Writer Ed Brubaker has been involved in some of the biggest comic books in recent history. From Batman to Daredevil to introducing the world to Captain America's Winter Solider, many of his comics have been adapted to TV and film.
But with Brubaker's latest comic book series, he's decided to make Hollywood the center of attention. He grew up watching noir films, including the 1944 movie "Murder My Sweet," which is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, “Farewell, My Lovely." Brubaker's uncle wrote the screenplay to the film and after hearing his uncle’s stories about Hollywood in the '40s, Brubaker decided to write a graphic novel about that era.
"The Fade Out" centers around a screenwriter at the time when the Hollywood blacklist prevented entertainers who were suspected communists from working in the business.
Ed Brubaker spoke with The Frame's host, John Horn, about "The Fade Out," what Hollywood was like in the 1940s and how studios are already trying to get at his latest project:
Why is 1940s Hollywood so rich with story?
I think of Hollywood as kind of the last American gold rush at that time, especially during the Depression and the war and the post-war era. You had the Depression — everything was bad but everyone wanted to make movies and go see the movies. From reading about it, there were hundreds of people just getting off buses in Hollywood thinking they were going to be a movie star. So it's like "Deadwood" or something, but with a lot more glamour and sex and drugs and alcohol and secrets. A lot more secrets that's for sure.
If people think that Hollywood is debauched now, they had no idea what it was like 50 or 60 years ago.
Yeah, it couldn't be that debauched now because of social media [laughs.] In a way — because of fixers like Eddie Mannix — they were able to actually control the media a lot more. At the time when movie stars started becoming a thing, our media was so different and our country was so conservative in a lot of ways that a movie star getting divorced would be a huge scandal that could have ruined their career. So in the early days of Hollywood there was trying to control the press and trying to control the public image of these peoples. That's one of the things that really drew me to writing about the era — the masks that everyone had to wear, not just the actors but then everybody.
Your story starts with a screenwriter who's fronting for a blacklisted screenwriter who has his problems with alcoholism. And this other screenwriter wakes up [one day] and there's a dead body not that far away from him.
You know, those blackouts you wake up from in 1947 during the blacklist [laughs.] Yeah, that was my way into this story. We would come [to L.A.] when I was a kid to my uncle and aunt's house and we would go to Universal Studios in the '70s and I would be looking at my uncle's shelves of screenplays. He had leather-bound volumes of all these screenplays. So I always knew that he had this exciting life in the movies, but I always got the sense that my uncle was really bitter about it all. When I got older and asked my dad about it, he said, "Well, you know, most of his friends had their lives destroyed." And he started telling me about it. It's weird because my dad was very conservative, but because this had happened to someone he knew, he was much more anti-blacklist than a lot of people were at that time.
What was the genesis of the idea?
It all kind of grew from various seeds, and I wanted to do something different than I'd done before. I had finished a big horror story and had done a lot of crime stories before that and I wanted to do kind of an epic noir that would have some meta connotations to it. I felt like comics could really do that. It's meticulously researched. I hired a research assistant to collate this huge photo file for us. It's got thousands and thousands of photos all categorized by neighborhood, real people, movie stars, movie premieres, cool restaurants...
What did The Brown Derby look like back then?
Yeah, exactly! When I started working with the research assistant and telling her what we needed and stuff, it was because I wanted to live in that era. When I'm working on the scripts, I'm listening to old '40s music...
What kind of music are you listening to? What's your playlist to creating these comics?
Right now I'm listening to some anthologies of greatest hits 'cause I wanna think about what people were actually listening to on the radio, as opposed to what is the best stuff of that time — stuff like "Darn That Dream" and, you know, "When You Wish Upon A Star" was a huge song.
You wrote in the second installment in your series, "I literally thought this was the least commercial idea I've ever had."
You were proven wrong, weren't you?
Yeah. This is actually the best selling thing we've ever done. We have this deal at Image [Comics] where we can do anything we wanna do for the next five years. We don't have to tell them about it or pitch them anything. It's kind of like having an overall deal at a studio, but everything's already green lit. No one in comics has ever had a deal like that before. But Sean and I have been working together for 15 years.
Sean Phillips is your illustrator?
Yeah. We had a big track record. So I [told] the publisher, "Just let us do whatever we want," and they were totally down with it. So the first thing I thought was, What do I want to do that I would be hard-pressed to sell a comic book publisher on? And I thought, Well, a bunch of people in the '40s standing around and talking. And lo and behold, there's nothing else like it on the shelves — and people like it.
But people aren't just talking, they're talking about Hollywood at that era. This is the breakup of the star system, of the studio monopoly system.
Yeah, it's very influenced by [Raymond] Chandler's idea of what a murder mystery should be. "Who cares whodunnit?" is what he said. It was more about writing about the journey of the people that are caught in the ripple of this murder mystery. And for me, like what you just said, it's the beginning of the end of the studio system, the beginning of the blacklist is happening. All these things are colliding at this one point in history. And having that one personal connection to it had made me always interested in that. But then stepping and looking at it from today, I see a lot of parallels to what's going on in the world today. You see the studios always gobbling each other up. I work in film and TV. I know for a fact that it would be a lot easier if the studio system were reinstated for the studios. They would be able to just sort of tell people what they're doing instead of asking them or instead of trying to give them a cut of the profit. It [would be] like, Here's your contract, and that's it.
Have people already approached you about taking your graphic novel and making it into a movie about Hollywood?
I don't really talk about that stuff with them until I'm done with it because on another project that's been in development on-and-off for years at different studios, after the first issue came out, we had so much interest in it. I was on the phone with movie people all the time, and it kind of affected the way I was doing the end of the story 'cause I kept thinking, Am I doing the right one that Hollywood will want? So now, if someone huge calls up and [says], "I love this book. I want it" — and this has happened before a few times — I'll just say, "Well, let's get together and talk. I'm not gonna tell you how the story ends or any of that stuff, but I wanna see what you're into about it. And then let me finish it and we'll sit down and talk and I won't sell it to anyone first." But that's Hollywood for you.
“The Fade Out” by Ed Brubaker is currently in comic book stores. The fifth and sixth issues in the series are due later this month.