The Sleeper Omnibus (2013) Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips
Hardcover, 720 pages
I’m a big fan of many of the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips collaborations such as Criminal and Fatale, so I was eager to dive into their first venture together, The Sleeper, which originally ran from 2003 to 2005, collected here in The Sleeper Omnibus, a massive 700-page collection. (The Sleeper is actually a spinoff from another series by Brubaker and Colin Wilson called Point Blank, included in the first section of this omnibus.)
Holden Carver, an undercover agent has been “modified” so that he literally can’t feel anything and can recover from just about any injury. When he is attacked, he can also “channel” that pain and its intensity to anyone he touches, making him practically unstoppable.
Carver has been assigned to infiltrate an international spy organization run by a man named Tao, a terrorist who has spent years rising to the top. Carver discovers that Tao is far more powerful than Carver had previously thought. Tao is, in fact, the mastermind behind a group of superbeings so powerful that they make decisions on a global scale that regular people like you and me never even know about and probably couldn’t understand.
Things begin to go wrong; very wrong. Carver’s handler is in a coma and can’t bring him in. Carver begins to suspect he can’t really do any good anyway. Even worse, Carver isn’t sure that the tactics he’s using to try to bring down Tao are any different from the murderous methods Tao uses without thought or conscience.
The Sleeper twists and turns like good noir is supposed to; you never know exactly where it’s going, but it’s always an interesting ride. The book is also loaded with fascinating noir characters besides Carver, such as Carver’s sometime lover, Miss Misery, a sadistic, voluptuous woman who literally gets sick if she has even an inkling of kindness emerge in her being. Then there’s Genocide Jones, a bullet-proof member of Tao’s organization that looks like he could go toe-to-toe with the Hulk. My favorite, though a minor character, is Triple-X Ray, a skinny kid with Bart Simpson hair who can see through objects.
I normally love the Brubaker/Phillips combinations, especially Criminal, and in trying to figure out why I didn't like The Sleeper as much, I think I've come up with some reasons.
Brubaker and Phillips are at their absolute best when they stick to straight-up crime noir, such as Criminal. I enjoy their current series Fatale, but not as much as Criminal. I think the difference is that Fatale combines horror with noir, something that I think is interesting, but doesn't work quite as well for me for reasons I can't really articulate.
The Sleeper works even less for me, being a combination of noir and science fiction. The sf elements seem to take away from some essential element of the noir. Perhaps the introduction of the sf takes away something of the humanity (or lack thereof) of noir, taking it to a level too far removed from normal humans. But there’s more to it:
The Sleeper is violent, enormously violent and quite sexual. (Well, it is, after all, noir.) It also contains very little hope, which is also an essential element of noir. A lot of bad people get killed in these pages. So do a lot of innocent people. I accept that that also is a part of noir. Actions have consequences and while The Sleeper comes to a definite conclusion, it’s not a very satisfying conclusion, at least for me. Again, I understand noir and recognize that The Sleeper follows the conventions of noir quite faithfully, but I have to hold out for some hope and I see very little here. Maybe this was just the wrong read at the wrong time. Yet I cannot argue with the storytelling and the art. Brubaker and Phillips are a very powerful combination.