Holden Carver has agreed to go undercover in an attempt to infiltrate the criminal organization run by Tao, a genetically-manipulated super-villain of enormous intelligence and brutality.  In order to create a cover that would convince even the super-intelligent Tao, only Holden’s boss — the spy-masker John Lynch — knows that Holden is actually a good-guy.  Holden’s infiltration of Tao’s organization succeeds, but when Lynch is shot and falls into a coma, Holden finds himself hunted by his former allies and continually at risk with being exposed to his new “friends.”  With no one to rely on but himself, is there any way out for Holden?  And if he has to behave as a brutal criminal in order to pass as one to Tao and his people, does it really make any difference if once, long ago, he was one of the “good guys”?

This is the story of Sleeper.

I was first introduced to the work of writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Sean Phillips in this Wildstorm series (originally published as two twelve-issue “seasons” from 2003-2005, and these days available in four soft-cover collected editions) and I immediately knew that this was a creative team to be reckoned with.  I have followed their partnership voraciously ever since (click here to read my review of their noir crime series Criminal, and here for my comments on their super-villain witness protection program story, Incognito) and have never been disappointed.

The genius of Sleeper is the way that Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Phillips bring their noir sensibilities to the world of super-hero comics.  Although there are characters with super-heroes in this story, there’s very little brightly-colored spandex.  This is a gritty, street-level story about a criminal underworld and the flawed, morally compromised men who would stop them.  The moral choices are brutally tough, and the good guys seldom come out on top.  Right from the first issue, in which Holden is forced to viciously murder another deep-cover agent, just to protect his own cover, it’s clear that is is not going to be a simplistic series with any easy outs for the main characters.

I’ve waxed poetic about Sean Phillips’ artwork before, and this series is an excellent showcase for everything that he does so well.  He has a great eye for characters, and his slightly-stylized renderings truly bring each individual character to life.  His backgrounds are lush and wonderfully realized.  Not in a hyper-detailed sort of way, but in that he is able to include just enough specific detail to perfectly capture the environment being depicted.  He can draw crazy shoot-em-ups as well as he can draw two characters plotting in a darkened room.  Just fantastic work.

Ed Brubaker is one of the best writers working in comics today, and this series is a terrific showcase for exactly why that is.  He’s able to spin wonderfully compelling, twisty yarns that involve three-dimensional, human characters.  He has a great ear for dialogue — he’s able to convey personality and motivation through sparse dialogue and characters’ narration better than almost anyone else working in comics.  And the man is merciless.  We might grow to love his characters, but we can also be certain that they’re all going to have a hell of a ride through the tragic circumstances of the unfolding tale.

I should definitely mention one of Sleeper‘s great stylistic devices: the origin stories.  Mr. Brubaker had the extremely clever notion that, in this criminal underworld, one of the games that the hoods like to play, to pass the time, is to tell their origins to one another, using the third person.  Whenever this happens, the art shifts into a much more simplistic, brightly-lit style as Mr. Phillips depicts the stories being told.  It’s all far more clever than I’m making it sound.  The origin stories are some of the most fascinating, playful, and tragic elements of the Sleeper story.  Whenever one pops up I always got very excited.

Sleeper is set within the Wildstorm super-hero universe, but the story is not at all bogged down by one’s needing to know anything about the other Wildstorm characters and super-hero teams.  Characters like Lynch and Cole Cash (the Grifter) have appeared in other Wildstorm titles, but Mr. Brubaker tells you everything you need to know about them within these pages.  (I’ll also comment that I don’t think the Grifter has ever been more complex and tragic than when written by Mr. Brubaker.)

Before re-reading Sleeper last month, I also decided to pick up the new trade paperback collection of Point Blank, the five-issue mini-series that Ed Brubaker wrote for Wildstorm in 2002-2003, that led to Sleeper. The TPB is billed as “the prelude to Sleeper” and I suppose it is, since it depicts the events surrounding the shooting of Lynch, and it does contain the first appearance of Holden Carver.  But the story is a lot different in tone than Sleeper.  While I can clearly see the noir influences seeping in to the tale, it feels closer to the world of traditional super-heroes than Sleeper is.  Colin Wilson’s artwork is solid, but nowhere near the super-star work of Sean Phillips.  For a fan of Sleeper, Point Blank is an interesting read, but for newbies I’d pass and go directly to the first Sleeper collection: Out in the Cold.

I’m telling you: comics don’t get much better than this.