Night Fever
Night Fever

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: June 2023

“So what part of your mind is pulling your strings then? Is it the real you…? And if it is… why is it so ugly?”

Night Fever is a rapid descent into the abyss of our souls, and an often unsavory look at the dissatisfaction and capacity for violence that animates human nature. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have left their mark on the comics industry by producing complex studies of crime and the moral ambiguity that drives us to it, but Night Fever feels especially dark, and especially nihilistic. We’re taken on a journey that starts bleak and never relents as we watch Jonathan Webb navigate a paranoid thriller in the heart of European nightlife.

The first notable difference in this work compared to other Brubaker/Phillips comics is that the entire story is set in 1970s Europe. Rather than capturing the grit of American west coast crime, we’re treated to a depiction of a European city that feels mysterious, almost haunted by history and debauchery we’ve barely scratched the surface of. Sean Phillips renders this world in rich detail, with careful attention paid to architectural landmarks and the narrow corridors created by imperfectly huddled together buildings. An immediate contrast develops between this old world architecture and the grid based system of American cities. Destroy All Monsters, for example, is especially aware of how California travel operates, and how the layout of roads and cities may have direct narrative impact. Night Fever is far more ambiguous, with Phillips intentionally disorienting us by following curvy trails, and dropping us in locations with little to no geographic context. This adds to the paranoia at the heart of the story, and is enhanced by the use of night and day.

The reader is made aware that we are operating in the inverse realms of light and darkness. The scenes during the day are largely in crowded rooms, with the typical professionals one expects on a business trip. But during the night we’re out in the open, we’re following Jonathan down staircases and moving past dark alleyways. The people are masked, hidden or isolated. The distinction between how we choose to present ourselves during the day and the darkness we let loose in the night is painted very clearly and we’re left to wonder who we really are when we fail to reconcile these opposing impulses.

Jacob Phillips is crucial here, as his coloring perfectly captures a 1970s neo-noir aesthetic. During the night, the city is shown in dark blue and purple pastels, with glows of yellow providing the soft edge around the otherwise dark colors. The balance struck here evokes the contradiction at the heart of the story by creating a battle between the light and dark tones that Jonathan reveals to us throughout his misadventure.

This aesthetic also harkens back to Brubaker’s work with Nicolas Winding Refn on the Amazon series, Too Old to Die Young. While the opposing style of Brubaker’s writing which is designed to be short and pointed, conflicted with the long takes, and slow methodical pace of Refn’s directing, the visuals always seemed like a match made in heavy. Refn’s work in that series, and his other projects like Drive with Ryan Gosling, use similar colors to what Jacob Phillips employs here allowing for the best of both worlds in terms of neo-noir that suits a sharp, pulpy script.

Night Fever is ultimately a story about how harbored resentment cultivates an  inner darkness that makes our life into a prison. That resentment stems from the inability to accept that regardless of what you have, you will always have a drive to get something else. Everything you’ve built for yourself is nothing but settling for less, you’re trapped by your own doing and everything you reach out for in an attempt to break that prison is merely paving the way to another cage. Jonathan Webb guides us down his midlife introspection, where we wonder about all the paths that we have not traveled and all the opportunities we deferred for later that are now gone forever. Webb’s life is resentful but not malicious, per se. Rather it’s an all too human resentment over the trappings of our routine and the chokehold of how basic survival prevents us from ever feeling like we’re truly alive. 

Like Brubaker/Phillips’ other recent work, such as Reckless, Cruel Summer, and Pulp, this is ultimately a story about death. Not in the sense that the character is already at the end of their life, but rather that they have found themselves cut off from the future, and every action they take is in response to a feeling of they are no longer satisfied living the life they’ve found themselves in. At some point, the choices we made in the past feel alien to us, that we’ve been set upon an inevitable path that we no longer understand. Some may choose to accept their lot, but everyone harbors a longing in them created by potentiality, by “what ifs” that they have no hope of changing now. Whether we let that consume us, or whether we have any choice in the matter is left for us to ponder as this story has no easy answers, it simply posits the question and forces us to grapple with what we regret, and what we decide to do about it.

Night Fever is a bitter pill to swallow. Surely not all of us are miserable in our lives, surely not all of us are regretful of how we got here, surely this is all just projection and regular people don’t have any of these dark tendencies, right? Does resentment build merely from regret? Or is it also created by denial? Are we just as bad off if we don’t find time to reflect on our resentment? Must we admit it exists and can we ever climb back out of the abyss once we see it? 

Everyctime Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips release a new project, it’s difficult not to herald it as their best yet. This is a team that out does themselves so regularly that it’s no wonder they’ve developed a loyal base that will follow them anywhere, even if we aren’t always sold at first. The idea of doing five original graphic novels with the Reckless series was a risk that paid off, and had they just done that for the rest of their lives I would have been completely content. Taking a break after five books and doing something radically different is also a risk but yet again, it’s one that paid off and there continues to be no reason to doubt this team. If you adored Reckless as much as I did, then pick up Night Fever because it continues to give us everything we’ve come to expect in a Brubaker/Phillips book, while simultaneously pushing them into unique territory that leaves a chill down your spine like never before.

Final Verdict: BUY

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