Incognito #1

A comic review article by: Dan Hill, Dave Wallace

Dan Hill 

Plot: Zack Overkill, once a feared super criminal, starts to lust after his old life as the routine of his new one grows stale.

Review: For those who haven't read Criminal, go pick it up. For those who have, Incognito is going to be right up your alley.

No matter what character or story line was presented in Criminal, Brubaker and Phillips' love of the genre shines through. Their enthusiasm presents itself in every panel and line of dialogue. What they present in this opening issue is a "pulp" story told from the villain's perspective with a hardened (some would say modern) edge.

Zack, the protagonist, used to be feared. Along with his twin brother, he was one of the most notorious super criminals. But now? Now he's nothing, a no-one, a simple office drone. Enlisted in a kind of witness protection program, powerless thanks to prescribed drugs, he is a shadow of his former self.

Brubaker does a good job of showing Zack's growing boredom and frustration. At no point does it feel forced that Zack should start to stray back into his old ways. We get the impression that Zack has tried to conform. But given what he has seen, what he has done, what he could do, how could he honestly be expected to?

Zack is also not only living a lie but being asked to buy into one too. The general populace is unaware of the existence and threat of the super criminals. Their crimes and paths of destruction are covered up or passed off as natural disasters.

I'll cop to having some feelings of deja-vu when reading some parts of Incognito. Super criminals threatening an unwitting populace and an office drone as a main character doesn't sound too dissimilar to Wanted. But the difference here is in the execution and the characters, emphasis on the latter. This isn't a subverted "heroes journey" with a villain. Zack is someone who knows how it feels to be god-like, to abide by no rules, and to have it all taken away.

Throughout the issue Brubaker begins to sow some of the seeds for later story lines. Zack and Xander's upbringing, the beginnings of the super criminal "rehab" program, and most interestingly, just what did happen to make Zack turn against his former allies?

Phillips' art, like his work on Criminal, is exceptional, and Staple's colours suit the material perfectly, all somber tones and shadows. Brubaker's dialogue and pacing is of a high standard with some excellent characters you're just aching to find out more about. Some of them aren't even seen in this issue. Dr. Zeppelin, a case in point.

Also familiar to Criminal readers is the comic's back matter: articles and commentary on various books and movies which are influential in the "pulp" genre. Personally, I love stuff like this, and it's a big factor in me buying the singles over the trades (which I'm sure is the idea). In this issue there is an excellent article on who some would say is the definitive "pulp" hero, The Shadow. 

Final word: Recommended to fans of Brubaker's work and anyone who likes good comics. Get on board now- you'll thank me later.

 Dave Wallace:  

Incognito is the new book from the Criminal creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. It tells the story of Zack Overkill, an ex-super-criminal who has now been placed in the Witness Protection Scheme, and is forced to live an inconspicuously normal life. Whilst the trappings of the book will be more familiar to fans of mainstream superhero comics, the style and tone are very similar to those established in Criminal -- and even the format of that series has been adopted for this new title, which will feature magazine articles on pulp characters alongside a full-length main story and a letters page in each issue. It's a winning formula that has worked well for Criminal in the past, and makes for a very encouraging debut issue here.

This issue is very much a scene-setting opener, and Brubaker manages to pack a lot of information into the story. Through Zack's internal monologue and the sharp, snappy banter between Zack and his handler, we learn a lot about the book's universe and get several hints at a more complex backstory that is bound to become more important as the series progresses. However, this issue isn't just an explosion of exposition, as we also get a strong sense of Zack's character, and how his past experiences have led him into the frustrating and confining situation that he now finds himself in.

As in Brubaker's Criminal stories, the book's protagonist is a complex individual. Although it's difficult to completely sympathise with him due to his past transgressions, it's also impossible to not recognise the universal nature of his frustrations with his place in the world, and his desire to break out of the daily grind and become something greater. The writer taps into the sense of ennui and disillusionment with the world that characterised novels like Generation X and Fight Club, but applies it to the conventions of pulp heroes and super-villains, making Zack's desire to escape the Rat Race even more painful by providing a plausible and realistic alternative. There's also a potentially interesting angle relating to Zack's entry into the witness protection scheme that I hope to see explored in greater depth in future issues.

The book is tinged with Brubaker's trademark noir-ish dialogue and monologues ("The rush of the moment, the violence... it's overwhelming. I knew this was a mistake. But I didn't regret a thing.") which add a familiar gritty tone to proceedings, even though the universe of Incognito is quite far removed from the more grounded world of Criminal. Equally, Sean Phillips' shadowy artwork lends the book a certain similarity to Criminal, especially during the scenes set in the more realistic environments. However, the artist shows a certain looseness when dealing with the more overt pulp/super-villain elements, giving these parts of the book a different feel to the more static "real-world" sections. Val Staples' colours also reflect this change, utilising more vivid and less naturalistic colours (such as solid purples, greens and oranges) for the scenes that depict Zack's past life as a super-villain.

I never read Sleeper, so seeing Brubaker and Phillips collaborate on a more traditional style of comic is a novelty for me -- but on the strength of this issue alone I'm tempted to go back and check that past collaboration out. If you're a fan of Ed Brubaker's superhero work in the Marvel Universe, you should check this out -- and if you liked Criminal, you're bound to enjoy it. Incognito provides a compelling blend of pulp superhero conventions, gritty hard-boiled dialogue, and complex, intriguing characterisation, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

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