This review is courtesy of an Advance Review Copy through the good folks at NetGalley.
I find most serialised stories can be lumped into one of two categories – those you can experience in pieces spaced out over time, and those you owe it to yourself to binge on. The latter can be because there’s a sheer metric ton of it to catch up on, or because little details that are important later can get lost in the shuffle of your leaky, sieve-like memory if months pass between instalments. It’s particularly true of most Image Comics series currently running, and especially true of Fatale.
To prepare for the fourth volume of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ crime-noir-Cthulhu opus I reread Death Chases Me (which you may remember formed part of my 2013 indie comic quartet) and followed it up with The Devil’s Business and West of Hell. So after three volumes of watching black-haired enigma Josephine cat around with more men than I have packed lunches, using her supernatural powers to inadvertently ruin enough lives to be classified as a medium-sized natural disaster, you’d think I’d come into Pray for Rain wanting nothing more than to read something else in-between, or at the very least step outside and feel the sun kiss my skin for the first time in days.
Quite the opposite – Fatale is one of those rare books that really drives me to read more of it with an allure almost as mystical and inescapable as Josephine herself. Pray for Rain is no exception.
As always, the narrative follows a period of Josephine’s history intercut with the framing device of Nicholas Lash – who I am all-but convinced is actually her son, despite the book never flat-out admitting it – as he pieces together who the hell this charcoal-haired enigma is. The particular period we see is the 90s; following the death of Kurt Cobain, a drug-addicted rock band of indie college-age adolescents attempts to follow in Nirvana’s footsteps by being the best dang musical act since Pearl Jam (and whom their frontman rather you didn’t compare them to). With amnesia, a bleeding head and a towel wrapped round her, Josephine stumbles across the band and their future-set-of-a-horror-film mansion, and is taken in by four guys and a girl. The former want nothing more than to surrender to her supernatural allure; the latter wants her to die horribly and painfully. Or maybe just leave their house. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which.
One major thing that becomes apparent when binge-reading Fatale is an inherent formula to the main story present in all volumes (aside from the third, which relied on several standalone stories separated by time and genre). Josephine enters the lives of either one or several men, gets them attracted to her like a clingy industrial magnet, has rampant “perfect” sex with them and ends with most or all of the supporting cast dead, sacrificed to an otherworldly God or driven to total insanity. Sometimes all three, coz why stay in one particular pigeon hole after an accidental succubus is done with you?
The use of that formula in Pray for Rain would be a little tiresome if it weren’t for several plot developments both in the story proper and the framing device with Lash that indicate we’re moving things towards a conclusion overall. Brubaker and Phillips did announce Fatale would come to an end within the next few issues, and I couldn’t be happier. Not because Fatale is a bad story – indeed, it’s anything but – rather because I feel if it were to stretch much further in time it would outstay the welcome it’s made for itself. There are only so many times you can watch a gorgeous woman make love in the dark to a hapless stray man who’ll probably be gutted or drowned a few pages later, and if you’re someone who has far greater and limitless capacity for that sort of thing I suggest you maybe think about a therapist.
If I’m honest, the main story in Pray for Rain isn’t as involving as those presented in Death Chases Me (a pair of cops dealing with Josephine and an underground cult) and The Devil’s Business (a failing actor teaming up with Jo to take down a snuff film production cult). Brubaker avoids a lot of the cliches writers use for drug addict new age “radicals” like the band members present here, speaking in dialogue that isn’t facepalmingly awful or rooted firmly in 90s lexicon. Indeed, if it weren’t for certain pop culture references and the panel at the start indicating what year we’re in, Pray for Rain could’ve easily been a contemporary story.
Where it falls short is the weird love-hexagon between the five band members and Jo, which is conveyed a little oddly despite Jo’s supernatural influence already muddying the things in men’s minds. The inner dialogue when one of the guys watches another have sex with Jo on a couch feels weird, when in the past Fatale has had scenarios like that end with the voyeur guy beating the living crap out the offending coital partner. I guess Jo’s usually only got her hooks in one or two guys at a time, so maybe having four on hand spreads her power out in a way that weirdens the effect. The story also fails to make me care about many of those band members (especially the rapist one, for obvious reasons) and about Jo herself; she’s easily at her most villainous in this book compared to the others, and while she’s still not someone that can stack up against Darth Vader or Dr. Doom in terms of actual evil there’s no doubt more of a malevolent presence in both her actions and her thoughts here. A large part of this can probably be blamed on the amnesia making her vaguely aware enough of her abilities without the safety filter she usually imposes on herself to stop using it to ruin men’s lives, but it still presents her as a more manipulative figure in Pray for Rain who’s using the bandmates either for kicks or her own personal needs.
Also falling short a little is Nicholas Lash’s present-day story cut between Jo’s 90s reminiscence. The way he’s sprung from prison and taken on a road trip with a man who’s clearly unhinged and untrustworthy strains disbelief a bit, even for a story like this. I also think the reveal of who published his uncle’s Lovecraftian-inspired manuscript is both obvious and at the same time completely inexplicable, considering the culprit is someone that hasn’t been introduced in the story beforehand. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but I get the sense that Brubaker intends for this reveal to be a bigger moment than it actually is for me. If it’d been someone alluded to previously, then maybe I would’ve had to pick my jaw up off the carpet instead.
Despite these shortcomings, there’s still a ton to love about Pray for Rain as it furthers the Fatale story. Amongst that which deserves particular attention is Sean Phillips’ artwork, still carrying the grungy noir punch introduced in Death Chases Me, with great use of shadows, selective display of naked anatomy, gore that’s sparse but well-implemented when used, and colours that pop when needed. The book does favour a bluer palette than previously, given most of it’s set at night whilst raining, and a problem I’ve noticed from the start of Fatale is that many characters – particularly the male ones – look similar enough that they can blend together a little. While this isn’t as pronounced a problem here as it was in Death Chases Me there are still a few moments where a couple of the longer-haired bandmates look like each other, which throws the story off a little.
Tying into this latter point is the dialogue. Brubaker is still leagues beyond most comic scribes out there today, especially when penning a noir crime tale like Fatale, but where the previous three volumes all featured protagonists with distinct, individual character voices when compared to each other, Pray for Rain really doesn’t. The three male band members who don’t try to force intercourse with Jo are relatively interchangeable by the book’s midpoint, discounting visuals and the consistent mushroom-smoking favoured by one of them in particular. It’s a shame, since Brubaker’s done a lot to make me care when former protagonists like Walt Booker and Miles the actor (whose surname escapes me) bite the dust or get drowned by immolated Cthulhu spawn, respectively. Giving me that empathic connection to characters that are only established over a short span of issues is commendable, and it would have assisted Pray for Rain immeasurably.
But, as always, the star of the book is Josephine herself. I get the sense there’s not much more of her past life we can narratively plumb without going back to her beginnings as an immortal being, established in West of Hell as pre-dating the Medieval period, so Volume 5 looks like it might be curtains for our raven-coiffed anti-heroine. Whatever comes next, Pray for Rain is a damn good instalment of a damn good series by a damn good writer/artist team-up that will hopefully continue making damn good stories for the damn good forseeable future.
…yeah, even I noticed how overdone that was.
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “And this is how I begin life on the run…hobbling down a rocky trail to the river, following a madman.” – Nicolas Lash