The Fade Out is a comic about Hollywood, specifically that magical post-war late-1940s Hollywood that is so often romanticized. It’s one of America’s true mythic places, full of hard-drinking writers, bombshell girls (and the occasional bespectacled office assistant who turns out to be hotter than expected), dark secrets, serious PTSD and a relentless factory system of movie making where the actors are treated as chips on a high-stakes poker table. This is rich territory for any sort of art, and has been thoroughly explored in the works of everyone from Raymond Chandler to Hollywood itself, a community that specializes in making its own myths (and buying its own proverbial BS). The Fade Out doesn’t break new ground as much as revel in this richly textured world with its plots and counterplots, as the story grinds towards its suitably dark and introspective conclusion.
Written by Ed Brukbaker with art by Sean Phillips, The Fade Out is another great Image Comic nominated for Best Limited Series at this year’s Eisners. In a plot borrowed almost entirely from various bits and pieces of the genre (a movie stuck in re-shoots, an alcoholic writer with PTSD, and the mysterious murder of a starlet), we follow a cast of characters helpfully introduced with black and white “headshots” at the beginning of each issue. Chief among these is Charlie Parish, a struggling screenwriter whose experiences in World War II have left him essentially unable to write. Charlie adapts by turning to his friend Gil Mason, a veteran screenwriter who is not so blocked, but has, in fact, been blacklisted in an early example of the infamous Red Scare. Gil, a severe alcoholic (qualifiers are necessary because frankly all the characters in this book have what we would recognize today as substance abuse issues), writes material that Charlie types up and submits under his own name. The film they’re working on is derailed by the death of the leading lady halfway through filming, necessitating hiring a lookalike and performing reshoots. The director comes up with the idea of rewriting certain scenes, now that the opportunity has arisen, and thus Charlie (and his silent partner) must tackle writing under pressure and in the worst of circumstances. From there, the plot becomes entangled with double-crosses, jazz musicians, temptresses and all the usual twists one would expect from a noir narrative.
The key to understanding why The Fade Out is Eisner-nominated, it seems, is not to consider its originality but rather its absolute commitment to genre and setting. Every detail, from the brand of whiskey the characters drink, to the magazines they read, to the typewriters they use, to (of course) the clothes they wear (wow – women’s underwear was complicated back then) is lovingly rendered in panel after rich panel. Sean Phillips’ work is sheer perfection, all the way through the three TPB’s already available that tell the whole story. It’s absorbing to spend that much time in this world, and Brubaker’s knack for creating multi-dimensional characters (none of them are simple) and writing authentically 1940s dialogue, as well as appearances by real-life movie starts like Clark Gable, make it as diverting as a comic can get.
The Fade Out is also uncompromising. It makes no concessions to “ratings” or to sanding off the rough edges as many of the period novels (and certainly films) did. Characters get drunk and vomit. They deal with hangovers. They swear openly, as they surely would have in real life, and don’t use many of the euphemisms the G-rated movies we’ve all seen rely on. They are naked when the plot requires them to be, and we’re spared the unintentionally hilarious scenes of couples waking up from a night of sex fully made up and almost fully clothed (to name one example). We also get to see images from films themselves, some real and some fictional, projected through the haze of smoke that would have filled screening rooms in those days. Thus, Phillips gets the chance to draw Bogart and other legends of the silver screen (rendered out, appropriately enough, in shining silver) and add that layer of texture to an already thickly textured comic.
We’ve deliberately avoided reveal too many plot specifics here because this sort of story depends on the various turns of character and shifting allegiances that the players involve themselves in. And, ultimately, the plot isn’t as important as the attitude and the setting, and The Fade Out so thoroughly commits to its genre and its world, and the purity of that vision (there’s nothing referential and post-genre here like we sometimes find in Hellblazer or Ten Grand) is admirable. For fans of the period, and of the 1940s crime genre, it’s a thick slice of fun.