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Sleeper Vol. 1: Out in the Cold
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips
March 11, 2005
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
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”,
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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