Pulp Corner: Sleeper
I tend to buy a lot of comics based both on my interest and the pedigree of the author without having read a single issue. It’s been known to bite me on the ass on occasion but more often than not I come away pleased with what I’ve read. Since returning to comic books Ed Brubaker has consistently dazzled me with almost everything I’ve picked up, but it’s his collaborations with artist Sean Phillips that I’ve loved the most. I could gush all day about Fatale and perhaps I will when the series wraps up in a few short months but I’m here today to discuss their first long form collaboration, Sleeper.
Sleeper is part of a genre which I find myself drawn to again and again in the comic book medium. Espionage or police work within the confines of a super hero world exploring its sleazy underbelly. Marvel did it with Alias, DC with Gotham Central and there are many other examples. It’s a topic that fascinates me. This has even more of an appeal to me because it doesn’t take place in the DC Universe proper but the Wildstorm imprint which was once of the flagships of the early 90’s Image Comics.
Collected in two 12 issue series (titled Season 1 and Season 2 respectively) Sleeper is the story of Agent Holden Carver. It begins with him working for a criminal underground syndicate run by the enigmatic Tao who carries social and political influence all over the world. Tao is in that Kingpin villain mold where he is calm, quiet and always weighs the options to make the decisions based on the best possible outcome for himself. He’s a hell of a lot creepier though and possesses abilities where he can persuade and control ones logic and outcomes during a conversation. All the top personnel in his Syndicate possess a form of super powers (known as post-humans in this world) including Carver.
It’s revealed that at some point in the past on a mission during his stint in the military Carver stumbled upon an alien artifact. Touching it fused it to his nervous system and killed his remaining platoon. This piece of technology now allows him to absorb pain and be able to rechannel it as a weapon as well as an advanced healing factor and the inability to probe his mind. Seeing an opportunity, Carver was brought back to the I.O. (International Operations) intelligence agency by John Lynch who wants to exploit these new found powers and have him go undercover in Tao’s organization and bring it down from the inside. Carver knowing he’s impervious to Tao’s mental manipulation agrees. A cover story was created that he went rogue with the alien technology which in the process causes him to lose his fiancé and his entire life up to that point.
We follow Carver’s ascension through the ranks of the organization until he reaches the coveted position of one of the 3 prodigals who are Tao’s must trusted officers. In order to get there though, he has to carry out some pretty fucked up and grizzly things. Slowly his life slips away from him and his inability to feel any kind of physical pain and suffering causes the line to begin to blur between who he is pretending to be and who he really is. He begins a love affair with one of the other prodigals, the beautiful but truly awful Miss Misery just hoping to be able to feel anything. Tao begins to suspect there is a mole in their organization and does everything in his power to smoke him out. To make things worse John Lynch who is the only person that possesses knowledge of Carver’s true identity (and therefore has the ability to spring him free) has been shot and is now in a coma. Holden Carver is trapped. The whole thing is very Donnie Brasco-ish, in the best possible way.
The story plays out as a tensely paranoid claustrophobic thriller as the walls begin to close around our sleeper agent. This is exactly what they were trying to do in IDW’s G.I. Joe’s first Cobra miniseries and they would have been wise to follow Sleeper’s blueprint a little more closely. The first volume of Sleeper is a bit better than the second one since it feels a little more pure, but Season 2 is definitely needed but also adds many interesting twists and plot points to the storyline. By the time it gets to the last few issues things ramp up so frantically and intense you can barely turn the pages fast enough to keep up. The plot is so well executed and the characters fleshed out you’d think you’re reading a novel or watching a movie. In fact, it’s ludicrous to me that this isn’t a movie already (apparently Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are trying to make that happen). Sean Phillips art fits exactly what the story needs and compliments it perfectly, everything is in dark tones and you barely see sunlight. No wonder why Brubaker’s said that he’ll be making comics with Sean Phillips until their old men, they are perfect for each other. I’m not even bothered that Miss Misery shares a striking resemblance to Josephine from Fatale. In fact, it strangely made me enjoy it even more.
I truly can’t speak highly enough about this series. If you’re interested in the genre explored here do yourself a favor and get your hands on this because it’s fantastic.
Where to go next? Criminal or Incognito….
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