After over 1,500 pages of work together, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are still in fine form, turning their creative lockstep into one of the most exciting titles to debut in the past year, a crime-noir tinged with elements of horror and the supernatural known as Fatale. Originally set for a twelve issue run, the Image Comics series continues to defy expectations (its first issue has been reprinted four times already) as issue #14 drops today, a standalone story set in World War II-era Romania that’s chock full of murder, mystery, gyspy women, and, of course, demonic Nazis. And really, what else do you need from a comic? The mystery series has drawn acclaim from industry insiders too, netting an impressive six Eisner nominations, and as the buzz around the book heats up, so does the mystery contained therein. To shed some light on the ever-thickening plot, I caught up with series scribe Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips to talk about their penchant for pulp, the secrets to a healthy working relationship, and what’s coming down the pipeline from the dynamic duo.
Nerdist: First of all, congratulations on all your Eisner nominations. Very well deserved. How has the reception to Fatale been so far, and how has the project evolved since you originally conceived of it?
Ed Brubaker: Thanks a lot. The reception so far has been the best of any project we’ve ever done, I think. Our first several issues went through four to six printings each, and we seem to be reaching a lot of new readers, who are finding out we have a lot of other books they can track down. I get emails from people all the time who only just discovered me and Sean with Fatale, and it kind of blows me away. As for how the project has evolved: mostly by just getting bigger. I knew it was an elastic kind of idea, but I didn’t realize how much the expansive nature of the story would try to take over as I wrote.
N: It was originally supposed to be twelve issues, but now we’re at fifteen and counting. Is there an end in sight, or are you just taking it one arc at a time?
EB: A bit of both. I know the basics of the ending, but I don’t know exactly if we’re a year away from it, or two or three. I’m treating it like a novel, basically, and what I realized is that it feels wrong to decide ahead of time how many pages your novel should be.
Sean Phillips: It’s got so much longer! Will it never end…?
EB: I was having trouble fitting in details and scenes I wanted in the story in the few two arcs – the ’50s and ’70s storylines – and once I decided to just let the book be as long as it needs to be, it was like I got let out of handcuffs or something. Like I suddenly had this freedom to really explore every avenue as the various plotlines all swirl around each other. Like the upcoming arc, which takes place in ’90s Seattle, I wasn’t going to have room for that if I stuck to my original plan, and as I worked on the L.A. in the Seventies storyline, it kept nagging at me. I had to write this other chapter that explores Jo’s curse in a different way, and that gets into the Pacific Northwest just at the end of its heyday.
N: You two have a penchant for pulpy crime stories. What is it about the genre that appeals to you (apart from the fact that you’re clearly both adept at it)?
SP: Actually, I’ve never really read any. Crime comics just suits the way I draw.
EB: I personally just like stories about people in horrible situations, and which are sometimes of their own making. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I was around a lot of crime, and I grew up around addicts and desperate people, so that probably has something to do with it. But also, noir stories run deep, and they can be the most heartbreaking love stories, or heists, or revenge tales… or sometimes all of them at once. And I think that’s kind of cool.
N: Fatale seems like the culmination of your collaboration as it blends horror, the supernatural, and hardboiled crime together. Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle as a duo next? My vote is Western – just sayin’.
SP: We’ve got vague plans for more books. I’d like to try romance or sci-fi next.
EB: I have an idea for a western noir, actually, but it’s unformed. I think next up, if we don’t do another run of Criminal, we’ll either do a sci-fi or a period piece mystery. I’ve been picking away at both of those ideas for a few years now in notebooks, already, so it’ll just be down to whichever thing feels most urgent when we get to the end of Fatale.
N: One of my favorite parts of Fatale has been the inclusion of the essays at the end. What was the impetus behind that?
EB: That started way back when we launched Criminal. I was self-financing that series, so I needed the single issues to sell a certain amount so I wouldn’t go broke paying for art and coloring. So I figured putting articles and illustrations in the single issues that weren’t anything to do with the comics themselves, and that wouldn’t be in the trade paperbacks or hardbacks, would hopefully encourage people to keep us going. I also liked how it made Criminal feel like a magazine, or a clubhouse where I could do a show and tell about all the books and TV shows and films that I love, and get other writer friends to do the same.
SP: It gives me a chance to do some typography and try out a different art style very month.
EB: It’s the hardest part of the issue, every time, but I still think it sets us apart. And there were a few years where I was losing money on our projects, and those single issue buyers kept us alive. They’re the reason we’ve done a dozen trades and hardbacks, so I’m more than happy to reward them with extra content.
N: Ed, you began your career as a cartoonist. Does that make it easier for you to communicate what you want from an artist in your scripts?
EB: I don’t know. I don’t always think it does, because I drew things (badly, of course) that I wouldn’t know how to describe. But in general, I write pretty clear descriptions, and I’ve had a lot of artists compliment me for not overloading them with detail in every panel description. The format I write in isn’t much different from how I wrote for myself, and I don’t dictate camera angles generally.
N: Sean, as an artist, do you find it makes your life easier?
SP: Ed’s scripts are always easy to interpret, but are light on direction. He gives me just enough to make sure I include anything important.
N: Together, you’ve done over 1,500 pages together, which is no small feat. What are your secrets for a healthy working relationship?
EB: I wish I knew. I’m just glad Sean likes drawing what I write, and is patient enough to wait for script sometimes when I’m stuck.
SP: We never talk, and have only seen each other once in the last five years!
N: I understand that you were developing Coward for a feature film adaptation. Has there been any movement on that front?
EB: Lots of movement, both backwards and forwards. It’s Hollywood, even though it’s an indie deal, so you never count on anything until the cameras are rolling, or I guess, recording nowadays. I still think it’ll get made, but I thought we’d be filming this summer and that looks unlikely now for a variety of reasons.
N: I’m keeping my fingers crossed. What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
EB: I just picked up Hair Shirt by Patrick McEown, which I’m really digging, and Red Handed by Matt Kindt, which I expect to dig. Most of my reading time lately has been research-related, so I’m behind on a lot of monthly comics right now.
SP: I really like Mudman, Hawkeye, Hellboy, Walking Dead, and Love and Rockets. Also I buy every Artist’s Edition from IDW, along with a lot of their old newspaper strip collections.
N: Last question: what would be inside your ideal burrito?
EB: Two carne asada tacos with guac.
SP: I’m vegetarian, so plenty of beans, guacamole and sour cream.
Image Comics’ Fatale #14 from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips hits your local comic book store today. Also, be sure to keep up with Ed and Sean on Twitter. Are you enjoying the series? Let us know in the comments below.