A brief note: I’m using noir in this context to refer to both film noir and noir-ish detective novels, because otherwise it’s just an exhausting exercise in drawing ever more granular distinctions that no one bar three obsessives cares about, and it also fails to inform upon this context. Still here? Good. Let’s go.
Noir has a troubled relationship with women. Yes, its heroes are meant to be flawed. Greek legend levels of flawed. These people get stuff wrong, a lot, and I appreciate. A lot of noir is still fiercely misogynist, which is problematic, in an enjoying problematic things way. There’s plenty to love about those stories, but the general treatment of women is not one of them.
Fatale (by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips, who together know more than most about crime fiction) takes the weary femme fatale archetype and subverts it brilliantly. Josephine, the titular character, is a femme fatale that has the role thrust upon her – a murkily-defined ritual has given her the power to manipulate men, and has left her on the run from people far scarier than the usual mobsters and hitmen (of course, these figure). She resents it, fights against it, reluctantly employs it when it’s a matter of using it or surviving. It’s not a million miles away from the usual sad, desperate and manipulative women of noir stories, but it’s that closeness when combined with the crucial differences that makes it a worthwhile comparison.
In creating a character that is aware of her own role in the story, Fatale allows Brubaker not to just use the trope in a modern setting, but also examine and deconstruct it in a dramatic setting. There’s nothing especially campy about Fatale (as there usually is with any post-modern take on noir or pulp), it’s just a pulp story told in a framework that allows it to both treat the story and the genre with a certain authenticity (give or take some cosmic horror), while allowing its female lead to be a stronger and more interesting character than the form usually allows.
It’s not the first comic to attempt it. Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias places a female character in the gumshoe role (in the Marvel Universe no less), and doesn’t clean it up in any way. It strays in some ways (superpowered rape analogies, for one thing), but it’s still an interesting take on the genre. Both are worth reading, but Fatale is worth picking up now. It’s recently been expanded into an ongoing series, and with good reason. Beyond all the clever deconstruction, it’s also just an excellent crime / horror tale.