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Pipeline, Issue #349

THE SLEEPER CYCLE

"To Lee Marvin and Alan Moore and the idea that simple isn't always better."

That's Ed Brubaker's dedication at the beginning of the trade paperback collection of POINT BLANK, the mini-series that sets the stage for SLEEPER. Brubaker's idea is on full display over the course of all the issues I read last week featuring the character of Holden Carver. That's POINT BLANK #1-5 (available as a trade paperback), SLEEPER #1-12 (first six issues are available as a trade), and COUP D'ETAT #1. I don't list all the comics because it's a chore I wanted to reel off for you. I list them all so you can know them all in the right order and can march yourself to the comics shop this week to get them all for yourself. Your comics collection isn't complete without them.

SLEEPER isn't one of those books that critics have to praise to be taken seriously. The series is just that good. If you enjoy watching ALIAS or 24, I think you'll find this comic right up your alley. If you enjoyed the mind games of Alan Moore's WILDCATS, the grit of Frank Miller's SIN CITY, or the nebulous moral code of Joe Casey's WILDCATS, there's something in here for you.

The SLEEPER saga is the story of Holden Carver, a one-time International Operations star who's placed deep undercover to learn more about the organization the enigmatic "Tao" is running. However, the only person who knows Carver is undercover and NOT a traitor to his country (as is his cover story) is Jack Lynch, a classic old school spy who's currently in a coma. Carver is stuck in Tao's organization with no way out and the threat of being uncovered at any minute. Desperate men do desperate things, as you see over the course of the twelve issues. As entertaining as the first six issues are (which are now collected in a trade paperback), it's the final six of the series that ramp things up to the kind of climactic levels you expect to see at the third act of a movie. Picture that happening month after month and you'll imagine how good a read this book is.

SLEEPER is part of WildStorm's mature readers "Eye of the Storm" line. It is a mature readers series for a variety of reasons. The most obvious involve the female nipples and four letter words commonly associated with acts of maternal copulation, fatherless children, and female dogs. There are also entry wounds, near-amputations, and potential attempted rape. (You'll have to read POINT BLANK to see what I mean on that last part, but suffice it to say you'll never read SAVANT GARDE back issues the same way again.)

The point is, however, that those things aren't what make this book mature. It's Brubaker's refusal to tell an easy story in the easy way. The characters are not flat one- or two-dimensional characters who spew cliches and act within strict parameters. The stories are far from linear. Brubaker displays a near-mastery of his craft in constructing plots that jump back and forth in time to maximum affect. You have to pay attention to this book as you read it. It's not a terribly difficult task to accomplish, but it does require the desire to read a comic for more than a cheap thrill or an escape into a fantasy world. You won't get that in SLEEPER. It's a cold dark cruel world that Brubaker and Sean Phillips have constructed here, filled with paranoia, mismatched love, shifting alliances, extremely high level political maneuvering, and tough guys making tough decisions.

Brubaker infuses the book with a lot of gray areas. Holden Carver -- the coolest character name in comics today -- is not a pure-hearted hero. He's not perfect. He not only makes mistakes, but he makes some of them willingly. He can't always get out of every situation, which is what makes the book so fascinating to read. Brubaker leads you to believe that anything can happen over the course of the series, and it often does. Carver finds himself in plenty of situations with no outs. And he doesn't always get out of them. He does things that result in deaths both directly and indirectly, on the theory that it's serving the greater good. His moral relativism is a forced issue, necessary to survive in the cutthroat world he's trapped in, without a safety net.

As Pipeline is a spoiler-free column, it's very tough to review this book. Things change a lot over the course of the 18 issues I read for this review. The very stage on which SLEEPER is set is a giant spoiler for POINT BLANK, but one that won't disrupt your enjoyment of that title. The thrill to be had there is the way in which the story is laid out, as the levels of mystery are slowly unveiled, until the ending that you'd never see coming arrives. With SLEEPER, it's more tricky. Brubaker establishes Carver's conundrum with the first issue -- that of a man on the inside who can't reveal his secret, but can't save everyone -- and plays that up for the first half of the series. The second half deals with the walls starting to fall down around Carver and the extremes he must go to keep his identity under wraps and his head attached to his shoulders. It's a perfect blend of mind games and physical action. The COUP D'ETAT issue is almost only tangentially related to SLEEPER, but is a must-read for anyone curious about where the series might go next. A "second season" for the series is on the drawing boards, and can't get here soon enough for me.

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about the layout of comic book pages. My own preferences are for something straightforward and approaching a grid. Keep the panels on tiers; make everything easy to read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Gone are the days when panels were tossed around one large central image meant to draw your attention. Breaking panel borders isn't necessary anymore. The only trick to this is that it leaves the pages looking boring at first glance. Sean Phillips goes a different route in telling the story in a visually interesting and easy to read way. The biggest one is a modified version of what Brent Anderson does with ASTRO CITY. Anderson tends to choose one image and expand it out to the borders of the page, laying the other panels over top of the image. Those other images follow the grid format, with definite tiers of paneling. Phillips takes it one step further. He often uses two different images on a page to serve as the background, and the panels then cascade down the page in curves. They connect at the corners, but the eye easily follows them down and across the page. It's something that might confuse a first time comics reader, but it rewards the reader with a little comics reading maturity.

The only jarring thing in the series is the sudden shift to computer lettering in the final quarter. The slick ultra-round font used in Carver's narration doesn't fit properly in the caption boxes, and the whole package loses part of its organic feel. On top of that, the regular dialogue font looks like everything else WildStorm does, and that's not a great thing. I hate that sameness, whether it's across WildStorm's line, or CrossGen's, or Marvel's. Lettering is a part of the visual look of a comic. It's not just utilitarian. Someday, I hope more people will realize this, which is why I point it out so often. Education is half the battle.

SLEEPER is a brilliant thriller, a mature read delivering characters both repulsive and sympathetic at the same time. Brubaker and Phillips have a real winner on their hands here.

ANOTHER MAGICAL WORLD

All those turn-of-the-century British fantasy books with children as stars start to sound alike after awhile, don't they? J.M. DeMatteis and Michael Ploog are hoping to add one more to the cannon with just a slight twist: It's 100 years later and they're not British.

ABADAZAD is the new CrossGen series. It's a fantasy centering on the world of Abadazad, one written about in dozens of novels over the years, but one that might just be true. One girl discovers the truth while searching for her missing younger brother. ABADAZAD shows much promise, but the payoff begins with issue number two, where we'll get to see the imaginative and colorful world that DeMatteis and Ploog have created. They need to sell that alternate reality before the series is sold. This first issue is all set-up. It's an entertaining set-up, to be sure, with strong characterization and a solid back-story being developed, but I know we haven't gotten to the heart of the matter just yet.

This first issue is set in modern day Brooklyn, and introduces us to Katie, a protective nine year old older sister to Matt, a hyper brother who loves the rich fantasy world of Abadazad. Their home is, as they say today, "broken" and the kids learn to rely on each other in lieu of their parents. DeMatteis goes through a lot to convince us of the severity of the situation. The story filters directly through Katie, which results in a very close look at the family situation and its effects on the kids. Her narration is filled with character and spunk. It's not merely there for exposition. And that keeps the story moving, even when it seems to be going nowhere.

Ploog's art style reminds me a lot of Will Eisner's. It has a vaguely "cartoony" look to it, like the characters are all caricatures of real people. The images aren't meant to be interpreted literally. A little extra animation gives them additional emotion and expression. Ploog also plays around a lot with panels, using borderless panels alongside traditional grid layouts. There are a couple of sequences in the book that even evolve naturally across the page. No panels are needed. The collage of images flow naturally, without the story skipping a beat. The only unfortunate part of this first issue is that it doesn't take place in Abadazad, so Ploog's imagination has really yet to be let loose in the series. We get hints of what's coming up through toys on display, but not the world just yet.

Nick Bell colors the book directly from Ploog's pencils, which I'm thrilled to see. Ploog's pencil work is tight and detailed. Trying to ink off of it would be a great disservice to the artist. The effect of coloring on top of pencils works for this book. It gives it a slightly dreamy and whimsical look, rather than the super slick polish of most modern comics. Bell's color scheme is also reserved and well blended. He's not trying to show off here, just tell the story and keep the pencils intact. It works well.

Dave Lanphear works under the credit of "typographer." That's a fairly accurate assessment of his job here. In addition to laying out a couple of pages to simulate a children's fantasy prose book, he also varies fonts quite a bit to differentiate between what's going on in the characters' minds and what it dialogue. The zig zag balloon tales, the curly tales, and the butted balloon shapes all help give the book an extra zap of energy.

In the end, ABADAZAD #1 is a good start to CrossGen's latest series. DeMatteis and Ploog start on the right foot, but their biggest challenge lies ahead: convincing us of the wonders of their new fantasy world.

ABADAZAD #1 is due out from CrossGen this week. Carrying a $2.95 price tag, it contains a full 32 pages of story.

UPDATES, CORRECTIONS, AND GENERAL MAYHEM

* The theme song to the upcoming BATMAN series is by the other pretentiously named U2 band member, The Edge. Not Bono. This means that the theme song won't include a plea for the dismissal of third world debt or hunger aid to Africa. That's a good start to the series already.

* THE PATH #22 (released last week) contains the six page backup story illustrated by CBR's Comic Book Idol winner, Patrick Scherberger. Scherberger does a great job with the short, and it portends even greater things to come. You can also see his work over on the Sunday Comics section of the Oni web site.

* CBR's own Rob Worley -- we still think of him that way -- saw the debut of YOUNG ANCIENT ONE in the pages of EPIC ILLUSTRATED #1 last week. I'll be reviewing it next week, but I can tell you right now that it's a fun read evocative of both kung fu movies and classic Spider-Man stories all at the same time.

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday with a look at an anime magazine on DVD that should interest American comic fans.

Various and Sundry carries on, with a review of the British series MI-5 (a.k.a. Spooks"), thoughts on where the contestants on NBC's THE APPRENTICE are going wrong, fun with the new Firefox web browser, random thoughts on The Grammys, lots of AMERICAN IDOL talk, and the announcement of UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004. It's the latter which has sucked most of the time away from my weekend. Fun game.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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