I’d be very interested in seeing what a casual reader of superhero comics would think of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Incognito. The basic premise is easy enough to follow: in the first volume, supervillain Zack Overkill was in Witness Protection, and volume two has him joining the S.O.S.--Brubaker’s version of S.H.I.E.L.D--after the explosive finale of the first series. Where it might be slippery for new readers is in Brubaker’s approach to superheroics: as with his much-acclaimed run on Iron Fist, Brubaker is more interested in pulp heroes (and villains) and the twisted sci-fi adventures they get into—more Doc Savage than Wolverine, I guess you might say. It’s like Brubaker has created a comic for a parallel universe where the pulps never went out of style, which is, I think, one of the most audacious elements of the project.
That’s not to say the book’s not pretty excellent on its own terms. Brubaker has an expert’s ear for the frustrated, wicked, and often conflicted criminal voice. Zack doesn’t want to work for the good guys, but he gets to keep his powers, he doesn’t want to keep a secret identity, but he gets to keep his powers, he doesn’t want to stay wrapped up in all of this science bastard weirdness but dammit, he wants to keep his powers. Sticking to its pulp roots, of course, the story has a girl (Zack’s supervisor and kind of, sort of love interest Zoe Zepplin), there’s shady characters even on the side of the angels (Zack included), and there’s, of course, a fake out—of which I’ll say no more. Suffice it to say, things get nasty in Zack’s new circumstances, and his test tube origins as the duplicate of supervillain Doc Lazarus come back to bite him in unexpected ways.
Brubaker makes it pretty explicit that he’s interested in the psychology of the super-powered criminal: Zack’s running narration is in a way a retreat from all the rules and strictures of his new situation. He even has an S.O.S.-appointed shrink probing at him, trying to help him “reintegrate” into normal society. Zack wonders why he’d ever want that. The strength of Brubaker’s writing is that Zack earns a little of our sympathy, despite being a son of a gun. No one likes being told what to do, and it chafes reading about someone being so thoroughly controlled—we know it’s inevitable that something will have to give, and we look forward to it.
Sean Phillips visualizes Zack’s world with the usual grim energy he brings to his collaborations with Brubaker. This is pulp noir, so the world being constructed is understandably dark (but not oppressively or distractingly so). I’ve enjoyed his work since reading his early collaboration with Brubaker, Sleeper at Wildstorm, where they mined the fiction that Jim Lee created and in turn crafted something noir out of its elements. For the most part, the character designs stay true to the elements that inspired them: Zack is square-jawed and rugged, Zoe is curvy and dangerous, and the villains are colorful and drawn from the usual pool of science villainy: Nazis, Asian madmen, and gorillas. Phillips realizes all of these characters with texture and life: his actors are communicative and they translate Brubaker’s dialog well.
It’s a hell of a ride, really—for fans of traditional superheroes or for anyone just looking for something thrilling and offbeat.