Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the creative team behind Criminal and Sleeper, have done it again. The newly collected miniseries Incognito, released this week by Marvel's Icon imprint, is a brutal exploration of the thin line between villainy and anti-villainy.
I say "anti-villainy", because you'd be hard-pressed to find a single hero in any of the six parts that make up Incognito. There's a protagonist, one Zack Overkill, who was once a super-strong villain but is now a heavily drugged civilian in the Witness Protection Program. He occasionally does the right thing, but never for the right reasons, and there are one or two truly unforgivable acts he commits along the way. Even the so-called good guys of this world, the SOS, are a morally gray, clandestine bunch who only recently stopped torturing their prisoners.
Brubaker chose to spin the universe of Incognito out of the pulp tradition of the 1930's, which is part of the reason this is now such a brutal world. As he argues in the collection's afterword, characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow were always more violent and ambiguous than the likes of Captain America and Superman, and the larger world of the pulps was one dominated by horror and noirish murder mystery.
Considering this background of pulpish adventurers and the current war between the omnipresent, villainous organization run by the Black Death and the heroic-by-default SOS, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Venture Bros. (There's another plot point that will really hammer home that connection, but I won't spoil it.) The comparison is a worthy one - both are superior explorations of how supposedly extraordinary people try but fail to lead ordinary lives, and the consequences of secret wars between good and evil for those caught in the middle. Oh, and they're both fantastic, if you prefer to keep things simple.
Between Sleeper and his truly epic run on Captain America, I'd rank Ed Brubaker as one of the top three writers working in comics today. After reading Incognito, you could definitely talk me into handing him the outright title. What's so impressive about his work here is that the story is grim, gritty, profane, ultraviolent, and more than a little offensive - and none of it feels gratuitous. He is telling a story from the perspective of a man without a moral compass, and there's no way such a story isn't headed for some pretty dark places. Still, because neither he nor Zack Overkill revel in it, all of the carnage feels artistically justified. Take note, comic book writers from the nineties. This is how mature comics writing is done.
At just six issues, the story barrels along quickly. Although the concept of a supervillian working an office job while in witness protection was the initial impetus for Incognito, Brubaker does not dwell on it for too long. He extracts a lot of great material from the premise - including Zack's one civilian friend and his rather inexplicable office crush - but puts a lot of other balls in motion while he does so. With at least five or six factions out for Zack, each with their own distinct interests, it's remarkable that the story is entirely coherent. Of course, based on Brubaker's track record, it's not exactly surprising.
Sean Phillips also deserves a great deal of praise for his work on the art of Incognito. A perfect visual fit for Brubaker's writing, he excels at bringing out the twisted, complex emotions of the book's characters. Although clearly capable of rendering an exploded head or charred corpse in all its exquisite glory, he too shows restraint, preferring to indicate the most horrific moments tastefully, rather than let them take over the panels. That isn't to say there isn't some brutal imagery in here - there definitely is - but much like Brubaker's script, none of it feels exploitative or gratuitous.
Incognito sets out to explore one possible fate of a supervillain and ends up tackling questions of morality, destiny, voyeurism, and whether there are limits to what humans can do to themselves in the name of power. It also takes the story of Zack Overkill and uses it as an opportunity to construct an entire world of pulp heroes and villains brought forward into the 21st century, one that Brubaker has promised he will return to. I can't wait.