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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Your Second Chance at Sleeper -- If you haven't been reading Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, you're missing probably the best crime/superhero comic ever. Sure, that's a small genre, but the way Brubaker and Phillips have successfully melded these two very different concepts into one fascinating and continuously surprising saga has been one of the greatest comics successes of the past year. Your second chance is a new trade paperback collection, which is discussed in this article at Newsarama. Now, you may be wondering more about my opinion. Back in May, at Comic Book Galaxy, I posted the following piece. If you missed it then, here's...

Why You Should Be Reading Sleeper

Holden Carver is screwed. There's your high concept right there.

You might guess from the name of the lead character in Sleeper that the book explores existential despair in a complex and often dark manner -- and you'd be right. Brubaker and Phillips, both of them doing perhaps the best work of their careers, have created a compelling character in Carver. He's sympathetic, but forced by circumstance to carry out the orders of Tao, one of the most brilliant and twisted schemers ever depicted in comics.

Tao came to prominence during Alan Moore's Wildcats run, a seeming hero who was eventually revealed to be manipulating the team (and just about everyone else) to the tune of his dark agenda. He's a variation on Moore's Adrian Veidt from Watchmen, although unlike Veidt, Tao seems to know he's working the wrong side of the fence. He is, I think, Veidt's dark reflection -- always watching, always calculating, never revealing his true intentions. I don't envy Brubaker for picking up the ball from Alan Moore and running with it, but he's maintained Tao's unknowable brilliance, the sense that he's a twisted bastard who is fifteen moves ahead of everyone and ready to do anything to carry out his true agenda -- and he's Holden Carver's boss, which is why, as I said, Holden Carver is screwed.

Carver was introduced in Point Blank, a challenging-but-rewarding five-issue mini-series written by Brubaker that isn't essential to understanding Sleeper, but which definitely adds to an understanding of Carver and his background. In a nutshell, he was a sleeper agent for John Lynch, the chief spook of the Wildstorm Universe. The conceit at work in Sleeper is that Lynch is the only one who knows Carver is playing for the good guys, and Lynch is in a coma and may never recover.

Carver is virtually unkillable -- he is able to heal quickly from any injury, but the price he pays for this talent (bestowed on him by accidental exposure to an artifact that fell out of The Bleed) is that he can't feel anything -- so he requires extreme sensations to even remember what it was like to be human. He wants to do the right thing, he wants to come in from his years as a sleeper working for Tao's organization, but his every step finds him walking further and further down the wrong path. Carver is becoming so morally compromised that it's questionable whether John Lynch would even vouch for him if he could, if he knew the actions Carver has had to take to maintain his cover.

What Brubaker and Phillips deliver here is a stylish and fascinating take on the anti-hero -- one who sees himself as a hero but knows no one else does, who is locked in a brutal struggle to stay alive long enough to complete his mission, but who is sliding down a dangerous spiral and working for perhaps the most dangerous man who ever lived. It's entirely possible, he knows, that Tao is onto him already.

The thing I love about Sleeper the most (aside from the dark, violent drama and brilliantly noirish art of Sean Phillips) is the oblique way that Brubaker parses out information. Point Blank was a story that really had to be observed from all angles to be appreciated fully, and while Sleeper doesn't utilize the same non-linear approach as the mini-series, it does require the reader to pay attention and draw conclusions. It's a morally challenging work -- especially the most recent issue, which requires Carver to go to shocking new extremes to protect himself and his mission.

The thing is, the mission is worth protecting. Carver has learned much important information about perhaps the most important criminal mastermind in history, and if he is ever able to come in from the cold, he could do a world of good by bringing Tao down once and for all.

The criminal organizations, the compromised sleeper agent, the murders and violence, all of it could be a cliched mess in the wrong hands. But Brubaker and Phillips turn out each masterful chapter with confidence, insight and excitement.

Sleeper is a fantastic read, probably the best crime comic being published today. Carver is one of the best new mainstream characters in years, complex and engaging -- we're fully inside his head and able to sympathize with him even as we watch him commit some of the most loathsome criminal acts imaginable. It's a real triumph for Brubaker and Phillips, and if they did this book forever, that'd be just fine with me. Grade: 5/5


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