Fatality: Femmes Fatale, Disappointment, Expectations and Fatale

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 12.03.55 AMExpectations can be a killer, at least for me. I really expected to love Fatale (Image, 2012-4). I had every reason to. Writer Ed Brubaker, artist Sean Phillips and colorist Dave Stewart have made some of my favorite comics together: Sleeper; Criminal; Incognito; and Velvet. Brubaker’s Catwoman brought me back to mainstream comics. And Fatale involves some of my favorite things: Noir, weird horror, secret cults and femmes fatale. The the first issue had a choice of covers: a dame with a gun or a Cthulhu-esque gangster holding a tommy gun. Perfect, right?

But I had set myself up for disappointment because I expected something very different than what I got. I kind of hate the word, “spoiler”—not so much because I don’t like coming to something fresh, but because I hate the idea that art can be spoiled by knowing something about it; that art is only a series of plot points or plot twists; that it has an expiration date or is sucked dry after you’ve read or watched it the first time; that art is a virginal maiden ruined by experience. In fact, find I often get more out of something on a second reading or viewing than the first. What really causes me trouble, though, is having expectations. In this instance, I thought Fatale was a story about of a particularly fatal femme fatale told from her point of view. Brubaker writes female characters well and I thought that if anyone could successfully write from a femme fatale’s point of view, it would be him. He already kind of had in Catwoman (DC) and in Danica Briggs’ storyline in Criminal: The Dead And The Dying (Icon, 2008). And I was so excited about that idea, but it’s not what Fatale is. Though Fatale follows femme fatale Jo’s life from the 1930s to the present, Jo is always “she” and Nicolas Lash is always “I.” Fatale is much more about the other character’s experience of Jo. And I kept trying, because there were glimpses of what I had wanted—little glimpses of Jo and what she wanted.

But I disappointed myself with my own expectations. Fatale is an excellent comic. It’s well-paced and plotted. It’s beautifully and thoughtfully drawn. It’s exquisitely colored. It deftly combines Noir and weird horror. Fatale begins with Nicolas Lash attending the funeral of his godfather, Dominic “Hank” Raines. There Nick meets a mysterious, attractive woman, Josephine, who claimes to be the grand-daughter of a woman who had a relationship with Raines. Nick is executor of Raines’ estate and discovers the manuscript for Raines’ unpublished book, The Losing Side Of Eternity. Jo wants the manuscript and Nick’s help. A murderous cult—with some disturbingly inhuman members—are pursuing Jo and the manuscript. Jo herself has a strange effect on men. They become enthralled with her and willing to do anything she asks, even kill themselves. Supernaturally infatuated, they feel desperate and empty without her and want to possess her so they can feel how she makes them feel all the time. So Fatale is less Noir from a femme fatale’s perspective than Weird Noir exaggerating and exploring the a femme fatale’s allure with an amped up version of her destructiveness and desirability.

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I’m not sure where I got the impression that it would be from Jo’s perspective. I don’t remember if I read this 2012 interview with Ed Brubaker, but it’s in line with my expectations.

“I read an interview with one of my favorite crime writers, Christa Faust, and she was saying that the femme fatale is just used as a plot device — she’s never a fully-developed character. I really wanted to do something that sort of did that, where she was a fully-fleshed character who you actually root for. Normally you don’t root for the femme fatale — she’s the bad guy,” Brubaker said. “I wanted to make her the sympathetic lead, to some degree.”

Of course, some of us do root for the femme fatale. I think a lot of women do. Femmes fatale wear amazing clothes and smoke. They carry guns in their clutches. They are emotionally messy, get to be angry and express desire. Femmes fatale get to do things, even if they end up jailed or dead. And while their actions can be awful, their motives easy to sympathize with. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Brigid O’Shaughnessey is looking for freedom and money. In Out Of The Past (1947), Kathie is a terrible person, but she wants to escape her controlling ex Whit and she’s not any worse, and certainly less lethal, than him. Double Indemnity‘s Phyllis is greedy, but she also wants to escape a husband who doesn’t want her but won’t let her go. Similarly, Jo tries to escape her intended. But where Kathie’s ex is a gangster, Jo is pursued by several murderous exes and the occasionally squid-headed leader of a terrifying cult. Jo wants to escape sacrifice and the curse that makes her the object of uncontrollable infatuation and desire.

The femme fatale was deviant, a spider woman, “frustrated and guilty, half man-eater, half man-eaten, blasé and cornered, she falls victim to her own wiles.” Despite her strength, indpependence, and irreverence, however, the noir femme fatale was defined by the needs of the central male chararacter. She was typically either a sexual threat or an innocent redeemer, the embodiment of male fears and fantasy. Often brutally treated, she still exuded sexuality and looked fully capable of emerging on a dark street to destroy the ill-fated protagonist.  (Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005:  7).

A femme fatale is theoretically everything a woman shouldn’t be, but they were popular during World War II—when women were making up a huge chunk of the domestic audience. I don’t know many woman who think, “I want to be the good girl who patiently waits around for the hero to get his business done and represents purity and the hero’s essential goodness.” Even then, there’s only one occult rite between naïf and fatale.

It is hard to write a from a femme fatale’s perspective. It’s difficult in part because the femme fatale represents such intertwined fears and desires. They are often ciphers and they usually die or go to prison before we can understand them. Sometimes, as in, Laura (1944) or I Wake Up Screaming! (1941) they are dead from the start, and we see the men smitten with their image or left behind*. Cinematic femmes fatale benefit from women embodying them. Women who understand their characters, even when they’re not explained explicitly in the story. Books have more space for characters thoughts and gestures. Comics can suffer from the need to present the femme fatale as beautiful and alluring, freezing her in a static image.

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But I stayed with Fatale until Jo’s entry into the lives of members of a band in Seattle in 1995. A man whose desire for Jo has led him to become a serial killer attacks Jo and the trauma leaves Jo with amnesia. One of the band members finds her wandering and wrapped in a bloody sheet and brings her home to recover. All the men in the band desire her. All are inspired by her one way or another. And Jo is no longer careful about sex, because she doesn’t know who—or what—she is anymore. People end up cheating. People end up dead. People end up raving. And Jo remembers herself too late to save anyone. And the angst around ladies wrecking friendships and bands annoyed me. I might’ve stopped with that arc, if I hadn’t decided to write this piece.

But in the last story arc, Fatale: Curse the Demon (Image, 2014), I got a little of what I had expected. Before that arc there is narrative description of Jo’s guilt over the wrecked lives of the men who come into contact with her. She blames herself, which, I think a lot of women would do. At least for the first few decades. Still, it’s hard to blame Jo too much when she keeps warning men to stay away, is trying to avoid being sacrificed by a creepy bishop and devoured by terrifying gods—unleashing who knows what on the world. I’m still ambivalent, but I’m glad I finished Fatale. Jo is the central mystery to be solved. And as a mystery, as a focus of infatuation, obsession and desire, but not love, she is not visible as a person, no matter how ladies might recognize the loneliness of being an object of projected need and desire, ones she has no control over and does not necessarily want. But in the final arc, we, with Nick, discover the person in Jo. And I appreciate the cleverness of it—of Nick finally seeing her as who she is, as a person, and therefore able to really love her.

In the letters column of Brubaker and Phillips’ The Fade-out #2 a writer mentions feeling like he was under Jo’s spell. And that makes me think that in some ways I am not Fatale‘s intended readership. I have not had that experience of being haunted by a cipher of a woman. I can’t share my stories of the femmes fatale in my lives, as do the correspondents. I do have the experience of having someone project all his fantasies and hopes all over me, but those are not pleasant memories at all. In fact they are frightening. And, as I mention above, Fatale does capture some of that experience. But if Fatale is about anything to me, it’s about a particular kind of masculine desire. And that is interesting. And maybe I’ll go back to Fatale someday with that perspective. It’s just that, for now, I was really hoping to find out what the femme fatale wanted, what her life was like, what she thought and felt.

Fortunately, Brubaker and Phillips are working on Velvet (Image), a spy story set in the 1950s and 1970s (so far). Velvet Templeton is a retired field agent in an secret organization who’s been framed for murder. She’s worked as the secretary to the organization’s director for a long time—as long as most agents have known her. And in their stories, they’re all James Bond and she’s Miss Moneypenny. But Miss Moneypenny has a history and she’s harder core than they could ever imagine. Velvet works for me better right now because it’s more what I expected with Fatale. The spy action, is pretty cool, but what is most appealing is that we get Velvet’s perspective.

I have to wonder, though. If Fatale had been “spoiled” for me—if I had thought of Fatale as a comic about the experience of a femme fatale—I think I wouldn’t have been disappointed. I might still have been ambivalent, but I would’ve been interested in an experience very different from my own. But I do get more out of things with a second reading. And until I return to Fatale, I have Velvet to read. And Kate Beaton does an excellent job of presenting a femme fatale’s point of view.

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*Brubaker and Phillips’ new book, The Fade Out (Image) starts with a dead starlet as well.


Carol Borden smells like honeysuckle, honeysuckle and murder. Parts of this essay grew out of her, “What Does The Femme Fatale Want? Or, How I Wrote The Mermaid Illusion.” Carol also has a story in the newly released anthology, Drag Noir ( London: Fox Spirit Books, 2014).

4 replies »

  1. Still bouncing off Kate Laity’s intro to Drag Noir and the feeling that straight men need to listen more, to be aware of potential for their identity to be boring and dangerous…

    “I have not had that experience of being haunted by a cipher of a woman… I do have the experience of having someone project all his fantasies and hopes all over me, but those are not pleasant memories at all.” For me, as a reader, such a useful reminder, and a course corrective. A continuing injunction to listen carefully, especially to femmes fatale. Thank you for a typically awesome essay.

    Reading this also got me thinking about MILDRED PIERCE. Probably not strictly a noir, nor strictly featuring a femme fatale, but both the 45 movie and book did me as much good as this essay, back in the day. Time for a revisit, I reckon.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Matt, and for your kind words.

    The fact that you included “boring” in “the potential for their identity to be boring and dangerous” made me laugh. So much boring. Sometimes the dangerousness is even boring.

    I think Mildred Pierce counts as a noir. It really depends if you are using it as a synonym for crime or hardboiled detective stuff, which I do a lot, or as a cinematic style, which film studies people do. Cat People and even Curse/Night of the Demon are both noir.

    Also, I really recommend Sheri Bisen’s Blackout. She talks about the distinctive noir look in terms of the experience of life in wartime L.A. and in terms of the restrictions rationing and nightly blackouts put on filmmaking itself.


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