They Work For The Machine: Ed Brubaker On ‘The Fade Out,’ Part Two
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, in the second half, we talk about the relationships between Charlie and the rest of the cast, designs for the characters, and the upcoming Criminal one-shot with Sean Phillips that introduces the sensational character find of 2016.
WARNING: The following interview contains major spoilers for The Fade Out.
ComicsAlliance: I wanted to talk a little bit about the idea of Maya Silver as Valeria’s replacement. When she’s introduced, you have the cast pages at the start of each issue, and her description when she first appears even is “The Replacement Blonde.”
Ed Brubaker: Yeah. She was the runner-up for the part, so when the other actress dies, it’s like, “We’ll get that other girl. Miss Pasadena.”
CA: You talked about Charlie being in love with Valeria, and Maya becomes her replacement there as well. You go as far as introducing the secluded beach house getaway, which turns out in the end to be a place he went with Valeria first.
EB: I think he’s definitely trying to reproduce something, but I’m not sure that he’s conscious that he’s doing it, even. He’s trying to fill that hole that’s left there after this murder and the fact that he went along with this cover-up, and now he’s sort of seduced by her replacement and he’s trying to recreate these moments that he had where he felt real and alive. And yet, instead, they’re just obliterated and it’s the opposite of what he had with Valeria, where they were sober and real and honest, and it wasn’t sexual at all. It’s just two people really being true to each other, and friends.
CA: Right, and then when he goes there with Maya, it’s all booze and sex.
EB: Yeah. It’s almost like he’s come back to wipe away that one moment. He’s come to this place to relive it, but he can’t. He goes out and sits on the sand and remembers Valeria. I’m glad that you re-read it all straight through, because one of the things about the intricate structure of the book was knowing that #7 is going to mean a lot more when you read #11, in a lot of ways. There’s another scene in that issue that’s repeated there as well, the scene with Drake Miller in the bathroom. There are a lot of little details.
There’s a guy who does a blog about all of the comics Sean and I do together, and he’s been doing this intense re-read and posting recaps of the issues. He’s been putting together all these little stories, and there’s a lot of things that you can pick up, bits and pieces of the story of Thursby and Valeria. You can pick up Dottie’s story, and Maya’s story. You have to piece some of it together yourself, but the details are there. They’re not just in the correct order.
CA: One of the elements of that is that you have those studio promo images on the back cover. At first glance, it’s just, “Oh, this is just a movie that’s discussed in the issue.” Like there’s an off-hand mention of The Krazy Kids Christmas Carol, and then you get a promotional still from it.
CA: How did you decide which of those movies would make the cut for that kind of highlight?
EB: Until we were about halfway through it, it was just trying to use those back covers in a way to help build the world. With every project, we always try to do something different, and with this one, I knew we were going to have a huge cast, so I wanted to do that Cast of Characters page every issue. It serves as a recap, too, because those descriptions of who the people are change based on what the previous issues have said. WIth the back covers, I was just lucky enough that Sean was in a good mood when I suggested also doing art for the back cover that was totally original instead of just taking something from the inside of the comic. [Laughs]
That was always the last thing that he had to do with every issue. Initially, it was just that we’d created this movie studio, so let’s see some stills from movies they’ve produced. In the issue that featured Flapjack, they talked about the Krazy Kids, and so I thought we’d show a still from the Krazy Kids on the back. But by the end, you’ve got the still image of that and if you remember from the previous issue, there’s young Valeria Sommers standing in the background, because she was a background kid in The Krazy Kids. You have that little moment where she carries you over into the back cover
Then, in the final issue, you have the review of the movie, so you get to see the end beats of Maya’s story and Valeria’s story, and you get a hint of where things ended up for people. Valeria’s not mentioned at all, as opposed to what could’ve happened, all these articles about this dead actress instead of talking about the movie.
CA: You mentioned the cast pages. Were those images part of the early design process for the book?
EB: When we were putting together the first issue, I had the idea for us to do this cast of characters thing, because I thought it would be kind of old-fashioned and neat. I just asked Sean if he’d be up for that, because initially, every time there was a new character, he’d have to do a new headshot for them. I think Maya is the only one that he took from an image in the comic, most of the others, he did brand new art for.
It was part of the idea of having the double-page spread for the inside front cover, with the logo and the Hollywood sign. You open up the book and you’ve got that double-page spread, and I knew I didn’t want the story to start on a left-hand page. I wanted it to start on a right-hand page, so we had that extra page sitting there. I just thought “Let’s do characters!” Then, after the first issue came out, I was looking at Satellite Sam, and saw that the first page of Satellite Sam every issue is head shots and character descriptions and I was like, “Oh, s—!” I texted Matt Fraction and said “Hey, I think I might’ve accidentally stolen your thing,” and he said, “We did not invent Cast of Characters pages.” [Laughs]
CA: The thing that jumped out at me when I saw them is that they’re divided up between what look like head shots and mug shots.
EB:That’s all Sean. I can see it!
CA: When it’s Earl Rath, or Tyler, or Maya, they all look like these posed publicity photos. Then you see Gil and Armando and Charlie and they look like they’re being arrested. Everyone who’s not an actor has a mug shot.
EB: Exactly. I think the only reference I sent to Sean for Gil was that I found a picture of Raymond Burr about five or ten years before Perry Mason, and was like, “Just make him fatter.” [Laughs] He doesn’t look like that at all, but it made him think of a kind of different-looking guy than he usually draws. I think Gil was Bettie’s favorite character. Bettie was incredibly upset when she got #11 to color. She sent me an email and the subject was “I Am F—ing Furious At You.” I thought she was quitting for a minute, and then I read it and was like, “Oh, she liked it!”
CA: He’s got a wife and kids, Ed!
EB: I know. They’re taken care of. He was a mess! He was going to die some way, anyway. That was the hardest scene to write, actually — Gil was originally going to die in #10 and it just didn’t work out. It moved around a few times as we were going around, and the way he died changed. Up until #11, I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to work out.
CA: He’s a character who has that self-destructive streak, and this might be the best way for it to manifest itself. At least this way, he’s not just drinking himself to death, I suppose.
EB: The moment in #5 where he’s out with Brodsky and he listens to Brodsky’s whole story and gets cowed by him, from that moment on, Gil is a man with a mission. You see him in the story after that, and he’s happy. He’s doing crazy stuff, he’s risking everything, but he’s in a better mood. He’s more productive. He’s walking around with a secret. In the end, he’s rushing straight into danger, thinking he knows what he’s doing somehow because they’ve written crime stories. They walk in, and it’s like “Oh yeah. I forgot. We work for the machine, and they’re already covering this up.” They just walk into gunfire, basically.
CA: At the end of #12, you have the letter column, where you make the very brief announcement that you and Sean are going to continue to work together.
EB: [Laughs] Shocker.
CA: I was not surprised, but I was glad.
EB: Criminal launched in 2006. I felt like before we launched whatever our next big project is going to be, I wanted to do more Criminal. After such a long, detailed, complex story — The Fade Out is the most complex story I’ve ever written, you could probably read it three or four times and see things you didn’t notice the first time. If there’s a stray line of dialogue that doesn’t actually have five meanings, I’ll be very surprised. I killed myself writing it.
Coming back to Criminal just felt like a breath of fresh air. And then I came up with a story that’s the hardest Criminal story to write, ever, because it’s all written from the point of view of a 12 year-old boy. At the same time, I’m loving working on it. It just feels good. I wrote the teaser for it to send to Sean, and he sent the pages over a couple days later, and I was just like, “Oh yeah, we’re back in the groove anyway.”
CA: Do you want to share the plot at all?
EB: It’s a 64-page one-shot, so it’s a novella-length story. It’s a story about Tracy Lawless as a little kid, on the road with his dad, having to be his wheelman and not knowing exactly what’s going on. His dad gets a phone call in the middle of the night and wakes him up, and then they go out on the road. He doesn’t know exactly what his dad is doing, but they’re on some sort of a mission, and he’s forced to help his dad, who’s a career thief and murderer. Like last year’s Savage Sword of Criminal, there’s a comic within the comic, and this one is Deadly Hands of Criminal… which stars Fang, the Kung-Fu Werewolf.
EB: It has the most amazing cover that Sean has ever done.
CA: I think I have a new favorite Criminal comic.
EB: I don’t think I can get away with the comic-within-the-comic stuff much longer, but I thought, “One more, at least.”
CA: Tying it back to The Fade Out, the story you just finished has a really down ending, even for the Brubaker/Phillips team. It’s a story about people getting chewed up by a system. Is Fang the Kung-Fu Werewolf your way of cleansing the palate a little?
EB: There’s something to that. You’ve read Criminal —– most of them don’t have happy endings. I think the happiest ending is the one where the guy kills his best friend and his wife so he can get the life he thinks he wants. That’s not a really happy ending either. [Laughs]
But yeah, I struggled with the end of The Fade Out. It ends exactly the way I’d pictured it in the beginning, once I actually had stuff figured out in my head of what those last images would be, I knew it would be Charlie going down Hollywood Boulevard, drinking. But then, at the end of it, I was just like “I need to do something else. I need to do a Criminal story that has some fun in it.”
Honestly, writing Teeg and Tracy Lawless interacting is just hysterical. Teeg Lawless doesn’t seem like a very funny person until you put him with his son and he has to be a dad. He’s so bad at it.
CA: Coming off of such a complicated story, was doing your next collaboration together as a one-shot just to switch gears a little and reset?
EB: It’s a little bit of that, doing something different before we jump into the next longer thing. It’s that, and it’s the 10th anniversary of Criminal, and I want to makes sure people know that Criminal is something that we’re going to keep coming back to.
I want to do longer runs of Criminal eventually, I actually have two or three years of Criminal stories that I could do, just doing three straight years at this point without running out of ideas, and a lot of them are different from each other, and different from what we’ve done, and picking up on some of our other characters. Leo in Prison, Greta’s daughter who was raised by Leo in the Undertow. That was ten years ago, so now she’s 17 or 18 years old, and I’d love to see what her stories are.
Criminal is just this world where Sean and I both feel really at home. Doing what we do is never necessarily easy, and we’re always trying to push ourselves to be better at it and make sure that we’re not just coasting, but whenever we get back to Criminal, we always say that we’re just dropping right back into the groove and it feels natural.
One of the reasons that we don’t only do Criminal is that it’s much more easy to get people excited if you have a new project every year or two. You’ll notice that when you do a long run on a series, and you’ve seen this, because you’re a reviewer, obviously, that the further along a series gets, the less people talk about it. It’s frustrating in some ways, because being a team, you create this kind of synergy that’s closer to a pure comic in a way. Now, it’s me, Sean and Bettie, and Bettie’s a full-fledged member of the team, and we’re just three people creating comics. But when you’re a team that stays together, people just kind of expect it, and they don’t see it in the same way.
CA: Is that why this was The Fade Out and not Criminal: The Fade Out?
EB: No. Criminal is definitely a more fictional world — the city names are made up. You can see that the city that the stories take place in is sort of LA, sort of Chicago, sort of San Francisco, and probably sort of London as well, based on whatever Sean wants to draw. But The Fade Out for sure had to be a real-world thing to make it work for me. That’s the real reason why. Our next big project, I debated for a long time whether it should be Criminal or its own thing, and I decided that it needed that edge to it, too.
CA: I think readers respond to a consistent team, whether it’s something like you and Sean, or something like Greg Rucka and Michael Lark going across multiple books, or even Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. But you do get to a point where it becomes difficult to talk about. It’s the Usagi Yojimbo problem — what are you going to say that you haven’t said before when it’s still just great?
EB: Exactly. Stan Sakai’s had thirty years. Like Groo the Wanderer. I love Groo the Wanderer, but tell me what your favorite story is.
Actually, you could probably do that with Groo. It’s the one with Rufferto! [Laughs]
Luckily for me and Sean, our audience is really stable, and seems to grow with each new project. What’s strange is how many new readers I hear from with every project, people who have never read any of our stuff before. At this point, we’ve been around for 16 years doing comics — I think I started writing Sleeper in ’99, and Gotham Noir was in ’99. We’ve been working together as a team for 16 years, and I love that we have a big backstock of books that we’ve created. Our readers respond to it, and I feel like we have a really loyal fan base.