Fatale #1-24 (2012-2014)
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
Colors by Dave Stewart (1-11), Elizabeth Breitweiser (12-24)
Published by Image Comics
“She only knows how to put men into graves, not dig them out.”
The darkness at the heart of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale chills your soul in ways that their previous collaborations like Criminal and Incognito can’t. Criminal, for as dark and messed up as it can get, features stories about bad people, but it’s the people who are bad and not the spaces that they move through. In Criminal stories like “Coward” and “Last of the Innocent,” the corruption of those stories comes out of the characters’ souls. A look at most of these creators’ previous works reveals evil as inherently a part of the human condition, which we in turn impose on our world. Brubaker and Phillips’ stories usually start with people who are already bad and make everything around them that much worse. Fatale approaches the corruption of the soul as an external influence on our beings that drives humanity toward madness. This story begins with Josephine and Nicolas Lash, two decent people, who are nearly destroyed by the monsters that this world has created.
Josephine is the femme fatale of this story, the woman who walks into men’s lives and needs them to help her find salvation. But unlike most femme fatales, who are used by the plot to drive the story of their male protagonist, Josephine remains the center of her story. From the moment she walks into Nicholas’ life during his god-father’s funeral, Brubaker and Phillips mostly focus on telling the story of her long and unaging life. Beginning in San Francisco in 1956, Josephine’s story follows her through the decades as she struggles against a cult leader attempting to summon elder gods back to Earth. As we find through the span of 24 issues, there have been other women through the centuries that have fought similar fights but Jo, the latest incarnation of this warrior woman, appears to be the one who can finally defeat this cycle of brutality.
Jo’s allies for this fight are the men who come into her life who suddenly live for nothing but her. Brubaker and Phillips turn the femme fatale’s sway over men into a supernatural power. Nicolas may be her last hope and her last victim because that’s what the men end up being; victims in her fight for survival. The series charts Josephine’s journey through the last 100 years as she’s discovered the dark powers in the world that prevents her from aging or dying. These dark powers also enslave men to her, where she becomes their everything and they would do anything for her, including killing. Nicolas loses everything for her, including a leg, but the grip that she has on his soul means that the only thing he desires to possess is her.
The corruption in Fatale exists in the world around Josephine and Nicolas more than it does in them. Josephine and Nicolas are the clean sacrifices that are needed to bring the dark gods to this reality. Brubaker and Phillips have created this dark reality that we hope doesn’t exist even as we’re secretly drawn to it the way that the men are drawn to Josephine. The light in this world is filtered through the heavy sickness that infects nearly every corner of it. Phillips and colorists Dave Stewart and Elizabeth Breitweiser create a world of intruding darkness, overtaking any light that can be found in Nicolas or Josephine’s world. The shadows are not just an absence of light but they become a physical force in this comic as Brubaker and Phillips explore a corruption of more than just their characters’ souls. The evil in Fatale festers out of a blackened core of the world.
The main throughline of the whole series follows Nicolas as he desperately tries to find Jo again after his godfather’s funeral. She came into his life, turned it completely upside down and then left him but he never could let her go. His search takes him into unbelievable dark places as the arcane forces that Jo struggles against use him to find her. As Nicolas sinks further and further down into the pit of obsession, Brubaker and Phillips tell Josephine’s story of trying to stay one step ahead of her adversaries.
Nicolas and Josephine’s stories are interwoven together as alternating past and present plot lines. This structure produces a fractured story that stutters its way through Josephine’s life. Brubaker and Phillips spend most of their time with Josephine and return now and again to Nicolas’s story without ever really giving him any compelling narrative. It’s actually the opposite of most femme fatale stories where the femme fatale doesn’t have any agency as they function as a plot point in the male protagonist’s story. In trying to flip the tables and give us the story of the femme fatale, they can’t commit to how much or how little of the story that Nicolas should get. They end up giving him a lot of space, but fill it with a lot of air as they wait for their parallel stories to intersect again before the end of the series.
Fatale may look like the type of noir story that Brubaker and Phillips have built their artistic partnership on, but this is not a noir mystery. The horror that pervades this series, the evil of a world trying to wash over everything good and pure, is new ground for this team. Brubaker writes stories about bad men and women, but it’s rare that he writes about a rotten world. Fatale is a story of victims. There are no heroes in this series as Josephine and Nicolas fight just for their own survival. Brubaker and Phillips’ Fatale stumbles as it attempts to tell a story through multiple timelines, but their story about survival and obsession shows the versatility that this team possesses to tell any kind of story.