Comfort Food Comics Potluck is a regular column where I ask some of my favorite people to write about their special Comfort Food Comics.
Today’s column comes from Trent Seely, one of the nicest and most talented writers you could find. He has written some of my favorite articles on the internet about the X-Men and various JRPG video games. I was floored when he offered to pitch for a Potluck article. I hope you love this one as much as I did.
I’ve never been much for social interaction. Even before COVID-19 changed the way we look at personal space I was happier in my own bubble than a room of my peers. Call me introverted or withdrawn if you like; I don’t look externally for much of anything. All my video games are single-player, exercise is always alone and never at a gym, and I’d much rather pay at the pump for gas than make small talk with a clerk. Stubborn self-isolation is who I am, with one key exception: book club.
My local comic shop has been running a book club for a number of years titled “Between the Panels,” which is both a fantastic name and a good description of how we look at the comics we read. Every two weeks (when the word isn’t terrorized by a global pandemic) a group of nerds meets at the LCS to tear apart some comics and give their impressions of the overall read. I originally got involved in this club when I realized the stress of becoming a new dad while also working at a dead-end job and having no social life was starting to get to me. I’m thankful it took me out of my bubble.
While the book club has always featured diverse voices and perspectives, the atmosphere itself wasn’t always positive. Depending on the book of the week, the conversations might spin-off into legendarily bad territory. I believe Watchmen still holds the crown for messiest (and best-attended) book club — a conversation so terrible some club members still grimace over it today. There was, however, one specific book club I attended that changed the way I read and analyze comics forever: The Fade Out.
Created by writer Ed Brubaker and artists Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser (with research by Amy Condit), The Fade Out is set over a few particularly bleak weeks in 1948 and features a star-studded cast of manipulators. Each of the principal characters has compromised the essence of who they are for their individual careers. The backdrop to all of their cynical struggles is a film industry in financial decline amid reforms, McCarthyism, and substance abuse.
I latched onto The Fade Out immediately. Like any good film noir story, it featured Hollywood corruption and debauchery peppered with cigarette smoking wise guys, femme fatales, and evil men lurking in the shadows. The heroes, if you could call them that, struggle with PTSD, alcoholism, and blacklisting. Young starlets have been murdered, their deaths covered up by the studios as suicides. Meanwhile, the CIA is unethically coercing admissions of communism. The only place to be authentically yourself is in the dark which just so happens to be where a lot of horrific crimes are occurring.
The story has all the hallmarks of the film noir style. Underlying existentialist philosophy. Intricate plots. Frequent use of flashbacks. Cynical heroes. Stark lighting effects. Sexual motivations. All of this is familiar to a genre fan, but maybe not a handful of newbies?
When our book club gathered to discuss The Fade Out I can’t say I was expecting everyone to love the first volume but the reaction kind of floored me. Most of my fellow attendees found it to be problematic due to its treatment of women and minorities. Concerns arose over racist language and the fridging of a female character. Valid criticism? Perhaps, but the club was trying to read the book in a vacuum.
I realized during the conversation that trying to analyze any comic book without also trying to interpret the story through the lens of setting’s context and authorial intent was not my bag. No shade to fellow attendees. In fact, I’m glad these concerns were raised as they allowed me to approach the book from a totally different angle.
Throughout The Fade Out we see instances of gays being closeted, women objectified, Hispanics treated less than human, and black men called racial epithets. It’s all pretty terrible. Still, the purpose of these awful moments warrants further examination. Women in The Fade Out aren’t victimized by men as a cheap plot point or to glorify this era in Hollywood. Likewise, the characters we follow don’t erase their past or ethnic heritage because writer Ed Brubaker believes they’re better off pretending to be caucasian wasps. It feels, at least to me, that these plot beats are used to highlight the inequalities of the times.
The perspective I came to after a rousing conversation with my book club is that you can’t have a film noir story without all the trappings of 1940s society. People were largely racist and misogynist. Careers were often destroyed by identity politics. Everyone was running scared after WW II except the obscenely wealthy, who had their own very particular vices. Simply put, it was a terrible time to live as any minority and it would be authorially dishonest to ignore these elements of the times. At worst I’d say some of the darker moments are purposefully salacious (and perhaps they should be in a noir thriller). Nothing feels upsetting in a Mark Millar way where you feel like the whole point is to be edgy.
When I look back on The Fade Out I see the dame with a past and a hero with no future. I see the use of pulp fiction and the cynical post-war perspective of the narration. Moral ambiguity in otherwise likeable characters. A fatalistic outlook on government and the powerful elite. Disenfranchisement and alienation from society. And in all these respects the book is a truly fantastic noir comic. After a few more readings of the complete trade I’ve come to appreciate so much more than it’s reverence for genre tropes though.
Visually, this noir thriller is pretty brilliant. The hard lines of the characters really pop amid incredibly detailed backdrops that add so much atmosphere to each panel. The use of shading helps push how bleak some of the moments can be, and there’s a warmth to the colour of characters that runs contrast to how cold their lives have become. The occasional use of nudity doesn’t feel exploitative, so much as it does uncomfortable — purposefully used to call attention to the gravity of the scenes. And panels do feel like scenes.
The Fade Out has a cinematic flair to visual storytelling fitting that of a Hollywood thriller. You can feel the rise and fall of drama as you read. New status quos and changing character dynamics make the book too compelling to put down until you finally figure out what the title refers to (and I have some ideas but spoiling such a good comic would be an actual crime). Truly, if you’re looking for something deep, critical, and stylistic look nowhere else.
What started as just another indie comic being read for a biweekly book club became something that made me see comics different. More than that, it became a comfort read that I could go back to again and again instead of going outside and potentially contracting a virus. If you too are looking for a read that can distract and entertain I would have to recommend The Fade Out. It may not always be PG and you may see it completely differently from how I do, but it’s taught me that the important thing is that we are reading, discussing, and growing from art that makes you think.
Trent Seely is a culture writer specializing in comic book and media criticism. From 2011 to 2018 he interviewed video game industry legends and produced regular opinion pieces as editor-at-large for RPGAMER. Trent has since been featured on COMICSVERSE, WMQ COMICS, AiPT!, XavierFiles, and more! You can find his blog at continuitynod.com