The Real Tragedy Is That He’ll Never Leave: Ed Brubaker On ‘The Fade Out,’ Part One
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been making comics together for over fifteen years, and this week marks the end of their latest collaboration, alongside colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser. The Fade Out tells the story of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a murder that drags a pair of writers through some of the seediest criminal elements of the movie industry in 1948, and how far the film studios were willing to go to cover things up.
With the 12th and final issue now in stores, Brubaker has joined us for a two-part interview about the series. Today, we talk about his family connections to film noir, the real-life stories of crime and excess that provided the framework for what he and Phillips created, and the relationship between the two characters who find themselves at the center of a plot to make an actress’s murder quietly go away.
WARNING: The following interview contains spoilers for the final issue of The Fade Out, as well as discussion of sexual assault.
ComicsAlliance: The connection between noir stories and Hollywood is an obvious one, and the influences on The Fade Out are readily apparent in that regard, but was there a specific reason that you wanted to do a story like this set in the Golden Age of Hollywood?
Ed Brubaker: Yeah. I think that in my mind, Hollywood was that thing from the ’20s to probably the late ’40s where people just thought you could go there and be discovered and become rich and famous and have this wonderful life. I felt like I really wanted to do a story that took place in that era, especially since I live in LA and I’ve been working in Hollywood for a few years. Everyone comes here and you think, “Oh, I’m not going to have the same problems that Raymond Chandler had, it’s gonna go much better for me!” You find that there’s a universality to trying to be an artist in that industry, and you’re surrounded by the youth and beauty obsession. It’s just interesting that all the stuff that was relevant then is still completely relevant now.
Even moreso when you see all the studios gobbling each other up. Was it last year that they were talking about Fox and Warner Bros. merging into one studio? That’s a bad idea. [Laughs] The studios would like to get down to just, like, two studios and have everyone under contract again. When you talk to peple in Hollywood, a lot of them seem to think that’s where it’s headed, just two giant conglomerates that control everything. When you get that big and powerful, you can do whatever you want. I just think that seems really relevant now, but it’s much more romantic to talk about it in the past, when everybody dressed much cooler.
CA: You brought up the fact that you live in LA now, and there’s the inevitable question that comes with that when your main character is a writer: How much of you is in Charlie Parish?
EB: Probably not too much. There’s probably more of me in Gil in some ways. There’s some of you in everyone you write, as you know, but I wasn’t really specifically thinking of me when I came up with everything. I had this idea about a story, and I’ve had kernels of this story for a long time.
My uncle was John Paxton, who was a famous noir screenwriter — he wrote Murder My Sweet and Crossfire on the Beach and The Wild One — and his best friend was Adrian Scott, who was his producer, who was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was good friends with a lot of those guys, like Dalton Trumbo, so I grew up hearing stories of that era since I was a little kid from my dad and my aunt. I knew a lot about that era, so I was trying to think of a way into it, and I thought of a guy who was blacklisted, and his best friend is a guy who has PTSD from the war, so they make this pact that they’ll partner up and one will do the writing and the other will be the front.
Then it just built into this really complicated relationship between the two characters, which took over the story in ways that I was not totally expecting, but that I thought was awesome.
CA: So the behind-the-scenes seediness of Hollywood was interesting to you from a young age? Did you have that moment as a kid of realizing that there were things going on beyond just the movies themselves?
EB: Oh, totally. The second that you see a book like Hollywood Babylon when you’re a little kid — and I got a copy of that book when I was like 11 years old from a used bookstore — all of that stuff, and having that weird Hollywood connection of my uncle, I was always fascinated by that. You read celebrity bios and you see all these child actors and the crap that they went through, all the drugs and sex. I was attracted to that, and it’s part of the whole thing: What will you do for your dreams? It’s what we sacrifice for this mystical thing, fame and fortune, that you think is going to change your life somehow and change who you are.
You read stories about Rita Hayworth, and she basically wiped out her entire heritage to become a movie star. It wasn’t public knowledge until the ’70s that she was Mexican. I find those kinds of sacrifices that people make to be fascinating, on all sides. The writer, the actor, the producer who thinks running a studio is going to make him feel like a god, and all it does at the end of the day is make him feel empty. It’s interesting. You think these things are going to change your life, and in the end it’s just another job.
CA: That’s one of the interesting things about reading the story in single issues. You have the main story of The Fade Out, which has murder and cover-ups and stories of producers with secret passages leading to starlets’ dressing rooms, and then you have the essays in the back by Devin Faraci about people like Judy Garland, Errol Flynn and Cary Grant that make the story you’re telling seem almost tame by comparison.
EB: Well, the corridor thing is a true story, even the part with Bette Davis. I can’t remember which one it was, but one of the guys who ran a studio really did have secret doors into the closets of the dressing rooms for the actresses. You mix that in with the stuff you make up and hope that it feels real.
CA: Were other elements of the story based on real stories that you’ve adapted, and just put them into this one small studio?
EB: It’s all based on things that have happened. Not the murder itself and the coverup, but the details. The way that the FBI had informants and people fronting, pretending they were working for the studios while they were just looking for the Reds. But no, I’ve certainly never heard anything about the Little Rascals being molested. The inspiration for that came from the story of a woman who went to a party at Hal Roach’s ranch, and all of these actresses thought they were there for a song and dance number, and it turned out that they were just dressed up and sent out to be hostesses at this party for these drunk film distributors, and this one girl was attacked and raped. It was a famous story that was covered up by the studio fixers.
It became a big thing, and the fact that that sleazy thing happened down at Hal Roach’s ranch was the inspiration for the whole aspect of bringing the child actors into it. It wasn’t based specifically on anything I’d heard, but it felt like something that would’ve happened.
CA: Charlie and Gil’s relationship is really interesting. Over the course of the book, it takes a lot of twists and turns. There’s the early twist where you find out that Charlie’s fronting for Gil, there’s the idea that Charlie has publicly betrayed Gil and that Gil’s the only one who knows he didn’t, and it gets more complex later. How much of that was there at the start?
EB: I think most of it was there. Creating the Gil/Charlie friendship was one of those things. I had a friend in the ’80s who was constantly the kind of friend who got you into trouble, and you were always kind of in love with the girls he’d go out with, and wonder how a guy that crazy could always get these amazing women. A lot of it was based on that, and watching my parents’ relationship and the weird things they went through in the ’70s, and just knowing people throughout the years who have been in relationships that are open-ish, and they just look the other way. Just trying to imagine a complex, true friendship where they’ve each done things to the other that are unforgivable, but their friendship just goes on.
There are those friends you have in your life that you just end up getting into trouble over, but you’re always going to be friends with them. That was the heart of what the book was about to me, those two guys in this situation. Charlie starts out betraying Gil by telling him this secret, but at the same time, the reason that Charlie has to wipe away all evidence that he’s there is because if they look into him, they’re going to find out that he’s fronting for Gil and their whole thing will blow up. That’s the twist ending at the end of Chapter One: Charlie’s not a writer, he’s fronting for this guy.
I don’t know if a lot of people picked up on that being the reason that Charlie doesn’t call the cops. He can’t have the cops looking at him. I think a lot of people thought that he just didn’t want to be there. [Laughs]
CA: Before you get to know those characters over the course of the story, it does feel like it’s him just wanting to not go to jail. There’s that suspicion at the start of the story where you think that maybe Charlie blacked out and killed Valeria Sommers, and it’s not until the very end when you know what happened that you’re sure he didn’t.
EB: Exactly. That’s supposed to be nagging at you throughout the story. I don’t think it was ever nagging at him, strangely. There were a couple of moments where I thought about having him consider it, and realized that there’s no way he would. There’s no way he’d consider it, because he loved her, and he’s f—ed up, but he’s not so f—ed up that he’d think he would kill her and then go fall asleep in her bathtub. But I was getting emails from readers the whole way through who thought for sure that Charlie was going to be guilty in the end.
CA: He acts guilty, but it’s a different thing that he’s guilty about. That’s what makes him work, in that he’s very driven by guilt, over what he did in the war, over his inability to write, over his staged betrayal of Gil, and then over Valeria’s murder, where he was present but couldn’t stop it.
EB: He’s a really f—ed up character, I have to say. He’s probably the most f—ed up character I’ve ever written, out of a lot of f—ed up characters. He’s trapped by his tragedies in a way, and even in the end, he’s trapped by them because he has to go on. Everyone’s depending on him.
CA: It makes him difficult to sympathize with.
EB: Yeah. [Laughs]
CA: But there’s this idea that everyone around him is worse.
EB: Exactly, but then why is he still there? I was thinking about it when I was looking over the last issue. Every time the issues come through, I flip through them to make sure the pages are in the right order, and I was looking at the ending, just thinking that the real tragedy is that he’ll never leave. He’s stuck there now, and he doesn’t even consider it.
CA: Coming from superhero stories, you want there to be a moment where he throws down his bottle of whiskey and quits drinking and goes to do the right thing, and it never comes. He just staggers out into the street drinking again in the last panel, the guy who drank himself into a blackout and was there for a murder that he can’t remember.
EB: I think in the six week interim before the movie premier, he was actually sober that whole time, and then he’s drinking again at the end. But, you know.
CA: The interesting thing about that is that we follow Charlie, but we don’t follow Gil. There are only a couple of scenes over 12 issues that we see Gil without him, but they trade off driving the plot. Charlie tells Gil the secret, but then Gil’s the one who won’t let it go. I don’t feel like Charlie would’ve done anything if Gil hadn’t pushed him.
EB: Charlie’s pussyfooting around. He’s thinking of the bigger picture. He’s concerned with them getting discovered, and if these people have covered a murder, what else are they willing to do? At the point where Charlie realizes that Gil has crossed the Rubicon and is sending threatening letters, Charlie’s wondering, “What am I going to do?” and then Gil has already made the decision for him.
CA: And everyone in the story is creating a fiction. I joke about that being a writer thing, but that’s a Hollywood thing, too.
EB: You’re right. Everyone is. Valeria isn’t Valeria, Maya isn’t Maya. Brodsky’s lying to people constantly and making up stories. It’s interesting, and I think part of that comes from when I used to come down here and visit my aunt. She would tell me these stories about when she was a PR girl for the studios back in the ’30s, writing fake bios for the actors, and gay actors that she’d have to set up to make them look like macho movie stars, and fake marriages, all this stuff. A lot of that came from these stories she’d tell me.
CA: Which brings us to Dottie, who is a relatively minor character.
EB: Yeah, sadly. I wish I’d had more room to spend more time with her, because I really loved her.
CA: For the amount of time that she spends actually on the page, she is by far the most interesting person.
EB: [Laughs] Yeah. Her, Gil and Brodsky were my favorite characters to write in the whole story.
CA: She feels like the one who’s managing everything. Everyone around her is constantly screwing up, and you’ve got Brodsky, who’s a blunt instrument who will just go and beat a guy up until he stops.
EB: He’s good at his job, though. [Laughs] He sees the world for what it actually is, as opposed to the others.
CA: We have those two orbiting the main plot, and Brodsky’s just hammering reality to fit what he needs it to be, while Dottie is creating the fiction that they need for that purpose, naging all these lives, fictional and otherwise. Did that all come from the stories you heard from your aunt?
EB: And hearing stories about the old studio PR departments, I think, and characters in old movies. Dottie very much looks and acts like a girl from movies in the ’30s and ’40s, that sort of spunky sidekick girl that you’d see, almost a Katharine Hepburn type, if she was nerdier. There were a lot of movies with girls with glasses and curly hair who would be the plucky friend of the main character, and I wanted Dottie to be a take on that archetype that was also the studio PR girl who knew everything, and knew when Charlie had gone too far and knew what he was up against.
CA: Right, because there is that part where she warns him off, and for someone who has seen her work, he is very quick to dismiss her concerns.
EB: At that point, he’s just not hearing reality. He’s made a commitment to Valeria, to her dead body, basically, and he’s made a commitment to Gil that they’re on this quest together. No matter what anyone said, he wouldn’t have not done the next thing. He wouldn’t have sat there and tried to figure a way out. He’s all in, and if anything, he’s trying to get her to be all in with him.