Posted by: Abhay Khosla on August 10, 2014
FATALE, a comic series by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser (published by Image Comics), wrapped up the other day. I’d enjoyed the first five issues well enough; then gotten busy at life during the next 5 and fell off; ended up catching up in trades before the last issue came out. Thought it’d be fun to chat about how it all wrapped up.
Spoiler Warning, but chitter-chatter under the jump.
So I just wanted to chat about it, now that it’s wrapped up. Just chat it up. When a well-regarded long-running series wraps up, there’s never as much “what did we all read and what did it all mean?” talk as I’d expect. Fans seem to prefer just to be in this mode of “Aaaah I appreciate this exists what next???” rather than to reflect on what the Whole of it amounted to for them.
Then, the next series comes out and it’s like, “By the comic book legends that made FATALE.” Or whatever. And I find it a little odd, that presumption of greatness when it’s a comic I haven’t seen people really engage with…? At least not the way comics used to be argued over when I was a kid, where it was normal to hear people with Boring Ass Opinions spout off about the end of WATCHMEN. “The end of Watchmen this, the end of Watchmen that. I am the most boring human being alive! GRRRRAAAWR.” Why isn’t anyone like that with FATALE? FATALE had octopus monsters, too! We’re all still boring people! What happened? Why did that go away?
So, right: the end of FATALE. Was everything “explained”? There’s always that nagging feeling with a mystery-driven series, that some key thing didn’t get explained. This manifested itself most famously after the finale of LOST– there was a video of “Unanswered Questions” that went around, highlighting for many people how little had been resolved (though I remember feeling that the video was often nit-picking things an attentive viewer could answer perfectly well for themselves).
I’m just not sure I’m really the best audience for mystery-driven series. I keep diving into them, mindlessly, but I just know with television shows, especially, shows where the action is driven by “watch this episode to find out what all the other episodes you’ve watched meant“… That model hasn’t worked out for me as a viewer so far. Not as much as shows driven by a more classical “this is a show about a character who is driven by urges x, y and z– watch his behavior when put under stresses a, b, and c” format.
If anything, I felt like a lot of time in FATALE was spent answering questions I didn’t really have. The book spent time near the end establishing that so-and-so was the son of a Native American shaman who we saw in issue such-and-such, in order to explain why Fatale Girl had male henchmen who weren’t beholden to her. This was very ornate, and just felt sort of unnecessary when earlier issues showed her with an old lady henchmen and it worked just fine, without undue explanation where that old lady had come from (at least that I remember). Plus: I just always get a little nervous around magical minority characters…
A lot of time got spent with the FATALE characters chasing around a mysterious book. But once we find out the significance of the mysterious book, well… It doesn’t make that story feel richer retroactively.
It’s the old problem: the answers can never be as satisfying as the mysteries. It’s a storytelling model that just has a certain amount of “oh okay, ho-hum” built into it.
So, plotwise, did you like it? Did you think it had a cool plot?
I think I was on board for the first 10 issues– I think the highpoint was definitely that Los Angeles arc. The cult, the actor addicted to heroin, Fatale Girl on her own hidden out in some mansion like a forgotten celebrity, the drug-abusing movie producer– there was a real liveliness and detail to that arc that I don’t think the book ever quite matched.
But after that arc, for me, the book started spinning its wheels a little, some of the air got out of that balloon.
Some of single issue stories in particular just didn’t feel very urgent. A story about a creepy guy having a ghost mom, or the Old West cowboy issue– some of those issues just felt like they had no point other than to make the scope of the book bigger…? Which isn’t nothing, but the Mystery of the book just didn’t feel interesting enough to justify it. “Here’s a lady controlling men in the Old West. Here’s a lady controlling men in medieval times. Here’s a lady controlling men at a K-Mart sale on toasters. Here’s a lady controlling men at a nose-picking competition.”
Her powers were creepy enough for 10 issues, but 20 issues? I’m not 100% sure. I think a repetition set in. The book could only present her powers as creepy and strange for so long– at a certain point, it became a little “This again?”
Plus: in a world where PREACHER already got made, maybe there was only so much juice with me to Involuntary Lady Preacher to begin with… I don’t know anyone would ever put “Patience with Comic Books” high on my list of virtues, even under the best of circumstances, though. I don’t think I can fool myself that I’m anyone’s Ideal Target Reader, at this point…
But this sounds too negative and I did quite enjoy that LA Arc– I was never bored by the rest. It was more a question of momentum, where I felt like when the last arc started, it became noticeable that it had regained a momentum that had gone missing.
Things reached a low point for me with the Seattle arc. The San Fran detective arc and the LA Hollywood Cult Crime arc both felt like worlds where Brubaker-Phillips were powered by a certain lust for the aesthetics. Those felt like worlds they really wanted to bring to life as creators. Whereas post-grunge era Seattle– it didn’t feel like they had the same romance for that time, not the same way.
Ed Brubaker’s mentioned in interviews having been there during that time, described that arc as a “bit like going home” and I think maybe that created a very different dynamic– a different feeling to things underneath the surface action…? It just didn’t feel like there was an equivalent playfulness as what was present for the LA arc– and it’s weird because that Seattle arc, the “woman who ruins a band” manifestation of the femme fatale, should have really worked well, maybe better than the rest of it. On paper, that’s really great stuff to play with thematically.
I don’t know; I just didn’t love the Seattle stretch. One of my favorite movies is a documentary called HYPE! which is about what the mainstream media’s “discovery” of grunge, and how that ruined the Seattle music scene. And it’s got, you know, the Fastbacks and Tad and all these bands talking about how everything changed once the money became an issue, once people started thinking about money. It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot since, just watching what’s happened in comics in the last 10 years. And so that may just be that I have a very, very particular set of interests about that particular era (as an outsider, as someone who didn’t live in Seattle) that fucked up my ability to appreciate what they were aiming for. Or that might be the arc where Brubaker’s interests in the time period just most sharply diverged from my own….?
(Plus: the grunge section of Peter Bagge’s HATE, where it’s about managing the rock band– that’s tough competition for me. That’s my favorite part of Peter Bagge’s HATE, the first part I think about whenever that book comes up… Well, the second part– the first part is when Buddy has sex with the girl in the hospital bed, for some goddamn reason… But that’s a strong second place…)
Thematically, I’d say the book’s … interesting, with some caveats…?
Uhm, it’s about different kinds of dysfunctional artists– writers, filmmakers, musicians– and how these femme fatales emerge at their darkest moments– how that archetype is all about the self-destructive lives of men getting projected onto women, how women get wrongly blamed for the dysfunctions of these broken, shitty men (regardless of the women’s actual inner lives).
This thematic exploration culminates in kind of an interesting way, too, which is that the true origin of Fatale Girl (if you look past the contortions of the plot, the cult sacrifice nonsense) is a boy’s shame at his own incestuous feelings towards his mother…? I found it interesting, the book embracing that kind of imagery.
I enjoyed what it had to say about the femme fatale. I just had a harder time, though, with how it presented the femme fatale idea, to begin with.
For example, I think that’s where the Seattle music arc should’ve worked better for me because “some woman broke up the band” is such a classic and obviously sexist story. People blamed Yoko Ono for a LOT of shit that wasn’t her fault, which was just silly– the Beatles split up because of the Beatles. John Lennon beat women– people just don’t like to talk about that. And people still tell those kinds of “Temptress” stories– you know, if you remember how people used to talk about Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, back when all that happened. People blame women for things that men decided to do, all the time.
Did Fatale interrogate any of that in a meaty way? The actual “here is the horrible shit that people actually do” of it all…? Well. I’m not sure…
Yes, it’s saying “stories about femme fatales are a way of men blaming women for the bad things in them, their own anxieties about lacking any control over their sexual desires, etc.” All of which I think is an interesting topic to discuss. But because the stories were wrapped in these supernatural genre adventures, I don’t know that the specific examples we saw in the book are as interesting as the specific examples we could talk about just from the life happening around us…? Because it’s a crime-horror hybrid, it made FATALE feel more like a comic discussing genre tropes (especially with its recurring focus on the femme fatale myth slamming into frustrated artists), more engaged in a sort of literary criticism, than talking about how men & women tell stories about each other in, like, society…? I felt encouraged to think more about the Wild West than, you know, life…
(Here, again, the value of single-issue stories was a little confusing. On a purely genre level, I’m not sure how prevalent the femme fatale character has been outside the crime genre. I associate that character with old crime movies– but cowboy movies? Medieval fairy tales? Haunted house stories? I’m not an expert on any of those things, not by any means, but all of them seemed like strange areas to explore the femme fatale character in. I’m not a huge cowboy movie fan, and the ones I do like… It’s hard to remember that character having been an especially prominent part of them. (Am I forgetting a good one?). The issue that flirts with Anthony Perkins PSYCHO is the most successful, having at its core another weird boy-mom relationship, but that resolved itself to be a haunted house story and I just don’t associate femme fatales with haunted house stories. So I’m not sure I ever felt like I understood that choice completely…)
Plus, even though I liked the LA arc, I was kind of mystified how the femme fatale idea tied in to the Manson murders or that post-hippie cult-anxiety era of LA crime. Yeah, there were all those women in the Manson Family, but… do people think of them as “femme fatales”? The word I’ve always heard associated with the Manson Family is “svengali” which is sort of a different thing (and I think referenced to some degree in the LA arc itself with how the occult asshole is presented). I think that stretch worked in a fun way as a cult-horror / cult-crime crossover, but thematically, I found that confusing about it…
But: an interesting thing to think about, that sort of recurring Evil Sex Woman character in tabloid history. I suppose FATALE at least brought up an interesting topic… And there is something to be said for talking about the sort of real life anxieties I’m referencing through a fantasy lens, I suppose. Maybe for many readers, that distance between subject matter and their area of interest probably wouldn’t pose much of a problem…
What made everything a bit weird with FATALE is that usually the femme fatale is an interesting character. Actresses got to play something besides Supportive Girlfriend! But here, Fatale Girl character never really, for me, became very interesting because she’s always kept at arm’s length. We usually see her from the point-of-view of the different male narrators, which limits finding much about her very interesting separate from the plot mechanics of the moment, separate from the bigger Mystery Story going on.
This culminated in the thing I felt the most confusion about which is the series’ ending.
The ending is that Fatale Girl engineers her escape. But her escape is that instead of manipulating men to their doom for the benefit of Evil Patriarchal Demon People, she engineers men to their doom on her own behalf.
But because the story’s being presented through the POV of various male characters… how much agency can we say that Fatale Girl is given at the end?
Yes, she’s arguably gained “control” over her sexuality, however temporarily. But if it’s still bad men doing things to worse men, the same story we’ve seen play out about 5 or 50 times by that point in the book, how much of an improvement is the Win Scenario to what we’ve seen before?
Isn’t it at some level being communicated that Men are the true actors in various scenarios, that true results are yielded by Men?
Why does the happy ending still involve men doing all the saving? Is it enough for you that men are doing all the saving but there’s a caption box next to the Man-Saving saying “it was her idea”…?
Plus: Fatale Girl learns how to save the day not on her own accord or through her own ingenuity, but through her friend and psuedo-butler, some Old White Guy. Some Old White Guy has the ability to read mystic books, i.e. Fatale Girl wins the day thanks to ancient wisdoms that are shown as being the sole and exclusive possession of and apparently residing in, uh, old white guys (???)(is it better if the old white guy is the descendant of magical minorities? Uh, not for me).
Why didn’t Fatale Girl discover how to save herself? Why did Fatale Girl need an Old White Guy, if the book is about Fatale Girl attaining a sexual autonomy from Old White Guys? Doesn’t that suggest that sexual autonomy is theirs to give and not hers to claim? Or am I just overstating the role of the friendly Old White Guy at the end?
EDITED TO ADD: There’s the super-obvious reading I should mention– that it’s about a woman being a character in the stories these men author for themselves, and at the end it’s about her wresting authorship away from them– she “steals their book”, tells her own story finally to the writer, and in becoming an author herself is able to feed her would-be other authors to the hungry evil audience instead of her. And the book ends with her ‘freed of male narratives.’ That’s the most obvious reading, of what goes on, I suppose, but also just seems… I don’t think it really resolves what makes that ending so odd for me at least because it glosses over the “She learns to be an author thanks to a helpful male librarian” part or the “But she writes a story about having men save her” part that makes things just… just a little more weird, I think. Maybe for other readers, that just wasn’t a big deal though.
The finale is preceded by a stretch where we’re told that the Fatale Girl character has revealed her weaknesses to Boring Doomed Man and thus become a “real person” to the Boring Doomed Man.
This happens while Fatale Girl and Boring Doomed Man are fucking.
After that, Fatale Girl wins and saves the day, and finally has attained a victory. After which, she’s transformed into a withered crone and the reader is explicitly shown that men no longer sexually desire her. In other words, FATALE posits victory for Fatale Girl not as a permanent sexual autonomy but as an utter loss of sexual appeal…? Huh?
— It felt weird that the book doesn’t end with Fatale Girl still in control over her sexuality, after having fought to attain that control.
— It felt weird that the book’s happy ending was her becoming safe only once she lost her sexual appeal altogether.
— It felt weird that Fatale Girl only could gain control over her sexuality by taking off her clothes and giving her vagina over to the boring-ass boring, super-boring white male main character.
I just found the end of FATALE fucking confusing thematically, confusing as to how I should receive any of this. Or at least… I just thought FATALE ended much darker than I expected. Because the idea of “loss of sexual appeal as the only possible victory” struck me as very cynical. That loss of appeal is preceded by an elaborate fairy tale sequence in which fairy tale creatures discuss how evil (the evil of the patriarchy) can’t ever be truly defeated. Which… wait, what??
One of the last comics I talked about, Beautiful Darkness, and talked about glowingly was itself an exceedingly cynical book where it came to human nature. And so maybe I’m being hypocritical. But Beautiful Darkness was cynical about features of human nature that feel timeless– our greed, our cruelty, our capacity to pick on outsiders, our capacity for violence.
Whereas FATALE feels cynical about stuff that … I want to believe (maybe naively!) isn’t quite so set in stone. The book sort of just throws its hands in the air and goes “Welp, that’s just how it is”– but about men terrorizing women. Which… is an area of humanity where you can see some amount of progress or at least changes in attitude over time– not as much as we would like certainly, but some.
(Sure, things may not have improved *throughout the world*, some parts of the planet are still quite backwards. And look, all human progress is tenuous– the economy goes one way, human health goes another and fuck it, anything goes, right? But FATALE feels cynical even within those parameters).
By equating patriarchal violence towards women as an unkillable monster outside of space and time, how much does that obviate our responsibility to actually, uh, think about it or you know, ask that people not be so shitty about things?
Granted, it’s a horror comic so the ending maybe is appropriate to the genre. I don’t think a happy ending would’ve worked for FATALE, of course. But when I ask myself whether women being horribly mistreated is some unfixable thing… I don’t know, man. That just seems kind of fucking extreme.
This sort of cynicism feels very par for the course for comics. It’s an industry that just threw its hands up for years and said “Well, women just don’t want to read comics.” We all used to hear that all the fucking time! All the time! Do you even think about how much we used to hear that? It was CRAZY! And even now, it’s an industry that throws its hands up in the air and says “well, we’d love to hire more women but there aren’t enough that are ready for the Big Leagues. Ooooooh, the BIG LEAGUES.”
And not just where it comes to minorities– I feel like a lot of comics operate in this mode of “Well, this is how it is, and there’s no changing it”, on a host of topics.
It’s all sort of a fucking bummer, man.
But maybe that’s a lot to lay on FATALE’s doorstep. Like I mentioned above, you know, it’s a horror comic. I just don’t know. I just thought that ending was super fucking weird. What’d you make of it? I couldn’t fucking get my head around it.
I don’t really have a lot in my tank to say about the art…? They try things that I don’t feel like I’ve seen them do– most notably a PROMETHEA-ish stretch near the end. But… I can’t say I was hugely impressed with results in that stretch– their version of PROMETHEA is just drawing naked bodies on top of Hubble photos or some shit…? Uhhhhh. But they at least try things I haven’t seen from them.
Uhm, I think the colors were more fun than in earlier projects, a little more adventurous there– Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are usually just an A+ for me. But I don’t think I really have the words to articulate what she’s doing that makes it so much better– I don’t know how to talk color temperatures or whatever. It’s more just a gut thing…
I think the interesting thing for me about FATALE from an art perspective, more than anything, is how they made no effort to present Fatale Girl as anything all that special. She just looked like some regular ol’ Sean-Phillips-drawn girl. She was drawn a little more attractive than the other ladies in the book perhaps– but certainly not considerably more attractive. Not “throw away your life” attractive. There was no color cues or anything else marking her as otherworldly.
But I can’t imagine any way of presenting that which wouldn’t have been cheese-ball or inconsistent with the visual universes they tend to create. Plus, I also don’t know that it’s something the book suffered from, necessarily, not finding some way to distinguish her. It’s hard to imagine a solution that wouldn’t have just been … just cheesy. Or that wouldn’t have undercut their efforts to give that character an inner life. Or that wouldn’t have had some unintended meaning at a certain point– you probably can’t put a glowing-ass white lady in a comic and not have it get fucking weird after a while…
So, I don’t know…
Was there any part that really struck you, in how they approached things visually? Or where you thought they broke from how they usually approach things especially successfully?
Let’s wrap this up with a big picture question: If FATALE is some kind of big deal– and I think there’s a certain segment of comics that wants to believe that’s true or have pretended that’s true– what are some things we hope other cartoonist and comic creators learn from it? What are the big take-aways for the Young People?
I think a big one for me is how having a comic set in a specific time and specific place adds something. Even if I had a contentious relationship with the book’s presentation of 90’s Seattle, I got a big enough charge out of the arc set in 70’s LA that I think in the final calculation, it’s worth advocating for. If I remember FATALE two years from now, within two years, what I’m going to remember about that comic is the stretch in 70’s LA. That’s going to be that book for me.
The book was never super-specific with its references– it never felt like it was flinging information from Google at the reader about 70’s Los Angeles. But I think just letting the reader fill in the gutters of the pages with what they themselves know about that time and place was a smart move, added something to the experience.
So I think there’s a teachable lesson there.
From a negative perspective, I think younger creators could learn from FATALE how … FATALE’s an interesting case of more issues not necessarily adding up to a better book.
It’s hard to say exactly how or what they should’ve cut but … But I think it’s a possibly educational book to look at if you want to think about the cost-benefit between fleshing out minor details and preserving momentum. I get the sense from glancing at FATALE fan-talk online that more hard-core fans were really into finding out how the Native American guy was kissing cousins with so-and-so’s accountants, and the lineage of all the horses, and whatever else. But me, I think I’d have dug that book more had it gotten to the finale quicker…
That may not line up with the economics, though. The economics may be that with a series received as well as FATALE and as enthusiastically as FATALE was, it may have been better for them that they have those extra trades out there for sale.
But from a momentum perspective, I think there was a cost that younger creators would want to consider and judge for themselves.
Sometimes interesting comic, sometimes dull; not a comic experience I regret by any means, but not one I thought was perfect by any means.
An ending I definitely feel very confused about, but at least not for plot reasons I don’t think (though I don’t really know why the grunge guy was there at the end– no idea what he added) but confused more because… because the book was attempting to discuss themes of a certain… of a loaded nature– these aren’t easy themes to discuss, and so, you know, I don’t feel any great upset at the points I’m confused by (and feel like it’s probably pretty open to other, more amicable readings– or perhaps answers to my question would be resolved by appreciating some details I failed to consider). At least a comic with something of some interest on its mind as it turns out, but maybe felt a little muddled in its presentation.
Another book that presents a sort of visual universe that … You know, right this second, I just listened to that Rob Liefeld Inkstuds interview podcast this weekend so I feel myself really wanting to look at loud, crazy action comics. But if you prefer to look at comics as a delivery system for visual aesthetics (as opposed to purely narrative experiences), it’s another Brubaker-Phillips work that presents a visual universe that … I think I find pretty appealing and respectable and coherent, even if occasionally or at the moment, I find myself longing for a certain comics vulgarity that would not work in their aesthetic universe. More successful visually as a crime comic than a horror comic, but…
Yeah, I don’t know. Positive feelings, mixed feelings, I’m all over the map with it, I guess. But a series people spent years working on and crafting, so… you know, worth at least a moment to think about.