This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 7, 2015.
The Fade Out #12 is a very disappointing comic book. It’s an anti-climax with no big showdown, revelations, or deaths. The closest thing to any of this came at the end of The Fade Out #11, the series’ penultimate issue, when Gil Mason catches a bullet during an unsuccessful excursion and dies. If you’re looking for catharsis or clear answers,The Fade Out #12 is going to leave you still looking.
That sense of disappointment is exactly why it’s great though.
It’s easy to see where that feeling might come from though. The Fade Out has been told entirely through the perspective of Charlie Parish, a writer with plenty of unlikable qualities, but who always hinted at having the makings of a better man. Following his journey and reading his thoughts as he investigated the murder of Valeria Sommers and uncovered even worse scandals, all to the detriment of his own life and career, it was easy to view him as a man trying to do the right thing. He’s your guy from page one, which makes it understandable that not until the very end can you see him for who he really is. Charlie was never a man of moral fiber or resolve, he just believed himself to be. His inability to affect any change in himself or the world around him shouldn’t be a surprise, but the lies sounded so much better than truth and so it is.
Together Charlie and Gil tried to represent a desperate dream of optimism about a world they knew to be sordid and corrupt. They tried to pose as Woodward and Bernstein to the Nixon of Golden Age Hollywood producers and studio heads; two men who would take on those with far more money, power, and influence. The Fade Out #12begins with one of them dead and the other lost in a drunken haze. When Charlie wakes up with no clear where he is, he has come no closer to saving the day and has gotten his best friend killed. It’s not the death of a dream though because the dream was never real.
Just like Charlie’s weakness, the power of institutions has been a self-evident truth throughout all of The Fade Out, a truth that it was more enjoyable to ignore. There was never any end to muscle or money. The institution, in this case Hollywood and the federal government, is the House and the House always wins. This isn’t Ocean’s 11; The Fade Out sees itself as being something much more truthful than that sort of fantasy.
Once you accept that basic premise, it becomes much easier to understand Charlie’s fate. In a world comprised of powerful institutions, ones that might be ruffled, but will never be toppled, there are only two ultimate decisions for a single figure: submission or destruction. Charlie finally accepts the former while Gil has met the latter.
Gil becomes the first of many ghosts that Charlie encounters throughout the course of The Fade Out #12. He’s not a literal ghost, the greatest impact he has on the issue comes in what Charlie imagines he might say. But the story flashes back to his blood soaked corpse reclining in the seat of a car. Elizabeth Breitweiser colors this and other moments reflecting both the dead and the past in grays and a very limited set of muted colors. It’s a standard distinction for the metaphorical ghosts of The Fade Out, but this issue is filled with far more than any that precede it. What started with a half-remembered night that resulted in Valeria Sommer’s dead body and traumatic memories of war has grown to a laundry list of sins that Charlie cannot escape.
Sean Phillips shows him moving from one moment to the next, almost in slow motion, throughout the issue looking at each aspect of his life. At Gil’s home with his wife and kid or at the premiere of “Shadow of the Valley”, he cannot help but recall the terrible incidents that allowed him to be there. These ghosts are the personal toll of the story upon Charlie, things that only he can see. Sommers’ pale white figure staring up at him is a reminder of the injustice that this woman will never get to see opening night nor have the truth of her murder revealed. Phillips moves from what should have been, to a look of sadness at its impossibility, and finally to Charlie’s guilt-stricken visage. This is the path of memories.
Breitweiser adds more than grays to remind readers of Charlie’s sense of guilt. When he wipes at the lipstick loving pressed on the bathroom mirror by Melba Mason, his best friend’s widow, he looks at it on his fingers like blood. There’s no part of his life that does not come with a cost. In the case of Melba and the home he finds himself sleeping in, it is the corpse of his best friend Gil. By helping to cover up his murder, he’s allowed Melba to move on to him and now has an opportunity to inherit a warm home with children and a loving spouse.
Even his career in writing, which Charlie continually swore to be lost to him has returned. After repeating again and again about how he could not writer after returning from World War II, he finds himself both employed by the same studio he almost brought down and producing scripts. His inability to write was originally brought about by unspecified horrors of war. The closest anyone comes to mentioning what might have happened is when Phil Brodsky, studio skull cracker, claims that the two aren’t very different having seen Charlie’s war record.
Whatever terrible things Charlie did in Europe have only been compounded by the events of The Fade Out and yet he is capable of taking back his career, one previously only kept afloat by Gil. This retention isn’t the cause of an accident, but an acceptance of what he has done and who he is. Charlie spent most of his time after the war fighting against the system, resisting attempts to silence him and the truths he knew. Now that he has given up, he is able to continue working as a successful screenwriter.
The combination of what Charlie knows and feels, the ghosts that surround him, and what he holds onto, his best friend’s family and a career working for the people who killed his best friend finally reveals who Charlie really is.
It’s the point that Ed Brubaker has been moving towards since The Fade Out #1. Charlie is the man looking for an out, who wants to be loved and successful, and recognizes the conflict of those desires with what he knows to be morally right. This is the moment when what he wants wins out over what he knows to be right because of the tremendous cost that doing the right thing bears. It killed Gil and Valeria, and would probably do the same to him. So rather than do the right thing, he submits to the system.
This isn’t the first time it has occurred either. It’s implied that Charlie did terrible things in the war to survive as well. He’s a man who’s more willing to submit to the institution, whether that be the U.S. military or Hollywood, than be destroyed by it. He isn’t a utilitarian sociopath though, he’s still a man who made each compromise that led him to this destination. That’s where the gray ghosts emerge from, as well as the flames that flicker on the edge of his vision. Whether or not he had better choices, this is still the world he chose to help build and he knows the price of it all.
You could say that The Fade Out is about a lot of things. You could say it’s about Hollywood and you’d be right. You could say it’s about government and you’d be right. You could say it’s about comics and you’d be right. It’s a metaphor that extends to all of these things and many others, because all of these things represent institutions that hold power over the people inside of them. Whether it’s your job in a corporation or your interactions with local law enforcement, you encounter massive organizations that hold power over you. Bob Dylan sang it in 1979 and it’s every bit as true today as it was then, “you gotta serve somebody.”
Perhaps the most frightening thing about The Fade Out #12 is how personal his betrayal feels. He takes one step after another to salvage his life, covering up Gil’s murder, forgetting Valeria’s, sleeping with Gil’s wife, working for the same people who started it all, and each of these steps hurt. They aren’t difficult for him. He merely has to do what he is told and is given a family, a job, and security in return. They’re compromises that give him a good life, the sort of life one might describe as the American Dream.
Charlie’s Hollywood isn’t lit up by the dazzling lights of a premiere at the end of The Fade Out #12 though, it’s bathed in flames, ones only he can see just like all of the shadows bathed in gray following him. The city is hell and he is trapped inside of it with no escape, burning and surrounded by the shadows of his past.
Compromise is the cost of success and that cost is recognized internally. That’s not just Charlie’s reality though. There’s a reason his betrayal here feels so painful. Just remember that we’re all still living here too.