Ed Brubaker is perhaps still best known to comic fans for his work on Marvel superhero mainstays like Captain America, but for over a decade, he and artist Sean Phillips have been building a devoted fanbase for their creator-owned stories of secret spy sagas, criminal enterprises and underground superheroes.
And while books like “Criminal” and “Incognito” have well established the pair’s hardboiled chops, their latest series for Image Comics has taken off in a way that even surprises them. “Fatale” is the story of a beautiful woman who seems to curse the men she draws into her life…literally. A mash-up of the noir mystery and the otherworldly horror of H.P. Lovecraft, the ongoing series has continued to sell out at comic shops in advance of its fifth issue (on sale this week) and its forthcoming collection “Death Chases Me” (shipping in June).
To catch readers up with both the growing status of the breakout book and the end of its first twisting 1950s tale, CBR News spoke with Brubaker about the road to “Fatale.” Below, the writer delves into his influences on the book from classic films like “Double Indemnity” to the work of Alan Moore and George RR Martin, and he reveals what lies ahead as the book launches into its second arc.
CBR News: Ed, this week it’s all about the number five for you as “Fatale” #5 ships to shops alongside a fifth printing of issue #1. The book seems to have had a very strong start in the market. Though I’ve got to say I thought of you when I read Eric Stephenson’s blog post recently about whether sellouts of issues mean under orders. How have things gone for this series compared to your other creator-owned titles, and month-to-month what are you seeing about how available the book is for readers?
Ed Brubaker: You know, it’s interesting because Sean and I have been doing this ourselves for about 12 years. Starting with “Sleeper,” we’ve been doing comics together pretty much non-stop ever since. “Sleeper” never sold more than 16 or 17,000 copies, and it generally sold somewhere around 12 or 13,000. Nowadays, that’d be considered a really good seller for a Vertigo book. So when we went over to Icon, we pushed really hard to do a lot of promotion, and we did well with the first few issues of “Criminal” and stabilized in the mid to high teens. We’d occasionally drop a little, but I had the idea that we had a pretty stable audience of between 15 and 17,000 people. I never got the feeling that stores were eating a lot of copies of that book. They were buying what they could sell or just for people’s pull lists.
Then when we did “Incognito,” it was a pretty major bump from what we were doing on “Criminal” at the time. The previous issue of “Criminal” had sold like 17,000, and then our initial orders for “Incognito” #1 were around 20,000. So I overprinted it to 25,000, and crazily, we sold out of those in a few days. So we did really well, and it stabilized at a high number, but that was just a mini series. So I thought, “Okay, we’ll do more ‘Incognito,’ and that will sell about the same.” But then we didn’t. I didn’t know what was happening -Â whether people were waiting for the trade or if the market had lost readers or what.
So when we did “Fatale,” I didn’t know what to expect. We got in the orders, and they were higher than I expected them to be. Then Eric and I went back and forth trying to set a print run because I didn’t want to get stuck with tons of copies, but I also didn’t want to sell out. And we noticed between initial orders and the final order cutoff, the orders were going up by like 20%. So we did a pretty big overprint on the first issue, and that was sold out through Diamond before we got to the stands. There have been a ton of backorders, and I know there are still stores that ordered enough of #1 where they probably have the first printing on the shelves. But that book is selling for like $15 or $20 on eBay right now, so I know we’ve been selling out at some stores. My local store couldn’t keep #1 in stock and still can’t. That’s really bizarre to me. I don’t know if we were ready for success after 12 years of hard work.
So we’ve been trying really hard with every issue to find the right number to print,Â and I think we cracked it with issue #4. That one lasted at least a few weeks after the book came out before we started getting more orders. See, the problem is that when you print your initial order, your cost per copy is relatively cheap. I don’t know where Mark Waid got his price quotes from, but I’ve never paid near $1-a-piece to print a comic. [Laughs] So if you’re printing anything over 15, 20 or 25,000 copies, your cost per unit is really pretty inexpensive. But when you have to go back to press to print another 5,000 copies to fill those back orders, that costs more. Andy my biggest concern was that I never wanted any store to not have copies of #1 available. If you’ve got #3 but not #1, it’s useless. I talked to a lot of stores that were worried because they had no #1s but plenty of #2s, 3s and 4s. At that point, people just wait for a trade.
But every time we’d get those back orders in, Eric and I would discuss it and set a print run for more issues, and by the time the printing was released, it was already sold out through Diamond, and they had back orders for several thousand more. We really, really tried to anticipate demand, but the demand was just so much higher than it’d ever been for what Sean and I do that it’s overwhelming. I’m really glad it’s happened that way, but I just wish we only had to do two printings. I wish when it sold out immediately at stores, they had ordered a lot more rather than a few more and then a few more and then a few more. I can’t fault them because it’s non-returnable, and based on what the demand for our books has been before, they probably felt like they couldn’t sell that many. My fear was that I’d print way too many an be stuck with several thousand books I couldn’t sell. But that hasn’t happened yet! [Laughs]
The trade is coming out soon after this fifth print, and it collects the first five issues, which themselves are broken into chapters. You’ve spoken about how “Fatale” has grown as a story since you started, but does this collection represent a whole arc, or is it more the chapters you’ve put together up to this point?
Oh no. It’s a full story arc. Initially, the first arc was only going to be four issues. I have the whole structure of the series worked out -Â not all the details but at least the major beats of the whole story. The plan had always been to do three trade paperback collections. The bulk of the first story arc takes place in the 1950s. There’s a bookend and an interlude that takes place in modern times, but this story is really in the ’50s, and the bulk of the next story takes place in the ’70s in a whole different era and location. Then the final arc will be different too.
Well, hopefully that’ll be the final arc. The story of “Fatale” keeps growing as I’m telling the story. While I have the basic beats of it figured out, I keep having ideas where I’m going “I want to do that.” So I want the story to be elastic enough that I can fit all those ideas in. The first arc grew to be an issue longer than planned, and I’ll need at least an extra issue in each arc. It’s entirely possible that I’ll end up going longer than what I’ve mapped out.
The structure with the chapters came because I was looking at each book as a novel, and all of them will really tie together into a bigger novel than that. I really loved “V For Vendetta.” It’s probably my favorite Alan Moore book, and I love the way it’s structured where in that first book Evey meets V and you learn a lot about his history, then she’s very cast out into the world in the next book so you can learn about her, and then they’re brought back together in the third. Each book begins with “Chapter 1.” And it’s not like I’m doing anything anywhere like “V For Vendetta” here, but just the structure of those three interlinked books was an inspiration for me here. Book 2 of “Fatale” opens with a prologue, and then on page 11, Chapter 1 of Book 2 starts. You don’t open issue #6, and it’s like “Chapter 35!” [Laughs]
Like you said, we have the story of Nicholas Lash in the present which starts out like a noir framing sequence in a way: he finds a lost manuscript and there are people chasing him. But it never takes that expected turn where he reads a story about the past, and once it’s done he has all the answers. How did you initially conceive that structure to be more pliable for series format you wanted?
I think it’s just that I’m trying to do something different from what we usually do. We’re trying to play against expectation in some ways. I knew in issue #1 that everyone expected the stuff that takes place in the ’50s was the manuscript he was reading. And I knew when we got to issue #3 that when we returned to him, everyone would go, “Wait a second…that’s not the thing he’s reading at all.” I wanted to keep the reader on edge so they don’t know what’s coming next. Part of that is that I’m not even sure exactly what’s coming next until I’m five pages away from it. I have an outline, but I’m allowing myself to experiment a lot more and push myself into things I wouldn’t normally do.
I have to credit Joe Hill. I had the whole idea for “Fatale” ready before I started writing, but I really wanted to talk to somebody who had actually written horror before to make sure I wasn’t committing any amateur mistakes. So any I do make are Joe’s fault. [Laughter] No. But one of the things he pointed out was that the difference between horror in film and in books or comics is that in film you can control what the viewer is seeing and the pace they’re seeing it at. But in books, no one can flip ahead ten pages and actually see what’s coming. In comics, you can’t control how the reader might flip through it. So his recommendation to me was to do something early on that let people know they had no idea what the book was actually going to be about. That was a key thing that I kept in my head the whole time I was writing the first arc.
I think the guy finding the manuscript was a riff on all the Lovecraft stories. Almost every Lovecraft story I’ve ever read has this guy finding someone’s diary or a letter or something, and then it goes into a different story. I wanted to do the noir twist on that. I kept thinking in my head as I was writing this “Use the tropes of noir to write a Lovecraft story,” and that took it in directions different from what I’d normally expect for myself.
As always, you’ve got back matter articles in the singles for “Fatale,” and there’s a wide range here from articles on Lovecraft and his work to secret histories of mystery novels you never knew. In a way, those are as much of a mashup as the book. Commercially, was there any connection between Lovecraft and the original hardboiled detective writers that you’ve found? Did their work inform each other at all?
Boy, you know I don’t know. I’d have to look to see what the timeframe was. I think Dashiell Hammett and Lovecraft wrote around the same time. There was a certain element of mystery to how Lovecraft told his stories anyway. He did his own mashup in a way, but then Hammett changed detective stories in such an interesting way that no one back then ever really mixed the ideas up. Maybe you could say that Doc Savage or The Shadow did that some, but I haven’t read a lot of those stories. I think Jess Nevins’ next article for us is about all of that.
But it’s weird getting those back articles together sometimes. I reach out to a lot of friends to try and find things that’ll be interesting to the readers of whatever chapter of the story is going on that month. Jess knows so much about pulp and horror stuff that I wanted him to do as many of the articles as he can do, really. The historical placement stuff that he does I really love. And then Stephen Blackmoore’s article about the guy that Phillip Marlowe is based on? I didn’t even know about that guy. And I should have. [Laughter] I asked Stephen if he had anything, and when he suggested that, I said, “I don’t know if that fits.” Then once he described it, I was like, “Who cares if it fits? Write that!” So sometimes it’s just a question of what I can get.
The article about Dan Marlowe was great because he was a writer who did one of my favorite books -Â “The Name of the Game Is Death” -Â but he also had a such a bizarre history in his life. Part of the inspiration for the Dominic Raines character in “Fatale” was that I had read about the tragedy of Dan Marlowe’s life. His wife died, and then he became a writer, and he lost his memory later. He just seemed like a Gothic kind of character. I kept remembering that as I created this other character, and while I’m not exactly doing an analogue of Dan Marlowe by any means, I thought his story would be interesting for people to read next to the “Fatale” chapter about the dead wife.
Another twist is that despite following a lot of the men through the story and their specific concerns, Jo really feels like “the lead” of the book in a lot of ways. The title is a reference to her, for Pete’s sake! But the reader very much views her story at a remove, and we never follow things from her point of view. In what ways does that distance from her make “Fatale” a more traditional narrative, and in what ways does it complicate the character and story as a whole?
The decision to do the narration in the past in the third person was really because I wanted that separated from the present where it’s all first person from Nicholas’ point of view. Definitely, Jo is the centerpiece of “Fatale,” but I was thinking that I’d do something where the narrative was really character focused in the same way George RR Martin does “Game of Thrones.” Each chapter is narrated from a different person’s point of view there, and you have to fill in the gaps. I liked that as I was reading the book after I watched the first season of the show. I liked that if there was a battle the main characters weren’t at, we’d just have to hear about it later. I liked that I didn’t get to see everything and that I had to put the pieces together myself. I wanted to do something like that where we had characters who became our main narrators. And then if I wanted to do something different like in issue #4 where we open on Luccarelli, the mobster guy who we heard about in the first three issues, we could meet him in one scene with a very character-specific third person. It’s just a different writing technique more than anything.
Certainly, in the second arc we’ll get a lot more into Jo’s head and her point of view than you did in the first arc. Part of this has been not wanting to reveal too much. The main takeaway from Lovecraft or any of those guys who did this creeping horror style is that the less you reveal, the weirder it is and the better it is. The idea of Cthulhu arriving always drove people insane, but when Cthulhu actually arrives, it gets pretty boring. He just kills a bunch of people and wanders off to the sea, and you’re like, “Whoa…Cthulhu!” [Laughter] I may have gotten that last part wrong. But what I mean is that the thing that creeped me out playing the role-playing game of “Call of Cthulhu” was the cultists who would just lose their shit at the idea of these things. That the idea of a creature would drive you insane and turn you into a fish creature was what I latched onto more than any specific Lovecraft story or the way he told his stories. I liked that if you viewed his work as a mystery or a noir story, it worked perfectly because you never had to show anything.
The big thematic thread in this series is that she is cursed by her longevity and her power over men, and the curse passes off in different ways to the men in the story. Dominic is at the beginning of being cursed while Booker, the corrupt policeman, is at the end of having lived with her for so long. Do all those men reflect a different aspect of what interests you in the story?
That was sort of the cyclical nature of this. One of the initial germs for this idea was a story about immortality that I wanted to do. It was about a whole bunch of people who are immortal and how living forever is a curse after a while. I tried to fit that idea into a bunch of stories. Then I also wanted to find a way to do a noir that was a horror story that didn’t ruin either the noir of it or the horror of it. So I came down to thinking of it as “What if in ‘Double Indemnity,’ the reason Barbara Stanwyck needed Leave It To Beaver’s dad to save her from her husband was because he wanted her to have the devil’s baby?” Basically, it was a mashup of “Double Indemnity” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” [Laughs] That was the spark that started it.
So part of the gestation process was me figuring out how a lot of those classic femme fatale storylines have a romantic triangle in their plotline. And each of the characters in that triangle has a different place in the story. There’s the old lover being cast off in favor of the new one who’s being used to help the woman get free of her past. That’s where the idea came from. I just built all these characters out from there. The fact that they also become sympathetic is just the nature of the story I’m telling. One of the points of this book was telling a story where the femme fatale was a sympathetic lead instead of a plot device or a bad girl. That all comes from the way I tend to write stories where no one is 100% good or 100% bad.
Speaking of bad guys, so far we’ve met two rungs on the bad guy ladder that leads to a giant, unseen force: there have been our creepy footsoldier mooks and Mr. Bishop behind them. Is that the head of the organization we’re dealing with, or is there some more power behind the power to see in the next arc?
We’ll find out a lot more stuff. I don’t want to reveal too much. There’s some big stuff revealed in issue #5 about Bishop and his history. One of the influences on that aspect of the story was research I’d done about Satanic murder cults. I mean, those generally don’t really exist, but there is some weird stuff that went on in the ’60s and ’70s from the Manson Family to some rumors around the Son of Sam murders maybe having been committed by a cult of people and not just one guy. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there especially in California – this dark side to the ’60s and ’70s that I wanted to explore some by brining this other-worldly creepiness into a mystery story. That’s why in the first issue you meet Walt Booker walking into a crime scene in San Francisco where a bunch of cultists have blown their own heads off for some reason and sacrificed a guy in the attic. I wanted a real world level in there too where you’re going, “Were they trying to call up a demon, or were they just crazy and reaching out to a dimension that doesn’t exist? Shit like that happens, and it’s bizarre. I wanted some of that planted early on so when we got to the ’70s you’d know that it’s not just about the Manson Family or things like that. I wanted to make sure it was part of the story from the get-go.
“Fatale” #5 is in stores tomorrow from Image Comics.