Actor and director William Desmond Taylor—shot dead in his bungalow, February 1, 1922. Struggling actor David Bacon—found dead of a knife wound after he ran his car off the road, staggered out and collapsed, September 13, 1943. Aspiring actress and oil heiress Georgette Bauerdorf—strangled in her house, October 12, 1944. These are three of the unsolved murders that shadowed Hollywood in its studio-system years. The Fade Out, a new series (collecting the first four comics) from long-running noir collaborators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Criminal, Fatale) is set in the fall of ’48, about 20 months after the grisly Black Dahlia murder in LA. It’s a city where people, not long before, swore they heard Japanese planes buzzing through the night sky—”here … something in the air made it easier to believe lies.” Screenwriter Charlie Parish, prone to blackouts, awakes after a drinking-and-sex-addled night to find up-and-coming starlet Valeria Sommers dead on the floor, strangled.
Fact and fiction, rumour and innuendo, liquor and smoke, sunny light and inky darkness all swirl through this tale of Tinseltown intrigue, which mixes in cover-ups, Communist blacklisting, the studios’ publicity stories and flashbacks to the Second World War. By now, Brubaker and Phillips have the rhythm and look of noir-suspense down pat. Although some story beats are all-too-familiar—man falls for partner’s wife; wanna-be starlet preyed on—there’s enough here to enliven the show. An unusual deal’s struck between screenwriters. Charlie sees a bandaged-up character as the invisible man he wishes he could be. And a photo of a grinning Ronnie Reagan leads to more than just scuttlebutt about his informing on reds. This volume lays the groundwork for a series, shifting “Hollywood Babylon” into a darkly episodic tangle of betrayals, deceit and drink-sodden despair amid the studio-system’s dying days.
Homes smolder and blaze within the silhouette of a woman on the cover of The Late Child and Other Animals, a matrilineal memoir raining down in shards of loss, struggle and self-awareness. Marguerite Van Cook, writing and colouring as her husband James Romberger draws, tells of her mother and herself in five titled sections. Hetty survives the Second World War on the homefront in England, soon fighting to raise the child of an affair—Marguerite. (The judges in the case, pecking away at Hetty’s respectability in the courtroom, are rendered as crows.) Then, also in pale strains of colour, come episodes from Marguerite’s life.
1950s England, in its accents and fading gentility, from dingy, recovering towns to an old-timer’s 17th-century cottage, is full of the washed-out or careworn or convivial (but still decidedly proper). The voice of the post-war country, channelled by these two women, echoes plaintively and lyrically. “Arreton Downs” is rife with the urgent concerns of young Marguerite, wandering in nature. And a damp-chilling story of growing threat, out on city streets (and again featuring a crow), sees daughter and then single mother feel deeply vulnerable in half-spoken ways. The collection lingers in its sensual, heady impressions of a girl slipping into adulthood and in Van Cook’s generosity towards her mother, receding into the past.
Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor is all about the present, which is running out for David Smith in New York City. The young sculptor, desperate for a break and determined not to take hand-outs, makes a Faustian bargain to gain extraordinary artistic power (his hands manipulate granite as if putty) for 200 days … then he’ll die. The early part of the book, focusing on David in his narrowing art world, is a bit too insider-ish and meandering, though David’s recasting of memories as abstract sculptures is nicely done. McCloud’s figures can be a bit cartoony and basic, too, but the author of Understanding Comics and Making Comics certainly knows his panel pacing, which is whip-sharp, and how to deploy camera-like zoom-ins. A sequence revealing David’s sad family past flits by, its shades indelible; David’s desperation and anger on a subway platform flies into a racing rage. His beloved Meg, though, is an angelic muse crossed with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of recent indie cinema, only complicated slightly by a struggle with depression. The all-out, full-force ending’s equal parts precious and clever. McCloud’s work gets at the emotional swells of a struggling artist, but in the end this love-just-before-death story remains a little too earnest, strident and shapeless.
In its own cozy, tidy way, Lost Property is a more satisfying story of life-and-sculpture. Andy Poyiadgi has brewed up a mix that seems one part Seth in its self-contained town setting, one part Chris Ware in its careful design and attention to objects, and one part Raymond Briggs in its Old Brit-Town feel. But, despite some slightly creaky dialogue and expressions, this tale of how objects make up our lives comes into its own gently and generously.
Gerald Cribbin’s a postman, cycling around to deliver letters and parcels to people’s doors. He’s a tad remiss with his own possessions, though, and when his dropped letter opener is handed in at the lost property office, he calls there only to find himself surrounded by items from his past. What Gerald does with these curios—in artful acts of self-reclamation, re-purposing and self-exposure—leads us back to Poyiadgi’s slim work itself, studying one man’s life in all its short steps, accumulated objects, and tiny habits. Wryly observant and delicately composed, Lost Property is a neighbourly little comic—slipping easily and cheerily into its new place among those other books on your shelf.
The Fade Out (Act One)
By Ed Brubaker and
Image, 116 pp, $11.50
The Late Child and Other Animals
By Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger
Fantagraphics, 174 pp, $29.99
By Scott McCloud
First Second, 488 pp, $34.50
By Andy Poyiadgi
Nobrow, 24 pp, $8.50