Catching Up with Fatale Writer Ed Brubaker
In the world of comic books, Ed Brubaker’s name inspires no shortage of reverence.
In addition to lengthy, respected runs on titles that include Daredevil, Catwoman and the police procedural Batman-spin off Gotham Central, Brubaker also authored a celebrated 8-year run on Marvel’s Captain America. His work spawned numerous critically-acclaimed story arcs, most notably Captain America: Winter Soldier, which serves as the basis for the upcoming Captain America movie sequel of the same name.
Besides his run with superheroes, however, Brubaker has developed a fervent following for his line of film noir-inspired creator-owned titles created with artist Sean Phillips, including Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito. His current venture is Fatale, a noir-horror series that follows an eternally-youthful siren on the run from a mysterious, nefarious group. Hopping back and forth in time, the series chronicles her numerous destructive relationships with the men unfortunate enough to fall in love with her.
Paste caught up with Brubaker to discuss his upcoming arc on Fatale, understanding comics in the digital age, and his impression of the Captain America sequel.
Paste: The past few Fatale issues have taken a break from the traditional structure seen in the first ten issues. Whereas the first two arcs alternated between the present day and an ongoing story set in the past, the last couple of issues have focused on different standalone stories set in different time periods. What was the decision-making behind that structure?
Brubaker: I felt like I had a bunch of ideas and mythologies that I wanted to weave into the story, but I couldn’t figure out structurally how to do it within the tight framework of those arcs, with the opening and closing in modern times and having that chapter in the middle that’s in modern times. I just love the structure and —I’m such a slave to my own structure sometimes— I really needed some other way to do it.
One of my favorite writers is Milan Kundera. I’ve always loved how he writes his novels in sections. Sometimes there will be a whole section that doesn’t really seem to relate to the other parts of the book at all. And I thought, ‘eh, fuck it, I’ll just do a third arc that’s just four short stories that reveal little bits and pieces of Jo’s history and of the deeper history behind her curse—while also hopefully being fun, little horror stories. I wanted them to feel like old issues of Creepy or Eerie or something like that. I’m not 100 percent sure we pulled that off, but my inspiration was reading all those prints that had been coming out the last few years from Dark Horse. I’d been getting all the Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben collections from Creepy and Eerie. I’m a huge fan of old EC [Comics] so I thought it would be fun to try to do something like that. And, man, I made it hard. [Laughs] It’s ten times harder to write a single-issue story than it is to write a five or ten-issue story.
Paste: How so?
Brubaker: Just fitting everything in. It’s strange, I’m so used to writing longer pieces at this point that when I get to a single-issue thing, I always want it to feel like a short story. The biggest problem I always had with comics and that I’ve had from the beginning is fitting everything into the issue because (the issue) usually has a regimented page count. I always try to nail the 24 pages inside if I can, and a couple times we’ve gone like 27 or 28, but usually I try to just hit that number. So that becomes hard when you’re trying to build a whole world and a new character. So I just went with my gut on the issues. My favorite one so far was the medieval one. I think a lot of people love the Western one, but I wasn’t sure if the Western one made any sense whatsoever. [Laughs]
The next [issue] is set in World War II and feels very Indiana Jones-y here and there, but also really creepy. And Sean’s art in it actually reminds me of old EC Two-Fisted Tales in some places, so it’s so much fun to see him do that stuff. After he started turning in the pages, I was like, ‘oh man, we should do a World War II comic at some point.’ [Laughs] I think he would kill me if I made him do that much research every page.
Paste: Besides the film noir elements, Fatale incorporates a wide-range of different genres and styles. It’s a Lovecraftian horror story, a Western, it has medieval swordplay…in many ways it feels like Fatale has become this outlet for you to create an amalgamation of everything you love. Would that be an accurate assessment?
Brubaker: Yes, the original goal was always to make it something like that, (something) that had a lot of elements in it that really spoke to my imagination. The initial idea for Fatale started out as a much bigger project about ten years ago when I was wrapping up Sleeper. I started working on a proposal for the thing that Sean and I were going to do next, that was going to be an epic thing that spans from modern times all the way back to the Trojan War. I had really grandiose plans for it and then, when I finally finished it, I kept looking at it and feeling like I was trying to be too much like Neil Gaiman. It didn’t feel like me. While I thought it could probably be successful, I figured it would feel too much like work the whole time. It was one of those moments where I realized I was actually finding my own voice as a writer and that this wasn’t exactly it.
The one part of it that kept sticking with me was the idea that one of the characters would be this archetypal femme fatale who lives forever; that kept kicking around in my head for years and years. I just kept thinking if there was a way to do the noir and supernatural, but also really examine the idea of the femme fatale and what she represents in crime fiction and what she represents in 20th century literature. She’s mostly been a plot device and I really try to take that archetype and turn her into a person and tell the story from her point of view. I thought it would be a lot of fun, and then I could tell the sort of epic history stuff that I wanted to get into it.
One thing I really liked was that horror and noir were existing side-by-side in the old pulp magazines. Black Mask and the magazine that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were being published in were sitting right next to each other. I was thinking, ‘why didn’t they ever do that back then?’ I guess Lovecraft did a little bit of private-detectives-stumbling-over-things-that-drive-them-insane, but I just love that idea. I wanted to try to do something that reminded me of that old Mickey Rourke movie Angel Heart. I always loved that. I thought it was such a brilliant idea. It was one of the first movies I saw — way back when I was in high school — that blended horror and noir. I always had this idea to try to figure out a way to blend supernatural, demonic stuff with noir at the same time because it seemed to fit so well. They all exist in the shadows. That’s kind of where it all grew out of.
Partly too, I think, when I started Fatale, it was going to be 12 issues divided in three four-issue arcs. I was about ten pages into issue two when I realized ‘there’s no way I’m finishing this storyline in four issues.’ And I sat down and was like, ‘ok, they need to at least be five or six issues long’ and I started expanding it. I realized, ‘ah, this book’s doing really well, why do I need to give myself an artificial ending?’ I just decided, ‘why do I need to stick to the old-fashioned way that comics have done things by announcing how many issues everything is going to be?’ So that’s why I decided to turn it into an ongoing series and just let the story tell itself as long as it needs to go. Once I decided to do that, I said, ‘now I can do those single issue stories.’ I can jump back into the past and explore different femme fatales and give it that epic feel that I wanted for it. It was really freeing to just know that I could do that too.
Paste: So do you have an ending planned out, or did that go the way of the former structure?
Brubaker: I know the end. It was more about getting there and realizing that I was going to get there too quickly, and I wouldn’t have fully explored the idea and told the stories the way I wanted to tell them.
The next story arc was one where I was trying to figure out something to do for the ‘90s. All I kept thinking was ‘well, should I just skip from the ‘70s to modern day as if nothing happened in America between then?’ I think the next arc is actually going to be my favorite one so far because it’s all ‘90s Seattle, and I lived there during that time period. I’m taking a lot of stuff that actually happened and blending it into this weird, noir horror thing that has like a failed rock band that now robs banks, a serial killer and all sorts of stuff that I actually kind of lived through, watching TV or listening on the radio at the time.
Paste: It’d be like the Cameron Crowe movie Singles, but darker with more killing.
Brubaker: I lived in Seattle when Singles came out actually and we hated that movie. [Laughs] But we hated it in the way that any movie that takes place in your city is hated because you critique the continuity of things like, ‘how do you ride a bike downtown through Fremont and then Capitol Hill? What the hell? What way is she going?’ It’s funny because I used to live right around the corner from that building that [the characters] all live in in Singles.
But yeah, it’s post-that era.That was like early ’90s, and this is more like a mid-‘90s when the whole scene started to decay around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death. But there’s a lot of weirdness in the Northwest and I really felt like one of the things Fatale could do was sort of this James Ellroy-like examination of West Coast history. I like the idea of her going from San Francisco to L.A. up to Seattle. It just felt like a new angle of looking at this stuff.
Paste: You and Sean Phillips have been working together for some time now. How has that relationship evolved?
Brubaker: You know, it’s weird. Sean and I have only spent time together three or four times at conventions or Europeans festivals. Last time I saw him was around the time we launched Criminal and he and his wife came and stayed with us in Seattle for a week to do a convention. But yeah, it’s weird, our relationship is almost entirely through email. But he’s one of my best friends and we’ve been working together for 12 years. I started working with Sean around the same time that I got engaged to my wife.
We’re at the point where, every now and then, I have to remind myself not to take him for granted because he’s so fucking good and he’s so reliable. The hardest part of doing comics is finding an artist that you love to work with who will actually turn in work. And Sean is a machine. The only reason the books are ever late is I struggle with the scripts or I struggle with a line of dialogue. I find as I get older, I write slower. But it’s so easy to write for him, and yet I still remind myself every couple of months to try to push him. I think we try to push each other to keep experimenting and improving. It’s a really good collaborative relationship. I would say we’ll work together until we’re old, old men and I hope that’s the case.
It’s a weird thing in comics because you don’t see teams stick together for a long time usually. People always try to mix it up to get more excitement. But the way I feel, I want to buy novels from Joe Hill for the rest of my life. I like consistency, so that’s kind of the goal and I’m just relieved that we found a big enough audience to support us doing it.
But yeah, it’s interesting though, working with someone that long. Every now and then, I’m writing a page and I’m thinking, ‘Sean’s going to hate this.’ And then I just do it anyway. I’d think, ‘oh, there’s way too many people here and tanks and Nazis.’ Then, I get it back and it’s the best panel he’s ever drawn and I just kick myself because there was a moment where I almost tried to rewrite it to make it easier on him. [Laughs]
Paste: Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin recently released The Private Eye as a digital comic on a pay-what-you-want model? How do you feel about that model and is it one you’d consider for a future project?
Brubaker: I think a lot of us in the industry have been thinking about digital and different ways it could be used for our work. A lot of ideas being kicked around about its potential outside apps on the ipad. So to see Brian and Marcos just do it all themselves, just selling pdfs with no DRM, that’s an exciting moment for the industry. Just like seeing Mark Waid launching Thrillbent was.
I actually talked to Brian about this a year or so ago and he told me what they were doing and that they were possibly only going to publish it digitally. I thought they meant they would only serialize it digitally. I still pray that they publish a big hardback of that one day because I’m a print guy. I’d never do something that wasn’t intended to be printed, but I’ve thought about it for maybe serializing a graphic novel a chapter at a time so your artist can earn income while he or she is drawing it.
I wouldn’t put it out of question. I love doing the printed books and my experience with digital so far has not been like Robert Kirkman’s, where he makes a lot of money and sells a lot of copies of The Walking Dead digitally. Mostly I feel like the digital market for comics right now is still figuring out what it is. I feel like most digital comics are too expensive, especially since you’re not actually getting anything. You’re basically paying to read something and have it stored in a Cloud. It feels fake to me. When I first thought about what digital comics were going to be, I just assumed they’d be 99 cents because you’re not actually buying anything. You’re buying an experience. So I was surprised to see $3.99 digital comics and $2.99 digital comics. I fell like $1.99 is the most I ever want to spend on something like that—just personally. But it’s interesting to watch it change. A couple years ago, we were all assuming that, within five years, the digital market would basically replace the monthly comics and then comic stores would all shift over to selling graphic novels and collections of the serialized stuff, but comic fans appear to like to buy print.
I love how the comics market has managed to get through a time when everyone was predicting its doom. With digital in past years, everyone’s been predicting that it’ll be the thing that kills comic stores, but it clearly hasn’t. Walking Dead sells more now in comic stores than it ever did, and it’s also the biggest selling thing digitally. I mean it also has a TV show.
Paste: That always helps.
Brubaker: Yeah, that really, really helps. I’ve been in the comic book stores when you see the wife buying every volume of The Walking Dead for her husband for Christmas and I’m just like, ‘oh man, Kirkman, you lucky bastard ’
Paste: I was reading back in October that you were developing some projects with NBC and Fox. What’s the progress on those?
Brubaker: One of them went through the development cycle back and forth to the point where, by the time I was actually approved to the script, it wasn’t what they had actually purchased from me. So I knew that one wasn’t going to go anywhere. That happens a lot, where you sell them the show and then, when you start turning in the outlines, they start having different ideas and taking your idea in different directions than where you thought it was going to go. So that was kind of a learning curve and that one didn’t get approved.
I did one for Fox that went really, really well, but it was turned into Fox a couple days after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and it was incredibly violent. We always knew it was going to be a long shot because it was about the Yakuza in Los Angeles, so half the cast would be Japanese. But, to their credit, everyone really dug it. The same thing happened to me a couple years ago when I did a pilot for Fox that everyone loved, and it came down to choosing between mine and a different pilot, and they went with the other one. They didn’t pick up the other one either. So it’s a weird market. When you sell a pilot, 90 percent of those shows don’t end up on air. And they’ve all been paid for. So between all the networks, they probably buy about 80 or 90 pilot scripts. Of those, they probably make about 20 pilots. Of those pilots they make, they pick up about nine or ten. It’s a really strange market. I have friends who make an incredible living selling pilots every year that never get produced. Or they get produced and don’t get picked up. So, their whole career is writing things people don’t see, but they get paid incredibly well for it.
I was actually relieved that the NBC one didn’t end up going because it was so far from what I wanted it to be, but the Fox one was frustrating because we all loved it and we all thought it would be a great TV show. It was just way too dark and un-castable.
I’m working on a movie project right now actually, and then I’m going to be developing something for cable right after that. It has a really big director attached to it.
Paste: Can’t tell me who?
Brubaker: No no no. I would be killed. [Laughs] Everything in this industry is so top secret.
Paste: What is the feature if you don’t mind my asking?
Brubaker: I’m also not allowed to say what that is, but there should be an announcement about it in the next week or so. It’s a crime/action/noir/horror thing. It’s a job that I got hired for basically based on the script I wrote for Coward.
Paste: Captain America: The Winter Soldier just launched production earlier this week. What hand do you have in a project like that, If any?
Brubaker: It’s definitely out of my hands. [Laughs] But no, I got to go out to Marvel Studios a couple months ago and read one of the later drafts of the script. I went out to dinner with [directors Joe and Anthony Russo] and talked about the project and gave them feedback on what I liked or didn’t like or what parts didn’t work. I mean, the script I read was fucking fantastic. It was the best Marvel movie. It was really strange because [the script] feels like my comic while not really telling the same story as my comic. It’s got moments here and there where I was like, ‘hey, I wrote that.’ But mostly, it’s not what people think it’s going to be. But the tone of it was so close to what [artist] Steve [Epting] and I were doing on that comic in the first few years, where it feels like an espionage story almost more than a superhero story [and] there’s tons of action in it. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
Really, it’s just that the Russos are fans of my comics and wanted me to come see what they were doing. I got to see the production art and stuff, which looks amazing. And I knew the screenwriters, I met them at the last Captain America movie and we kept in touch. I live in L.A. now and work here so I’ve seen those guys a little bit. I’m going to get to go out to the set a couple of times during the filming. I requested if I could come out for one of [Robert] Redford’s days because he’s an honorary Brubaker and I wanted to meet him. But yeah, I think I’m going to get to go out sometime during the last week of April for a day and then I’ll be there for part of the filming in May. I’ll get to watch some stuff. But really it’s just the Russos and Kevin [Feige] being cool and letting me come to see stuff that I created get filmed. It’s pretty awesome. But I wouldn’t say I’m involved or anything. I’m not a consultant or anything like [Brian Michael] Bendis was.
Paste: So if you had a cameo in the movie, you couldn’t tell me?
Brubaker: I hope I get one. But I don’t know if I will. I requested to be hit in the face with the shield if possible, but we’ll see. [Laughs]