When it comes to crime comics, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have established themselves as two of the strongest creators in the industry, consistently impressing with each new collaboration over the last 15 years. After combining crime noir with horror in their recently concluded Fatale, the writer and artist are teaming up for a sprawling story set in post-World War II Hollywood with Image Comics’ The Fade Out, joined by their exceptional Fatale colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser.
The first issue is a tense, mysterious, and utterly gorgeous debut that captures all the glamour of the period while drawing attention to the darkness beneath the bright lights and superficial beauty, proving that this creative team is only getting better with time. The A.V. Club has an exclusive preview of the first five pages of The Fade Out #1 (available in comic shops and digitally on August 20), and spoke to Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser via email to learn more about the title and their collaborative process.
The A.V. Club: What attracts you to this era?
Ed Brubaker: A lot of things, really. It’s the era of noir films, for one thing. But I think my fascination with it started more with my uncle, who was a pretty big screenwriter back then. He wrote Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, On The Beach, and The Wild One, among many others. So I grew up hearing about the old days of Hollywood and my dad would always make us watch his movies when they came on cable.
But beyond that, I think post-World War II Hollywood was one of the last American gold rushes, in a way. Those were boom years, and people from all over came to L.A. looking for fame and fortune that most would never find, but that was the dream. And it was all illusions. Everyone became someone else to make it, from the studio bosses changing their names to not sound Jewish to the actresses changing into whatever the studio bosses wanted them to be.
It was a world of liars and cheats and fakes and sex maniacs and killers and millionaires watching over it all, paying off cops and covering up crimes. It’s fertile ground for some great crime stories.
AVC: How long have you been wanting to tell this story? What was the inspiration?
Brubaker: A few years back, I got to spend some time with my aunt—she was in her late 90s by then, but she had some lucid moments, and we talked all about her life back then, working for the studios, and Uncle John and all his friends who worked in the industry, and the whole idea just started growing at that point. Then I figured out a way to put all the pieces into a big sprawling murder mystery noir story and just kept taking notes and thinking of characters and doing lots of research about the era. I only decided to do this project right before Sean and I announced our Five Year Deal at Image, though. I was waffling between The Fade Out and a sci-fi idea we were talking about, and this one just felt more ready and vital.
I think it will also stand out even more than our stuff usually does now, since a lot of sci-fi comics are coming out now.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that this book has a big cast. How much of an ensemble piece is it going to be?
Brubaker: I’m not sure yet. It has at least five main characters, who each have their own storyline, and they’re all winding around each other and crossing paths as the narrative unfolds. One of them we don’t even meet until Issue #3. Another doesn’t seem important until later.
AVC: What are your goals for the series?
Brubaker: To not suck. That’s always my goal. I used to have that taped to the wall over my desk. “Just remember not to suck.”
Honestly, with everything me and Sean (and now Bettie, our great colorist) do, I just try to push myself to do something different than what we’ve done before. To keep experimenting and not grow stale. The Fade Out is the most ambitious project I’ve ever written, I think, so I just want to not get it wrong.
AVC: What are your favorite things about Sean and Elizabeth as collaborators?
Brubaker: So many things. With Sean, even after 15 years, he’ll still knock me out with some sequence or panel or facial expression. He pushes himself as much as I push myself, and since we’ve been working together so long now, it’s very easy to write pages for him, and feel confident he’ll get it. He’s my first reader on everything, so I always look forward to his reaction. And Bettie is just amazing, too. I love her color palette and the textures she uses, her dry-brush effects. I feel like her colors really gave us something that felt a little more like a European graphic novel, almost. She colors my other comic, Velvet, and I love how different both books look from each other, she uses totally different styles, but they still feel like her.
AVC: Why the switch to digital artwork for this project? Has that changed your process considerably?
Sean Phillips: My process hasn’t changed that much. With going digital, I didn’t want it to be too obvious. I thought making my art digitally might speed me up, but the opposite has happened. So far it’s taking me 50 percent longer to produce a page than it did on paper. Hopefully that’s only because I’ve just made the switch so recently. I’ve been doing digital art since 1997, on my last few Hellblazer covers, but nothing so long-form before.
I switched to digital just to see if I could do it. I’ve enjoyed seeing what some of my peers have done with digital art and it got me keen to try it myself. I bought a Cintiq and Manga Studio a couple of years ago, and did a couple of paintings for the back pages of Fatale with it. The idea was to get used to the software and screen while I finished Fatale and then be ready for The Fade Out. Didn’t quite work out like that, and my first drawn rather than painted digital art was the first page of issue one. It’s taken me a couple of pages to get to grips with the tools and the different marks they can produce, but it’s going much better since I finished the first issue.
When I was working on paper, the lettering and panel borders were done digitally and printed out on paper anyway, then I drew the page by hand. The only difference now, is that the letters and panel borders are imported into Manga Studio and I draw the page there. So far the art looks the same, I think. I haven’t taken advantage of much of what the software has to offer yet, apart from the perspective rulers and some of the paintbrushes. Hopefully the look of the art will evolve naturally as I get used to working this way.
AVC: How does the visual storytelling in The Fade Out differ from Fatale and Criminal?
SP: Not too much. I’ve kept the usual three-tier grid, as I like the rhythm it gives the pages, but apart from that any differences are as usual dictated by the story. I did change the lettering font to something that seemed more sympathetic to the period the story is set though.
AVC: What are the main ideas you’re trying to convey in your artwork for this series?
SP: Whatever the story needs. I don’t think about this stuff, I just draw how it seems appropriate. I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen in the story, so I don’t like to set myself too many rules in the beginning
AVC: What are your favorite things about Ed and Elizabeth as collaborators?
SP: Ed writes stories I like to draw. We’ve known each other a long time and get on well and we’re in this for the long haul. I might stray with another writer, on an occasional French album for example, but Ed and I will continue making books for years to come. Hopefully Bettie will be with us too. With her colors, she makes my art look better than it ever has. She always surprises me with her color choices and does stuff that I’d never think of doing, and that’s what makes for a good collaborator.
AVC: How does The Fade Out’s era and setting influence your approach to the coloring?
Elizabeth Breitweiser: The Atomic Age was an innovative and optimistic time in U.S. history. It is fascinating to see how the color schemes reflected the mood of the post-war recovery. As the country’s mindset shifted away from fear of war, so did the use of restrained utilitarian color combinations. Three major color trends emerged: pastel (pale pinks, yellows and blues, minty greens and turquoise), modern (clean, vibrant, contrasting combinations of white, black, and bold electric primary color) and Scandinavian (minimalistic and sophisticated soothing tones of nature often accented with a pop of color like tomato red or lovely chartreuse). And of course, all of this saddled up with glitzy golden age Hollywood glamour. Don’t even get me started on the makeup trends! In true color nerd style, these are all points I look forward to exploring in The Fade Out.
AVC: Has Sean’s switch to digital art for this series changed how you tackle the coloring at all?
Breitweiser: Not in any major way. Sean introduced some texture and grayscale into his rendering, as well as new techniques to separate the movie still backgrounds, hallucinations and such. I am loving the effect and I just do my best to compliment and follow his lead.
AVC: Working with Sean over the second half of Fatale, how has your creative partnership evolved?
Breitweiser: Sean has been a dream to work with from the start. We fell in synch right away and it’s been nothing but smooth sailing henceforth. Sometimes I feel like I almost have it too good with Sean and Ed. They hardly ever ask for corrections and it’s usually me bugging them and being overly paranoid about my work.
AVC: What are your favorite things about Ed and Sean as collaborators?
Breitweiser: Ed and Sean are a powerhouse of creativity and one of the best creative teams in the industry. They’ve been working together for so long that I’m almost certain they can read each other’s minds. Every month, each new thing they put in front of me instantly becomes my favorite. It’s pretty exciting to be around that kind of constant, top-shelf creativity. And while they run like a well-oiled machine and are the definition of professionalism, they’re also just two really cool, really laid back dudes. It’s truly a pleasure to work with them, and I consider it an honor to be included in their company.