(Wildstorm/DC Comics, $17.95 each, 144 pages each, trade paperbacks; published in January and August 2004.)
Ed Brubaker first came to comics with theautobiographical Lowlife, but his true voice -- terse, hardboiled fiction -- started to emerge with 1992's An Accidental Death.
He is particularly adept at conceiving tough but tortured characters teetering on the line between moral paradigms, and Sleeper, an unabashedly nihilistic and darkly sardonic crossgenre espionage series, is a prime example. Out in the Cold and All False Moves collect all twelve issues of the first Sleeper series.
Secret agent Holden Carver defects to a terrorist organization headed by a genetically engineered mastermind named Tao. Only one man, Carver's minder, John Lynch, knows the truth: that Carver's defection is an undercover mission. To everyone else, Carver is a traitor and wanted criminal. When Lynch falls into a coma, Carver is plunged deeper than ever into a world of murder and depravity.
Increasingly, Carver sympathizes with his new comrades-in-arms and asks himself if the atrocities he commits in the name of Tao are any different than those he used to perpetrate as a black ops agent forthe US government. Meanwhile, Tao learns that a double agent has infiltrated his organization, and Carver fears exposure.
Brubaker deftly portrays Carver's vertiginous identity crisis and succeeds in making every decision hurt and every action have harrowing consequences.
Sleeper unfolds in a world where superpowers are acquired with alarming ease. Carver himself, while recovering an alien artefact for the government, gained the ability to store pain and release it back to anyone he touches. Brubaker injects grim humour into the series by having Tao's supercriminals swap absurdly unlikely -- and brutal -- origin stories.
British cartoonist Sean Phillips provides dense, claustrophobic visuals that perfectly capture Carver's sense of being trapped and manipulated at every turn.
Sleeper is a tensely involving saga that never flinches and never fails to surprise.
Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction
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© Claude Lalumière 4 September 2004, 29 January 2005