‘Fatale’ 15: Brubaker, Phillips on grunge, horror of ’90s Seattle

June 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.

Warning: This gallery of preview pages contains profanity. "Fatale" No. 15 returns the series to its main story -- and present day -- after four stand-alone stories spread across centuries. The cover art of an imprisoned Nicolas Lash and the mysterious Josephine is by Sean Phillips, who's nominated for Eisner Awards for both his cover and interior art on the series. (Image Comics)

Page 1 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

Page 2 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

Page 3 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

Page 4 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

Page 5 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

Page 6 of "Fatale" No. 15, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

"Fatale Book Three: West of Hell," out Wednesday, collects Issues 11-14. Cover art by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

The hardcover "The Art of Sean Phillips" will be published by Dynamite in the fall. (Dynamite)

The cover art for "Fatale" No. 16 is by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

The cover art for "Fatale" No. 18 is by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

The cover art for "Fatale Vol. 1: Death Chases Me" is by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

A variant edition of "Fatale" No. 1 shows that this is a different animal than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' past noir titles. Cover art by Phillips. (Image Comics)

“Fatale,” which has trailed the mesmerizing, unaging femme Josephine on her run from supernatural evil through 1950s San Francisco, 1970s Los Angeles and World War II Romania, is now following her to Ed Brubaker’s past: 1990s Seattle.

And writing a “Fatale” arc in a time and place dear to him has been “weird,” Brubaker says – a fitting feeling for anything involved with the creator-owned horror-noir series he produces with his longtime collaborator, artist Sean Phillips (just consider the villainous Hansel, who under his human disguise has a tentacled, fanged face).

The Image Comics-published title returns to its main narrative after four stand-alone issues on Wednesday with No. 15, and Hero Complex readers have an exclusive look at the first six pages –  a prologue that checks in with the hard-luck Nicolas Lash — in the gallery above and the links below. (The series also resumes its tradition of an essay exclusive to the print edition of the single issue with one by Jess Nevins on Aleister Crowley.)

When readers last saw Lash in No. 10, he was in prison, arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. The present-day character, who met Josephine in No. 1 at a funeral and lost his leg in a plane-and-car chase crash that first day, had been executor of the estate and heir of the late reporter-turned-mystery-writer Dominic Raines. An early unpublished Raines manuscript, the raven-haired beauty’s strange allure, some bowler-hatted gunmen and a photo of Raines with Jo’s “grandmother” had set him on an obsessive journey. His last appearance ended with him screaming after being handed his “own worst nightmare” — the newly published “lost masterpiece” by Raines, “The Losing Side of Eternity.”

Cover | Page 1 | (Warning: Link contains profanity) Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 |Page 6

“Fatale” is tied for the most Eisner nominations (with “Building Stories” and “Hawkeye”) this year, with five series-specific nods – continuing series, new series, writer, penciller/inker and cover artist. Its total grows to six if you count colorist Dave Stewart’s nomination for his cumulative work on it and other titles. Brubaker has thrice won the writer award (for bodies of work including “Captain America” — his “Winter Soldier” story line is the basis for the next Cap film), most recently in 2010. He and Phillips have shared two Eisners for their “Criminal” titles, including one last year for limited series. The awards ceremony will be held July 19 at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

The L.A.-based Brubaker and the U.K.-based Phillips discuss taking the series to the grunge rock capital, new colorist Bettie Breitweiser, boring vacation photos, their collaboration, and being nominated for all those Eisners in this email interview.

Ed Brubaker (Geoff Boucher/Los Angeles Times)

Ed Brubaker is seen in 2011 at the premiere of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” His eight-year run on Cap comics, which concluded last fall, is an influence on the Hollywood version. (Geoff Boucher / Los Angeles Times)

HC: What’s Nicolas Lash up to as No. 15 opens? And how worried should he be?

EB: He’s still in jail, about to go to trial for murder, so he should be pretty worried.  I don’t want to reveal too much, but I can tell you his life isn’t going to get any easier, or any less eventful. Ever since Josephine crossed his path, he’s been in the cross-hairs of doom.

HC: Is there a clue or two you can give readers about how Josephine and Hansel figure into the new arc?

EB: The new arc mostly takes place in ’90s Seattle, and through some strange circumstances, Jo is spending time with a one-hit-wonder grunge rock band.  This arc is different than everything that came before, because it shows us a whole new side of Jo, and she’s much more an elemental force. And it’s got bank robberies, serial murderers and a weird sex cult outside the city (all based on real things from ’90s Seattle).

HC: Can you talk about taking “Fatale” to a place and time that’s part of your life? What about it seemed well-suited for a “Fatale” story?

EB: Well, part of what “Fatale” is able to do, is shine a different light on history. You can capture a time and place and peel back another layer to show an underlying menace and horror. Seattle in the early ’90s was an American mecca. People were moving there from all over the country, mostly young people. And then around the mid-’90s, it started to crash, and people started leaving, moving to New York or Portland or L.A. The music scene in the early ’90s was vibrant and explosive. You could see great bands all over the place, and by ’96 or so, that just wasn’t the case. There were fewer clubs, less excitement about Seattle-based bands. The college radio scene was faltering. You could feel it. So that’s why I wanted to do a story there. I wanted to put Jo in a place that’s dying, surrounded by desperate people, young people, and see how they’d react to her. And also, as I said, mid-’90s Seattle had a few really creepy serial killers stalking the streets, and that was another piece of the puzzle I wanted to play with.

But it’s been weird writing about a place and time that was so important to me. A couple of the main characters are loosely based on old friends of mine from back then, and I’ve been looking at a lot of old photos and reading our old zines and stuff. It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago.

HC: Sean, did Ed’s actual experiences in 1990s Seattle bear on the art? And were there any specific challenges to this setting? Any visual references that were particularly useful?

SP: Ed has supplied me with a couple of pics of his friends to base a couple of characters on, but apart from that, just making sure I don’t draw anything too modern is enough. I have to make sure any cars or tech is of a suitable age. I’m in the U.K., so drawing the U.S. in any era is always a challenge. Whenever I visit I always come back with very boring holiday photos of alleyways and sidewalks.

The cover art for "Fatale" No. 18 is by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

The cover art for the upcoming “Fatale” No. 18 is by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

HC: “Fatale” has gone from a 12-issue limited series to an ongoing. What was the process of discovering there was more to tell?

EB: Well, 12 was always optimistic. I think I said early on, around writing Issue 3, that we’d need at least 15 issues to finish it. But then as I kept working, I kept having more ideas and new avenues kept opening. That’s really normal for the creative process, but often in comics, we’re not able to just follow those new paths, because we’ve announced a five-issue series or something, and we’re supposed to stick to it. After I decided I needed more than 15 issues for this entire epic story, I just decided I’m done saying how long stories will be. The story will take as long as it takes, and whatever we do when we finish “Fatale” will be the same way.

As for the process, it’s a constant struggle, trying to peel back layers and get to the heart of what the story is about, while moving all the pieces around. I have a lot of characters in “Fatale,” and they all demand time, and I don’t want to get to the end and realize I didn’t explore so-and-so’s arc at all, you know?  And that’s what happens. For the Seattle arc, I realized there was an entire aspect of Jo and her power that I’d never really delved into, and I realized exactly the right way to do it, that would combine mystery and horror and American pop culture in a really fun way.

HC: What does colorist Bettie Breitweiser bring to the book?

SP: Bettie makes me look good! No matter how disappointed I might be with the drawings, Bettie always does amazing work with the color and saves the book every month. I couldn’t be happier with what she brings to the team!

EB: Bettie is amazing. She came in as a last-minute replacement when we lost Dave Stewart through a scheduling snafu. She jumped in without ever having really colored this kind of work before, and with limited time to figure out how to, and she just knocked it out of the park. And like Dave did, she really brings a tone and mood to Sean’s pages. But though she’s working in a similar style to the one Dave established, you can see her bringing her own touches too and trying things that I don’t think anyone but her would do. In some places I feel like we have a much more European vibe to the book now that she’s on it. There are some pages she’s turned in that I just think “I’ve never seen Sean colored like this,” and it makes me really glad she answered the phone when I called. Dave leaving could have killed us, he’s one of the best colorists in the field, so we got very lucky with Bettie, who is one of the other best colorists in the field, and just a dream to work with.

A variant edition of "Fatale" No. 1 shows that this is a different animal than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' past noir titles. Cover art by Sean Phillips. (Image Comics)

A variant edition of “Fatale” No. 1 shows that this is a different animal than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ past noir titles. Cover art by Phillips. (Image Comics)

HC: Sean, back in 2008, you did art for the Criterion release of Allen Baron’s “Blast of Silence.” Are there some key noir films – or horror films — that have influenced your visual style and, if so, what about them has stuck with you?

SP: I must admit, I’ve barely seen any noir or horror films. Back when I was drawing “Hellblazer” 20 years ago, I bought a couple of books on film noir, and they’ve been my biggest influence. All the shadows and dual light sources are what I’ve taken from them, but I’ve been doing this so long, it’s all second nature now. Films like the original Universal Frankenstein and Dracula films were an influence too I suppose, although I haven’t seen them since I was a kid.

HC: This creative team has been together more than a dozen years. What about this collaborative relationship has kept it interesting?

EB: Well, I constantly struggle to write different kinds of stories and play with the medium and experiment, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have Sean as my partner. I trust him to get what I’m going for, and to push himself, just like I do.  There are few teams that have worked together as much as we have, and while I worry sometimes that we’ll be taken for granted because of it, I think it’s also helped us really build a steady readership that follows us from project to project.

SP: I totally trust Ed to always deliver a good story. I’m a fan of his work anyway, and have no reason to cheat on him with another writer! We live 6,000 miles apart, so rarely meet in the real world, but we seem to understand in the other what we want from our comics. Ed’s scripts are so easy to interpret, it always seems obvious what he wants from me, although I hope sometimes I surprise him in the pages.

HC: “Fatale” is leading the pack in Eisner nominations this year. What was your reaction to that news?

Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent #1, from the acclaimed team of writer Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Secret Avengers), artist Sean Phillips (Dark Tower) and colorist Val Staples.

“Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent” won the Eisner Award for limited series last year. Cover art for No. 1 by Sean Phillips. (Marvel / Icon)

EB: I was stunned, honestly.  We have won a lot of Eisners and Harveys and other awards over the years, but for some reason, I didn’t expect we’d get nominated. It was a great year for comics, and I felt like “Saga” and “Hawkeye” and a few other books really had a lot more buzz than we did, so I was surprised.  I still don’t think we’re going to win any of them, but it was amazing to have the most nominations for the first time in our career.

SP: It was a big surprise. I thought we were last year’s thing, that “Fatale” had been around too long. There’s been lots of great comics recently so I don’t think we’re in with a chance of winning any of the one’s we’re nominated for, although Dave Stewart should win for best colorist.

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon

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