High Concept Week rolls on like a futuristic inline skater in some crazy death sport with a look at one of my favorite comic book series ever: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Sleeper.
Here's the high concept behind Sleeper: Holden Carver is a double agent, a mole planted deep inside the global criminal network of Tao, a ruthless mastermind. Carver really works for the director of the I/O spy agency, John Lynch, who is the only other person on the planet that knows he's a good guy. Unfortunately,Lynch goes into a coma and Carver is left out in the cold, alone among the enemy.
I tend to gush rhapsodically about certain comic books and defecate on others, but read these words and understand: Sleeper is fucking awesome.
In Sleeper, writer Brubaker and artist Phillips create the seedy underworld of the Wildstorm Universe, a collection of superhero intellectual properties like Gen-13 and WildCATS that Jim Lee took with him when he moved shop from Image to DC and created the Wildstorm imprint. Most of the characters have superpowers of some sort, but there are no capes or tights here - this is a hardcore crime/spy story that skirts around the edges of the superhero genre. It's full of violent people who swear a lot and do bad things to each other. While swearing. So of course, I love it.
It's all in the execution, though, isn't it? High concept films or books or comics can always suck if not handled properly. Anybody read Congo? See the movie? It's about killer gorillas. How can you mess that up? Killer. Gorillas. It's a two-word high concept. Everyone loves killer gorillas! Despite the presence of killer gorillas, the final product somehow turned out to be lame. Same with Planet of the Apes, the remake.
But enough about the gorillas.
Sean Phillips perfectly capture a high-tech film noir sensibility with Sleeper. His art is dark and moody and drenched in shadows, and his layouts are master examples of visual storytelling. Phillips created an interesting visual theme for Sleeper- his panels float over one or two background panels on the page, if that makes sense. Look, there's an example page over there. He never tilts the thick-bordered panels, which are always rectangular or square. The panels cascade across the page, guiding the reader's eye. The end result are elegantly designed panel layouts that read well and don't call attention to themselves. Phillips' layouts remind me of a really dynamic movie storyboard.
Brubaker writes tough guy dialogue that doesn't sound self-conscious and he keeps throwing sucker punch plot developments at you and Holden Carver. Our hero is forced to do terrible things to maintain his cover as a top operative in Tao's sinister organization - and he's more than capable of doing terrible things.
Carver is super bad, a former Black Ops commando leader who was given a strange superhuman power by an alien artifact. He can't feel anything, but his regenerating body absorbs pain and can transmit it to others via touch. If you shoot him, he'll absorb the energy of the bullet, then while he quickly heals, he'll take the bullet energy and turn it into a sizzling electrical blast and mess you up bad. Or he will jump through the air sideways firing two guns at you, riddling you with bullets. Carver trained at the John Woo Academy.
Tao has a few other lieutenants at Carver's level, including Miss Misery, a wicked evil assassin with a taste for pain. She derives pleasure and power from inflicting pain. Carver and Misery have a tumultuous and not entirely healthy relationship that plays heavily into the plot. She's super hot and totally evil and depraved. And he loves her.
Tao himself was a character who first appeared in the superhero book WildCATS back in 1995, when Alan Moore was writing the book, so think of him as an Alan Moore character. Tao stands for T.actical A.ugmented O.rganism, meaning he's a genetically engineered supergenius. He is diabolically evil and supernaturally smart, one of those Hannibal Lecter types that can talk you into shooting yourself. The reader is always wondering how much Tao knows and what he's going to do when he inevitably finds out Carver is a traitor. He's creepy.
The whole series is a densely plotted, pleasantly complicated, perfectly paced descent into a glamorous and seedy world of spies and criminals. It's like a cocktail made of a few James Bond movies, a couple Raymond Chandler novels, the Hong Kong films Infernal Affairs and The Killer, David Mamet himself, and maybe Scarface, Deep Cover, Ronin -- add in a high concept and some grenadine. If that's your drink, baby, you have to get Sleeper. There are four trade paperbacks, you can get them on Amazon.
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