Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ed Brubaker's Calling Card - Sleeper: Season One

Ed Brubaker is a prolific writer and he’s seen his words grace many a publisher; Top Shelf, DC, Vertigo, Wildstorm, Marvel, Icon, to name just a few. He’s handled plenty of characters from the world’s best superheroes to cops and a bit of most things in between, and he’s also managed to have his tales span many different eras. He’s a powerhouse in the industry now and his name is almost a genre to itself and to pick just the one work to define him has been hard but I’ve given it a go. Hit the jump to see why I think Sleeper: Season One sums up the man and his work perfectly.

Ed Brubaker has to be considered one of the best comic creators from the last decade and this becomes all the more obvious when trying to pick just one work to be his calling card, and even then you’ll see that I’ve picked an oversized collection. I almost wanted to pick Incognito as being his calling card but as much as it’s possibly my favourite story of his I don’t think I can honestly say it’s the one work that can define him, though it would probably take second place, or third. I don’t think the very oversized Criminal collection would work as a calling card, nor would I have actually chosen it, but I’d at least drop it down to an arc storyline for this purpose. And that arc would be Bad Night, if I were choosing Criminal but I am not. I'm not even choosing Gotham Central, so that shows how many classic stories he's penned. Instead I'm choosing:

Sleeper is a perfect pitch idea. A superhero goes undercover with the villains and then anyone who knew he was actually good gets themselves into a situation where they can no longer vouch for him. It’s a simple noir trope and Brubaker does a brilliant blend of mixing in super tropes as well and just flat out scripting great characters. This story, the entire first season of it, make for the perfect introduction to the world of Brubaker where it doesn’t matter if you wear a cape or not, or if you have super powers or just fists or a gun, what matters is your character. What matters is whether or not you can handle the heat and make the right choices.

Sleeper is littered with great character, one of which is the title sleeper, Holden Carver. He is just the sort of man whose questionable motives, emotions, and actions are perfect for Brubaker to paint this bleak grey canvas. You feel for Carver as he knows he’s stuck and his choices, in so many situations, are to make a run for it and risk his life or to just join in with the villainy and at least buy himself more time. Another great character is Miss Misery, a woman that stirs up quite a lot of interest in me. Interest being the mild word. She’s a sad soul who needs to commit evil acts in order to stay healthy and young. Brubaker manages to take this character who could have been completely one sided and turn her into a study of absolute pain. The rest of the cast are still human characters, even though firmly the villains. Because we spend so much time with them we see that they have their reasons for being whatever they are.

Watching Carver struggle to understand who he is even while he does these other atrocious things is a brilliant tale. It’s tense and terse and I could have read plenty more trades of it. In the collection of the first 12 issues, the first season, you are given a very firm idea of the brutality that Brubaker is fine with penning, even adept at doing so, and you also see the emotion that he puts behind the action of every single one of his characters. No one feels like a caricature. Everyone has reason, motive, logic, and determination. This is Brubaker’s strength, he can write a story about the worst people in the world and still draw you in and make you want to know more about them, even love them in spite of their flaws, if not for them.

Having Sean Phillips on the artwork provides the best way to view Brubaker’s work. Phillips simply gets these words and stories like he’s lived them before. The collaboration is symbiotic and I could not imagine this story looking or feeling any other way. It’s dark and covered and feels like it’s been fed through an old movie projector that still makes the flicking sound.


Even if Brubaker were to just use the first trade, which comprises the first half of the first season and a quarter of the overall story, I think he’d still win over a bunch of lifelong fans. But with the whole season you can see just how long form Brubaker works, and how constantly great he is with a series. This comic is exceedingly good, exceptionally rereadable, and was maybe the third or fourth trade I ever bought when getting back into comics. Sold me for life. Plus, the second, and final, season is pretty nice too.

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brandon said...

The only piece of the review I disagree with is that Season Two is also pretty nice. Season Two is simply okay. Brubaker was asked to do the followup too close to when he was wrapping up Season One. I think the first season said all he needed and wanted to in the series.

For those that read Criminal it's a nice look at how Brubaker has progressed over the years for sure.

Ivan said...

I groan everytime a comic book uses the term "season"...

Brubaker is hard to come by around here outside of his Big Two stuff, and this looks pretty interesting. I'll check with my LCS to see if this has been already published here.

TimD said...

After your piece on Fraction's 'Casanova', I too started thinking about calling cards and the first one I thought of was for Ed Brubaker.

The only difference I feel is that 'Incognito' should be his calling card for having created that world from the ground up in 6 issues. Whereas Tao from 'Sleeper' was already around, as well as Lynch.

Other than that, I was torn between 'Sleeper' and 'Incognito'.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Brandon - ah, I like the second season but that wording was basically my way of saying it was nice. I didn't find the second season anywhere near the quality of the first but it's still above the quality of a lot of other stuff, and the ending is pretty killer. Perfect noir.

@Ivan - seriously, pick up the first trade, or even the HC of this first season and you'll like it if you like Brubaker's other stuff. As far as season goes, he did this a while back, maybe even pioneered the season term, I'm not sure, but the series publishing schedule was clearly broken up into 2 parts so the term got used. I don't think it's great but I also don't see any reason why it must be TV specific...

@TimD - yeah I was torn as well, Incognito is pretty damn good but I just couldn't go past Sleeper. It's simply so awesome.

Steven said...

Umm, first of all, the whole seasons thing was only added after the book was initially cancelled.

It did not end because Brubaker was done. It ended due to lack of sales. It was a very badly selling book. The critical outpouring convinced DC to publish more, but with limited runs as opposed to the initial open-ended series.

The whole seasons thing was an artificial sales device.

And where is the love for some of the earlier stuff by Brubaker? "An Accidental Death" is possibly the best thing he's ever written. "Scene of the Crime" is also an excellent and underappreciated early Vertigo series that is terrific.

sdelmonte said...

I agree completely. I think that Brubaker is most comfortable away from the centers of the Big Two's universe, where he can do whatever he likes without commercial concerns. He's also a fabulous noir writer, something that doesn't really with even Batman.

Sleeper, despite its bleakness, is smart and imaginative and exciting and even a little witty. There is very little out there like it.

I will add that it's a shame Bru can't write for DC as he would be a natural choice for a Vertigo Crime graphic novel.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I like a lot of the earlier Brubaker stuff but it doesn't hold a candle to Sleeper, in my opinion. I've read Scene of the Crime and it's good but it isn't his best work, not by far. I've read just about anythingv Bru's name was ever on, Complete Lowlife, Deadenders, but just because it's unknown doens't make it awesome by default...but this series is purely through my lens so I hope some people disagree with it, but always explain why. I want to know why people think Scenhe of the Crime is his best work.

Casey (@OneShotCrisis) said...

I credit Brubaker with bringing me back into Comics for his work on Captain America. Since then he has become a favorite due in great part to his talent at creating a long-form story. He crafts every angle with expert precision.

For me, I would say Incognito is top choice, but then I still have not opened up my copy of Sleeper. It's that one trade I am saving for an afternoon where I can take in the whole story. After reading this, however, I just canceled my Saturday morning for it.

Great piece Ryan.

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