The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

The Fade Out #1-12
Written by Ed Brubaker
Drawn by Sean Phillips
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics

After years of artistic partnership, going back almost 20 years to when Sean Phillips was just the inker on Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's Scene of the Crime, it has almost started to feel like you knew what you were going to get in a Brubaker/Phillips production. That’s not to say that books like Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, and Fatale were the same comics but that the creative duo’s body of work carried a particular tone and caliber to it. The Fade Out, the creative partner’s latest collaboration, is an excellent addition to their oeuvre that shows the two continuing to grow into some of their best work yet.

When Charlie Parrish, a struggling screenwriter in the fading days of Hollywood’s studio system, wakes up after an all-night bender to discover the leading actress of his current movie dead in the next room, his already chaotic life is completely shattered. The Fade Out looks like it should be a murder mystery but Brubaker and Phillips have very different goals with these comics than following the breadcrumbs to discover who killed the actress. While the death of the actress is the inciting incident into Charlie’s descent into paranoid madness, Brubaker and Phillips’ story could almost function perfectly without the hook of the murder as it really deals with the decaying studio system that existed during the time of the Communist scare in our entertainment industry.

But with that murder-mystery hook, Brubaker and Phillips are riffing on an older type of story. With more than just being set in the 1940s, Phillips’ artwork recalls a more classic age of comics-- the EC age. His usual ragged deep shadows give way to a clean and sharp line that could sit on the stands next to Wally Wood and Reed Crandall just as easily as it sits next to modern Image artists like Michael Lark or Gabriel Hardman. Phillips presents the drama of the situations through a lens inspired by the comics and film of the time period. His usually gritty, morally ambiguous line is replaced by a timeless one that succinctly reflects the time and the place that this story takes place in. Combined with Elizabeth Breitweiser’s luminous colors, the art creates a Hollywood of history and of dreams.

Brubaker’s writing hones in on the Los Angeles of the 1940s, with its aspirations but more importantly with its fears. Charlie Parrish is a man who has ultimately crafted his own troubles and being wrapped up in a murder mystery is only just a part of those troubles. Brubaker uses the murder to create a hook for his story but it’s maybe the least interesting part of the plot. Even Brubaker seems largely uninterested because he wraps it up tightly in the end almost only because he introduced it in the first issue. And while the murder is central to the events of The Fade Out, the story ends up being more about a writer, his blacklisted writing partner and the studio system (complete with its stars and starlets) that they work with.

Like the best Brubaker stories in Criminal, the characters in The Fade Out are defined by their mistakes and errors in judgments in their lives. Charlie is his often own worst enemy because his judgment is often colored by his feelings. He puts love and friendship ahead of his own welfare, which is a great character trait for him but often leads him down the wrong dark alleys of Hollywood. Brubaker shapes these great lead characters like Charlie who we worry about even as we understand the decisions that they’ve made that have led them into these dark situations.

The Fade Out shows just how versatile the partnership of Brubaker and Phillips is. While this series is easily in line with past works like Sleeper, Criminal, and Fatale, the creative team refuses to repeat themselves by only recreating their past work. The Fade Out builds off of the work the two have done but the character and the shape of the story feels completely new and fresh. This isn’t just Criminal set in 1940s Hollywood. The Fade Out stretches Brubaker and Phillips as artists and creators, giving them the space and canvas to explore new and unique stories.

(This article has been updated to correctly report that The Fade Out takes place in the 1940s and not the 1950s.)