FATALE is a graphic novel title I’ve had on the shelf for a while.
It’s a collaborative effort by the amazing writer Ed Brubaker and the equally amazing artist Sean Phillips. Fatale was released as a 24 issue series between the years 2012 and 2014 and compiled into larger deluxe editions shortly thereafter. It was published by Image Comics.
One of the amazing things about this graphic novel (and there are SEVERAL) are the brooding, film noir shades used expertly by artist Sean Phillips to perfectly encapsulate the mood intended by Ed Brubaker to convey a story that is at once dark, sultry and mysterious. Just as the titular character Josephine or Jo is an enthralling beauty who attracts the attention of, well pretty much everyone…this is a bewitching title with gorgeous artwork that sets the atmosphere and tone so expertly, each page practically swells with moody jazz and boozy, smoke-filled ambiance. It reads much like an old pulp paperback or the script of a daring, engaging film noir. I’m glad it’s in color, because the colors are expertly applied, however I could just as easily see this at home in black and white, grayscale or a monochromatic Sin City type color scheme. The action is visceral, with shots fired, explosions and unfortunate axe-murders being felt with all their gruesome viscosity intact. The villains are typically sinister. Even the most subtle elements indicative of character like leering grins and subdued malevolence are exquisitely crafted, stroke by stroke…so you get a real feeling for the grit, strengths and shortcomings of each character with just a glance.
Jo’s sensuality and seductive allure is captured beautifully with the arched eyebrows, cupid’s bow lips, elegant wardrobe and retro 40’s starlet vibe making her a character you not only want to learn more about, but one that you genuinely enjoy seeing.
Now, as for the design of the story…that’s where the substance really gets a chance to shine through, and does, just as brilliantly as its style. The story is novel in that it places us behind the eyes of a unique protagonist whose narrative usually isn’t told as anything more than a plot device…the figure of the femme fatale. The dark, mysterious seductress who comes pleading for help from a hard-knock private investigator, only to have been behind the crime all along. We’re all familiar with figures like this, Dick Tracy’s ‘Breathless Mahoney’ being one of the more well-known examples, Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Mary Astor in the Maltese Falcon, Rita Hayworth in the Lady from Shanghai…the trope literally defined the film noir genre. And Jo, could easily be any one of these ladies’ contemporaries and give them all a run for their money. Jo has a tortured, nightmarish backstory which we won’t get into (you have to read for yourself!) but it takes you on a labyrinthine exploration of mystical themes, disturbing otherworldly dangers and the solitude Jo tries to fill with each gallant man of the moment, at once desperately and effortlessly. Yet, Jo isn’t the typical femme fatale…she’s hardly defenseless or a damsel in distress and we see her subverting tropes by being more than capable on several occasions, even rescuing the men who are trying to do the same for her. This is such a refreshing take on a musty old trope trapped in the black and white bars of a genre that hasn’t always been very welcoming to strong female characters.
The story spans decades and due to Jo’s unique circumstances, we get to follow her solitary journey through an added filter of loss and longing, seeing those around her age and wither while she remains the same. This adds to the character’s tragic inner world, and helps us empathize even further. It is the sign of an expert wordsmith and storyteller to incorporate supernatural elements to tell a story that is so human in its vulnerability of circumstance.
Overall, Fatale handles everything well sex scenes, fight scenes, chase scenes. But all these elements are second to Jo…the classic vampy femme fatale, who finally gets a chance to tell her story on her own terms. It is an absolute MUST READ, and one of the bonuses included with the deluxe hardcover collections is the absolutely delightful gallery of cover artwork, variant covers and other concept art. It’s a wonderful find and a story that sticks with you, what are you waiting for?
Another awesome Brubaker recommendation, which I was originally going to highlight first, is Velvet. It’s another great hard-boiled story, a little more action-packed, but with a similarly strong, interestingly complex female protagonist who defies tropes and keeps you coming back for more of her adventures. 5 out of 5 stars, all the way in every way.