Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Fatale #23. Written by Ed Brubaker (Velvet, Criminal) with art by Sean Phillips (Criminal, Sleeper) and Elizabeth Breitweiser (Velvet, Winter Soldier), the penultimate issue of Image’s Lovecraftian horror noir series delivers major revelations in a stunning cosmic setting. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s always exciting to see creators think outside the box, especially when they’re known for working in a specific style. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have had immense success telling gritty, noir-influenced stories with atmospheric, textured artwork, but their more experimental excursions have shown just how huge their potential is as a team. Their final Criminal story, The Last Of The Innocents, reached a series high point by juxtaposing a high-stakes crime story with Archie-inspired flashbacks that reveal a more carefree time in the characters’ lives. Their current series, Fatale, gained considerable depth with four self-contained stories exploring different genres like Western and war.
The cover of Fatale #23 makes it clear that this issue will be unlike any other. A cracked stone carving of main character Josephine’s face floats before a glistening celestial background, her left eye replaced by a brightly glowing red star, and in a great visual touch, a golden galactic swirl mimicking the wave of her stone hair. It’s a striking image that does exceptional work reflecting the themes of the interior contents, which take a cosmic turn as they reveal the last major pieces in the puzzle of Josephine’s life.
Fatale will end next month with a double-sized #24, so it’s no surprise that information is being steadily revealed to set the stage for the finale. Last issue offered the terrifying origin of Josephine’s nemesis, The Bishop—the dead-baby tree is probably one of the most disturbing visuals in comics this year—and #23 fills in the major gaps in Josephine’s story to strengthen her bond with Nicolas Lash. Like last week’s Astro City #13, this week’s Fatale takes a fascinating approach to telling a love story, exploring different forms of affection by having two characters fuck their way into the cosmos.
At the end of #21, Nicolas and Josephine took their relationship to the next level after Nicolas bashed in the head of a man trying to kill her, and #23 picks up immediately after that cliffhanger with Nick and Jo kissing on the hood of a sports car, blood spackled on Nick’s face, shirt, hands, and crutch. “You hear about love your entire life,” Nicolas narrates. “That heavy, to-die-for kind of love… Passion that burns your soul and wrecks everything around you.” That passion is what men feel when they are around Josephine, and it’s burned plenty of souls and wrecked many lives over the course of the last century.
This series has primarily trafficked in obsession and infatuation rather than love and affection, but that changes in this week’s issue. Nick and Jo’s coupling is certainly fueled by passion, but their physical connection ends up creating a deeper bond between the two when their coitus takes a mystical turn. With Josephine riding him, Nicolas finds himself floating on a rock in the middle of space, and as their intercourse continues, he starts to absorb Josephine’s life experiences. After being forced to relive the night when a 22-year-old Josephine first died, Nicolas discovers the extent of Jo’s relationship with his uncle Dominic, the man who fell under the femme fatale’s spell in the series’ first arc. That story ended with Josephine and Dominic running off to their own 1950s happy ending that never came to pass, and #23 reveals the events that led to Josephine’s recluse status when she reappeared in the 1970s.
The big reveal of this issue is that Dominic and Josephine had a son together, and when the child’s father began to worry about Josephine’s supernatural powers having an impact on the boy, Josephine used her ability to send the man away from his family. Josephine refused to listen to her lover, and lost her son because of it. When Willie tried to rape his mother in the middle of the night, he was placed in an asylum, where he killed himself a week later. After learning this, Nicolas narrates:
She will never recover, she knows this… And I feel her knowing it… It is the white-hot core of her. The broken center. And I understand, finally… That that’s where love is found, in our broken places. In our sympathy. And I know how she does what she does… Because my heart will never stop breaking for her.
In that moment, Nicolas isn’t infatuated with Josephine, but truly in love. Men have always desired Jo, but it was a physical need that clouded every other aspect of affection. Nick connects with her on a physical level, but a tight emotional bond is created when he’s exposed to her darkest secrets. Connecting on a sexual level has its benefits, but real love can only grow when people open up with each other and share their true selves. That said, Nick may be in love right now, but Josephine is trying to end a cosmic battle, and this issue’s final scene suggests that the femme fatale is still keeping a few secrets to ensure her victory.
Sean Phillips is one of the most consistently excellent artists working in comics, with a remarkable understanding of atmosphere, character, and spectacle. All three of these strengths are on full display in Fatale #23, a book that stands as one of Phillips’ greatest artistic triumphs thanks to its huge scope, imaginative layouts, and raw emotional impact. Phillips tends to stick to a three-row structure in his panel layouts, and the first four pages establish that rhythm to create a contrast point for the rest of the issue. Inside a room covered in strange markings, Nicolas penetrates Josephine and sends the book into a completely different, wild rhythm, one created by throwing diagonal panels on top of psychedelic two-page spreads in constantly shifting patterns.
These trippy images are absolutely gorgeous, but Nick is experiencing Josephine’s most painful memories in this environment, creating a riveting juxtaposition of beauty and horror. The terrifying moments of Jo’s past are presented next to sensual figure drawings colored in intense, unconventional shades, a brilliant way of visualizing the combination of pain and pleasure Nicolas is experiencing during their interstellar intercourse. The most arresting example of this comes when Nick is exposed to the nightmares Josephine sees after her first death. The two-page spread shows a tasteful nude of Josephine stretching her arms out in front of huge tear in the fabric of space, a gash lined with sharp nails and filled with disembodied eyes floating in a sea of tentacles. The image layers natural beauty with cosmic horror to disturbing effect, creating a visual unlike anything Phillips has done on this title.
Elizabeth Breitweiser had huge shoes to fill when she took over coloring Fatale from Dave Stewart, but she has proven herself a more than capable successor, maintaining the grit of Stewart’s work while incorporating her own signature touches. She uses more gradients to add dimension to Phillips’ linework, and little details like the constant rosiness of Jo’s cheeks help visually distinguish the characters.
Like Jordie Bellaire on this month’s Moon Knight #4, Breitweiser gets the opportunity to cut loose on Fatale #23, thanks to a hallucinogenic environment that eliminates any coloring restriction, and her work is a major reason why this issue makes such a strong impression. A two-page spread of two characters having sex in space is going to get a strong reaction from the reader, but when it’s paired with Breitweiser’s dreamlike coloring, that visceral response becomes even more heightened. With only one issue of Fatale left, this creative team is making sure it goes out on a high note, and if the finale maintains the momentum of #23, it’s going to be an unforgettable conclusion.