There’s a moment in “Incognito” #2 when we learn that what we thought was a simple rescue-the-damsel-in-distress scene was actually something much darker: a rescue-the-pretend-damsel-in-fake-distress-from-a-costumed-sex-play-faux-rapist scene. We learn about the truth of the matter the same time protagonist Zack does, and it immediately changes our perspective on everything.
The damsel’s sexual thank-you present to her rescuer was all part of her twisted fantasy, and villain turned “hero” Zack Overkill was merely a flesh-and-blood toy for her to use. We didn’t know that at the time, and neither did he, but it makes a lot of sense once we find out.
And that’s pretty much how this comic operates. The characters do naughty things, and then we find out that things are much more deranged and unbalanced than we thought, and then we reevaluate and move on. “Incognito” is filled with bad people, but not dumb people. Everyone is playing an angle. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make it happen for them.
And poor Zack Overkill is caught in the middle — a former supervillain turned witness-protection inductee — but as much as he might want to go straight and get his thrills on the heroic side of the costume game, he’s trapped in a world that doesn’t care about abstract notions like “good” and “heroism.” Plus, his name’s Zack OVERKILL and no little kids are going to be wearing and underoos emblazoned with a name like that.
There’s no escape, Brubaker and Phillips seem to be saying, no matter how hard you try.
Zack may yet prove to be more noble than his current behavior might indicate — this is a comic that isn’t afraid to surprise the reader — but it doesn’t really matter. Zack isn’t some sympathetic character that we need to root for. The rooting interest here is the quality of Ed Brubaker’s writing and the chiseled beauty of Sean Phillips’s artwork (and let’s not forget the evocative Val Staples, who colors this book with subtle neon dreams of purple, red, and blue). This is a tightly packed comic, filled to the brim with dread and anxiety and the power of hope railing against inevitable hopelessness. It’s a violent, dirty-sexy, noir superhero comic — one that works brilliantly, especially when placed next to the other “Marvel Noir” books that have started hitting the stands in recent months.
“Incognito” is the real deal, and if the price of this comic is a handful of months without a new issue of “Criminal,” well that’s okay. Because it’s still Brubaker and Phillips, doing what they do best: creating sordid beauty out of a world gone wrong.