[an error occurred while processing this directive] Celebrating Five Years of Pushing Comix Forward [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
The world of comics lost a great book recently. For whatever reason (and there could be a whole essay written on the many reasons for the loss), Sleeper is no more. The tragic thing is that this book from writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips really felt like the next step in superhero comics. Now, as the early years of the '90s returns to the spandex crowd, one of the few books that dared to look ahead instead of back fades away, with only the hope that more people find out about it and start picking up the trades. Its end, however, doesn't mean we can no longer celebrate how wonderful the book was.Sleeper is seductive, but the signs of its power are hard to find in the first few issues. Brubaker lays out what appears to be everything the characters are going though right onto the table rather quickly. Holden Carver is a double agent inside a super-villain terrorist organization run by the sly, evil genius Tao. Carver's got one real bad problem with this assignment: the guy who put him there, John Lynch, is lying in a coma. He is, as the title of the first trade paperback tells us, "out in the cold." Holden's superpower is that he can't feel any pain but can absorb and dish it right back out to anyone else. As Holden's mission of committing deeds for the so-called bad guys continue, including killing off a fellow mole in the first issue, it seems that his power would be a subtle insight into his character. Instead Brubaker lets us know explicitly that Holden's capacity to take emotional pain is mutating right along with his physiology. At that point there seems to be nothing subtle about it. Sleeper seems so far to be a book with some good ideas that get bogged down with the genre's unappealing habit of having everything on the surface.
Early on, though, there is a force within this book that tells us that this comic might be something special. It can even be found there on the first few pages. It's Sean Phillips' artwork, along with the dark coloring of first Tony Avina and then Alex Sinclair and others, that strikes the reader as almost hypnotic. Phillips was not exactly unheard of; he had done work for plenty of Vertigo books including some striking covers for The Invisibles, but here there was a whole new method to the storytelling. Throughout the series Phillips will set up a page with small panel not connected to each other in a grid but overlapping each other as if they were leaves chaotically scattered in a pond. Beneath them is a larger panel, many times an establishing shot, which can appear at the top, middle or bottom of a page. This technique means the reader doesn't read right-to-left like a normal North American-style comic but rather in a downward motion and in a diagonal, angular motion at that. This page set-up means that everything from action scenes to dialogue-heavy character interaction scenes all have their own fractured feeling, a feeling that Holden himself is having throughout the book. Sleeper never looked like any book on the stands and reading it, either among a pile of other comics released that particular week or in a collected edition, it creates a totally captivating tone.
It's never just Phillips' art, though. Brubaker may have made a few missteps in terms presenting the life of Holden Carver but there is at least one narrative function he gets right as soon as the book starts. It's derived from Brubaker starting his career in comics doing small press autobiographical work. From this experience his ability at first person narrative has been honed much more than any of his peers in the world of superhero comic book scribes. Sleeper lives by Holden's inner monologue, letting us read the only words we can trust in this world of espionage. It's an inner monologue that reads smoothly and with plenty of emotion in it, not unlike what an expertly done memoir would be like. It's that combination of those caption boxes inside those spread out panels that creates the unique rhythm of the title. Utilizing that rhythm, Sleeper has completely captured its audience. It is then that Brubaker and Phillips really start making things work.
Since the reader has been seduced by the image, soon enough Brubaker creates a world fitting enough for Phillips' stylish-yet-off-kilter look. Sleeper is a superhero book but there's nothing bright and fun about it. For the figures that go around in these weird costumes, Phillips saps them of any statuesque majesty. Instead, as witnessed in the fifth issue of Season One, they are just as much drowned in the atramentous environment as the rest of the characters in Sleeper. Another interesting and recurring element, and one that adds some humor (albeit gallows humor) is the origin story every superpowered character seems destined to tell Holden (in the third person, no less). These sequences stand out because Phillips draws them in a much more linear and traditional manner but also because they make the culture of superheroes these characters live in seem both banal as any job and uniquely grotesque. It's all a part of another thing that separates Sleeper from the rest of the books of the time, it does dark superheroes really well.
Brubaker and Phillips' twisted take on superheroes perfectly mirrors the amoral muck Holden finds himself as one of Tao's right-hand men. With issue two Holden and his pals are dealing with lots of blood spilling, heaping amounts of nudity and more than one naughty word. Never does it feel sensationalistic; Holden's narration makes sure the reader know he's not enjoying any of this. It's the dirty work he has to do deal with working inside Tao's organization. One of the greatest characters in the book is Miss Misery. Here is a woman whose superpower demands that she act in a heinous manner else she gets deathly ill. She is completely in love with being a supervillain but soon enough she also finds herself completely in love with Holden. These feelings she has for a conflicted man create conflict within herself. The Misery/Holden relationship is sexy, violent and ever more and more warped as the series continues. More than anyone else in Holden's supporting cast, Miss Misery is a creature that makes the distorted world of Sleeper so lasting in the mind of its audience.
That motif of betrayal and tables-turning is what makes Sleeper. The first real searing scene of treachery is in the fourth issue of Season One. Tao, Holden and the delightful Miss Misery are in the enclave of the most powerful people on the planet, the people who are running everything. Tao is making one deal after another to those who want to rule the rulers. It is the literally explosive last moments of that issue that we discover that Tao believes that being perfidious will lead one human after another into chaos, where right and wrong are as relative as what you desire (or what you think you desire). It is Tao, but not only Tao, who will turn Holden's life into this brand of chaos and become what makes the book so gripping.
The first season of the book (each season being twelve issues) has the question of "will Holden get out?" hanging over every page. Holden even runs into his old fiancée, who is still working for Lynch's operation, during a mission. As you can imagine that makes him feel even more torn up inside over having to be this deep double agent. The book has a nice contrast between Miss Misery and Veronica, the fiancée. If Tao and Lynch are the two dueling puppet masters Holden finds himself under, Misery and Veronica are the two fellow puppets that represent different paths in life he can choose. It would be inaccurate to say Holden is starting to enjoy life as a superhuman terrorist but he is starting to realize it is not that different from the job he previously had. Lynch waking up and getting him out Tao's set-up is important to Holden because it would mean some kind of piece of mind and the resemblance of some sort of normalcy. It's an intriguing enough plot running through every issue. Too bad for Holden, but very good for the readers, that things get a lot more complicated as one season dies and another starts.
The second season of Sleeper completely obliterates the idea of one side playing for the side of the angels and the other not. Lynch wakes up from his coma and, as revealed at the end of season one, Tao knew all along about Holden being undercover. Holden takes the chaos of his life by basically creating a plan that says "screw you!" to both Tao and Lynch. In superhero comics, even though the lines between good guys and bad have been blurred for a few decades now, there's still always a sense of "justice" whether it's getting done or not. With Sleeper there's no care for justice, at least not in the larger societal sense of the term. Holden is tired of being a puppet for either one of two men, Lynch and his government spies or Tao and his super-villain terrorists. The fight becomes about Holden realizing himself. His narration becomes the most exciting part of the book, reading about how Holden deals with the world with no center he lives in. Also notable about the second season is that Holden is not the only focus of the book. Brubaker takes the relationship of ultimate underhanded government man Lynch and super-genius Tao to much deeper level than what has been explored by previous creators who worked with the characters. Issue #5 of the second volume takes Alan Moore's final WildC.A.T.S. storyline and makes it an integral part of Sleeper (it also features Phillips using a traditional panel layout for the entire issue, seeing how it's entirely a flashback). The audience is soon enough emotionally invested into all the characters of the book, not just Holden. Even Grifter, one of the less-than-original characters that premiered in WildC.A.T.S. #1, becomes interesting, in a backhanded sort of way. This makes the developments of the last two issues (and fret not, you will find no spoiler here) fitted with that much more impact.
The final issues prove what is most spectacular about Sleeper and what makes it one of the most important books to come from a corporate comics publisher in many years. Here is a book that is published by an imprint of Time-Warner, takes place in a shared universe and has characters running around with all types of superpowers. Yet it totally feels like a personal vision is realized. Brubaker and Phillips accomplish this without even sidestepping the superhero universe it is a part of but use it in their own way to create a book with its own mood and own way of being read. It could have heralded a new wave of books that didn't see the limitations of corporate comics as limitations at all. Instead, it was ignored.
Sleeper doesn't falter at the end. In fact, the final state Holden finds himself in is perhaps the greatest crystallization of the question Brubaker and Phillips proposed from the beginning: why does it have to be an endless struggle between "good" and "evil?" What happens when someone wants to get out of the endless tug-of-war? Like its main character, Sleeper couldn't live in a world where much simpler ideas of heroism still abound in staggering naiveté. Ah well, as long as they keep the trades in print.
-- Ian Brill
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