Fatale Vol. 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is a work that I picked up after the fantastic The Fade Out comic. I’m a huge fan of film noir and it was some of the best art as well as writing I’ve found in comic books period. I wasn’t a fan of the ending but I still wanted more and my friends said that not only was Fatale similar in some ways but it had my other proverbial catnip: Lovecraftian horror.
Fatale is a deconstruction of the classic film noir trope: the femme fatale. Cherchez la femme or “look for the woman” is such a cliche in the dark and seedy storytelling that it was ripe for parody/subversion in the Seventies. Chinatown, without spoiling the plot, depends greatly on the idea that Jake Gittes can’t get it out of his head that Mrs. Mulray must be running some sort of scam on him because film noir dictates that a beautiful rich woman must somehow be evil or manipulative. The Maltese Falcon depends on Brigid O’Shaughnessy being a lying sociopath and The Big Sleep, Lauren Bacall’s charms aside, is a story around two devious women with one being a psychopath.
It’s a trope as old as Circe, Medea, and Morgan Le Fey. Actually, one may argue that it goes back to the very first novel ever written with Ishtar unleashing holy hell on Gilgamesh because he wouldn’t sleep with her. It is a double-edged sword as while it may be considered a misogynist trope, it is also something that grants agency to female characters. As one of my female friends explained: “Maleficent is the best of Disney’s female characters and I don’t mean the Angelina Jolie one.”
In this case, Fatale is essentially the story of the most beautiful woman in the world. Josephine AKA “Jo” has the supernatural power to turn any man into her slave by simply looking at him. They fall in love at first sight and gradually fall under her sway to the point that all of their previous relationships become meaningless. Happily married to a pregnant wife? Doesn’t matter. A deranged religious fanatic? Doesn’t matter. It’s not something she can turn off either and has led to countless ruined lives.
While Josephine, herself, plays an important role, it’s actually three separate men who fall in love with her that form the majority of the story. A man investigating his writer grandfather’s death, a happily married reporter, and an aging cancer-ridden police officer who has been Jo’s lover for decades. All three of them have a self-destructive streak a mile wide and they blame Jo, justly or unjustly, for leading them to the ruination they all face. They want her beyond anything else but also hate that she has that kind of power over them. If it is a form of love, it is a selfish and ugly sort.
Opposing our antiheroes is what appears to be the Cult of Cthulhu, though that title is never given to them despite the abundance of robes, human sacrifice, tentacles, and squid-faced monsters that are involved in their magic. Either way, they are led by the mysterious Bishop that wants Josephine to be a sacrifice and is willing to offer anything to those who can bring her to him. It’s funny, in a black comedy sort of way, that the only man Josephine could have a relatable conversation with is a demonic monster in human skin.
Readers should be warned this is a DARK f***ing book. People are horribly maimed, innocent people are murdered in blood sacrifices, and there’s very few in the way of happy endings. Unlike The Fade Out, there’s very little in the way of nudity with the lovingly illustrated images of Josephine being mostly suggestive rather than explicit. Jo is a spectacular comic book beauty and you can believe she has that je ne sais quoi (wow, there’s a lot of French in this review) even without magical powers.