Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips squeeze even more tension into "The Fade Out" with issue #6. As Gil and Charlie's methods diverge, the question of which powerful person killed Valeria Summers becomes far less pressing than whether someone so powerful will ever really pay for his crimes. The twin spirits of futility and rage add momentum to this noir-within-a-noir, and both Brubaker's script and Phillips' art paint a moody world with only glimpses of light. "The Fade Out" is a master class in atmosphere.
Phillips' and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser's dark, vulnerable vision of Hollywood is one of the best qualities of "The Fade Out." It's easy for a book about messed-up people to look over-romanticized or hyper-dark, but Phillips keeps his scenes honest by often drawing the characters with raw, open faces. For all that Gil and Charlie are "alcoholics who were just fine with that diagnosis," they're still frequently caught unawares by the cruelty or greed around them. The tough guy talk is belied by their wounded-innocent faces, and that contrast is layered and refreshing. In "The Fade Out," being jaded is a result of being hurt, rather than being smarter than everyone else.
Breitweiser creates beautiful, moody scenes from even the most banal barroom conversations. She leans into Phillips' heavier inks with shadows and tiny peeks of light and, as a result, the scenes really do read like Hollywood's underbelly. Under her eye, even movie premieres and yellow light through a window can look seedy. The title page is the only misstep, where Maya's shading almost looks like it's from a different series.
Brubaker leans heavily on captions to drive the story, using them to fit in shorthand plot details like "Charlie and Gil hadn't been getting along the past few days." For the most part, it works, giving "The Fade Out" the narrative cadence of a noir detective story, but there are a few instances in this issue where it gets a bit heavy. I like most of my action in-panel and, while I appreciate the speed and personality afforded by captions, they aren't as engaging as watching events happen in real-time.
Aside from those few pages, though, Brubaker layers tantalizing tensions and secrets throughout the issue. As Gil and Charlie each reach separate breaking points, the story feels like it's ramping up for serious escalation, and I love the feeling of inevitability that Brubaker has created.
However, while the dynamic characterization of Gil and Charlie is rewarding, the treatment of the female characters continues to hover at mediocre. From starlet Maya to chatty Dottie, all the women in "The Fade Out" mother Charlie, and it's difficult to believe such different characters would all react the same way. Where the men fight each other, the women absorb and comment. Their dialogue reflects Charlie rather than challenges him, and it detracts from the otherwise quality conversations. The ladies just need a bit more bite to feel like independent entities.
"The Fade Out" #6 continues to mine the best of noir. If it can flesh out a few more of its characters, it'll be a classic. For now, it's just masterfully executed.