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Wide Awake

 

Sleeper Vol. 1: Out in the Cold

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips

Wildstorm/DC, 2004

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: March 11, 2005

By Dave Brennan

Where do you go when you have no one to trust and nowhere to turn? This is the question posed within the pages of Sleeper, Ed Brubaker’s bold, gritty espionage tale that finds a double agent caught behind enemy lines. As the conspiracies and deception spiral out of control, questions are raised as to where loyalties truly lie, and the line between good and evil has never been so undefined.

In a world where super powers are just another occupational hazard, an alien artifact has melded itself to International Operations special agent Holden Carver’s nervous system, wiping out his entire squadron in the process. As a result of his unwanted condition -- a healing factor and the ability to channel his pain to others -- Holden is blackmailed by his superiors and ordered to infiltrate a dangerous post-human organization, led by the enigmatic criminal mastermind Tao. Unfortunately, the only person who knows Holden’s secret -- his mentor, IO master spy John Lynch -- is now in a coma, leaving the sleeper agent high and dry.

Sleeper challenges typical comic conventions by giving its readers a glimpse into how the other half lives. Holden’s partners and friends in Tao’s organization have their own histories, motivations and consciences. They’re likable despite their sadistic ways, and as we relate to their situations, it becomes easier to sympathize with Holden’s precarious situation. Meanwhile, “good” becomes a relative term -- Holden’s IO superiors are often as sinister as his supposed enemies, willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish their objectives. Power is the only thing that matters, yet amidst the lies, double-crosses and power struggles, Holden’s only concern is finding a way to survive. He is both a player and a pawn in a very dangerous game, manipulated by both sides even as he pulls strings of his own, and aware that it’s only a matter of time before his past catches up with him. Through confident plotting, razor-sharp dialogue and a wicked sense of humor, Brubaker has created a world in which nothing is safe, giving his story palpable tension within every panel.

As the mystery deepens and the body count rises, Sleeper becomes more and more engaging, though it takes some time to get acquainted with the story. Brubaker gives no formal introduction to either his story or his characters -- from the very first page, readers are dropped into the midst of the action, challenging them to slowly piece the story together on their own. It’s not immediately evident how Holden got to where he is, or even what side he’s on. It’s a little jarring at first, but it keeps the audience on its toes, and makes the title’s twists and turns all the more rewarding as Brubaker uncovers the details through a deft combination of flashbacks and narrative.

Sleeper also relies a little too heavily on prior knowledge of the Wildstorm universe, and terms like “The Bleed”, WildC.A.T.S. and The Authority will be unfamiliar to readers who pick it up cold. Still, though this initial volume requires some investment -- the pacing and character development pick up dramatically in the series’ second installment, All False Moves -- the seedy underbelly of a criminal conspiracy and an agent caught between a rock and a hard place remain compelling on their own.

Sean Phillips’ artwork is an acquired taste, but it provides the shadowy atmosphere necessary for the rough, gritty world Holden inhabits. The dark panels and dominating color schemes enhance the book’s noir underpinnings, and whether the story calls for electric violence or a moment of levity, the characters’ expressive faces perfectly convey the complex emotions Brubaker has scripted. Phillips may not have the most polished of styles, but his artwork is perfect for a story of this nature.

Sleeper is an intense and cerebral experience, a story of control and conspiracy all too familiar in a world of Halliburtons and Carlyle Groups. It’s a comic book that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty, and one that will doubtless keep its readers guessing until its final issue hits the stands. Speaking of which, Ed Brubaker recently signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, meaning that once the current second volume has concluded (now at issue #9), Holden Carver’s story will be at an end. Forget ruthless manipulations and worldwide espionage -- the comic book community’s loss of a regular Sleeper title every month may turn out to be the biggest crime of all.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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