Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have yet to solve one mystery in “The Fade Out” #4, but that doesn’t stop them from introducing new ones as they turn up the suspense in their engaging 1940s Tinseltown drama. The story started off as a seeming murder mystery but has grown into something even more compelling, more akin to a character study with a killing thrown in. The central protagonist, stressed-out screenwriter Charlie Parish, is a changed man after awakening at the scene of a star actress’ murder, and struggles with hazy recollections of the crime’s cover up versus his own self-interests. Like many of the characters, Charlie isn’t the only one with secrets, and there’s a fascinating dichotomy between his willingness to carry the burden of that which only he knows and being complicit in a kind of behavior that troubles him.
The murder of a movie star is only the latest of many potentially career-ending skeletons Charlie has tucked away in his increasingly crowded closet, and Brubaker starkly shows how their weight is slowly crushing him, emotionally. Charlie’s covert partnership with a washed-up colleague — one who himself hides a truth that could end both men’s careers — is enough of a story on its own, but the addition of the crime-noir element, as well as the Hollywood backdrop amidst the early days of McCarthyism, makes for a compelling comic even without its whodunit hook. In fact, the story is more of a “whydunit,” slowly setting up a scenario that is just starting to establish why a young actress would turn up dead in the first place without really addressing who among the cast (if they’ve even been introduced to readers yet) would commit such a crime.
That recipe cooks up just fine, as the stories behind the book’s superbly defined cast are plenty sufficient to carry the comic on their own, almost to the point where readers forget that there is, in fact, still a murder case to be solved. Brubaker’s use of casual third-person narration helps to make the story even more of a catch, in that it evokes an old-school, noir-ish feel without stooping to any kind of ham-handed, over-the-top narrative that would draw attention away from the story it’s meant to enhance.
Phillips knows there’s a seedy side to Hollywood in the shadows of its more glamorous one, and he renders both aspects convincingly. There are the glitzy parties full of beautiful people; Phillips draws every illustration of ultra-handsome actor Earl Rath to look like he’s posing for a publicity still, but also makes the inside of Charlie’s residence look appropriately drab. Likewise, a typically plain and unremarkable street is perfectly representative of the Hollywood that’s never seen by tourists.
Colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser uses a similar tactic; it might be sunny and bright somewhere in southern California, but not here. The limited color use not only conveys the darker, backroom aspect of the story but also its time period. It’s not black and white, save for some flashbacks, but instead uses a minimal palette in most scenes. The glamorous parties, of course, are much more lush, but so is a far more surprising and diabolical scene at the end of the issue.
Phillips and Breitweiser collaboration creates several, totally different art styles; more photorealistic images and greytones are used to represent photographs, for example, and much darker and appropriately blurrier images portray the vague and fragmented flashes from Charlie’s nightmares. The diverse art is symbolic of the eclectically blended story; human drama, strong characterization and an ever-present murder all combine to make “The Fade Out” #4 not only a tremendous issue in the series but a typically stellar example of the kind of synergy Brubaker and Phillips bring to their stories.