The incomparable creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has always been at its best doing crime stories, and this series starts out firing on all cylinders. The Fade Out supplies a double dose of noir: it’s a noir crime story about the making of a Hollywood film noir. It is unique in their output so far in being limited to a 12-issue maxiseries (Fatale was announced that way, but became an ongoing, running 24 issues). This story is so tightly plotted that I doubt extending its run was ever even a consideration.
Act One begins in Los Angeles in Fall, 1948. Screenwriter Charlie Parish awakens in a bathtub–fully clothed, unsure where he is, and with little memory of the hard-drinking previous night. He’s just starting to piece things together when he walks into the living room and finds Valeria Sommers lying dead on the floor. She’s one of the stars of the movie he’s working on, and he’s alarmed that his first thought is “What will this mean for the picture?”
Charlie realizes he was almost certainly nearby when she was strangled to death, and decides to wipe the site clean and slip out. This decision sets up much of the action that follows. When her body is discovered later that day he is shocked to see that it had been staged as a suicide. It seems a little late to go to the police now; he’d look even more involved than before. But the question of who staged the cover-up and why won’t let Charlie go.
This only scratches the surface of the secrets being kept here; practically every one of the main players appears to have at least one. Charlie has been unable to write since the war, and is actually being ghost-written by Gil Mason, an ex-screenwriter blacklisted as a Communist. Maya Silver (“The Replacement Blonde” hired to take over Veleria’s role in the movie) has a Hispanic ex-husband that the studio wants to keep secret. Phil Brodsky, the head of Studio Security, seems to know where most of the bodies are buried, and may have had his own hand in dirty deeds more than once.
Act Two spends a good deal of time on what appears to be a diversion: screenwriter Charlie has an affair with Maya (hence the cover image). But Maya has her own history as a child star, which may include some unsavory activities with Al Kamp, the retired co-founder of Victory Street Pictures. And she also knows something about fixer Phil Brodsky’s methods, his treatment of her ex in particular. Charlie finally meets a man he remembers from the night of the ill-fated party, who turns out to be a producer named Drake Miller. It develops that Miller is an F.B.I. plant in the studio, part of the national obsession with hunting Communists.
Charlie meets with an actress named Tina who was at the party. She tries to jog his memory, but also warns him that Brodsky has been leaning on her to keep quiet. Why would the studio suddenly be taking an interest? Turns out that Gil has finally become disgusted with the way the studio controls and ruins lives, and has begun sending anonymous threatening notes, hoping the guilty parties will reveal themselves. This arc is also notable for the appearance of the great noir writer Dashiell Hammett, who Charlie seeks out for advice.
Act Three is where everything comes to a head: but it’s just as complex as the preceding arcs. We learn a lot about Charlie and Gil’s relationship, which is even more complicated than it looked up til now. While Charlie was staying with Gil and his wife, he made love to her, which seemed to send Gil into a tailspin. So their relationship is tinged with guilt and envy. Gil’s threatened blackmail turned up old pictures and films, evidence of Kamp’s child abuse when he was younger. The studio has been covering up criminal activity long before Val’s murder. Charlie and Gil agree to take them down.
The two embark on a quixotic trip to confront old man Kamp. They find him already dead, presumably murdered as part of a larger studio cover-up. Gil is fatally shot during their escape–a pointless death, in true crime noir style. Charlie finally puts together what probably happened the night of Val’s murder, and goes to murder Drake Miller (after initially suspecting his friend, actor Earl Rath, the host of the party). He wants revenge, and doesn’t care what happens to him. Instead he finds a pair of new F.B.I. studio plants, so he misses his chance to go out in a blaze of glory. Brodsky has hidden the circumstances of Gil’s death, so Charlie is off the hook–but now he is beholden to the studio for the cover-up. Brodsky confirms what probably happened to Val, but even he is powerless against the F.B.I. In a sense Charlie has “gotten away with it,” but he is a lost soul. Solving the mystery was not enough: sometimes there is no justice. Bleak, yet touching: noir to the end.