In “Fatale” #14, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue the extended flashback exploring Josephine’s past, following her through the final years of WWII.
Brubaker tells the story in third person past tense, but focuses heavily on the thoughts, memories and perceptions of only Jo and Walt Booker, such that the suspense of “Fatale” #14 is all about the moment when their paths intersect.
Phillips’ art does the bulk of the heavy lifting in conveying the action of the story, and his panel compositions and use of shadows are bold and effective as usual. His urban backgrounds have wonderful detail, with a strong sense of time and place, especially in the last page, as Jo looks out of a window in a building that screams “Old Europe.”
As usual, Brubaker’s script is text-box heavy and light on dialogue. As a writer, Brubaker’s style is defined more by concept, mood, atmosphere and narrative rhythm than by dialogue or characterization. His diction and imagery are also strong, like the page when he describes Jo’s pursuit of a woman who had “a small glow that followed her, like a vapor trail.”
Although Brubaker’s characters hold the reader’s attention, they serve themes more than being ends unto themselves. One of the ideas behind “Fatale” was to take the stereotypical femme fatale and give her a voice. At first, Brubaker seemed to remove agency from the femme fatale by inverting her, making Jo more a damsel in distress than a predator who makes choices. She was a woman at the mercy of powers she can’t control as well as external predators. However, as he reveals more and more of Jo’s past, he gives her back some agency, showing her determination to seek knowledge and set herself free.
While Jo’s agency and role in her own fate is complex, she is still in the end larger than life, still an elusive almost-myth instead of a real woman. She never has a hair out of place or says a clumsy phrase, always contained within her fate and her fear, always being pursued and in pursuit. Brubaker has worked to humanize Jo, but he has also continuously glamourized her at the same time. Though Jo is the central character around which all plot points bend, her position remains largely passive. She defined by her womanhood and her fatal attractions, and the boundaries of her life are drawn by those who desire to protect or possess her. However, Jo also fights against this. Though “Fatale” #14 is all about Walt’s big rescue, Jo is notably active the assault and defeat of her captors.
Like Jo, the men of “Fatale” are also function more as plot devices and ideas than individuals. In “Fatale” #14, Walt comes across as a simple-minded and action-oriented “Big American War Hero.” Brubaker’s subtlety is in how he subverts Walt’s seeming triumph. It’s both within “Fatale” #14, when Walt pulls a page from the book on the altar, and also in the events of the future. The reader already knows that there is no happily ever after, that Walt will grow older and more paranoid, while Jo never shakes off her fear.
As a piece of psychological exploration, “Fatale” #14 is part of Brubaker’s answer to the questions of “What would immortality look like?” and also “What it would be like to be a woman like Helen of Troy, whose face could launch a thousand ships?” In a world where so many seemingly aspire to eternal youth and beauty, what would it be like to be that eternally desirable woman?
Other authors have explored these questions, but Brubaker’s take is unique in how he sets it within recent martial history and his use of the supernatural. It’s difficult to swallow a combination of both Lovecraftian tentacled monsters and Nazis, but Brubaker plays these melodramatic elements down with a quiet voice of recollection, making these elements less lurid and ridiculous.
Brubaker and Phillips’ slow burn and mix of horror, history and Lovecraft isn’t going to appeal to every reader, but “Fatale” #14 fills in a chapter of the Josephine’s past, and maintains the grim, yet lovely, melancholy and the suffusing atmosphere of fate that make this creative team’s work so memorable.