One of the more interesting things about Hollywood’s Golden Age is just how much of it was one elaborate, tightly controlled lie. Outside of a few brief years before the Motion Picture Production (or Hays) Code was adopted in 1930, the inner workings and backstage lives of the American film industry were just as much a scripted fiction as the pictures they produced. When big studios controlled everything from scripts to cinemas, movie stars were assets and scandal was a liability. A big part of show business was keeping the ugliness that kept it running away from the public eye.
The Fade Out (Image Comics), by the acclaimed team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, has its sights set squarely on the nasty business of show business in the Golden Age. Set in the fall of 1948, the story takes place in what Brubaker calls “one of the last American gold rushes”: Hollywood in the twilight of its boom years, where casual sexism and racism were par for the course and the American government could ruin your life if you were ever suspected of having beliefs that could be construed as remotely Communist.
The first issue starts with the sort of thing we see from celebrities all the time today, and the sort of thing that no one was allowed to know about at the time: a hell of a party. Screenwriter Charlie Parish wakes up after having blacked out in a bathtub, only to discover the body of rising starlet Valeria Sommers just outside the bathroom door. It’s her murder, and the cover up that ensues, that sets the events of the series into motion as the cast of characters are slowly introduced and their motives hinted at.
At first blush, The Fade Out is a murder mystery, classic film noir in its premise and execution. But for writer Brubaker, murder is just the means by which the story will delve into the social dynamics of the period.
“It gives me a great way into the broader canvas of the story and the world,” says Brubaker. “With the murder comes a cover-up, which gets to the heart of what the book is really about. It creates this ripple effect that allows us to explore a lot of different sides of Hollywood’s Golden Age, because I’m much less concerned with whodunit than with the world around this dead starlet and how it responds to her murder. That gives me a way to tell a slow burn kind of tale with simmering tensions and moments of explosive violence, but that isn’t just about plot or action.”
Over the last 15 years, Brubaker and Phillips have established themselves as masters of pulpy crime narratives with high-concept twists. From the superhero noir of Sleeper or Incognito to the Lovecraftian horror of Fatale, the duo tell stories of men and women in hells of their own design. To read a comic by them is to watch, enthralled at the many beautiful and violent ways a life can fall apart.
“For me, I love the engine of a crime story or mystery to weave a larger story around,” says Brubaker. “It’s always really about the characters for me, and putting them in bad situations—that they’ve often created for themselves—gives you a lot of possible paths to go down.”
That’s what makes Brubaker the kind of writer who brings out the best in an artist like Phillips. A man whose work is instantly recognizable, Phillips has long been a master at fleshing out the seedy sides of bustling cities, building worlds that get under your fingernails and never really wash out. His approach to people is similar: all beautiful, with more worries than they can possibly deal with in a healthy way.
It’s kind of remarkable to learn that Phillips isn’t really a fan of film noir or crime fiction, given how good he is at illustrating them. “It’s more the look of them that appeals to me,” says Phillips. “I like drawing frowning people smoking in the shadows, and Ed writes a lot of that!”
With a fantastic start and an ambitious future, The Fade Out is another promising title from a partnership that’s been producing first-rate work for over a decade. It’s a book that’s instantly reminiscent of what they’ve done before, but it also provides a canvas for the pair to go further than they have before. And besides—it’s hard to beat that setting.
“For me, the fact that there aren’t a lot of comics like this is what makes it the perfect thing to do in comics,” says Brubaker. “There are about 200 superhero comics coming out every month. There’s only one comic about Hollywood in the ’40s.”