Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

If you obtained Holden Carver’s personnel file from the shadowy government agency where he used to work, it would tell you that he’d gone rogue while on assignment, killing his teammates and stealing the artifact they were supposed to retrieve.  It would also tell you that he dropped off the grid for a while and later resurfaced as an operative in a super-villain organization, where he’s been rapidly rising up the ranks and performing various terrorist attacks all over the world.  What the file wouldn’t tell you is that he did all this under orders to infiltrate this organization, and that’s because the man who ordered Carver to do it never wrote it down and is currently in a coma.  No one else knows that Carver is actually a double agent (well, supposed to be a double agent) and he’s living a life of quiet desperation, terrified of getting discovered but also wondering how he can still claim to be one of the good guys after everything he’s forced to do to keep his cover.

Welcome to Sleeper, a 24 issue comic series which consisted of two 12-issue runs from 2003-2005.  I re-read it after getting it back from a friend who I’d loaned it to; it’s also available in trade paperback form and is worth looking for if you’re into this sort of thing.  I really wish that HBO or some premium cable channel would buy the rights and do a miniseries out of it, as it’s got everything that they’re looking for today: graphic violence, moral ambiguity, strong characterization, lots of gratuitous nudity, and so on.  It's got very solid writing by Brubaker, and Phillips' art style lends itself very well to the gritty and seedy nature of the story.

This is essentially a noir story told in a superhero world, full of double crossing, intrigue, and overwrought voice-overs.  Carver narrates and gives flashbacks where applicable as he explains his various predicaments, although he keeps some of his cards close to the vest.  He was exposed to an alien artifact which has made him essentially indestructible; he quickly regenerates from bodily injury, he’s impervious to pain, and he’s basically invulnerable to psychic probes or manipulation.  It’s that last trait that inspired the choice to send him into the evil organization, since it’s run by an individual named Tao who has powerful but unspecified mental skills.  Tao’s henchmen all have cybernetic enhancements or super powers of their own.  In fact this provides a lot of the humor of the series, as the various operatives trade origin stories out of boredom, and Brubaker seems to go out of his way to make some of the powers as ludicrous as possible.

Fittingly for a noir series, though, it’s pretty damn dark.  Most of the first season deals with Carver’s attempts to avoid discovery as a mole while escaping the organization, if he can.  Since everyone on the nominal good side thinks he’s a traitor, they won’t trust him, and furthermore Tao’s got moles on the other side too.  In the very first issue Tao calls Carter into his office to tell him there’s a mole and he thinks he knows who it is – a man who goes by the name of the Nihilist.  Carver’s ordered to find out if the Nihilist is betraying the organization and, if so, to kill him – and, if not, to let Tao know so they can continue searching for the mole.  This obviously puts Carver in something of an ethical bind, especially when he manages to discover that the Nihilist actually is working for the good guys.  Nonetheless, Carver ends up killing the guy anyway, which is the point when I realized that this series was something unique.  Most heroes would have tried to warn off the Nihilist, but Carver realizes that his cover is best maintained that way and so he just goes with it.  (Also, many writers would have made it self-defense so that Carver could get the practical benefits without all the moral difficulties, but here Carver just straight up murders the poor bastard.)

Most of the first 12 issues involves putting the screws to Carver as he attempts to make contact with various people who may be able to get him out, and his personal situation gets worse and worse.  It seems like the world really has it out for him, and Brubaker takes the advice of Raymond Chandler - if you've backed your character into a corner and don't know what to do next, have someone burst in with a gun.  Or a particle blaster, weaponized black hole, flying car, or whatever.

This is a good point to stop reading if you intend to read the series and don’t want to know some surprises.  Toward the end of the first series, Carver ends up with his cover blown and tries to escape from both sides, only to be recaptured by Tao, who reveals that he knew all along that Carver was a double agent and was really just screwing around with him.  Nonetheless, Tao states that he considers actions to be more important than motivations, and that Carver really is great at his job – and offers him the chance to come back to work (or die, of course, Tao is evil after all).  Holden, out of options, accepts.  Elsewhere, John Lynch, Carver’s old handler, conveniently wakes up from his coma and heads back to his own job.

The second series deals with the aftermath of all these events as Tao and Lynch try to manipulate Carver to their own ends, and Carver tries to accomplish his own goals while fighting the knowledge that he’s expendable once one of the two has gotten enough from him.  These two are strategic geniuses and Carver’s kind of a lunkhead with a good survival sense, which makes him wonder if he stands a chance, but also means that he stands a good chance of being underestimated while they focus on each other.

All this opens up a bunch of great philosophical dilemmas.  Carver notes on several occasions that the nature of his work doesn’t really change that much no matter what name is on his business card.  He was already involved in assassinations, espionage, and other dirty tricks when he was working for the “good guys”.  So he has to acknowledge Tao’s point, that he can’t really justify his actions on the grounds that he has good intentions since the same effects happen anyway.  Nonetheless, the writing doesn’t skirt over the fact that Tao is really just engaging in sophistry here and just because he has a good point doesn't make him correct.  For that matter Lynch's concept that the ends justify the means doesn't come out that well either.

The supporting cast is also great.  Most of the folks that work for the evil organization aren’t bad people necessarily.  Carver’s friend Genocide Jones is actually a pretty decent guy aside from his occupation, and Carver's love interest Miss Misery has to commit evil acts for the sake of her health (long story).  But the organization also contains people like Steeleye (a telepathic pedophile), Peter Grimm (who really is bad), and Tao himself, who, rhetoric aside, is a complete monster.  Some of the people who work for Lynch are no great shakes themselves.

On the whole I thought that the first half is stronger than the second half, since it tends to straight-up action once Carver’s cover is blown.  Still, there’s a lot of good intrigue as Carver manages to outwit and outlast all the powerful and intelligent forces gunning for him, and it builds to a very powerful conclusion.  It’s not necessarily a happy ending for anyone, but some sort of justice does get done and Carver never really expected to get out unscathed.  It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth checking out.

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