There’s a good reason why the collaboration between Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips in Criminal has hit the ground running with such strength – they honed their skills on Sleeper first. Phillips’ art and Tony Avina’s colours are the first thing that will leap out of this book at you. It carries a style thick with the air of Hollywood noir. Considering the book’s plot – an agent deep undercover is unable to return to his normal life because his only contact is in a coma – it’s a great synergy between art and script.
Whilst the chiaroscuro lighting perfectly matches the book’s tense cat-and-mouse plotting, there is another factor to consider: superpowers. The book is obstinately a crime thriller but it exists wholly within the WildStorm comics universe, complete with references to the Authority, Wildcats, Stormwatch and everything connected to them. However, you don’t need to know anything about these superheroes to enjoy Sleeper – any references from outside are succinctly explained when necessary.
The obvious gut reaction is to wish the book was more grounded in reality, to better compliment its dark crime thriller subject matter. But in actuality I believe these comic sensibilities to be one of the book’s greatest assets. Through his employ of superhero bombast Brubaker pulls his masterstroke: instead of dominating the book they complement its vivid range of characters. Think of it as noir-plus. In giving crime-literature archetypes complimentary superpowers, their worldview is externalised upon the environment and surrounding characters.
For example, main protagonist Holden’s life is a tightly constructed lie and, as such, he keeps everyone at arm’s length. He also, at great cost to himself, keeps his double-agent status a secret to people in his former life, for fear he might cause them harm. All of these character traits are summed up in his power, or as he calls it his “condition”: he conducts his pain onto others by touching them. This means he always has to have a physical barrier between him and others for fear of hurting them. Although he is immune to pain and most other sensations he is vulnerable to psychic assaults on his mind. This is like an externalisation of the characteristics of a traditional noir male, who considers himself invincible, but is easily trapped by his emotions and loved ones.
Without spoiling the book it is this exaggerated nature that results in Holden’s personal apocalypse becoming global in scope: instead of threatening, at most, a neighbourhood, Sleeper‘s villain intends to take on the entire world.
Sleeper is a book that does not apologise for the fact it is a comic book, in fact it frequently relishes in some of the absurdities that can come with the medium, such as its differently coloured third person narrated ‘origin’ sequences. It uses the cliché of superhero comics to augment and extend the noir genre, creating an intriguing but successful genre mash-up.
Review written by and used with the permission of Sam Mildner, who comments on all manner of media at www.dogshowhello.blogspot.com.
More books by Ed Brubaker:
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