Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips have created a string of stylishly brutal crime comic-book series over the past decade, including “Criminal,” “Incognito” and “Fatale.” Their first full-on collaboration, though, was “Sleeper,” a spy thriller with an ingenious premise and a tone of pitch-black satire. It’s set in a world of superheroes and villains, in which the secret kings of nations and industry meet at Imperial Grove and “decide what will happen in the world.”
The 2003-05 run of “Sleeper” is now collected in this thick hardcover volume, along with “Point Blank,” an earlier Brubaker-written miniseries from which it was spun off.
Holden Carver, the central character here, is a deep-cover agent. A superhero assigned to infiltrate the criminal empire of an international terrorist called Tao, he has spent years doing terrible things to establish his villainous reputation. Just as Carver reaches Tao’s inner circle, though, his boss — the only person who could bring this superspy in from the cold — goes into a coma, and Carver finds himself damned twice over. He’s the pawn of madmen, with no way to go back to being a hero, and he has the growing sense that the atrocities he has committed couldn’t have served a greater good anyway.
The superhero trappings of “Sleeper” mostly stick to the background and underscore the story’s themes. Carver, for instance, is incapable of feeling any physical sensation, but he gets his powers from being assaulted or injured. He’s effectively the ultimate masochist, and his lover is the ultimate sadist: Miss Misery, a femme fatale who grows sick and weak if she shows any kindness. They’re amplified versions of familiar noir types, and that’s the style in which Phillips draws the story: heavy on the shadows, smoke and Venetian blinds. “Sleeper” is jolted forward by outbursts of physical violence, but its pulse is Phillips’s constant close-ups on Carver and Miss Misery’s faces as they sink into ever-deepening moral compromise.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
THE SLEEPER OMNIBUS
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, et al.
Vertigo. 720 pp. $75