The comic book mausoleum: Sleeper

Retrospective reviews of significant and socially relevant comic book cycles and their adaptations that every fiction fan should immediately consume.

Creators: Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jim Lee, Tony Avina, Randy Mayor, Alex Sinclair, Carrie Strachan, James Sinclair
Publisher: Wildstorm / DC (2003-2005)

A proper hard-boiled little number, Sleeper deals in vicious, ice-cold femme fatales and morally ambiguous, and thoroughly unpleasant, super-powered goons. The plot can essentially be summarised as “you’re in too deep, man”.

The setup is familiar. A deep cover agent misplaces his moral compass, breaks his moral compass, and subsequently shoves shards of glass from said moral compass deep into human eyeballs. This somewhat hackneyed scenario is enlivened by the addition of superhero physics, two highly entertaining Machiavellian villains and an as-gritty-as-they-come central character, Holden Carver, whose conflicted and relentlessly depressing monologue provides the central narrative strand.

As a sub-genre “superhero noir” probably does not seem a particularly original concept to long time sequential art fans, but that is largely due to the ongoing contribution and influence of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. Sleeper is significant as it marks their first genuine collaboration, a partnership that continues fruitfully to this day and, in my view, distils their near perfect symmetry into a particularly potent cocktail (a martini, obviously).

Compact and tightly plotted, its shortish run of 25 issues could have run to three figures had circumstances been different and its creators less drawn to other equally gritty and satisfying projects. While it is tempting to speculate about what Sleeper might have been had it run for another 50 issues, I suspect the reality would be somewhat less edifying than this self-contained gem, detailing a deep-cover agent’s spiral into the abyss.

Brubaker’s staccato dialogue, humorous use of foul language and twisted sensibilities would feel well at home in a James Elroy novel. Phillips’ panel layouts are brilliant, inevitably reminiscent of crime-scene Polaroids strewn across the table of a detective’s office. His dark tones and colours perfectly evoke the feeling of a world perpetually stuck at last-orders in a seedy bar. His often vaguely nauseating colour palate provides an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling, perfectly evoking Carver’s exhausting high-wire deception act.

Images from Wildstorm/DC

Its protagonists are gruff, blue-collar villains, a hint of The Flash’s rogues about them, with cool names like Genocide Jones, Max Diesel and Peter Grim. Essentially unionised in a nameless criminal organisation under dastardly villain Tao, a genetically engineered Moriarty (with hair like PJ from Byker Grove). They hang around in dingy bars and strip clubs, delivering gritty lines like, “Watching him use his abilities made you want to scrub your eyes with a wire brush afterwards.” Above all, they are enormous fun to hang around with.

I think the portrayal of this seedy underbelly is the key pleasure of Sleeper. I’ve always found myself drawn to the villains in this sort of title and inevitably find myself speculating about what they do on their days off, how they spend their ill-gotten gains and what they talk about when off-duty. Sleeper spends a lot of time playing with these entertaining concepts; the results are satisfying and often very funny. The repeated motif of horrendous/hilarious origin stories as macabre water-cooler anecdotes is particularly effective.

Sleeper occupies a (relatively) realistic corner of the Wildstorm universe. For those not familiar with this particular imprint, it features lots of very violent superheroes and villains striking poses and punching off each other’s lower jaws. Some of it good (Planetary and The Authority have some cracking, if over-the-top moments) and some pretty generic (W.I.L.D.C.A.T.S always struck me as a somewhat sub-par title).

Confusingly the Wildstorm universe was ultimately absorbed by the DCU, perpetually expanding like a ravenous fictional amoeba swallowing up less virile continuities. According to the official DC canon, the Wildstorm universe is apparently now Earth 50. That is if you can muster enthusiasm for this sort of continuity wibbling; I find it difficult and somewhat pointless to try to keep track.

There is some incidental “cape and cowl” action in Sleeper, which features cameos from some traditional superhero types. Thankfully, these domino-masked chumps generally receive short shrift, and thus the focus remains on jet-black noir antics. Carver wisely eschews his poorly chosen superhero moniker “The Conductor”. Sleeper dials down the spectacular, city-destroying bloodbaths common to its Wildstorm cousins, relying more on good old-fashioned beatdowns, gunfights and espionage.

Images from Wildstorm/DC

I can’t find much to complain about here. You could take issue with the portrayal of the central female character, Miss Misery, as stereotypical femme fatale, but this is unabashed noir. I think it’s problematic to do a story of this sort without falling back on necessary genre tropes. The femme fatale in question spends more time in various states of undress than is strictly necessary, but as a potent and liberated character – who dishes out a very substantial level of punishment to her male colleagues – it is difficult to consider the writing as genuinely misogynistic.

The climax perhaps contains one double-cross too many, but gains points in my book for its total lack of compromise. The five or six central characters feel enmeshed in an ever-tightening vortex of mutually assured self-destruction from the early issues – the grim finale does not disappoint.

Initially, it felt like a difficult prospect to draw any meaningful conclusions reading Sleeper retrospectively; it’s a millennial work with a spirit straight out of the 1950s. However, when we put ourselves in Carver’s shoes we may find ourselves in uncomfortably familiar territory: he’s a man who starts to question his past actions in service of his country, his contribution to society, ultimately doubting if he was ever one of the good guys at all.

Carver bleakly states, “I had crushed charred baby skulls underfoot and choked the life out of freely elected presidents so we could replace them with handpicked dictators, and yet at the end of the day I still believed I was one of the good guys.” This is likely a familiar sentiment for many who grew up watching the news and reading mass media, meekly assuming our particular regimes were on the side of the angels. Like Carver, a grim realisation that profiteering, submission and control are the true motivations that drive our societies forward is a fact many of us feel driven to confront when our illusions have finally been torn away.

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