Ed Brubaker’s “Fatale” as Cosmic Horror-Noir Through Semiotics


I must preempt my examination of the horror-noir comic by first taking a firm stance on one historically debated topic among critics: Is noir a genre or style?  Here I must publicly state that I reside strongly on the side of…both.

Those arguing noir as a genre point to the abundance of conventions and tropes that establish it as such; the hard-drinking detective, the femme fatale, convoluted and often unresolved plots, smoking, cities, and so on.  As the genre evolved these conventions remain intact as much as the conventions of any other bona fide genre have, so there is no reason not to categorize noir as such.  

The Truth is 1000 times more scarier than the mystery.

The Truth is 1000 times scarier than the mystery.

Editorial By: Epic Switzer

Noir as a style refers us to the multitude of disparate kinds of storytelling that maintain the noir sensibilities. Notably a dark, grimy, dreadful tone suggesting hopeless, nihilism, the gritty true fear of understanding the world is unforgiving, and that people are naturally selfish.

From this perspective noir is not a subcategory of fiction, but a pervasive feeling present in many genres.  Marrying these two perspectives is as simple as invoking one particular theory of semiotics: the signifier and the signified, the finger pointing to the moon.  Allow noir as genre to represent the signifier here; the sign that points to a bigger idea, the signified style or tone that is the emotional spine of the story.  Let the conventions and tropes act as the finger pointing to the moon that is the feeling being conveyed.  Now we can see the noir as both the genre and the style: a shadow of a man with a gun gives us the feeling of hopelessness.  This becomes important as we examine the way in which noir has stuck its sticky black tentacles into almost every corner of the narrative landscape.

No other genre/style has exemplified the post-modern movement as naturally.  As pastiche and amalgamation became the dominant mode of storytelling in film and literature noir evolved and invaded all types of genres.  The Neo-noirs of the 60s and 70s (Chinatown, Body Heat) give rise to the Sci/fi-noir (Blade Runner, Alphaville) and eventually to our area of interest the horror-noir.  These films and novels took the dark sensibilities of noir and combined the cultural fears exemplified by horror.  The pairing of these genres is a match made in hell, but it may be of some surprise how rarely this narrative combination is produced by comparison.  There are of course prime examples: Silence of the Lambs and Se7en in film and the Nightside series of books by Simon R. Greene as well as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are just a few.  But works in the horror-noir genre are too few and far between.

In his recent article The H Word: Hardboiled Horror, Nicholas Kauffmann makes a case for the peanut-butter-and-chocolate-like tastiness of horror-noir.  He says This shared tone of darkness and pessimism makes the horror-noir hybrid inevitable. And why shouldn’t it be? The two fit together like perfect puzzle pieces. But I believe the overlap between them goes beyond tone. Most noir stories involve crime in one form or another, with the protagonist frequently being a hardboiled detective, either professional or amateur, trying to solve the central mystery. I would argue that at the heart of most horror stories, too, is a mystery waiting to be solved.”

Mystery is truly at the heart of the horror-noir.  The fear and sense of dread stem from a core misunderstanding, something distant and uninviting that the protagonist can’t help but investigate. Despite the inevitably that they’ll learn something they certainly didn’t want to know. In essence, the horror-noir is a mystery you’re afraid to solve, because the truth is so much more horrible than anything you can imagine.  The fear of the unfathomably real is the central conceit of cosmic horror, popularized by early 1900’s authors H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers, who emphasized the psychological effects a horror would have on humanity over the horror itself (signified and signifier).

Noir has found a home in the cosmic horror genre.  The pervasive hopelessness of in the face of a cold, uncaring world is now hopelessness in the face of a cold, uncaring universe.  The thrill of solving a mystery is replaced by the maddening anxiety of unraveling the mysteries of the universe.  The once tough-as-nails detective who solves the case at hand with his wit and swagger is replaced by a weaker protagonist, one who searches desperately for clues in an effort to save his soul before some unfathomable beast drives him to insanity.  In the cosmic horror-noir, catching the bad guy may be the worst thing you can do.  Escaping him (or more appropriately, “it”) for as long as possible may be the only course of action.  Case in point: Ed Brubaker’s devilishly plotted “Fatale.”


You know you want it.

The first arc of “Fatale” has all the conventions one has come to expect from Brubaker’s crime books and noir in general: corrupt cops, over-zealous reporters, violent murders to solve, a group of interesting characters with individual agendas and yet-undiscovered motives.  What’s more we have classic horror elements: witchcraft, monsters, cults, and an unnaturally persuasive leading lady.  The style, beautifully illustrated by Sean Phillips, depicts the bleak, sharp angled, chiaroscuro world of the noir, along with the horrific violence, inconceivable creatures, and visions of the cosmic horror.  All of this adds up to a unique blending of genres in a novel way.  What isn’t apparent at first glance, and what elicits cause to celebrate the genius that is Ed Brubaker, is how seamlessly these styles are entwined to the point at which you may have forgotten they were ever separate entities to begin with.  Indeed Brubaker demonstrates the perfect semblance of the horror-noir.

It is not these signifiers that permit us to define this book as a horror-noir hybrid, but rather what they signify. The feeling of insignificance one gets from existing in the world of “Fatale” is difficult to overstate.  Dread is pervasive; the threat presented to the protagonist Jo is unrelenting and insurmountable.  As patterns emerge, Jo’s consorts are unceremoniously destroyed in any number of horrific ways, a sense of anguish is all that remains. Resistance to the design of the universe is beyond futile; it’s what the mad laugh hysterically about.

In issue #20 Brubaker quotes Nietzsche:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”

This sentiment, echoed (rather appropriately per our discussion) by Rust Cohle on HBO’s True Detective, perfectly illustrates what cosmic horror-noir is all about: truly there is no escape, nothing to overcome, nowhere to run and no mystery to solve. You’ve lived these horrors before and you shall live them again exactly the same way. Futility and hopelessness define this genre.  Brubaker takes the ultimate existential crisis and creates a visual experience to approximate it in the most effective way possible, on the comic page.


Side effects of cosmic horror include permanently clenched buttcheeks.

The horror-noir has found its home in the comic medium for a multitude of reasons. Unrestricted by budget and runtime, Brubaker is free to tell the kind of sprawling story that a noir demands while maintaining the anxiety-building pacing of a strong horror tale. Phillips art perfectly balances the grotesque with the smoky, urban environments that characterize the noir.  The effectiveness of this title in this format is rivaled only by the aforementioned True Detective series, hence here’s hoping for a “Fatale” HBO series in the near future.

“Fatale” exemplifies the horror-noir genre, but there are a number of really great reads if you find yourself consumed the darkness and hungry for more.  Tim Seeley’s “Revival” is a rural noir (think Fargo) about a small town that’s got a problem with the dead coming back to life.  There is of course Supernatural Detective John Constantine in Hellblazer” with some arcs more noirish than others, check out Dark Entries for a start.  Also let’s not forget Steve Niles’ excellent Criminal Macabre” stories.

Epic Switzer AKA Eric is an aspiring filmmaker and screenplay writer living in Los Angeles.  His work tends to focus on the lighter side of entropy, dystopic futures, and man’s innate struggle with his own mortality.  He can be found on twitter @epicswitzer or reached via email at ericswitzerfilm@gmail.com
What do you think of Fatale and the cosmic horror-noir hybrid genre?  Am I off the mark?  Leave a comment and join the discussion!

  • Epic Switzer

    Plug for @thekaufmann as well his article “Hard Boiled Horror” partly inspired my article:

    He also has a horror-noir novel called “Dying is My Business” which I just ordered a copy of and can’t wait to read.

  • KiraHaxellepa

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