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The last few issues of The Fade Out, from writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, have been delving a little more into the mystery surrounding the death of Val Sommers. As the story in The Fade Out #8 rolls out, screenwriter Charlie Parrish, who thinks he was somehow involved in Val’s death but can’t remember much, gets some answers about that night. They only lead to more questions, though, as Brubaker and Phillips deepen and complicate the mystery of Val’s death.
The crux of The Fade Out #8 occurs in two parts, both related to Charlie. First, he spends some time with screenwriting partner Gil Mason and his wife, Melba. She comments that Gil has seemed happier lately and Charlie thinks at first that it has something to do with him until he later realizes that Gil has been anonymously threatening studio head Victor Thursby about his connection to Val’s death. Charlie also finds Tina, a girl who remembers more about the night of the murder, and she reveals that Charlie’s friend and Hollywood mega-star Earl Rath was also with them, even though Earl has not mentioned this since.
In the past, it has seemed that Brubaker and Phillips were more interested in the mysteriousness of Val’s death than the actual mystery. In other words, the why rather than the who and the how. In The Fade Out #8, they are clearly playing with mystery conventions, offering clues that reveal new information though that info is often more confusing than elucidating. Charlie figures out the note that he found in his pocket during issue 7 – one that he thought was left by producer Drake Miller – and it does give him more info about that night. This would seem to indicate that Rath is hiding something, but what? Rath always seems like a unserious playboy, but has his acting extended into his life? How wide is the “conspiracy” surrounding Val’s murder and why did it happen?
All of these questions and answers that aren’t answers might frustrate readers who like their mysteries clever and quick. The Fade Out is telling that kind of story, though. It’s more noir than mystery (though noir usually has a mystery at its core). As I mentioned in my review of issue 7, Charlie has some serious PTSD and that may possibly figure into his memory loss from that night. Charlie’s trauma from the war (WWII) has only been treated with booze, and his quest to figure out what happen to Val and how he was involved seems like his only way of dealing with the shock of the murder.
I think Sean Phillips excels when he is given interesting things to draw in the story. The monsters and rock scenes in Fatale are one example and the old Hollywood scenery in The Fade Out is another. While issue 7 was mostly about a romantic weekend, in The Fade Out #8 Phillips gets a lot of fun panels because it’s Halloween, so we have Halloween costumes from film industry people in the 1940s. Phillips also does well at party scenes, so seeing Rath in a domino mask surroundied by a bevy of young ladies in matching sequin cat outfits seems right on target.
There is a fine line between a comic book parsing out clues discreetly and hoarding the clues to the point that readers get annoyed and stop caring. For the most part, I think Brubaker and Phillips have been on the right side of the ledger with The Fade Out. I do hope that if the story is going to focus more on the actual “how” of Val’s death that it does move things along more quickly. I don’t think that element is the most interesting thing about this series, and I think the aftermath of Charlie figuring out the details of Val’s death could be even better than the mystery itself.