Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, The Fade Out, Act Three (Image 2016)
There’s a lot of old Hollywood anti-Communism around just now. On Thursday night I saw Jay Roach’s Trumbo at the movies. On Friday night we had a family birthday outing to the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! On Saturday I read this birthday-present comic, the final ‘Act’ ofFade Out. All three deal with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attack on Hollywood writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Trumbo tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, probably the most famous of the black-listed authors. It’s not a documentary, but it’s firmly rooted in history, challenging our complacency with an implied warning that national security has been used in the recent past as a figleaf to cover authoritarian measures in a nominally democratic country, and no doubt will be again. That is to say, maybe it’s a bit pedestrian, but it’s serious about its subject. The Coen Brothers, by contrast, take the Communist scare as one more trope to play with in their fabulously stylish sandpit: they hold the anti-Communist fantasies up to ridicule by creating a literal version of them, but any suggestion that the beast that bore them is on heat again must come from the audience. The Fade Out lies somewhere between the two: a tremendously stylish homage to period Hollywood, but the Hollywood of film noir was already angry about injustice, and also deeply, grimly pessimistic about it. Not only is the anti-Communist scare a key element, but there is also the political corruption, sexual scandal, blackmail and violence that dark Hollywood fiction thrives on.
In this ‘Act’, the many threads of the story are tied off: the truly evil are at least privately unmasked and are punished in secret or escape scot free; one suspected villain turns out to be something other; there is tragedy, betrayal and a satisfactorily grim conclusion (think Jake Gittes’ final line, ‘It’s Chinatown,’ in Chinatown).
I don’t have anything more to add to my comments on Acts One and Two, but maybe I can slip in a couple of frames to demonstrate that the book passes theBechdel–Wallace test (just), and also to demonstrate that it inhabits the same world as Trumbo, in which Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren going over the top) is a dedicated reactionary, and Hail, Caesar!, in which twin gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton even more so) likewise feed the anti-Communist frenzy. Dotty, on the phone here, works in publicity spinning stories about actors, and is paradoxically the most honest character in the story.