The Fade Out: The Complete Collection by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, illustrated by Elizabeth Breitweiser is not my usual grimdark fair. However, grimdark is the fantastic cousin to film noir and detective fiction. Much like in my LA Noire review, the subject matter deals with Los Angeles in the 1940s. It is a fantastic time to write stories about because the glamour and sleaze of Hollywood contrasts with the post-World War 2 trauma as well as economic boom.
The Fade Out is a twelve issue comic book series that I recommend people just purchase the complete collection of rather than the three individual parts. The story works extremely well as a single narrative and quite a lot of jokes as well as clues dropped in the earlier books find payoff later in the story. It is a fantastic read from beginning to end that has some elements that need to be warned about for readers but, otherwise, is one of my favorite reads for 2022. Hell, despite reading it in December, it may be my favorite read of 2022.
The premise is Charles Parish is a World War 2 veteran who has come back completely dry of ideas as a Hollywood screenwriter. PTSD (or shell shock as it was known then) has robbed him of his creative juices. He has delegated all of his writing, instead, to blacklisted fellow screenwriter Gil Mason. Gil is an alcoholic with a self-destructive streak who told Charles to name him to the House Unamerican Activities (HUAC) board in order to save the latter’s career. No one knows this and Charles is considered a pariah by Gil’s old friends despite the fact he’s the only reason the man still has an income.
This already interesting premise is supplemented by the fact that Charles goes home with a beautiful starlet one evening, having both gotten inebriated at a party for a rich friend, and wakes up to her horrible murder. Unable to deal with the possibility that he could be implicated in their death, he covers up his presence and heads out the door. The next morning, he finds out her death has been labeled a suicide (despite clearly not having been) and the studio’s primary concern being that her picture be finished.
What follows is equal parts murder mystery and examination of the decadent controlled world of 1940s Hollywood. A place where the mores of society are completely cast aside behind doors but you are subject to total control of the dying studio system. Where the only thing that had threatened the studios in recent years was the power of the federal government and for nonsensical charges. After all, if there’s any more capitalist place on Earth with its worship of wealth, fame, and power then I point out Las Vegas is still in its infancy.
Charles is an interesting protagonist because he’s not technically trying to solve the starlet, Val’s, murder. For the most part, he’s trying to shove the event under the proverbial rug and forget about it but can’t bring himself to do it. If Charles has any unbelievable qualities, it’s the fact that the female cast seems to trip over themselves in order to sleep with him. Gil’s wife, the studio PR head, Val’s replacement on the picture, and even a singing cowboy picture dancer are among those who want our Peter Parker-esque antihero.
Which does get to one element that is noticeable in this book and that is the copious fanservice and nudity. Ed Brubaker takes advantage of the lack of censorship at Image comics and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s skill at rendering characters to throw quite a lot of it at the reader. It’s noticeable enough to be distracting but nothing that couldn’t be shown on HBO were it to be adapted to a miniseries. Speaking of the art, the realism of the work is amazing and I really felt I was watching a film in print form.
Much of the story also takes time to share horrible stories from real life Hollywood and the utter ridiculousness of it all. Some of the stories are touching like Clark Gable’s insistence on volunteering for WW2 and Dashiell Hammett’s raising money for blacklisted Hollywood figures. Others are more disturbing like the fact a studio director had honest-to-goddess SECRET PASSAGEWAYS installed into the closets of the dressing rooms of his starlets. Apparently, Betty Davis almost stabbed him one time.
Indeed, sometimes the characters that Ed Brubaker introduces are toned down versions of their real life counterparts. Phil Brodsky is a Hollywood fixer who beats up the boyfriends of gay Hollywood stars, bribes people to look the other way, and is otherwise repulsive. However, he has nothing on Eddie Mannix the real life personage who possibly murdered George Reeves, star of the Superman television show.
The supporting cast is great for the book as well with a number of extremely interesting characters both good, bad, and somewhere in between. I don’t go with the idea a character is “believable” in my fiction but I feel like all of these characters are authentic with many layers. Even the fixer, Brodsky, has some lines that he won’t cross as a studio enforcer.
The ending, oof, is pretty bleak and perfect for grimdark fans. Just be warned it’s a real gut punch. If you liked LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia, LA Noire, or Mulholland Drive then this is the kind of comic book for you. It is dark, well-written, and full of twists. It may be my favorite comic by Ed and he created the Winter Soldier.