Something doesn't click in this debut issue of "Incognito." The elements are all there: Ed Brubaker's street level perspective, Sean Phillips's exquisite art and storytelling, a complex and morally questionable protagonist. It just doesn't work nearly as well as you'd expect. It reads like a book that someone who was trying to copy "Sleeper" and "Criminal" might make, and cannot come close to the originals.
The biggest flaw, though, is the lettering. It's odd to focus on the lettering, because, ideally, you shouldn't notice the lettering. It should blend in and complement the visuals of the book. Sean Phillips's lettering here stands out in a very bad way with a font for dialogue that is just ugly and is too small for the balloons. The lettering for the narrative captions isn't as bad, but it also doesn't work completely. Overall, the lettering looks amateurish and took me right out of the issue at first.
Thankfully, his art is still at its usual high level of quality. Here, he experiments more with the empty gutters between panels, using soft, non-existent borders for panels. It allows the panels to flow a little better, that each moment isn't quite as disconnected from the next as hard boarders would. As well, panels only rarely go to the edge of the page, making those that do stand out - especially the long vertical panels used throughout the issue, which really break from Phillips's usual page constructions.
The plot follows Zack Andersen, formerly Zack Overkill, as he lives a "normal" life in the witness protection program, and drugged so he can't access his superpowers. He hates his life and only gets any sense of joy when he does the "wrong thing" or wears a disguise. One piece of narration seems to purposefully recall "Watchmen" with the thrill that comes with a costume, although, in this case, it's a Santa costume.
Ed Brubaker's writing, on the surface, is just as good as his work on "Criminal" or "Captain America," but, as I said, it reads like an imitation of Brubaker than something he wrote himself. In a scene between Zack Andersen and his new handler in the witness protection program, the dialogue seems forced and a little over-the-top.
If I had to put my finger on it, I think the problem is that everything in the issue is so cynical and mean -- the entire world, even the parts that aren't mired in crime. Nearly every character is a total prick ready with an overreaction and a plethora of expletives. That sort of tone works when you're down in the gutters with criminals, con artists, and people just trying to make it through the day, but it falls flat here.
There's potential in "Incognito" and since it is based around only revealing little bits of information about Zack's past, it will almost certainly read well as a whole, but this debut isn't nearly as strong as Brubaker and Phillips' past collaborations would suggest. Not bad by any means, but a disappointment nonetheless.
(Who doesn't love Sean Phillips's art? Well, check out a whole bunch of it in CBR's preview!)