Ninth Art has named it one of the best new series of 2003. Now readers have a second chance to wake up to SLEEPER, with the release of the series' first six issues in a trade paperback collection.
02 January 2004

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colourists: Tony Aviòa for WildStorm FX
Letterers: Bill Oakley & Ken Lopez
Collecting SLEEPER #1-6
Price: $17.95
Publisher: DC WildStorm
ISBN: 1401201156

I've never really been a big fan of the spy/espionage genre: I've only read one book by John Le Carré in my life - THE SPY THAT CAME IN FROM THE COLD - and that was in high school. I never could really get in to James Bond (it took GOLDENEYE on the Nintendo 64 to get me interested). And as for ALIAS, I only find it intermittently interesting, despite Jennifer Garner. Steed and Mrs Peel? Never heard of 'em.

SLEEPER - to the credit of its creators, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips - uses the skulduggery and double-dealing familiar in the aforementioned as a mere backdrop or springboard. It has more in common with the likes of THE SOPRANOS (internecine 'family' relationships underpinned by loyalty and duty) and - moving closer to the superhero genre - Kurt Busiek's signature project, ASTRO CITY (an 'everyday' look at posthuman characters - in this case, supervillains).

Although if you ask Holden Carver - SLEEPER's central character - if he considers himself a bad guy, doubtless he would tell you... well, he'd tell you very little about his situation, if, indeed, he'd speak to you at all. You see, Carver is a deep-cover operative, working for John Lynch's International Operations, infiltrating a super-powered cartel run by the Machiavellian crime lord Tao. The only problem is, since an assassination attempt on Lynch (in the prequel series POINT BLANK), the only one aware of Carver's double-agent status... is Carver himself.

So, he has to make do. Since he is now, for all intents and purposes, a supervillain, Carver does his best to fulfil the role thrust upon him. He becomes friends with such reprobates as Genocide Jones (who, as the name suggests, want to kill all and sundry) and XXX-Ray, and becomes entangled in a quasi-romantic relationship with Miss Misery, one of Tao's lieutenants.

Such liaisons, though, inevitably become problematic: when Carver's recruiter is murdered in unsavoury circumstances, he becomes unsure if he can maintain his cover, while conversely being certain that Tao will use the opportunity to make an example of both Jones and himself. The resolution, though, only digs Carver in deeper...

Plot twists of this kind go some way to explaining why SLEEPER has been something of a critical darling since its debut. And, while not wanting on my part to succumb too much to hyperbole, SLEEPER plays unlike any other mainstream comic I've read in the past year. It is deliberately moody and low-key, with subdued colours and undemonstrative storytelling. And it is gritty in places, granted, but not unrelentingly grim; Carver is merely doing his best to survive in an environment not well suited to his goals, opting to make the best of a bad situation (to call upon the old cliché).

Like its 'Eye of the Storm' stablemate STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES, SLEEPER has superhero roots, but is so far removed from the stereotypical notion of what a superhero book usually represents as to be nearly unrecognisable. SLEEPER reads more like hard-boiled noir a la Hammett or Chandler, or of the sort that Brubaker has proved so adept at in his Vertigo miniseries SCENE OF THE CRIME.

Brubaker has walked both sides of the street, alternating between independent work (LOWLIFE) and mainstream (BATMAN and CATWOMAN). Here, he blends both strands, showing some respect for superhero traditions while turning same on their head, often to good effect. The plotting is unhurried, while the dialogue - always Brubaker's strong suit - resounds with a distinctive rhythm. This is Brubaker's pet project, and it's evident in every panel, caption and word balloon.

Brubaker's artistic collaborator has gone from being the Vertigo artist de jour on HELLBLAZER to becoming an in-demand talent, working on myriad high-profile projects (WILDCATS, SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, BUFFY). Again, like Brubaker, Phillips manages to combine both sensibilities, while improving immeasurably over past efforts. His linework is more refined here, his pacing much improved, and his panel-to-panel continuity appears to have taken on something of an Alex Toth influence. Phillips is easily at his career best here.

The colouring, too, deserves special mention. Tony Aviòa rounds out Phillips' art with a delicate and discriminating palette, calling attention to the notion that this is a dingy and unromantic world that Carver and his associates move about in; but the colour work doesn't hammer readers over the head by calling attention to itself... much like SLEEPER as a whole.

Brubaker has recently been plugging SLEEPER online on many of the comic book sites, attempting to whip up support for OUT IN THE COLD. I find this perplexing; SLEEPER is - despite a slow start - an excellent comic book, and in an ideal world, it'd be one of the most widely read series currently on the market. Without wanting to come across as shrill or evangelistic, Brubaker and Phillips deserve plenty of encouragement. SLEEPER is a fantastic read, and I'd hate to see it wither on the vine due to reader indifference.

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