By Taylor Pechter — Hollywood is one of the touchstones not just of cinema, but of all of American Culture. And while we might know more than we ever have about what happens there today thanks to constant coverage in the lead-up to big blockbusters, that was not the case during the Golden Age of Cinema. The 12-issue Image Comics series The Fade Out chronicles a search for truth in Hollywood after a young starlet is found dead in a screenwriter’s apartment following a wild night.
This comic— from the all-time-great creative team of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser — asks, how far will our protagonist go to find the truth? Will it be at the cost of his friends and collogues? And what role does the studio have in covering up the murder? This series asks all of this, and more, and it does so by giving us a series of rich characters.
It’s these characters I would like to discuss in detail in this piece today.
The Fade Out: Charlie Parish and Gil Mason
The year is 1948. Charlie Parish is a screenwriter for a noir movie that is in constant reshoots. One morning, he wakes up to find lead actress Valeria Sommers dead of unforeseen circumstances. To make things worse, he is covering for his friend, Gil Mason, who is blacklisted and accused of being a communist. As the conspiracy unravels, Charlie’s determination to find the truth comes at the cost of not only his friends and his job, but also his psyche.
Charlie suffers from post-traumatic stress as a result of fighting in WWII. While he does have visions of the war, his principal memories are those of a woman named Valeria. It is with this that Brubaker provides the lynchpin of Charlie’s arc throughout the series. In many issues he has ghostly visions of Valeria, a spirit that is haunting him. His guilt over her loss drives his quest. He knows it is difficult to forget the past and look forward to tomorrow, no matter how hard he tries.
Within Charlie’s arc, two other characters are integral: his friend and colleague Gil Mason and Valeria’s stand-in in his life, Maya Silver. Blacklisted Gil helps Charlie ghost-write some of his screenplays. Being blacklisted means he does not get hired for jobs of his own. This, combined with the fact that he is often drunk and has a hair trigger temper, causes strain with his wife Melba. In a consequential plot point, after a long night of drinking and lashing out at Charlie, Gil is brought home and passes out on the couch. It is at this moment that Melba starts to come onto Charlie, and they eventually have sex. Waking up in the middle of the act, Gil witnesses his best friend making love to his wife. While this causes further strain between him and Charlie, he is still loyal to his quest, to the point of his death.
The Fade Out: Maya Silver
Next is Maya Silver, also referred to in the story as the replacement blonde. Much like the Valeria Charlie pines for, Maya is a young, platinum-haired starlet, who becomes embroiled in this mystery even though she does not want to. As a part of the studio machine, Maya becomes an object for publicity and is put into a relationship with former child star, Tyler Graves. Behind the curtain, however, she becomes deeply connected to Charlie, even to the point of them moving into a beach house together. Consequently, with her strong resemblance to the person she replaced, she often reminds Charlie of her, triggering his PTSD.
The Fade Out: The Studio Leaders and Employees
Last, we come to the studio executives and related persons. While there is no straight antagonist in this story, the studio and its security chief Phil Brodsky are looming figures throughout the book. Brodsky is large and intimidating. Built like a brick house, he is the foil to Charlie as he tries to cover up the truth of Valeria’s death. With this aspect of the story, Brubaker not only explores the corruption of the studio system but also the importance of Hollywood stars back in that age. The corruption here mainly has to do with conspiracy and cover-ups. The studio tries to cover up Valeria’s death as a suicide, even though it was murder. Brodsky is the fist of the studio, doing the executives bidding and covering up the blame.
As for star power, Valeria along with male lead, Earl Rath, were the selling points of the movie being made in this book. The director, Franz Schmidt, had a fondness for Valeria. When she was replaced by Maya, this fondness was lost. He felt that a part of the film was missing, and that no one could replace Valeria, even to the point of superimposing Valeria’s scenes over Maya’s. In the end, Brodsky and Charlie have a heart to heart as he spills the beans about how Valeria’s murder supposedly went down. While Charlie does not fully forgive Brodsky, it is a nice quiet scene and a fitting end to an intense series.
The Fade Out: In Conclusion
As usual, the art by Brubaker’s frequent collaborator Sean Phillips is masterful. While the layouts themselves are nothing fancy, the linework here is very deliberate. The pacing and storytelling structure of the art is second to none. What Phillips is the best at, however, is facial expressions and body language. There is so much emotion oozing out of every panel, whether it is Charlies rummaging through files in a dark office, Franz Schmidt longingly watching his final cut of the film with Valeria, or Gil’s constant frown and slouching. Added to that are the Breitweiser’s hues. She drenches most of the book in deep blues and stark reds, which add a foreboding layer to the story. This is in great contrast to the beach house scenes with warm oranges that add calmness.
In the end, The Fade Out is one of this duo’s most ambitious works. Not only does it have the trademark storytelling that they are known for, it is also a great look at another medium, at its trials and tribulations in times of crisis. It is a great story about the price of truth, the cruelness of guilt, and the fear of corruption. The Fade Out is not only a must read for comics enthusiasts but also for film history buffs. That said — cut, it’s a wrap.
Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.