This week, the first collection of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's excellent supernatural noir Fatale was released. But I'm not here to talk about Fatale today. Brubaker and Phillips have gotten a lot of attention the past few years for their work on Criminal and Incognito, creator owned books they did under Marvel's ICON line. But I'm not here to talk about those either. No, this post is about Sleeper, a series the two did together for Wildstorm in the early 2000s. It's their first major work together, and is still my favorite of their collaborations.
Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a spy who works for International Operations, IO for short, the Wildstorm Universe's answer to SHIELD or Checkmate. Carver is sent undercover, to infiltrate the terrorist organization created by the superhuman called Tao. Then Carver's handler, John Lynch, the only person who knows the treason Carver was accused of to get into Tao's graces was part of a plan, is shot and left in a coma, leaving Carver out in the cold. The series is a labyrinth of twists, turns, and uncertain loyalties. What exactly does Tao know about Holden's past? Can Holden trust anyone? Is Holden still a good guy, or has he "gone native"? Is Holden even sure where his loyalties lie anymore?
In my post about great Star Wars characters, I talked about Quinlan Vos, a character with a similar undercover mission and arc. If you know that character, take his situation and turn it up to 11. The world of Sleeper is one of the darkest I've ever read in a comic that starts out ostensibly tied to a superhero universe. This book is, at its heart, a spy thriller, and it hits every note of that genre perfectly. Cross and double cross, secret missions, the femme fatale, the old flame, all the tropes you'd expect are here, but none of them feel stale. Brubaker has infused them with his own ideas, and Phillips has brought them to life in his usual gritty style.
The capes and tights brigades that Jim Lee created, and even the more flawed ones created by Warren Ellis during his tenure, don't even really factor in, and if they do, they bend to fit the dark world of Sleeper, not the other way around. Tao was created by Alan Moore during his run on WildCATS, and both Lynch, the former mentor to Gen 13, and Grifter, current DC headliner and member of WildCATS, appear prevalently in the series, but for all the reader needs to know, they could be new characters. I had no experience with the Wildstorm Universe going into this series, and I didn't miss anything.
Sleeper is really the whole package, plot, art, setting, and character. I don't want to talk about plot too much, since that will spoil the numerous surprises, and I'll get to art, but what I really want to focus on in this recommendation is character, because that is what I feel really drives this story, and to talk about Sleeper's characters, open has to start with its lead, Holden Carver.
Holden is one of those wonderfully three dimensional characters that Brubaker has made his career around: conflicted, broken, and in a place where they have no way out. Throughout the course of Sleeper, we see Holden go from hero to villain to maybe hero again if he was ever really a villain. Just like the series, Holden exists in shades of grey, never as white or black. He has to make choices throughout the series, choices about taking lives or committing other evil acts, and he has to live with the result of every one of them. His relationships with everyone, his superiors, his love interests, his friends, informs these choices and his character. Much of the series is told from Holden's point of view, and that gives the reader to the agonies he goes through. Interestingly, Holden has a power of his own; he has limited feeling in his body, and feels absolutely no pain, and any pain he receives is passed on to the next person he touches. He has no control over this power, and it causes him as many problems as it is a benefit. His inability to really feel is a metaphor for the distance he has to maintain between himself and all others around him.
The elaborate plot of the series is orchestrated as a kind of chess game between two players: Tao and John Lynch. Tao is a sort of genetic experiment, his name an acronym for Tactically Augmented Organism, created to be an ideal being by scientists for IO; he is unmatched in intellect and . He wants nothing more than to tear down the world, and especially hurt the person he holds responsible for his creation: spymaster John Lynch. At every turn, Tao and Lynch manipulate Holden to benefit their plans. They each want him to be their pawn in the game, and each make promises. Whether they can keep them, well, only they know for sure.
Lynch, Tao, and Holden
Tao's organization, the Syndicate, was created from whole cloth by Brubaker as far as I know, and each of the criminals is interesting in their powers and personalities. Genocide Jones is Holden's friend and partner at the beginning, a stereotypical strongman with a tragic history. Peter Grimm is Tao's right hand man, who thinks Holden is up to something, and whose touch makes a person replay their worst fears over and over until they go mad and die. Triple-X Ray has x-ray vision and is another of Holden's crew. Pit Bull is a feral killer with an urge to please his masters.
Most interesting of Tao's organization, though, is Miss Misery. Miss Misery only is healthy when she is performing immoral acts, and the more evil a deed, the more strength and vitality it gives her. If she starts feeling positive emotions, she starts to get sick; if she falls in love, say, she gets violently ill. This need to act completely against not just the social norm, but her own happiness makes her a character in constant emotional pain, if not physical. Miss Misery works with Holden, and their relationship, both working for Tao and as lovers, is one of the important plotlines throughout Sleeper.
Miss Misery and Holden
While the side of the angels, and I use the term loosely, doesn't get as much time in Sleeper, their are a few "good guys" too. As mentioned above, Grifter joins the cast of the book, but as a superspy/commando, and doesn't bring any of his superhero baggage with him. At the midpoint of Sleeper, Holden's ex-fiancee, Veronica St. James appears, leading the manhunt for Holden. Veronica's return to Holden's life adds a new wrinkle to his relationship with Miss Misery, and the twisted love triangle between the three pushes the series towards its blood soaked finale.
The thing that separates Sleeper from a lot of the rest of the Brubaker/Phillips work is how funny it is at times. The world the book inhabits is bleak, and the characters who inhabit it know it. They look at it with a certain gallows humor. Triple-X Ray and Pit Bull, along with a couple other minor villains, are comic relief. One of my favorite little recurring bits is, "The Origin Game," where a villain tells their origins in the third person, as if recounting something they were told. Some of these, like that of Genocide Jones, are jaw droppingly sad, but there are others that are hilarious. It's a great way to do a big information dump and not have it feel like massive, out of character exposition.
In the end, Sleeper is the story of one man trying to navigate a dark world where he has no control. It's a world that we're seeing more of in pop culture now, in TV shows like The Shield, Dexter, and Breaking Bad, a world where the lines between hero and villain have grown so faded that it might as well not be there. The agents of IO are in most cases no better than the crooks of the Syndicate, just as venal and cruel, or at least as manipulative. The series isn't for the weak of heart (or stomach), or for those who like their heroes in white hats and their villains in black. But if you want to take a walk on the darker side of things, I can't think of a better book.
All of Sleeper is collected in two trades, Sleeper: Season One, and Sleeper: Season Two. There is also a trade of Point Blank, the prequel mini-series that is the story of Grifter hunting for Holden; fun but not essential. According to Bleeding Cool, there will be an Omnibus collection of all three series, plus a couple of smaller tie-ins, coming thing fall, so if you like giant hardcovers, that might by the way for you to go.
As a personal note to my loyal readers, I'm moving this weekend, so there is the distinct possibility that I won't have time for my usual Monday reviews. But have no fear! I will be back next Friday with more recommended reading, and back on track the following Monday.