, it starts to feel kind of ridiculous that you’re writing stories about people who put on costumes and punch things to solve the world’s problems. Though it’s not as if doing horror stories is that much different. And I still like superhero comics. I just feel like I’ve written so many of them that sometimes you hit a wall where you go, “How many more stories can I do that end the same way?” [Laughs]
With stuff that’s creator-owned, you can do anything you want with them. I never planned on doing superhero comics for as long as I did. I was just having a really good time and making really good living doing it. And it was really creatively fulfilling, but now I feel like the more creatively fulfilling thing I’m doing is “Fatale” and some other stuff I’ve got planned. I like having complete control.
I wasn’t so much trying to make a huge statement as it ended up coming out as. But I’m fine with it becoming this huge thing. More people need to be reminded that you can do this. You can work for Marvel and DC to build up your name, and then you can get to the point where the audience will follow you from book to book. If you have an audience, you should take advantage of that by creating something you completely own and control. Gamble on yourself, basically. It won’t always pay off, but when it does pay off, it pays for you and not somebody else.
Everyone knows you’re doing more Hollywood stuff these days, some of which is adaptations of your work and some of which is original. How does that impact your comics work creatively? Will your comics be focused on doing something stranger as opposed to more realistic film projects?
I’ve always tried to look at everything as “If I’m trying to pitch a TV show, what’s the best TV show idea I’ve got?” I want to make sure that any time I do a comic, it takes advantage of the fact that it’s a comic. That’s important. I make fun of guys for referring to their stuff as “IP.” But at the same time, one of my upcoming comic book properties is a thing where I was in a meeting with some producers, and they said, “We’re looking for something like this,” and I thought, “Oh shit. That’s exactly what my next comic is going to be.” And then I was thinking, “Can I presell my next comic?” [Laughs] Is that even something that’s done? But then I figured Mark Millar does it all the time!
So I try to create stuff that’s meant to be what it’s meant to be. I don’t think Vince Gilligan was thinking “Breaking Bad” could be a great TV show and a comic and a video game at the same time. My goal is to just try and write good things for whatever medium they’re in. I got to write the movie adaptation for my own book [with the “Criminal” arc “Coward”], and that’s really rare to sell your property to Hollywood, attach a director to it and then work with the director to adapt the book. But I got to do that, and it was a lot of fun. The resulting movie script is probably more faithful than I expected it to be because the director and producer both wanted it to be really faithful. But at the same time, there’s a lot of new stuff in there because I had the freedom to do what I wanted with my world and my characters. Whenever there was a question about what did or didn’t happen in the book, I just said, “I can just write it. These are my characters. I know them inside and out.”
Okay, so the nerdiest question I can ask here is, does that mean the “Coward” movie will be “in canon” with all the “Criminal” books?
[Laughs] No. No, it’s its own thing for sure. That is kind of funny. There are some characters not in it and some who are. And there’s new stuff that wasn’t in the book, but it follows the gist of the book, basically. It was interesting to do, and I had a lot of fun doing it. But I have ideas for original screenplays too, and I’ve got blind deals for two TV pilots this year. Technically, that means I’ll be writing two TV pilots, and one pitch is completely original while the other is based on this comic idea I’ve got. It’s an odd situation, but I’m still trying to learn how to navigate these waters more than anything. It’s a learning experience.
The biggest advantage here is that this is the best time in history to be a comic book writer transitioning into film and TV work. Everybody at the studios reads comics! It’s really weird for me to walk into a meeting where there are already preexisting fans of my comics there. [Laughs] And also, they’re fans of my less known comics like “Sleeper.” I’ll go into a place, and someone tells me they like “Sleeper,” and I think, “Only 10,000 people bought that book. I guess all of them live in Hollywood!” That’s a good thing.
The other good thing is that I’m not going into these meetings and worrying about whether or not somebody wants to buy my pitch. I don’t really care because no matter what, I still get to write cool stories for a living. I’m not some waiter who’s looking for their big break. I already get to write. That’s all I do. It’s a really big plus. Even if I were to sell a comic as a film or TV show, and the project is turned into a terrible movie or the TV show doesn’t deliver on the concept, I still get to do the comic. That will always exist, and it’s always an outlet for me. I’m not leaving comics for Hollywood by any means. I’m just taking the part of my life that used to be reserved for superhero comics and putting that time towards TV and film work instead. I still spend just as much time and even more time doing comics I own. I’m lucky as hell to have that opportunity.
I’ve been hemming and hawing about doing this for a few years, and I realized that if I don’t do it now, I’m going to miss that time. I’d get to a point ten years from now where I’ll really regret not trying to do that. But I’ll always be a comics guy, and I’ve told Sean several times that no matter what, he and I are going to be doing comics together until we’re old men.
Bringing things full circle then, whatever comics you have planned for the future I’m assuming Sean can’t draw all of them. Are you looking to re-team with some of your past collaborators for more Image books, or are you looking for new artists to team with?
I can’t really say. Everything’s supposed to be top secret right now, and I don’t want to spoil any surprises or even get people speculating. But my goal is to have two comics a month every month. One will be by me and Sean, and one will be by me and someone else. Whether that means I’ll have three or four other projects that are drawn by artists not as fast as Sean or two regular books, who knows? No matter what other stuff I have going on, I should always have time to write two comics a month. I’ve been working in comics my whole life, so I know how much time it actually takes, and two books is a comfortable workload. I’ve talked to Brian K. Vaughan about this, and it’s his goal too to have a couple of comics coming out while he’s working on Hollywood stuff. He works really hard and puts in long hours.
But if you can get two things out every month where it’s exactly what you want and no one tells you to change it? I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t met Sean way back when DC put us on “Gotham Noir.” Forming that partnership means that pretty much ten times a year for the past 12 years, I’ve had a comic come out that’s exactly what I want it to be every time. No work-for-hire stuff that I’ve ever done is like that. [Steve] Epting and I did some issues of “Cap” together that were absolutely perfect — exactly what I wanted them to be. But there’s always a fill-in arc here or there or advertising inserted in that you’d rather not have in your comic.
But while there’s always something coming out from me and Sean, there’s always a comic and a package I’m completely happy with. I like the paper and the design and the price point. I’m such a fetishist about print. [Laughs] But now I’m at the point where I’m old enough and where I’ve done enough writing that I only want to write the things I want to write. I’ve even turned down screenwriting gigs here that paid well, but I thought about it and said, “Do I really want to write this thing for two month? No. Something else will come up that’s more in my wheelhouse.”
I think a lot of that has to do with how long I worked on work-for-hire comics. Now I don’t necessarily need the money. And than you, Marvel and DC, for that! [Laughs] They did help me build up my name, and keeping the “Criminal” and “Incognito” books in print through Icon has let me be really choosey in my midlife crisis of wanting to change my career around.
“Fatale” #7 is on sale this week from Image Comics. Stay tuned to CBR next week for more on Brubaker’s last superhero ongoing: “The Winter Solider.”