The third collection of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' horror-noir series delves into the history of the Femme Fatale and the ancient society that watches her and worships ancient gods. I'm tempted to call these four issues a prequel or a diversion from the main story, except the series has always moved around in time. But it's never gone back this far before. In these four issues we learn about some of Josephine's earlier activities, as well as two of her fatale predecessors.
In "The Case of Alfred Ravenscroft" it's 1936. Josephine is in Texas seeking a writer named Alfred Ravenscroft, with the help of a policemen who has fallen under her spell. Ravenscroft had published a horror story with details of a demonic ceremony so close to Jo's experience that she had to find out where it came from. The writer tells of a cult his mother joined, and takes Jo in to meet her. She is a ghostly presence with the demonic tentacles that we have seen before. As Josephine flees the scene, the writer realizes "she didn't even know what she was."
"A Lovely Sort of Death" goes way back, to France in 1286 A.D. The fatale of this era was named Mathilda. She has the usual powerful effect on men, and when the White Brotherhood comes for her--dressed in the now-familiar robes with yellow crosses on them--she even survives being burned at the stake. But she finally succumbs to whatever they summon during a later blood rite (very subtle visual here, just a flash of light and a horrified expression, with the rest left to the reader's imagination). An old book does survive her, a book which we have already seen several times in the series.
"Down the Darkest Trail" is set in Colorado in 1883. "Black" Bonnie Smith is the current fatale, drawn with a close resemblance to Josephine (I suppose because it's closer to the present). She's had a hard life in the West, but she learned to control her power over men, and is an outlaw when the main action begins. She is once again being pursued by men who may not be human. A professor who has been studying the group takes her and his Native American guide to a church, seeking a copy of their bible. The professor dies in the assault, but the other two take the book and live the rest of their lives together. So in the end this chapter turns out to be mainly about the movement of the cursed book. From the professor's description the book is some kind of grimoire: "men who worshiped gods with unpronounceable names...and whose bibles sometimes drove them mad." The book itself appears to have magical properties.
"Just A Glance Away" gets us back to Josephine. It's Romania in 1943, and she has wound up in a Nazi prison, as a result of the investigations begun by what she learned in Texas in the first story. She knows the shadowy things she has seen are real, and wants to know what her role is. An old woman in occupied Paris teaches her practical magic, like warding symbols. Seeking further answers, she follows the Thule Society to Romania, where a secret SS unit has been excavating ancient burial grounds and temples, gathering arcane knowledge. But the Nazi affiliation is just a front: once again, these "men" are not human. The man/demon in charge tells her he saw her predecessor die, "although death isn't exactly the right word...devoured is more accurate." She has been drawn to this place, for a ceremony during the convergence: and "she's for our Master." He reads from the book that keeps appearing, but the ceremony is interrupted by an American soldier named Walter. She knows she was to have been sacrificed, but he sees the secret world, just like the old lady. So she stays with him, knowing he will eventually grow old and weak.
So, what have we learned? There have been a succession of femme fatales, each with the same power over men, which all of them have apparently needed to learn how to control. They live for a long time without seeming to age: Josephine appears unchanged since the 1930s. And they all appear to have been striking brunettes who resemble Josephine. It may be possible for them to die of natural causes, or at least it's implied in the case of Bonnie. The story says "she followed him [the Native American called Milkfed] to the grave a year later." Although it also says "the earth broke open and an entire city burned...and she finally understood the words written in that book." So possibly she was the predecessor Jo was told about when the Nazis were about to sacrifice her. The large-scale burning resembles the scene after Mathilda comes to her horrifying end.
The White Brotherhood watches the fatales so they can be ready for sacrifice to the Master at the proper time, which happens when there is a "convergence" of some sort.
I need to point out here that "Alfred Ravenscroft" and his mother appear to be based loosely on Robert E. Howard and his mother. ("Ravenscroft" sounds more like Lovecraft, which may be a nod to that writer, a contemporary of Howard's and frequent correspondent.) Anyway, Howard lived with his mother in rural Texas during his career, and committed suicide shortly after her death. In Fatale, Brubaker gives a supernatural reason for those events.
That's an interesting fact I did not know. Thanks, Cap!