In their hugely acclaimed Wildstorm series "Sleeper," writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips showed readers what might happen if a super powered spy had to descend into the underworld of supervillainy without any way out. In "Incognito," the new five-issue miniseries from Icon, Brubaker and Phillips examine the same moral question but from an opposite angle, as they depict what happens when a supervillain is forced to come up from the lawless criminal underworld and live in a world with rules. CBR News spoke with Ed Brubaker about the project, the first issue of which is in stores January 2.
Some of the characters in "Incognito" may have super powers or wield fantastic inventions, but they have more in common with the heroes and villains of the '30s and '40s than those of today. "Superhero comics in general grew out of pulp fiction; stuff like 'The Shadow,' 'Doc Savage' and Operator #5,'" Brubaker told CBR News. "The pulps were aimed at a slightly older audience so they were more lurid. So when comics first started, they were violent. Batman had a gun, Superman threw people off rooftops. It was a different world, but as comics started to be aimed more at little, little kids, all the heroes lost that edge that the pulp characters had.
"So I was trying to think, what a world would be like that grew out of that pulp world, a world that didn't turn all clean and superhero-ey? That's the background of this world. It's a world that grew out of the fact that in the '20s, '30s and '40s there were pulp heroes and villains and villainous organizations. There is a certain amount of superhero and super-villain knowledge in the world, but the mass populace sort of thinks of it in the same way you or I might think, 'Hey there's terrorists hiding out there. A super-villain attack is not an everyday occurrence. Clearly this stuff is on more of an apocalyptic level."
In the world of "Incognito," there are lots of opportunities for a criminally enterprising individual, thanks to the vast empires of organized crime and terrorism -- including one that once employed the series' protagonist. "Our main character, Zack was a henchman, or a lieutenant if you want to use Mob terminology, in a global organization of evil, a Hydra-like organization called The Black Death," Brubaker revealed. "It's something that's been around since the '20s or maybe even earlier.
"He and his twin brother used to be heavy hitters for them, and at some point something happened, I don't want to reveal what, and Zack turned against everybody. To save his own skin he went into witness protection. Everybody thinks he's dead but he's off living in Witness protection. A lot of the story is really about this guy who was raised in this evil organization and is now living in the world that your or I inhabit. Basically, he's sort of looking at it from the point of view that to him, having to be a normal person is the same as prison. He's living in world that he and his friends used to laugh about constantly. He' couldn't believe that people were stupid enough to follow rules and things like that, but now that's the world he's living in."
In what Zack sees as further punishment, his handlers in Witness Protection have forced him to take drugs that rob him of his superhuman abilities. "It's like Henry Hill at the end of 'Goodfellas,' where he goes, 'I'm alive but I'm a nobody, a schnook.' And I thought it would be interesting to explore that life on a super-powered level, where somebody who felt literally and physically superior to the average person is forced to live among them and basically starts to lose their mind because of it," Brubaker explained. "They're going out of their mind because they can't build relationships; everything about their life is a lie. Zack starts doing drugs and those drugs have a reaction to the ones the government have him on. And his powers start coming back.
"That's sort of the exploration. It's like now what can he do? He can't be a criminal because the minute he does something, they're going to be all over him and he'll be put in prison right next to the guy he was a witness against, who thinks he's dead. So he's screwed if he does anything. That's kind of the point of things. What if you're a bad guy and the only way to actually start to feel alive is to help people? Will that actually affect your morality? Also when you're in witness protection and you start using your powers-even if it is to help people- is that going to bring a ton of shit down on you? Most likely!"
The reemergence of Zack's powers and the consequential choices he has to face are only the beginning of this story. "That's where are all the trouble begins; with him realizing how fucked up and trapped he is in this world and how impossible it will be for him to become the person that the witness protection program wants him to be," said Brubaker. "That's where things start to spiral out of control for him and as with all noir stories it just gets worse from there."
One of the major players in "Incognito" is the man Zack put in prison, the leader of the Black Death. "The top guy is named The Black Death and he named his own organization after himself," Brubaker explained. "You'll learn a lot about the guy. In a weird way it's like this family legacy. His powers have to do with his name as you can see from Sean's creepy cover illustration for issue two."
The Black Death is just part of a larger supporting cast of characters that readers will be introduced to as "Incognito" progresses. "In the first issue, you're not going to meet a lot of the supporting cast. You just learn a bit of the background of the character and get a real take on where his life is sort of at," Brubaker said. "Part of the catalyst for his unhappiness is the bureaucracy he has to deal with and the people at work.
"You'll also learn a little bit about the organization he was raised in and the professor who took him and his twin brother in and gave them super powers."
Ed Brubaker has been developing the ideas behind "Incognito" for quite a while, and now that the story's time has finally come, he can't think of any other artist he'd rather see bringing it to life than Sean Phillips. "Sean is my ideal collaborator on many of the ideas I have," the writer said. "We've built up a pretty big fanbase with our work on 'Sleeper' and 'Criminal,' and now we've got 'Incognito. I really like the relationship Sean and I have built up with our work and I feel like we really understand what each other wants from the process. He's great."
As if a the intriguing story and Sean Phillips art weren't enough, Brubaker is hoping to further entice readers to buy single issues of "Incognito" in the same way he does "Criminal," by providing informative background articles and essays that will not be reprinted elsewhere. "One of the things I thought would be fun was to have all the articles be about popular pulp fiction characters from back in the day. I'm friends with Jess Nevins, who's a pulp encyclopedist, so I asked him if he'd write five articles for me," Brubaker explained. "The first one is on the Shadow and there will be ones on Doc Savage and Operator 5 as well as some others. The Shadow one is really great and puts the character in an interesting perspective. A lot of people that know the character as a basic concept don't really know the history of how he started or the divergence between the versions of him in the pulps and on the radio. So it's a really interesting article."
Each character article will be accompanied by a Sean Phillips illustration of that character. "That was kind of why I wanted the articles because I love seeing Sean's illustrations for them every month," Brubaker said. "Like with 'Criminal,' we're trying to put out something that's a labor of love for us all and make sure it's a comic that's actually worth your money. That's the reason we do the extras. Luckily. I've still got enough friends who are willing to do me the favor of writing the articles for me!"
"Incognito" is currently scheduled as a five issue miniseries, but Ed Brubaker isn't ruling out revisiting the series' characters and concepts in the future. "So far it's been a total blast and Sean's art is some of the best I've ever seen from him, and Val [Staples] is knocking it out of the park on colors," the writer remarked. "I never know how I'm going to end these things until I get there, but I've certainly thought that maybe we can do more of this at some point. There are a whole lot of characters in this world that I'm really fond of already."
"Incognito" #1 goes on sale in January from Icon.