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fadeout THE FADE OUT Vol 1 (Image Comics. Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips/Elizabeth Breitweiser)
SATELLITE SAM Vol 2: Satellite Sam And The Kinescope Snuff (Image Comics. Matt Fraction/Howard Chaykin)

One of the nice things about the current rise of Image is the leeway it gives creators to do passion projects, in this case a pair of historical crime thrillers which stand or fall on how indulgently evocative they are of places long-established in other fictions. So The Fade Out is story set in the dream factory of 40s Hollywood, where fine movies are made by people of integrity who spend their time being nice to each other. ONLY JOKING! There’s a dead starlet pretty much on page one and after that it’s four issues of noir bingo, lovingly executed by the purring collaborative engine of Brubaker and Phillips.

I don’t really care about Hollywood, or noir. But these guys do. It’s obvious the word “comfort zone” is too small for where these creators are on The Fade Out: this is an all out luxury zone, with writer and artist pillowing down and indulging themselves in every possible trope. Drunks, skunks, reds both under and in the bed (maybe they’ll end up dead?) and plenty of real life stars to spot. It’s glossy, beautifully overripe even when it’s dark, a romp if you like. I’m not feeling it exactly, but I’m certainly enjoying it.

If I had to pick, though, I’d pick Satellite Sam. Fraction and Chaykin’s period piece of sex, suits and swearing at the birth of live TV has a strong middle act, with protagonist Michael White swapping one addiction for another as he starts to follow in his dead Dad’s footsteps. The ostensible mystery – Who Killed Satellite Sam? – becomes ever more of a MacGuffin in this volume, but it hardly matters: as with part one, you read for the texture more than the plot.

Where the second volume improves is serving up more interesting characters – while the main plot takes a leisurely route, there are revelations and developments for the supporting cast that make Satellite Sam a far stronger ensemble piece and make its 1950s seem vivid, even if each individual twist (a brutal wartime past; a black man forced to ‘pass’ as white in 50s TV) feels like it’s there to introduce commentary on the era as much as to deepen a character. But that’s period drama for you. A breezy conjuration of place and tone, with Chaykin enjoying himself drawing craggy men and fleshy women – though close consultation of the character guide is still recommended to make most sense of it. (3.5 stars / 4 stars)

MANIFEST DESTINY Vol 2: Amphibia And Insecta (Image Comics. Chris Dingess/Matthew Roberts/Owen Gieni)

Chris Dingess’ and Matthew Roberts’s American frontier history meets Cthulhoid horror comic continues to be one of Image’s more straightforwardly entertaining series. Beyond the high concept pitch this is a satisfying adventure comic, no less and not much more: much of this second volume is spent with the Lewis and Clark expedition’s crew trapped by a suitably squamous amphibian beast, which allows Dingess to develop and complicate his cast a little more, though makes for a less exciting few issues than the multiple horrors of volume one. A meeting with some locals at the end of the volume has as much plot development as the entire rest of the book, providing useful backstory and an indication of quite how out of their depth our protagonists are.

Something I particularly enjoy about Manifest Destiny is the sense of stretched resources, particularly of the human kind – even the vilest human being might at some point come in useful, so a lot of time is spent trying to rescue and repair men apparently lost to the monstrosities of the wilderness. It makes for a horror comic with a low body count but a strong sense of stakes, and Roberts’ enjoyably earthy, detailed art makes every scratch, gash, and pustule count. (3 stars)

SECRET AVENGERS Vol 1: Let’s Have A Problem (Marvel Comics. Ales Kot/Michael Walsh/Matthew Wilson)

A third stab at making the Secret Avengers title work for Marvel – this one a S.H.I.E.L.D. book in all but name, picking up some of the cast but none of the tone of Nick Spencer’s suspenseful run. Ales Kot’s approach has been compared to Hawkeye – it has Hawkeye in it, and he acts a bit like he does in the Matt Fraction book – but Secret Avengers reminds me of a whole stew of titles. Michael Walsh’s quirky, diagrammatic art is in line with Chip Zdarsky’s approach on Sex Criminals or Steve Lieber’s on Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, and Kot’s flip tone isn’t far off Superior Foes either. But there’s a commitment to stylish, near-future weirdness (a sentient bomb built by an art terrorist, to pick an idea that catches the tone nicely) that recalls Grant Morrison, or the grandfather of Marvel spy cool, Steranko.

That’s a strong list of notes to hit, and Kot is one of the more exciting and ambitious writers Marvel have found lately. Secret Avengers isn’t as good as his independent work, but it offers hip, smart, fairly sophisticated fun. It’s not quite cohering yet, though – some characters still feel like they’re in it by decree rather than need, the references can be a touch too on the nose, the situations hotter in concept than execution. But Kot writes a zippy Phil Coulson, Maria Hill, and Clint Barton and he’s the first writer to make the new Nick Fury seem like a good idea. In a character- and idea-driven book, that’s a fine strikerate. (3 stars)

PROPHET, Vol 1: Remission (Image Comics. Brandon Graham/Simon Roy/Farel Dalrymple/Giannis Milonogiannis)

The first time I read these stories – as individual issues, closer to when they came out – I adored the imagination and sensory impact of each comic but the story seemed looser. Not so, on re-reading: as a graphic novel the action in the first long story sets off the three shorter ones that follow it, and each one introduces crucial information for the series as a whole. Prophet’s reputation for trippiness sells it short – this is also well-planned science fiction in a complex and visceral universe.

That said, it is a gorgeous, sensual comic, one of Image’s very best – fluid lines, fleshy colours and widescreen, information-rich compositions working together as a far-future derangement. The minimal scripting is a joy, too – I feel like I’ve seen the impact of its terse potency across a lot of other comics, Image and otherwise. (Though perhaps the style begins earlier – but this was the first time I noticed it.) The action is portentious, but there is a lot of sly humour lurking in the details of panels – and, in the first story, in the reaction shots of beefcake protagonist John Prophet. Brandon Graham’s great skill – also seen in this year’s 8House:Arclight – is a kind of worldbuilding via alien ecology. Get the details of a food chain or system of exchange right and everything else falls bewitchingly into place. (5 stars)