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The femme fatale meets H.P. Lovecraft in Fatale #11

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Fatale #11. Written by Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Criminal) and drawn by Sean Phillips (Criminal, Sleeper), this standalone issue embraces the spirit of Lovecraftian horror by introducing the Cthulhu creator into the story. 

There’s no denying that H.P. Lovecraft is a huge influence on Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ horror series Fatale, what with all the tentacle-faced gangsters and the general feeling that something powerful and malevolent is always lurking in the darkness. But no issue of the series has captured the spirit of Lovecraft’s work quite like #11, the first in a string of standalone stories exploring the history of the world this creative team has built over the first two arcs. Done-in-one issues have become rarities in the mainstream comic-book industry, which has shifted to multi-part storylines that are ideal for collections, making Brubaker and Phillips’ tense, chilling, and immensely satisfying tale even more impressive.

Taking place in 1936, 20 years before the main action in Fatale #1, “The Case Of Alfred Ravenscroft” introduces readers to a much younger, less confident Josephine who’s struggling to understand the supernatural power she has over the opposite sex. Like previous Fatale stories, the issue begins by focusing on Josephine’s latest victim, a police officer who murdered his partner to get Josephine out of jail and abandoned his fiancée so that he could help her find answers. That journey has brought the pair to Texas, where Josephine hopes to learn more about her true nature by speaking to a pulp fiction writer who perfectly described her terrifying dreams in a story he wrote years ago. That writer is Alfred Ravenscroft, a stand-in for H.P. Lovecraft whose own tortured past contains clues that only lead to more questions for the budding femme fatale.

A jumping-on point for new readers, Fatale #11 could easily serve as the first issue of the series, but the story’s impact is amplified by knowing what Josephine becomes later in life. Just by looking at the cover, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t the same woman readers have been following for the past 10 issues. There’s nothing remotely sexualized about the image of Josephine crossing a dark street in the middle of the desert, looking over her shoulder as a pair of haunting headlights come driving down the road. It’s a stark contrast to her appearances on previous covers, which almost always have her looking out to the reader, seducing with a glance even when she’s holding a bloody knife. The woman on the cover of #11 is afraid, running from a mysterious force that she doesn’t understand, but that she knows isn’t good. 

Originally planned as a limited series, Fatale has recently been upgraded to an ongoing, one of the many advantages that publishing a creator-owned title at Image Comics affords. Brubaker’s original plan of a novel in three parts was sidelined as he became more interested in tangential plots, hence the four standalone stories running in #11 through #14 that explore different aspects of the Fatale tapestry. The next two issues won’t feature Josephine at all, with #12 taking place during the Middle Ages and #13 transitioning to the late-19th century for a spaghetti Western tale. Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal hit a high point when it became more experimental during the Last Of The Innocent miniseries, and Fatale has gained a similar momentum as the stories become more varied. By jumping through different time periods, Brubaker has tapped into the different sides of the horror genre: The first storyline, set during the ’50s, had more of a noir influence, while the second, set in the ’70s, took a grindhouse approach. 

But #11, which takes place eight years after the publication of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal work “The Call Of Cthulhu,” is pure Lovecraft, emphasizing a consistent feeling of dread and folding in many of the plot elements found in that classic short story. When Josephine comes to the home of the dying Alfred Ravenscroft to ask him about “The Demon From Beyond,” she learns the true history of the terrifying account, involving a rich man by the name of McVicar, primal desert rituals, a book written in an alien language, and a many-eyed, tentacled presence waiting in the shadows. Ravenscroft was changed forever by the events of his childhood, but not as much as his mother, who returned from the desert as a ghost outfitted with the signature tentacles of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. How this all fits into the overarching mystery of Josephine is yet to be seen, but Brubaker’s use of established mythology to drop clues is impressive, and builds a suspenseful story that’s reverent of past horror masters without being overly indebted to them. 

Brubaker is doing outstanding work on the writing side of Fatale, but like his previous collaborations with Sean Phillips, this book just wouldn’t be the same with a different artist. The amount of detail that Phillips puts into each environment is astounding, from the stacks of books and papers that litter Ravenscroft’s home to the different types of alcohol stocked in a bar. His control of facial expressions and body language reveals facets of the characters that the script only touches on. When Officer Nelson remembers what he’s done to help Josephine, he clutches his torso and tightens his face like he’s just been punched in the chest by the memories. The content smile of Nelson when he’s under Josephine’s spell is drastically different from the devastated expression on his face when she leaves him, presenting an image of a broken man that has no problem standing in front of a moving train. 

The fear of what lurks in the dark is a defining characteristic of the horror genre, and the art in Fatale is blanketed in shadows. This issue’s most evocative image is a small panel of Josephine reading Ravenscroft’s short story for the first time, accompanied by the narration, “He had described Josephine’s nightmares.” Those nightmares are represented by tentacle-like coils of shadow moving in on her, pulling her into the darkness. It’s a clever way of visualizing that pervasive sense of anxiety, with a bit of a meta twist, considering she’s reading what is essentially an H.P. Lovecraft story. Beautiful and frightening, each new issue of Fatale makes the darkness more captivating, luring readers into the story in the same way that Josephine ensnares her victims.