Fatale (Vol 3): West of Hell by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
In West of Hell, Book Three of Fatale, Brubaker adds depth to the character of his femme fatale, Josephine. He also adds more mystery because we meet two women who look like Jo, but do not go by that name. These two women show up in the four interlinked stories that make up West of Hell. The first story is set in the Great Depression, and the second story takes us back to the Middle Ages. The third is set in the Old West, and the fourth during World War Two. Because of these jumps in time, Brubaker gets a chance to try his hand at two genres that are new to him — the Western and the war story (stories three and four, respectively). The first story, however, feels more noir-like in keeping with the rest of the series, but the second, set in the Middle Ages, has a feel all its own. It is unique out of all the issues that make up the Fatale series.
In “The Case of Alfred Ravenscroft,” we start out in Texas, 1936. Josephine is found by Officer Nelson at the scene of a double-murder. After arresting her, Officer Nelson can’t sleep that night and finds himself returning to the jail to release her and help her escape. They ride across Texas as she seeks out find Alfred Ravenscroft, a pulp writer, whose story in Ghastly Tales has caught Jo’s attention. The story, with two titles—“The Demon from Beyond Hell” and “The Unseen Eyes”—matches the nightmares that Jo has been having for years. Ravenscroft will hopefully, with the help of his mother, reveal to Jo some clues to her true nature.
In “A Lovely Sort of Death,” Brubaker takes us to 1286 France and tells us the story of Mathilda, who woke up forty-two years ago as an adult, naked and without any memories. She is attacked by the White Brotherhood, tortured, and burned at the stake before escaping and healing mysteriously. Found in the woods by an old man named Ganix, she lives peacefully before the Brotherhood intrudes yet again into her life. At one point, we are given a glimpse into the nature of reality in the world of Fatale, for Mathilda had “known for a long time there was more than one layer to the sky.” There’s plenty of blood as always, and Bishop, from book one, puts in an appearance as well.
We meet “Black” Bonnie in Colorado 1883, and “Down the Darkest Trail” tells the tale of yet another doppelganger of Jo. Bonnie has been the wife of a rancher, a nun, a singer, a mother, and a prisoner, but at the time we meet her she is an outlaw who travels with a band of outlaws — men of course — whom she can control, which is a good thing since she “can’t shoot for shit,” as she says at one point. One day she is captured by a Native American, Milkfed, and taken to meet Professor Waldo Smythe, Chemist and Scholar, who travels around selling his Magic Elixir. He knows more about what Bonnie is than Bonnie knows herself, and her travels with the Professor and Milkfed will reveal more answers to the mystery that is the femme fatale of Fatale.
Finally, we are taken into war in 1943, and we get the story of the young Walt Booker, the man who will become the corrupted cop we met in Book One of Fatale. In “Just a Glance Away,” we find out how he first discovered the dangerous Lovecraftian world hidden within our world. Walt seems to be able to read the arcane scripts of the cult without going mad, like most men would and most men do, as Walt finds out. Meanwhile, Jo meets an old woman named Mirela who teaches her more about herself, but tells her there is more to know from the men in the cults, the men who are “Hitler’s mystic priests,” but, she warns Jo, these are the very men whom she should avoid at all costs. Jo, of course, doesn’t listen. This is the story of how Jo and Walt first meet, of why they are together in Book One.
This third book, the middle one of five, is perfectly written and placed properly at the mid-point, I think, because after two books, we are looking for more answers, just as Jo is. And though we do get some answers, Brubaker does a good job of keeping the mystery going. Sean Phillips’ art is sublime, as always, and he captures perfectly noir and Lovecraftian horror, not to mention the Wild West and the horror of war. With each book, we are witness to a growing number of monsters as we dig deeper into the cult, but Book Three, West of Hell, has one effect overall: It makes you want to pick up Book Four. And if you’ve made it this far into the series, there’s no doubt: You can’t look away and will be following Brubaker and Phillips to the end.