Four! (And a flood)

4.) Fatale (Image) 2012 – present — by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

STORY TIME, KIDS. Everyone gather ’round.

Just this last September, in the town of Boulder where my coffee shop is located, there was a little ol’ something called the 100-year flood. This doesn’t mean that the flood happens every 100 years, but, rather, there is a 1/100 chance that any given year, such a deluge will fall and cause massive flooding.

It started raining, and raining, and then it rained some more. This is somewhat unusual for sunny Colorado in that, after one day of cloudy skies and rainy weather, people start to grumble that they haven’t seen the sun in 36 hours. It started on a Monday, nothing more than the beginning of an early fall shower and then by Wednesday afternoon, there were flood sirens going off so that I could hear them from my shop. We watched out of our window as the rain pounded down on every available surface, already seeing streams of water washing down the storm drains and carrying along sticks, plastic bags, debris from off the streets and rising at a fairly alarming rate. We heard reports from people who lived up the canyon that there was a seven-foot wall of water washing down the roads and that it was on its way.

The shop is only a few hundred yards from the Boulder Creek, which had risen to levels not seen in 70 years. Parking lots and apartment complexes next to it — like The Millennium Hotel, just a mere block away — already had several foot-deep puddles congregating in low areas from the overflow. The Creek — which, usually is what it is — had turned into a dingy brown raging river with rapids, white frothy waves that you could hear whooshing through underneath the bridges.

My shop is located in a floodplain; there are signs everywhere around it saying: “THIS AREA IS SUBJECT TO FREQUENT FLOODING.” I had flood insurance, it was something that was necessary for me to secure an SBA loan to buy the shop, but that still didn’t calm any fears that, when I left the store early on Wednesday, driven by the sirens and the texts from family members and the Flash Flood Warnings constantly popping up on my phone saying to evacuate immediately if I feared for my life, it wouldn’t be there whenever I would be able to get back.

I made sure all the girls who worked at the shop — and still lived in Boulder — were okay and sent everyone home while I made the twenty minute drive back to my house in Northglenn. It took forty-five minutes because the highway had started to flood. Other spots were already shutting down as the river raged past Boulder, into surrounding Louisville, Longmont, Lyons, washing away US 36 to Estes Park and cutting a swath miles wide in some areas. Lyons and Longmont were virtually cut in half by the water. People’s homes were damaged, basements were flooded, people started to die, and by midnight that Wednesday night, it felt like the entire state would soon be covered in water.

What does this have to do with comic books? Not much, other than the fact that when I woke up early Thursday morning, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I fervently checked my phone and found that US 36 was closed at Louisville, several offramps before Boulder because it had flooded. There was no way for me to get to work, so I didn’t go in and decided to shut down for the day. Unable to go to sleep at 5:30 AM, I picked up Fatale, thinking it would soothe me back out of the incredibly worried state I had been in for a day and a half.

It did and it didn’t.

It’s a fantastic comic, filled with disturbing Lovecraftian plotting and even worse nightmare-inducing imagery about Jo, a femme fatale, who makes any man who comes into too much contact with her fall irrevocably in love. So much so that they will do whatever she wants them to — and some things she doesn’t. This extends past torture, past murder, into strange cult happenings with flesh-eating cannibals and squid-headed demons. The heavy mood of dread only builds with every turn of the page as man after man falls in love and then is killed in gruesome ways because of the mysterious power surrounding the deadly Jo.

The plot weaves from the 1930s to the present, intermixing stories from different decades in-between. The main story that shapes the rest of the vignettes is about Nicolas Lash, the godson of a writer who became entranced with Jo in the 50s, and Lash’s pursual of Jo and the unfolding of events previously unknown in his godfather’s early life. The most confounding question — and one which has yet to be revealed — is why this woman seems not to have aged in the last 50 years and how she got the powers that seem more of a burden to her than a blessing.

Which is where the interesting emotion comes into play. It’s clear that Jo has had some run-ins with a particularly nasty cult that sacrifices people and seems to worship Lovecraftian horrors, but did she get her powers from them? Why are they still pursuing her? Instead of reveling in her power and beauty (as she did when she was younger), Jo, at one point, tries to cut herself off from all contact with men so as to spare herself yet another skeleton in her already-full closet.

It’s a tragic story. No happy endings or warm fuzzies from this one. The art is messy and brutal when it wants to be, and classy and wonderful at other times. It’s a stark contrast from a dismembered group of cultists to a rising, hazy sunset in the 1970s in California, but it just leads to the creeping defamiliarization of the world around us and the horrible lurking chaotic mess just underneath. I’ve never been so unnerved by a comic before — well, maybe not since The Walking Dead — and maybe that was partly due to my state of mind at the time and partly due to the excellent compounding dread, but Fatale is so compelling, I had to get the next volume immediately after reading the first, but yet, I felt a rising nausea in my stomach even thinking about continuing.

So, I was soothed by the intricate story-crafting and unnerved by the sheer creepiness of the comic. Told you I like to read horror novels in order to fall asleep.

Fatale is equal parts horror, detective story, and savage look at what happens when love becomes obsession and beauty becomes gnarled. I was worried about this raising my feminist hackles, but I find Jo a well-rounded character, if not always of the cleanest conscience. She is the most consistent character and develops interestingly throughout time, but never in a way that I think is disingenuous, given the context. She manages to walk the line of the Madonna/whore contrast without falling whole-heartedly into either category.

I’ve heard that Brubaker and Phillips’ other series Incognito, Criminal, and Sleeper are also good, but I have yet to read them. Fodder for the next emotionally disturbing nights, I guess.

To end my other story, once the roads opened back at 10 AM, I drove to Boulder, just to see if the shop was still around. Miraculously, it had survived. There was one drop of water from the ceiling and everything else was perfect. I realize that I was incredibly lucky. Just eight stores down, the Tokyo Joe’s next to us had their backroom flooded. A block away the Sprouts grocery store had water up to chest-level and all of their produce had been ruined. Another nearby business had their ceiling cave in from the weight of the water. I opened the store, thinking that no one would come in and I would leave in a few hours only to have a line out the door until I could call for backup. Everything had turned out.

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