Comics Published on 18 June 2003

Sleeper #6
DC Comics/Wildstorm – Ed Brubaker (w); Sean Phillips (a)

Man, this book just breaks my heart.

I say that about a lot of books and typically when I say it, it’s referencing the fact that potential is being squandered in some form, be it in the high concept or the creative team or whatever. In this case, however, there isn’t anything wrong with the book.

And that’s the problem. The sales figures on Sleeper absolutely suck and that’s a tragedy the likes of which the comics industry doesn’t see on a daily basis. I open each month’s Previews and hesitantly flip to the Wildstorm section of DC’s portion of the catalog, always half-expecting to see “Final Issue” in bold print below the header for Sleeper.

So I read every issue, at least one slow, taking-my-time reading, if not two. And every month, when I tape Sleeper up in its bag and board, I wonder what I’m going to find to replace it when some bean counter at DC decides that sales on this incredible book don’t warrant its continued survival.

Because Sleeper, my friends, is how “mature superhero” stories should be told.

This issue is a classic example of that. It opens with a series of pages that left me wondering if I had stumbled into the wrong book. The narrator describes the clichéd story of two brothers, left in continual foster care flux after senseless violence claims the lives of their parents. Finally settling in what seems to be an ideal setting, with an apparently kindly older gentleman, the boys soon find that he has a darker side, a side that centers on breeding pit bulls for illegal dogfights. His younger brother thrown at the mercy of the dogs, the older boy can only…be cut off as Genocide, our protagonist’s partner (for posterity’s sake, our hero is Holden Carver, known as the Conductor, an agent of Internal Operations gone “rogue” for the purpose of infiltrating the criminal underworld controlled by a man known simply as Tao), points out that neither he nor Holden are interested in hearing his origin story.

From there, the story spends a few pages in the present, detailing the super-powered criminals preparations for the extraction of a rogue nuclear scientist, currently in the hands of the U.S. government, aboard an outbound train. As the mission begins though, Holden’s internal monologue flashes back to bring the reader up to speed on the events that led him to be leaping from a bridge onto a speeding passenger car with his hyper-violent partner and an over-eager rookie super-criminal.

The beautiful part of the issue is that every “flashback” sequence (and there are several) is entirely necessary to the story. Not because a new reader might have come on board and Brubaker is trying to get them caught up on the previous five issues worth of story. Quite the opposite, in fact, as all of the material doled out in the scenes is new to me and I’ve read every issue of the series. No, they’re necessary because they all provide depth for a story that could otherwise sink into familiarity, all provide motivation for the crimes that Holden commits, all provide conflict and tension because they illustrate the contrast between the man he is and the man he pretends to be.

At the end of the issue (and the mission, for that matter), I was a little surprised to realize that very little actually “happened” over the course of twenty-two pages. I mean, half the book was told through Holden’s memories. Yet at the same time, I’m fiending for the next issue like a junkie for his fix. Because this book treats the idea of mature superhero stories properly: the powers aren’t the focal point of the story (they’re oftentimes little more than window dressing, really), the characters and their interactions are.

I ramble.

It’s really hard to put into words how completely enjoyable this book is. If you’re a fan of Bendis’ Daredevil, you flat out owe it to yourself to pick this book up. If you’re simply a fan of good comic storytelling, the same applies to you. Don’t sweat the fact that it’s half a year into the book. Each issue has, essentially, stood on its own. Granted, they’re more fun when taken within the framework of the larger story, but you’ll have no trouble picking up on any given issue.

I realize that this is not so much a review as it is a plea for help. Please do not allow this book to be cancelled over mediocre sales. I promise you, if it is, Sleeper will be one of those titles that we all look back on some day and say, “Wow, how is it that people ignored this book? It’s amazing.”

Sometimes the appropriateness of this book’s title fucking kills me…


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