“They were two broken-down writers…running on desperation and booze…and they’d written their story wrong. It was full of holes and maybes…and they’d gotten lost inside it.” -from The Fade Out #11
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Image Comics series The Fade Out concludes this week with #12 – a finale that wasn’t announced until the Hollywood mystery was almost complete. The Eisner-nominated tale of a starlet’s murder and the drunken screenwriter pursuing the case in 1948 Los Angeles has been the biggest hit yet for the creative team behind such books as Criminal, Sleeper, Incognito, and Fatale.
Newsarama spoke with Brubaker and Phillips (colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser was unable to participate due to deadlines) to talk about the series – from its initial inspirations to its deadly final chapter. Fair warning – there are SPOILERS for the entire series in this two-part interview. Read on, if you dare…
Newsrama: Ed, Sean – the first question I like to ask whenever a series ends – how does it feel to have this finished?
Ed Brubaker: Well, I agonized over every page in what finally ended up as a double-sized final issue, so I was both relieved and a bit depressed to be finished with it.
I'm always a bit depressed to finish any story, and anxious to get onto the next one. But I think I'm as happy with and proud of The Fade Out as I am with anything we've ever done. And I think it's probably the best art that Sean and Bettie have done so far in their careers.
I knew taking on a story this big and sprawling and complex was going to be a tough challenge, but I had no idea how much fun I'd have writing it at the same time.
My main wish now is that people will go back and read it over from the beginning, because there are a lot of little details and background storylines that the reader has to piece together on their own to get the full experience out of the book. And there are moments that will resonate more on a second reading, I hope.
I try with all our books to create stories that reward repeated reading, but The Fade Out is probably the most layered one yet. There's no extraneous detail that isn't part of the larger story arcs of these characters in some way.
Phillips: It's always bittersweet. By the end of a project I'm just starting to feel I've got the hang of it, but then it's time to stop and start over again!
It doesn't usually feel like the end though, Ed and I usually just go straight into the next project. This time, I've taken a couple of weeks off before starting on our next book, and it feels like I haven't drawn for ages. I've got the script for the next book though, and I'm gradually easing myself into that.
Nrama: The book sold exceptionally well, but there was a bit of a reaction to the “unannounced” ending. Were you surprised by this reaction, and why did you not say this would be 12 issues from the beginning?
Phillips: Our books are closer to novels than never-ending soap operas. We have a rough idea of their lengths but we don't let that stop us going long if we need to.
I had a few surprised fans at cons, but most of them know now that we just carry on doing our thing and most months there's a new Brubaker/Phillips/Breitweiser comic coming out.
Brubaker: I didn't really see much of a reaction. I think I had a few people ask why we were ending it on Twitter, or worried that we were ending it early, which wasn't the case at all.
I didn't say how long it would be when we launched because I didn't know. I decided during Fatale that every project we do is just an ongoing until it reaches its end, instead of picking an arbitrary number of issues ahead of time. All our books are basically serialized graphic novels, anyway, and you can't dictate ahead of time how many pages a story will need.
And so yeah, The Fade Out was our best-selling book so far, but that doesn't mean we're just going to keep it going because it sells. I think at this point in our career as a team, Sean and I have a readership that is following us from project to project, but it also appears to grow with each new project, too.
Which is something I'm very thankful for. Our readers expect us to tell the story we're telling and then do something different. That was one of the main points of our five-year deal at Image... not five years of one book, but five years of a different projects. Experimenting and trying new things.
Nrama: Let's talk about the origins of The Fade Out. Ed, you've discussed your family background in screenwriting. Beyond a period noir, what did you want to say with this story?
Brubaker: For me, it was about exploring that world at that time, and creating that cast of characters. I've always had a big attachment to it because of my uncle's experiences as a noir screenwriter back then, and I thought it was just a fascinating time and place, and that it reflects a lot of what's going on in the world today.
You could easily see the studio system getting reinstated today with all the media consolidation that's happened over the past twenty years, and we're always on the verge of some kind of political hysteria now.
Nrama: Sean, what kind of visual research did you have to do to capture this period? How familiar were you with the look and feel of 1948 Los Angeles, beyond what you'd seen in movies?
Phillips: All of the U.S. in any time period is unfamiliar to me outside the confines of a comic con!
Having this set in 1948 didn't make it much more difficult than a contemporary setting would have. We had a lot of help from Amy Condit, who supplied a lot of period photos, but I also had to find a lot of reference myself – mostly Google and books of old photos.
As I do with all our projects, I bought a stack of movies on DVD I thought might be useful, and didn't get round to watching any of them...
Nrama: What surprised me the most about this story was that it was how much it was about friendship and loyalty in the end, albeit in a very twisted way.
Charlie and Gil have this strange loyalty to each other, even when it's clear they drag each other down. Charlie and Gil are both loyal to the memory of Val, and in the end, it turns out Val might have been loyal to both of them, for reasons Charlie can't bring himself to understand.
There's other examples, but it's that twisted friendship between Gil and Charlie that forms the emotional spine of this story.
I'm curious about how this relationship was developed in the storyline -- it draws in some ways from that whole “The Front” storyline with the Blacklist era, but it's more complex than that. What were some of the historical or fictional inspirations for that relationship, and what was most intriguing to you about exploring it?
Brubaker: Hmmmm... I'm not sure. The entire story started with the idea of a writer with PTSD who can't write, who fronts for his blacklisted best friend. These guys had high aspirations to be artists and now they're writing whatever crap the cheapest studio in town tells them to, just to survive.
The whole story springs from that idea - the collaborators, one who won't name names, and one who does, but only to provide cover for their secret.
I'm not sure it was influenced by anything, in specific, other than friendships I've had over the years. I mean, certainly the idea of the crazy friend and his friend trying to keep him out of trouble goes all the way back to Don Quixote, which is referenced in chapter five of the book.
One of the things I liked most about doing this as one long serialized novel was how much more time and space it allowed us to explore Gil and Charlie's history and the true depth of their friendship. There's a line in Double Indemnity about how when people cross a line together, commit a crime together, they're bound together after that, and I think in some long-term friendships, you can find the same thing.
On Thursday, the conversation continues as Brubaker and Phillips talk about The Fade Out’s mystery, influences…and the possibility of a sequel.