Best Shots Extra: FATALE #1 and DEFENDERS #2 - Reviewed!

Brubaker & Phillips Talk FATALE

 

Fatale #1

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Sean Phillips and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Sean Phillips

Published by Image Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

For one specific scene, it’s hard not to think of Alfred Hitchcock during Fatale #1 — maybe it’s because North By Northwest is so ingrained into my brain, and the scene of Cary Grant being chased down by a biplane is just one of those classic movie images. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock in Fatale #1 as Jo, our femme fatale, speeds down a coastline road with a plane trying to chop off her and Nicolas Lash’s heads with its propeller. The scene recalls old, classic Hollywood where the dames were dames and the men were in trouble because of those dames. There’s something different happening with the storytelling in Fatale #1 compared to the creative duo’s most recent work together. The storytelling in Fatale #1 owes more to old black-and-white movies than the neo-noir Criminal ever did. But just as you think you have this story figured out, Brubaker and Phillips throw in the little hidden details that will make your realize that this is a much larger story than anything in those old movies.

The issue opens with a funeral for Lash's godfather Dominic Raines, a fairly successful (if not necessarily good) novelist back in his day. Noticing the odd symbols on his godfather’s gravestone, a woman named Jo introduces herself and explains that they are made-up symbols that her grandmother had created with Dominic. They were on her gravestone as well, she claims. It’s a chance encounter at a funeral that can only happen in stories like this. That night, Nicolas discovers a manuscript for a novel that may be his godfather’s first novel, left unpublished since 1957. Before he can begin reading the book, gunmen pull up to his house and so begins Nicolas Lash’s wild ride, as Jo comes to his rescue but ultimately can’t protect him. Days later, he wakes up in a hospital, barely surviving an collision with the aforementioned plane, and begins to read his godfather’s novel, which features a woman named Josephine and a reporter named Raines.

Brubaker seems to be having fun with metafiction lately. The last Criminal storyline, The Last of the Innocent, was as much about Archie comics and nostalgia as it was about the murder of a cheating wife. Even the second Incognito book dipped its pages into a bit of metatextual navel-gazing as the story and Sean Phillips artwork did everything it could to call back to Sleeper, their first major project together. In Fatale #1, the book is broken into two halves, Nicolas’ story and Dominic’s story. The question remain though how much of Dominic’s story is fiction, and how much of it is as real as the accident that landed Nicolas in the hospital? Brubaker bounces names, faces and mysteries off of both halves of the book to keep you guessing and trying to figure out how everything is connected.

There’s the mystery of Jo and Josephine, the two mysterious women in both halves of this book but there’s even a bigger mystery that Brubaker and Phillips only hint at. Hidden on one page, there’s a squid-headed Nazi telling us that this is more than a simple crime story. We’re talking literally squid-headed here, with tentacles on his face and everything. And big, sharp teeth. Don’t forget the big, sharp teeth. This issue is played fairly straight and you could see it being some noirish mystery, spanning families and generations but Brubaker and Phillips appear to have something more fantastical in mind that that for this series. This issue tells us what to expect, but so discreetly that you may just miss it.

Phillips' art takes a nearly imperceptible shift away from his usual Criminal work. He’s embracing his inner classic EC artist as he’s able to draw a comic not as grounded in our reality as Criminal has to be. Fatale #1 is more suggestive than anything we’ve seen him draw lately. The storytelling and pacing in Criminal and Incognito was all about building suspense in the moment of the panel. Playing with very familiar genres, Brubaker and Phillips don’t have to do a lot of world building in either of those series. Those worlds (superheroes and neo-noir) are practically pre-built in our imaginations nowadays. With Fatale #1, they almost have to take a step back and show the reader how to read it. The suspense in this issue is built not through our expectations of the story, but through the panel-to-panel pacing and the story elements that happen in the shadows.

You can almost see this as an old black-and-white movie, maybe even as one of the earlier Hitchcock films made somewhere in the late '40s. Phillips draws Josephine at times with a soft focus, reducing her face to a few classical lines. At other times, she’s a woman of the shadows. She is soft, deadly, sad and dangerous all rolled into a mystery. Raines and Nicolas are both strikingly handsome men who get lost in the eyes of women they barely know. The novel that connects the past and the present is a puzzle piece that Brubaker and Phillips are waiting for us to solve. It’s the MacGuffin that Hitchcock made so famous in his stories.

Fatale #1 isn’t about the grift or the con or the double cross. Unlike their recent outings, Brubaker and Phillips aren’t setting up a story where you know that anything can go wrong in any given panel. This issue opens with a funeral and a mysterious encounter with a mysterious woman talking about unknown symbols on a gravestone. You quickly get the idea that something has already gone bad and that you’re already scrambling to save someone’s soul. This is not a story about life or death; it’s a story about salvation. You know from the start that everything has been shot to hell and know the characters are scrambling to make sure it doesn’t get worse. The different stakes in this issue leads to a different kind of storytelling from Brubaker and Phillips. They keep you guessing throughout this book, trying to figure out what they are doing and where the characters are going.

 

Defenders #2

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, and Sonia Oback

Letters by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 7/10

There's a lot to love about Matt Fraction's Defenders. There's a great cast, an otherworldly plot, a top-notch art team, and the thrill of seeing a classic team (or un-team) reunited. For some reason, however, something isn't quite gelling with this title. The overwrought narration through much of the books first half detracts from one of Fraction's main selling points; his characterization. There's little room for the characters to breathe when all the information in the story is being conveyed by text boxes that, while readable, and thankfully concise, aren't very entertaining or interesting. When the book finally moves past this element, things get better. A lot better. There's a lot of potential for this title; it's just not being tapped as yet.

The main thing that holds Defenders #2 together is the strength of its dedication to delivering the "Defenders" experience, right down to the notes in the bottom gutters of the pages. This title is a throwback, meant to invoke the days when comics were fast-paced, larger than life, and meant for entertainment above all else. That's not to say there isn't substance here, but Defenders seems to care more for thrills than intimate moments. While that's certainly one of its strengths — the term "bang for your buck" comes to mind — there's something to be said about the book's lack of personality versus the breadth of it's breakneck action pace. It's ironic, given the metaphysical nature of the conflicts they often face, but the Defenders would benefit most from a little balance: a little more yin to the yang. A scene in which Dr. Strange somehow terrifies Red She-Hulk into becoming Betty Ross is a welcome bit of character interplay, and the title would do well to showcase more moments like this, of the characters interacting.

As opposed to Matt Fraction's spotty script, Terry and Rachel Dodson's art is nearly pitch-perfect, carrying a sense of fun while maintaining the gravitas that the world-threatening central conceit of the story is meant to convey. I have often heard the criticism that Terry Dodson's characters tend to look very similar, but, perhaps due to the unique features of each character's design, the titular team all carry more personality in their appearance than is given in their dialogue. Sonia Oback's colors are the perfect compliment to the line work, at once subtle and stunning. Oback balances the bright, spandex world of superheroes with a bit of a subdued palette, bringing the team to life in a very realized way, without sacrificing the four-color nature of the story.

As of right now, I can't say that this book is a must read. It's definitely got a great recipe for success; there's a lot of Grant Morrison's JLA in the mix, as veteran teammates are thrown together with new blood additions to face increasingly bizarre and supernatural threats. The art of the Dodsons and Sonia Oback is compelling and engaging. There's something still lacking, though, and it seems to be personality. There's enough quirk to beat the band, but not enough characterization to draw the reader back down to earth amidst the talk of world-destroying spirits, alternate universes, and "conception engines." The thing that brought Matt Fraction to the top of Marvel's heap is his ability to balance big action scenes and intimate character moments. The sooner he starts hitting that stride with Defenders, the better. 

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