SPOILER WARNING: Some spoilers for the final arc and final issue of “Fatale” lie below.
The comics team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have carved out a style all their own in over 15 years of collaboration. But when it came to their first Image Comics project, the pair took a chance at twisting their crime comic formula in some unexpected directions. The result was “Fatale” — a mash up of noir tropes, the femme fatale icon and the creeping horror style of H.P. Lovecraft.
Over the past two and a half years, the series has proven to be Brubaker and Phillips’ biggest commercial hit to date, earning the veteran creators a five-year, “do whatever you want” contract with Image. But even more interesting, from a creative standpoint, is that with the release of its 24th and final issue, “Fatale” also became the longest-running single narrative in the pair’s long collaboration.
To get some perspective on their work and joint career, CBR News spoke with Brubaker about his and Phillips’ latest opus. The writer explained how layering in the cosmic horror of Lovecraft opened up his crime writing, why “Fatale’s” focus on the elusive and cursed Josephine grew his voice for female characters, what their longest project yet says about the status of the pair’s career and where the 1940s Hollywood noir of their next Image project — “The Fade Out” — will swerve away from “Fatale’s” experimentation.
CBR News: “Fatale” is a book that grew and grew over the past several years. At what point in the writing did you know that you finally had turned over all the cards you wanted and were ready to end the story?
Ed Brubaker: The very, very ending — like the last three pages — are exactly how I planned from when I first started jotting down ideas for it. It’s interesting — I thought that the last arc was going to come after the four standalone stories. I thought we’d go right from there into the modern day. But when I was writing the Medieval one, suddenly I thought, “I can’t jump from 1979 to modern times. I need room to tell the whole story, and I haven’t really shown all the sides of Josephine. We’ve never seen her fully let loose. What would the nightmare be if she didn’t even know what was going on?” And then I realized that was a great noir trope — the character who has amnesia and doesn’t know what’s going on. I thought it would be really messed up if Josephine was the one who didn’t remember, and I started playing that out. It gave me a chance to do the ’90s because I’d done the ’50s and the ’70s already. So jumping from the ’90s to today felt natural.
And everything that came up in that arc helped me get to the ending. I always knew what the basics of the ending were, but I never knew exactly how I’d get there.
Well, you can see that in a real direct way in the character of Nelson, who comes from that ’90s arc to be the actual device that brings everyone together in the end.
Yeah, exactly. That’s the thing. I had this idea that there’d be this loose cannon out there — someone whose life she ruined that hadn’t died and now was out there and crazy. It was someone like Nick’s dad in the mental asylum, but I didn’t know who to use. Then, I was able to play off the ’90s arc because you wouldn’t know if Nelson was a serial murderer or one of the guys in the band. My revelation there was finding that loose cannon because in the end, if the Bishop has his plan and Josephine has hers, there has to be someone in there to fuck it up. There has to be a monkey wrench in there, just in a structural sense. It’s a noir story. Nothing ever goes as planned. [Laughs] That’s the whole point, unless your main character commits suicide after killing everybody.
The final issues did swerve away from that noir sensibility in a few key ways — both with the “cosmic awareness” sex scenes and the Medieval, illuminated manuscript section that opened the final issue. In what ways did the original hook of tying in Cthulhu mythology to noir enable you and Sean to be more ambitious visually?
In that last arc, you’ll notice that we switched from doing each story with “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 2” and so on. I got sick of doing that. I felt that with modern times, Nick and Josephine’s story had collided, and so I could do it more like a classic horror comic. I wouldn’t say it was a tribute to Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” or anything, but I wanted it to have that same feel I got reading that series as a teenager where it was just a monthly comic, and it had a splash page that just told you how the next chapter began. I did it partly because I was sick of how we were doing it and partly to change things up for the finale. It had to feel more like a modern comic, and I also like the idea of breaking my own rules. I had already done that with the four short stories in Book 3 where we jumped all around in time. Since we did that, I kind of felt like, “Well, we can do whatever the fuck we want.”
I had always had this idea of doing a section of the book that would show you what Jo’s powers feel like to Nick. I wanted the reader to be in the head of someone who was being seduced by her and just falling under her spell. I was just thinking of how to do that right, and I knew there was going to be an issue told all from the point of the view of the Bishop so we could get in his head. So then I just decided, “Let’s do an all cosmic sex issue to reveal Jo’s darkest secrets.” I’d been sitting on all these big secrets that have been driving her throughout the whole modern day part of the plot, and I knew I needed to reveal her real tragedy somewhere, and that would be the best place to do it. So much of the book is about sex and desire and the way men look at women. It’s such a vast landscape, but this does seem to be a book about desire and jealousy — these things that can get in your brain and fuck you up. That’s part of the femme fatale as an iconic thing. So if we were going to reveal her secrets, it should have been in an issue that was all about sex — just a huge mindfuck issue. [Laughs]
I very specifically remember that issue of “Swamp Thing” where Abby eats something that grows off Swamp Thing, and they go on this mind journey. I had to look back at that before I wrote my issue, just to see what they were doing, and I wasn’t doing the same thing in mine. But that was my mental jumping off point. I thought, nobody had done a mindfuck, all-sex issue of a comic for a long time. I mean, “Sex Criminals” is that every issue. [Laughs] But here we were, two years into a book whose underlying theme is all about sex, so I knew that was the way to go.
Throughout the series, everything we know about Jo has come through the men who meet her. Slowly, we have gotten more and more from her point of view, but was that scene a way to totally give the story over to her for the finish?
You know, I never really thought about that. I made the decision early on that the modern day narration would be Nick’s first person and that the rest of it would be third person but subjective to each character — sort of like “Game of Thrones.” I was thinking about that style of writing because it allows you to follow multiple characters and make things a little more epic. That’s what I’m doing with “The Fade Out” too. It won’t all be first person narration because I want to tell a broader story. That’s nice because you can comment on things a little bit while still staying ahead of your characters.
But I never really thought about it with Jo because so much of what it is about her — or about the femme fatale — is the way she affects other people. But I always felt like she was the main character of the story. Even though with Nick we were in his head more, I felt like Jo was the main character because it was always her story. We know so little about Nick or any of the other men she’s with. You learn so little about them outside of their time with her. Mostly it’s just glimpses of who they were so there’s an idea of the life they threw away when she crossed their path.
Without getting too into story specifics, the final arc really focused on the fact that all those characters were really victims of abuse and how that changed who they were in certain ways. I don’t know if that’s something you thought about consciously, or if you never think about those kinds of things in your stories.
Yeah, I never start with the theme or anything like that. I start with the characters. It’s just about starting a story there, and you’re a ways into the story before you realize there’s all this other stuff going on — this subtext. If you’re thinking about your subtext while you’re writing — well, I’m not the kind of writer who can do that. I can’t say, “I’m secretly making a secret statement about such and such.” I just want to tell stories that are interesting to me and that explore different sides of characters and the way people treat each other and the way life is. That’s what all writing is about, really. But I never sit down and think, “I’m going to write about poverty!”
You just have to follow your characters wherever they take you. In this, I knew four or five things about Jo’s life story, but even then I’d find new stuff that would reveal itself to me as I was going along in the story. Like, there’s a part in issue one of the new arc where we see all of Jo’s suicides. That occurred to me almost right before I wrote that scene. I was always thinking, “What would you do if this happened to you and this was your life? If every time you met somebody they tried to own you or kidnap you to some cabin somewhere?” I would want to kill myself if I had Josephine’s curse, so I figured she would too. There’s only so much that you can put up with.
Ultimately, what was the thing you felt you were able to pull off in this comic that came as a direct result of the horror angle?
I felt like it opened up some parts of my writing that I never tried to do before. It made me stretch myself. There are things that can scare you in your core that I never think about too much. I think about tragedy a lot, and I’m somebody who likes crime stories when thinking about the plot. But I think this helped me get away from smaller, plot-focused stories and more into following the characters and finding other ways into them and their secrets. That was interesting as an experiment for me as a writer. It showed me some things I hadn’t done before.
And I think this helped me write women characters better. I don’t think “Velvet” would be as good a comic as it is if I hadn’t been doing “Fatale” for a year and a half before I wrote that. Because when you’re writing a character, you start to sympathize with them. You start to think about their life all the time and everything that you’re putting them through. You feel for them. And this changed in some ways the way I look at the characters I write.
But it was also really fun to have the bad guys and the evilness underlying all the horror being that Lovecraftian unseen stuff because that fits so well with the stuff that influenced the book — the Hammer horror films and “The Devil Rides Out.” I don’t think I could ever do a horror story where you actually saw the monsters. That’s what appeals to me about Lovecraft because if you take out the idea that there are cults who worship these gods and the gods actually exist, you might as well be reading a noir story because it’s just following around people who believe in something that doesn’t actually exist. If Jo didn’t have any powers and Bishop and his people were just a weird religious cult with no real gods, this would be one of the creepiest noir stories ever. It’d be all these people chasing a woman so they could sacrifice her to a nonexistent god. That’s almost scarier than something that actually exists.
But any genre like mystery or horror or crime leads you to different ideas. If it wasn’t for “Fatale,” I don’t think I’d ever have written a story with cultists in it. That’s something I’ve been fascinated by since I was a teenager because there were cults in San Diego when I was a teenager. A friend of mine ran off to join one, and some girls I went to high school with stayed in a cult in San Francisco when they were kids. I had met a lot of people from things like the Method Church so I was able to tap into that stuff in the ’70s arc. And another thing that I was able to do here was write about a character that was immortal. So I could roam through history and find little bits and pieces that I could inject the noir/Lovecraft stuff into.
Noir stories usually end one of two ways — with an ignoble defeat or a literal death. By those standards — well, I don’t want to say the ending of “Fatale” is happy, but it certainly had a bit of light to it. What was that born out of?
“Fatale” may be one of the only books I’ve done where you can really root for the main character. I think you really can root for the character in “Sleeper” too, but with “Criminal,” you always knew it was going to end badly for them. With “Fatale,” you were never sure. You hope she cold get out somehow or win somehow, but you were never sure what winning actually meant. I think that’s what made it a little different than the average noir. I always knew what the ending was going to be from the beginning, and I told someone about it early on who said I might want to change it because it wasn’t as noir as it could be. And I was like, “No, I’m fine with that. At that point, I will have spent two years with this character, so I’ll probably like her enough to want an ending that isn’t the most depressing.”
I feel like so much of what this book is about is people like her not winning. They’re forced into these roles by society and by the world and by the way everything is, and it wouldn’t be fair after everything else that has happened to her if Jo didn’t win. But her winning is bittersweet. She thought she was going to die and go onto oblivion and that would be her release. That made her feel guilty, but she still wanted it. In this version, it’s a bit more bittersweet than that.
And it seems as a side effect of her winning, all the men still lose.
Yeah. Any man who was in her orbit lost, anyway. [Laughs] Even a couple of women do. There was the lesbian housekeeper in the ’70s that no one picked up on as a lesbian. She was under Jo’s spell too, and she didn’t even realize it.
But I think in the end, Nick maybe had it the worst of anybody.
She did pull him back out of the well, but by that point, his mind was completely gone from staring at cosmic horror for what felt like an eternity. With your Lovecraftian-esque horror story, you can’t end without at least one person having seen the cosmic reality of the world.
Speaking of which, I wanted to talk about the art in specific. For one, that whole cosmic sex sequence was really beautiful to look at. Did colorist Betty Breitweiser put that all together?
A lot of the cosmic starfield stuff Sean laid in on the black and whites, and then Betty colored around it and changed some placement. But pretty much all the color is Betty. She’s amazing. I’m so lucky we landed her. We had just lost Dave [Stewart] through a scheduling conflict, and I had just talked to Betty a few weeks before and knew she was leaving her Marvel contract. We just happened to get her at the right moment, and we’d already talked about her doing “Velvet.” So now she’s coloring my two books and “Outcast” [for Robert Kirkman] and that’s it. I think she’s the best — at least in the top five — colorist in comics. If she doesn’t get nominated for the Eisner next year between this stuff and “Outcast,” I won’t believe it. And the stuff she’s doing for “The Fade Out” is amazing.
This is the longest story that you and Sean Phillips have ever done together. I remember when you finished “Sleeper” and it was kind of a sigh of relief because that book had never been in the best sales position in terms of knowing how long it would run. What’s it like to be at this point in your career where the two of you are finishing a book that’s done very well and looking down the pike to a really supportive contract with Image for future books?
“Sleeper” was kept alive by Jim Lee and Scott Dunbier, and it was probably the lowest-selling comic we ever did on a month-to-month sales basis. Now, it’s crazy. We just got our initial orders on “The Fade Out,” and they’re by far the highest orders we’ve ever had for a #1. It’s not that much below “Velvet,” which is an action comic. So somehow our fanbase keeps growing with each one. When we did “Sleeper,” there was a break before the next one started, and we did that book for about three years. This one was a little over two and a half years, and we did 24 issues as quickly as we could, but I think a lot of those issues had longer page counts. “Sleeper” never got any double-size issues or extra stuff.
This is similar to when we finished the last “Criminal” arc where I just wanted to do something completely different after. Now I just want to do regular people wearing regular clothes and not have to worry about what monsters might be there. All the monsters will be people in this book. [Laughs]
It’s interesting. I feel incredibly proud that “Fatale” came together as tightly as it did — especially since it’s twice as long as I thought it would be when I started it. But the ending is still exactly the same ending I started with. It’s similar to “Sleeper,” because I thought that would just be 12 issues, but somewhere around issue #10, they said they wanted to relaunch it the next year. So I took the ending I was going to use and came up with something else for #12, because I knew we were coming back. Then I took the original ending and used it for the 24th issue. But the entire second year of “Sleeper” was me just figuring out something to do where I had to change the status quo and move things around. “Fatale” didn’t go exactly the way I thought it would go, but every part of it that’s there is still something from the initial conception. I just never thought we’d stop in Seattle in the ’90s.
A lot of people didn’t think they were going to stop in Seattle in the ’90s, Ed.
Yeah. I was stuck there for a long time in the ’90s. [Laughter] It was a lot of fun, though. A few of my old friends from the indie comics scene really loved that arc because it felt like I was taking what I do now and blending it with something like “Lowlife.” Two of the main characters in the band in that story are based on old cartoonist friends of mine — Jon Lewis and Tom Hart. We used to be roommates in a house together and do zines and stuff. So a lot of that stuff was real things we’d talk about. It feels real to me because they’re some of my oldest friends. It was a lot of fun to put them in my comic and kill them. [Laughs] I warned them ahead of time when they gave me permission to use their likenesses that they would probably die badly.
Looking forward to “The Fade Out,” you’ve said it’s a different kind of story you want to do from “Fatale,” and looking at Sean’s preview pages, it seems he’s taking a different approach as well. There’s a strong Toth influence in some of those panels. Have you discussed changing your collaborative approach at all moving forward?
Initially we talked about a couple of different ideas on how to approach the art. I think Sean was going to go back to drawing bigger at first because there needs to be a lot of detail in the backgrounds. We wanted to get as close as we could to recreating ’40s Los Angeles. There will be several panels every issues that will be sets almost. When you see the first issue, there’s a great shot of the Hollywood Brown Derby, and there are several scenes where we’ve had a research assistant putting together an organized catalog of photo reference for us. It’s all categorized by neighborhood or movie star or just regular people. It’s there so Sean can see what kind of clothes people wore and everything — the kind of stuff he would have had to hunt down on his own anyway. So it’s really great to open this resource of locations and neighborhoods and everything.
But Sean had also done some covers digitally — drawing things on the Wacom tablet. So he decided to try that for our first issue to see how he liked it. It took him a few pages to get the hang of it and feel comfortable doing it, but I think when you see the end results, it looks exactly how Sean draws, but he’s got a slightly slicker veneer to it. There are still a lot of brush lines and thickness to it, but everything feels a little bit tighter somehow. I think part of that is him trying to recreate the era and getting a little more for the time.
I think it’s the best art he’s ever done, really. That preview he did while he was also working on “Fatale” #22, but as soon as he finished “Fatale,” he went right into the first scripts for “The Fade Out.” I think he’s really pushing himself to make it feel different for him. We’re doing no panel borders and some things that feel really right for the era we’re approaching.
As a writer, I feel like there are a lot of noir-ish stories that have been told around Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th Century. James Ellroy certainly looms large there. What are you doing to set “The Fade Out” apart?
Well, I haven’t read every book that takes place in this era, but I’m pretty consciously trying not to do the things that Ellroy did, specifically. It’s very centered on the film industry and the people that worked around the fringes of the film industry than it is about cops and gangsters. I think there are maybe only two characters in it who may or may not be mobbed up, but no one really knows. This is much more a noir about people making a noir. I guess it’s a little bit more “Mulholland Drive,” but as a period piece.
It’s a broader story. I don’t imagine it’ll go anywhere near as long as “Fatale” went, but I’m still outlining. I know the end, and I’ve got a lot of pieces of the story, but I just decided after “Fatale” that I wasn’t going to spend any more time trying to tell people “It’s going to be 20 issues — no, 50 issues!” Who knows? I’m writing a serialized graphic novel, and we’ll know three or four issues ahead of time which one will be the last one. It’s certainly not going to be any shorter than 12 issues or so, because I’ve got a lot of story to tell here, and the murder mystery plot that drives everything through it is a great engine to tell a lot of other stories around, which is how I’m looking at it.
You’ve been living in Los Angeles for the past year or so, and while you’ve kept your regular comics output going strong, I know you’ve done a lot of stuff for film and TV that people haven’t seen. Maybe they’ll never see it even though you’ve been paid well for it, I’m sure. How are you balancing those two gigs?
It’s weird. I try to carve out time where I don’t have anything else to do but work on the comics every couple of months. The last three years or so, even though I haven’t put out as many comics, I’ve done more writing than I ever have at any other point in my life. I’ve done three TV pilots and three feature films with multiple drafts of one. One movie I did nine drafts of, actually. All the TV pilots end up needing two or three drafts. And yeah, the stuff I’ve been paid most for in my life is stuff that no one will ever see. [Laughs]
But the stuff I’m working on now will probably make it. The “Maniac Cop” movie, I think, is pretty close and will hopefully film by the end of the year. And the “Coward” movie is looking like it will start at the end of the year or early next year. I’m working on a TV pilot where there’s a ton of interest in it, and we’ve got a lot of the stuff as part of it that you need to get the greenlight. We’re packaging this more than we are going out and pitching ideas in the usual development route. What I have learned in this industry is that it’s almost better to do it like your comics, where you put it all together and then go out with it. That way, you have more control and more ownership. It’s like “True Detective,” where they had this whole package with two actors and the director and two scripts and a whole series bible, and then they went out and got a bidding war. That’s the new model for television. Instead of getting a pilot made, you pitch a whole season that’s ready to go, and you end up getting it or you don’t. But you don’t shoot something that will never be seen. I’ve had friends who have had multiple pilots shot and never picked up for a series. And the pilot is always the worst episode of any show, anyway.
It’s interesting. I understand now why all my screenwriter friends are jealous of my comics career. [Laughs] Though they’re much wealthier than I’ll ever be in my life, I’m sure. But what I write goes out when it’s printed, and I work with great people, and I don’t have anyone standing over me giving me notes about how I have to dumb down anything. Brian K. Vaughan is very happy with his comics career, as far as I can tell. He’s one of the very few people that’s had success on both sides, and he’s still doing his comics. They say it’s as hard to make bad TV as it is to make good TV, and you don’t always know which one you’re making. It’s such a crapshoot, and films and TV are so expensive to get made. So much of it comes down to casting and budget. I’m still optimistic for what I’m working on because I’m working with good people, and I have a couple of other announcements that will probably come out in the next few months, but I’m really excited for it all.
“Fatale” #24 is on sale now from Image Comics.