AS THIS IS THE FIFTH AND FINAL BOOK IN THIS SERIES, SPOILERS ABOUND FOR THE PREVIOUS FOUR.
ALSO, SOME IMAGES IN THIS REVIEW MAY BE CONSIDERED NSFW.
Over the years I’ve found most endings fall into one of two categories:
1 – They’re satisfying enough that you can say “Yep, that’s an ending.”
2 – They’re unsatisfying enough that you can say “Ok, now where’s the real ending?”
Not to open on a foreboding note, but I’m still wondering where Fatale fits after reading its final volume. Oh don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad ending by any stretch. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have capped off five volumes and twenty-four issues of Lovecraftian nightmare with a conclusion that didn’t leave me feeling upset or shortchanged, so that’s something. I just wonder if they couldn’t have done a little bit more – just little bit, mind. It’s like assembling a glorious puzzle of St. Paul’s Cathedral and missing a piece from the top of one of its spires; the whole is still gorgeous, but you’re left wondering if it might need just a touch more to give the full picture.
Of course, if you’re one of those types only reading Fatale for the copious fanservice, you will not be disappointed. You may have missed the point of the narrative, but dear Lord there are still more sex scenes than the average episode of True Blood. Whether you count that a compliment or an insult will largely inform how you can handle the series as a whole.
I covered the penultimate chapter a few months back (coincidentally and, I assure you, unintentionally also opening with a “two categories” argument), and while then I was sure we were heading for a conclusion with the way the book started tying up loose ends, here I wasn’t so sure. Most of Curse the Demon seems to pace itself languorously before the climax starts, and until we hit the middle chapter that expounds on the backstory of the main villain it almost feels like we might be stretching to a sixth volume with the amount the book has to wrap up. Granted, Lovecraft wasn’t really known for neat little bows at the end of his tales, so maybe Brubaker thought to wrong-foot readers about just how much closure they could expect.
But as such, Curse the Demon is the last adventure of titular femme Josephine and her drag-along “might possibly be her son but maybe not” quasi-victim Nicolas Lash. The forces of darkness are closing in, rituals are being held and resident evil guy Mr Bishop looks ready to do some bad things. Also Jo and Nicolas have a lot of sex, and it turns out Bishop was really a bad guy long before the forces of the netherworld got their hooks in him.
I’m sounding somewhat condemnatory so far, but believe me that if you liked the previous four books you will probably like this one. The ending itself really is good, insofar as one can hope for in a story inspired by a writer whose infamy for many unhappy – and, in some cases, absolutely non-existent – endings could elicit. The core story is wrapped, Josephine’s character arc crescendoes and climaxes (hehe), and there’s not a lot of fodder for a hypothetical Fatale 2: This Time It’s a Guy (though I think they did that already when they made James Bond). In all those respects, Curse the Demon is satisfying.
Where I have a little quibble is in the arbitrary nature some threads are resolved with. The mysterious symbols Jo previously drew – surmised to be a form of Eldritch protection – are hand-waved away. A new character, Otto, is introduced with an apparently strong relationship to Jo and almost nothing to back that up beyond a perfunctory flashback and a few expository scenes of their history. And that climactic scene – well, no spoilers, but a lot of apparently established rules in the world of Fatale are either bent, broken or disregarded (or they were established properly and I just have a terrible memory from too many years of coffee and sleepless nights, but who knows?).
I also feel, especially since he’s largely a framing device than a full-on protagonist, that more could’ve been done with Nicolas Lash before the end. I have a much more personal stake in the fates of characters like Nelson, taking centre stage in their own tales whilst Lash is relegated to prologues and epilogues. That’s more a series-wide issue than exclusively here, since Lash is front and centre without the need for another flashback story. We do learn more about him through the course of Curse the Demon, and it does render some impact when he forms part of the narrative’s final twists. Still feel he’s largely a frame than a figure; it’s like asking us to appreciate the borders of the Mona Lisa whilst disregarding the actual painting. Mind you, it’s still nice-looking, if slightly-tortured frame, all things considered.
Art is the usual Sean Phillips standard, which is to say it’s bloody gorgeous. He and Brubaker really nail it as a duo devoted to gorgeously grimy crime narratives, with the latter’s story well-served by the former’s rough, dirty and well-honed art. If anything the end of Fatale makes me more determined to go check out Phillips’ work on Criminal, and that The Fade Out thing both men are apparently working on now. Sometimes grimy is the new gorgeous.
Dialogue is the usual Brubaker standard, which is to say it’s…erm…hardboiled? Not really, actually. There’s more omniscient narration than actual character thoughts this time – meaning we thankfully don’t have to see Nicolas Lash try his best at a Gregory Peck impression – and it works fairly well. Particularly outstanding is the middle chapter detailing central villain Bishop’s rise and fall as a Nazi commander and an envoy of the netherworld, where both dialogue and introspection are sparse but get the point across using short, chopped sentences. It’s a marvellously brevitous execution that tells (and, with Phillips’ artwork, shows) us just enough to make you unsettled and wonder about what else the words and images aren’t showing you. I think Bishop has Dionysus or Bacchus beat when it comes to evil hedonism.
A good finale needs to do a good job of boiling a series down to key points, or at least try and reach for an overarching statement. On its own, Curse the Demon is an interesting enough diversion, but combined with the previous four books it’s…well, I’m not really sure. Is it a cautionary tale about surrendering yourself to the lust of a beautiful woman? A horror story concerned with things in dark places? An aesop about the double-edged sword of immortality? A chance for Ed Brubaker to use all the boobs and coarse language he couldn’t use for strategic moments in his Captain America run?
Perhaps it’s all these things and more. It was definitely an engaging, exciting run once it hit the road, and it didn’t stick around long enough to outstay its welcome. But I feel like maybe I’m missing a little of the unifying factor. That, or I’m just reading into things too much: sometimes a woman shooting up Lovecraftian cultists is just meant to be a woman shooting up Lovecraftian cultists.
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “For a second I think I must be in a dream, or maybe that I’ve awakened into some living fairy tale. But then, I remember what Jo said… ‘It’s going to hurt.’ And I remember how most old fairy tales end.” – Nicolas Lash