Books

A Comic Draws on the Dark Side of Hollywood’s Golden Age

'The Fade Out,' first issue variant cover (image via howtolovecomics.com)
‘The Fade Out,’ first issue variant cover (image via howtolovecomics.com)

When the double-sized first issue of The Fade Out surfaced last summer — an ongoing comic noir set in 1940s Los Angeles — a share of the print run featured a limited-edition cover (commonly called a “variant” cover). A bit more clever than the promotional gimmickry that all big comics publishers regularly indulge in, The Fade Out’s variant edition duplicated the aesthetic of the trade magazines that circulated Studio City lots during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when a handful of gargantuan studios locked their leads into grueling contracts, made use of private police forces and sprawling publicity departments, and monopolized box offices in the venues they controlled. “Most movie moguls, like gangsters, were poorly educated, ostentatious, vulgar, power-hungry, insecure, and obsessed with being publicly respected,” wrote Eddie Muller of 1940s Hollywood in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. “Their job was to make money for investors; their mission was to get power and hold it.” Set in and around exactly the kind of well-oiled machine that rose to power during that era, The Fade Out, published by Image Comics, has gotten off to a fluid and provocative start, and often reads like a well-reported magazine story.

On the shop racks, The Fade Out’s variant edition didn’t look like a comic. It was oversized, slugged with a bold, fire-red header, and spotted with drawn-on old water stains. Crease marks spidered from the edges. Rimmed in fraying, ropey orange-white to render the illusion of vintage decaying newsprint, it all but smelled old. Cradled by her grinning, Clark Gable–esque leading man, the series’ fresh-faced leading actress, drawn by artist Sean Phillips, gazed toward where we’d imagine a studio’s fluorescent bulbs to be, with patches of glossy white gathering atop her impossibly sculpted face. Not unlike the polished figures that Phillips included as back matter in Fatale, another recent and rather difficult series he worked on, also with The Fade Out’s writer, Ed Brubaker, the special cover was awash in lush gray gradients, a re-creation of the black-and-white photos that appeared on magazine covers during the Hollywood days of old. On it, two gorgeous, lily-white marquee actors are positioned under a loud coverline that references a starlet’s suicide: “Why Did She Do It? The Tragic Death of a Star-to-Be.”

Cover of the 'The Fade Out, Vol. 1' (all images courtesy Image Comics unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)
Cover of the ‘The Fade Out, Vol. 1’ (all images courtesy Image Comics unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

Now paired with three subsequent issues and bound as The Fade Out, Volume 1, the first chunk of that story (subtitled “The Wild Party,” presumably after the book-length poem) cooks slowly, with seedlings of character profiles and expository framing that doesn’t exactly have roots in long cons or ill-placed bets like Brubaker’s previous comics (Velvet, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Criminal) do. Although classic crime drama and film noir have greatly impacted Brubaker’s work over the years, The Fade Out’s handsome whodunnit examines the messy back-end mechanics of the postwar, Red Scare–era assembly line that manufactured those movies, rather than the themes of the movies themselves.

“The Wild Party” chapter familiarizes us intimately with screenwriter Charlie Parish. He wakes in a bathtub in the first few panels, clad in a crumpled brown suit and round, wireframe glasses that are a bit too big for his slender face. Battling a crippling hangover, he tries to piece together what appears to have been a long autumn night in Los Angeles of 1948. Charlie staggers around “one of those little bungalows in Studio City” recalling a brawl at the party he was at, a long inebriated walk with some revelers, and lending a hand to his reliably drunk writing partner, Gil Mason. In flashback panels and close-ups of the disoriented screenwriter, Phillips’s pulpy and photorealistic illustrative style bounces us back and forth between the hazy evening and the darkened bungalow where Charlie tracks his pre-blackout activities.

Page from 'The Fade Out'
Page from ‘The Fade Out, Vol. 1’

The Fade Out’s colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser, leans on a glum palette of deep blues and greens, with lots of pitch-black noir silhouettes and faces streaked in shadow. When Charlie discovers the dead body of actress Valeria Sommers, with stockings torn and an insinuation of rape hanging heavy in the room, she’s sprawled across furniture and a rug that look as if they were lit with green-tinted bulbs. A large horizontal panel has the writer aghast — his expression is half dressed in shadow, and he’s covering his mouth to choke back a scream. Working in comic and illustration software this time, versus the traditional drawing he’d done on watercolor paper for years, Phillips breaks up the scene with a series of point-of-view panels that plant us right there in the room, our eyes racing to several different parts of Valeria’s cold, still body. Breitweiser’s work is chilling — faint purple bruising around the neck, deep red for lipstick that matches Valeria’s dress, a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth, bits of blood under her fingernails. The stark red against the otherwise mossy-hued sequence is powerful, amplifying the tension. Charlie comes to the “sick realization that someone was strangling this girl … while he was twenty feet away.” It’s a visceral horror and a hell of a way to open a story, but in real-life 1940s Hollywood, scandals, and in some cases tragedy, weren’t uncommon. Both called for the wrangling of the studios’ private police forces and artful image management.

“Studios had been covering up murder and rape and everything in between since at least the roaring twenties,” a caption reads after Charlie’s enlightening conversation with the square-jawed studio security chief, Phil Brodsky, who explains that the actress’s death will be presented as a suicide to reporters, and that everyone will cooperate in this. Charlie skims a police file on Brodsky’s desk, complete with a harrowing manipulation of the crime scene to help bolster the big lie. Such engineering was typical of the era, particularly with a swelling scandal that might affect a studio’s bottom line.

In 2014’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood, BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen writes that “stars … were immaculate productions, the result of tremendous toil on the part of press agents, stylists, directors, and cooperative gossip columnists and fan magazine editors.” Behind the curtain, a meticulous symphony of scripted biographies and well-placed publicity shaped an audience’s image of an actor or actress, and scandal was countered with elaborate repackaging. “Scandal … functions as a rupture — not only in a star’s image, but in whatever cultural value that star represents,” writes Petersen. “With carefully planned publicity, that rupture can be repaired.” In her book, she dissembles the “image production machine” that would’ve sold young blonde starlets like Valeria Sommers for the silver screen.

Page from 'The Fade Out'
Page from ‘The Fade Out, Vol. 1’

In The Fade Out, we learn that before she was readied for public consumption in Los Angeles, murdered actress Valeria Sommers was born Jenny Summers in Pasadena. Punctuated by the unraveling present-day shit storm in the series’ second chapter, a tender flashback sequence between Charlie and the leading lady in the former’s writing room offers a peek at their relationship. Valeria’s vibrant red cardigan again beams amid the otherwise drab browns and blacks, and the blinds splinter the California daylight, in which Breitweiser bathes the wooden floor slats. Later, after the murder, studio head Victor Thursby (born Noah Feldberg, a name far too Jewish for credit sequences back then) mourns the loss of his star, even as Brodsky, a racist and anti-Semite, lays out the “suicide” storyline while referencing “commie shit” and the looming threat of “the moral turpitude crowd” (Petersen notes in Scandals that a Catholic boycott in the 1930s could “sink a movie and potentially, a star’s career”). The security chief deals a thinly veiled threat that Charlie will get blacklisted if he doesn’t cooperate — a chunk of American cinematic history that Brubaker digs into pretty well in the series, with nods to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and by peppering in the actual names that were splashed across front pages back then.

Page from 'The Fade Out' (click to enlarge)
Page from ‘The Fade Out, Vol. 1’ (click to enlarge)

By the third and fourth issues of The Fade Out, Charlie and writing partner/erratic alcoholic Gil Mason nearly implode with what they know about Valeria’s death, while the comic’s creators explore what appears to be a broadening plot, as well as back-lot thuggishness and the sexual abuse that frequently materialized along an actress’s journey toward auditions and her first roles. The monumental weight ascribed to the concept of “image” manifests frequently — and it isn’t so much implied as it is a corporeal, prominent character in the story: in the variant cover’s pitch-perfect ode to vintage celebrity worship, the photo of the “hanged” Sommers in the falsified police file, Thursby grieving publicly by nuzzling and massaging a grandiose screen on which Sommers’s face is projected, and the celebrity photography that plays such an integral role in the final chapter, image is everything.

In an essay that was included in the second serial issue of The Fade Out, writer Jess Nevins (who has long provided supplementary material for Brubaker and Phillips’s work) details the true, dreadful story that effectively stamped out once-revered silent film–era comedic actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s career. An actress named Virginia Rappe died of complications stemming from a chronic illness after she attended a party thrown by Arbuckle and friends at a San Francisco hotel in 1921, and the comedian was breathlessly accused of raping and killing her. While a judge later ruled that Arbuckle wasn’t guilty of either, “forces outside of the courtroom” such as a feverish rumor mill, newspapers that ably smeared the actor as well as an ensemble of “morality groups, women’s groups, and church pastors” successfully condemned him. Arbuckle was held “up as an example of the worst that Hollywood had to offer,” reports Nevins. In her own book, Petersen covers the comedian’s “public indictment” and “the most insidious quality of gossip,” which is perhaps the cornerstone on which The Fade Out’s Ed Brubaker rests the script for the first four issues of his often unsettling series: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true,” she writes. “It matters if it seems plausible.”

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s The Fade Out, Vol. 1 is published by Image Comics and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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