It’s not like I never read any comics – I have read several, even posted on this blog about some of them. But those were few and far between, and it took me quite some time to get through each of them. I’m not quite sure what the reason for this is – reading The Sandman quite thoroughly cured me of any residual ideas of comics being for kids that I might have had, and I always meant to read more. Maybe it’s my ongoing struggle with visual arts – but that never kept me from watching and enjoying lots of films. Maybe it is the hybrid nature of comics, straddling both literature and graphics, and feeling at home in the first and rather lost in the second, I always felt off-balance when reading comics.
All of this has not really changed, except that for the last couple of weeks I’ve suddenly developed a keen interest and while not exactly blazing through them still read quite a lot (more in the last four weeks than in the last four years, actually) and while still struggling to understand their peculiar narrative forms, have been having quite a blast with them.
The Fade Out (written by Ed Brubaker, pencilled by Sean Phillips and coloured by Elizabeth Breitweiser) is not the comic which kicked off this reading bilge (that was, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, Eleuteri’s Druuna) but it is the one which has had the most impact on me so far, and really sent me on the way of deeper exploration of this whole comics thing. It is set in Hollywood in 1948 (with occasional flashbacks) and is generally considered as apart of the crime fiction genre. Which is not quite wrong – there is a murder right at the beginning if issue #1, and we do get to find out who did it at then end of the final issue. But for the most part of the comic nobody (including our main protagonist, washed-out screen writer Charlie Parish) is particularly enthusiastic about finding out who killed rising starlet, and the mystery finally lifted nobody is in any position to do anything about it.
So, while The Fade Out has a distinct noir tint both to the text and the graphics, I’d hesitate to call it a mystery and one should not read this comic expecting one. It only utilizes crime fiction elements in order to bend them to a different purpose, namely painting a picture of Hollywood during the McCarthy era; in other words, this is more of a period piece, not so much crime but rather historical fiction, albeit one that is steeped in noir atmosphere. There isn’t a single character in the comic’s sizeable cast (really quite large for such a comparatively short series, and it is another testament to the creators’ skill that the reader never gets confused about who is who) who isn’t broken in some way or other and nobody who has not at least one dirty secret to hide which they’re desperately struggling to prevent from coming out.
Writer Ed Brubaker has taken great care to give every character his or her own back story – often not spelling them out explicitly, however, but scattering small splinters of information all over the narrative and leaving it to the reader to piece them together to form the whole picture. As a result, the writing is very dense and requires the reader to be focused on what is going on – something I really was not expecting from a comic but which I found very intriguing. It also makes a re-reading worthwhile, to catch all the bits of info I unavoidably must have missed during my first time. The writing itself is pared down and concise – again, giving a distinctly noirish feel.
From the subject matter, I was expecting Sean Phillips’ drawings to be very cinematic, and then was very surprised to find how much they weren’t. They are, occasionally, most noticeably in those places where he shows pieces of an actual film, or in the way many scenes open with a master shot giving a panoramic overview of the surroundings like you find in most classical Hollywood films, but for the most part Phillips seems to purposefully disrupt the flow and the illusion of continuity that films give and instead to give each singular drawing its own specific weight, inviting readers to linger and explore each picture individually. Which does not mean that The Fade Out comes across as static – comics are famously a “sequential art” after all; here, narrative movement is generated mostly by the succession of panels. Which, I suppose, holds true in some way or other for pretty much every comic, but I at least had the impression that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were very conscious of this and uncommonly subtle in the arrangement of panels on the page. Most of the time, they use a six or seven panel grid from which they rarely deviate, but this regularity is balanced out by no two successive columns ever being ordered the same way (and I think this holds true for the entirety of the comic’s twelve issues). Which gives the progress of the narrative a very distinct, offbeat movement, which had me think more than once of Jazz and its syncopated rhythms. At the same time while the progress fom panel to panel is markedly asymmetrical, the reader often finds that the arrangements of panels on opposing pages (even/odd) mirror each other exactly, thus creating a symmetry where it was not expected and drawing connections between certain events which wouldn’t have been obvious from the script alone (and the opposite happens, too – an expected relationship is being denied by an asymmetrical arrangement of panels).
And finally, the colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser – I might not even have noticed this as something special if not almost every single review of The Fade Out which I looked at had not mentioned how good it is. And indeed, once my attention was directed towards it, I could not help noticing its particular brilliance – in more than one sense. For the most part, colours are subdued and slightly washed-out, as you’d expect in a noir story, but time and again there are sudden bursts of intense, bright colour which are almost painful in contrast to the prevailing drabness. In general, (and after comparing The Fade Out to some other comics whose colours looked outright flat in comparison) Breitweiser’s colouring adds a great deal of plasticity to Phillip’s drawings; and as you keep reading you are becoming aware of a colour scheme which not only sets atmosphere but contributes another layer of significance to the comic.
I guess by now it is quite firmly established that comics aren’t just about superheroes in bright costumes righteously smashing evil guys, but The Fall Out explores places where even most literary crime fiction fears to tread. It is a very dark affair and its general outlook on the world is very bleak indeed, so don’t expect to feel uplifted when you turn this comic’s last page. But by its end, you just may have caught some glimpses into the darker spaces of the human psyche and maybe even gained some deeper insight into what is wrong with the world, and I for my part at least think that this makes the journey worthwhile. In any case, The Fade Out is a brilliant work of art and really shows what the comic form is capable of, and I can’t really recommend this strongly enough.