It’s been over seventy years since film noir was at its peak, but the genre and its framework seems to never have left our culture, with iterations, updates, and transformations in films, novels, and of course, comic books. With so many new takes on the noir, it was oddly refreshing to read The Fade Out, a series that goes back to the fundamentals of this embedded genre.
The Fade Out centers its mystery on the murder of Valeria Sommers (birth name: Jenny Summers), the young starlet on the course to becoming the next Veronica Lake. The year of our story is 1948, a year where all of America was on its toes. Pearl Harbor and World War II had put people on alert for any signs of physical attack, and anti-communist sentiments had people on alert for any signs of cultural attack. Despite the victory of World War II, America still had some paranoia about what major force will be faced next, and it looked like communism was it. With America on the brink of full McCarthyism, the industry that would feel the brunt of it, the film industry, had begun to experience the rising concern about communists infiltrating media.
Set in the iconic noir location of Los Angeles, the narrative of The Fade Out is carried by Charlie Parish, a screenwriter for a studio on the edge of failure and the oddly lighthearted but very confused narrator of the series. Issue One introduces us to Charlie as he wakes from a drunken coma in an unknown apartment and tries to recollect the night before. As his blurred memories gradually become clearer and as he walks through the apartment, he realizes that he is in Valeria’s bed in her apartment and finds her murdered Valeria in the room next door. The discovery of her body incites panic in Charlie because it must have happened while he was asleep in the next room, but he has no memory of waking up to any disturbance. What entails is Charlie’s attempts to further recall the details of the party he attended and to wipe away evidence that he was at Valeria’s apartment in fear that he may be considered as a suspect. The main case to solve in The Fade Out is a pretty traditional one with a setup almost identical to that of Clue; we know the set of suspects, and we follow Charlie along as he tries to piece together each of their potential motivations to kill Valeria. On the murder mystery plot line alone, The Fade Out is motivating and attention-grabbing. However, what makes The Fade Out a series that I look forward to is its incorporation of the rich political and cultural environment of the late 40s.
At the height of noir in America, films could not fully incorporate a wide range of subjects ranging from sexuality to political climate, and they certainly could not discuss the ugly details of the impact of McCarthyism on the film industry itself. With The Fade Out written in current times, the creators have the opportunity to enrich the noir story with relevant cultural and political topics affecting America’s film industry in the late 40s, and they certainly take advantage of this more open creative license.
In the core murder case, the details of the film studio’s actions to cover up the circumstances of Valeria’s death in order to avoid scandal enhance the narrative by leaving Charlie as the single person to acknowledge that Valeria was in fact murdered and as the only person left responsible to find her killer. In retrospect, we now know about film studios’ actions of megalomania and monopoly in the 40s and 50s, but in no way could those be addressed in the films made by those studios at the time–that would absolutely setup a conflict of interest. But given that The Fade Out is written today, those details of truth manipulation can now be included, making the setting and narrative more engrossing and setting up the onus on Charlie to find the perpetrator alone without the intervention of any law enforcement, making the perspective of the mystery even more alluring.
In addition, one of the most captivating sub-plots in the narrative is that of Charlie and Gil Mason, a story that could have never been addressed on film on the brink of McCarthyism. When Charlie entered the film industry, Gil served as his mentor, but after Charlie’s stint in the war leading to perpetual writer’s block and Gil’s communist sentiments preparing him to be blacklisted, Charlie and Gil become embroiled in a cover-up scheme that could only occur in the late 40s and could only be explained in a narrative written today. For me, Charlie and Gil’s tumultuous working and personal relationship drive the narrative and augment what would otherwise be a fairly standard murder mystery. Given the belligerent and oddly sympathetic nature of their actions, Charlie and Gil’s conversations and actions with each other emerge as the star component of the series.
As with any noir adaptation set in the 40s and 50s but written in modern times, The Fade Out contains more explicit details of sexual hedonism alluded to but never allowed in the films of that era. Unlike in Satellite Sam, sexuality does not exist as the core device of re-imagining the noir for The Fade Out. The update to the noir here really occurs through the integration of political and cultural artifacts and sentiments into the main plot and subplots of the series. The Fade Out sticks to the basics of the noir genre, but it rises above a classification as a noir duplication in its ability to use history to make a period piece come alive and engage readers who are almost three quarters of a century removed from the original setting. It may not be the most groundbreaking series, but for those who like history, mysteries, and noir, The Fade Out, with its earliest issues, seems to have potential for strong narratives and fascinating characters and relationships.
The Fade Out Issues One and Two are available now via Image Comics.