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Recognizing Incognito

Brubaker and Phillips Deliver a Pulp, Noir and Superhero Masterpiece

By Chad Derdowski     February 23, 2011


The latest Comicscape landscaping by expert Chad Derdowski
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We have an embarrassing confession to make. Before we started reading the current run of Captain America in 2005, we really didn’t have much of an idea who Ed Brubaker was. Oh, we’d heard the name plenty, but we really didn’t know his work. That’s mainly due to being very selective about the comics we read during the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, which is to say that we were broke and couldn’t afford to buy that many comics. But once we discovered this gentleman’s talent, there was no looking back. We’re not ashamed to say that we’re unabashed fans and that simply seeing the man’s name on a book will increase the odds of that book coming home with us. Today we’re going to focus on just one of those books, with the hope that it’ll end up going home with you next time you visit your local comic shop. The book is called Incognito. It’s got art by Sean Phillips, colors by Val Staples and if you aren’t reading it, you should be.
 Here’s the premiseof Incognito in a very extreme nutshell: imagine Pixar’s Incredibles done with super-villains, set in a pulp, superhero and noir-influenced world. Now, the idea of a Brubaker-penned comic about a super-powered criminal in the Witness Protection Program is more than enough to hook us, but if it’s not enough for you, we’ll continue… and this is where we get to the good stuff.
In the world that Brubaker and Phillips have created, super powered humans (henceforth referred to as “supers”) have existed since the 19th century. Borrowing from the idea of the Wold Newton Family created by science fiction writer Philip José Farmer, the first supers were the result of a radioactive object which landed in New England over 200 years ago. Flash forward to modern-day and there’s a whole lot of them running around, on both sides of the law. But unlike modern superhero comics, these characters are definitely written in a more pulp fiction vein. It’s not unlike Doc Savage or the Shadow, or for that matter, the line of America’s Best Comics created by Alan Moore a few years back. Basically, it exists in a world which begs the question “What if the pulps hadn’t gone out of vogue when comic books came into being?”
The protagonist of Incognito is Zack Overkill, a retired super criminal who has been living the mundane life of an office drone since testifying against his former employer Black Death (who also happens to be the first super who came into existence). Thanks to the Witness Protection Program, Zack’s been on a daily regimen of pills which keep his abilities under wraps and even though he’s not in jail, he’s basically stuck in the prison of his own mind. And it sucks. Experimenting with some illicit substances winds up subduing the effects of the power-supressing drugs and Zack has his super strength back. The interesting thing is, he winds up becoming a vigilante rather than a hero, a fact which is quickly discovered by both Black Death and the SOS, a secret organization created by Professor Zeppelin in WWII which has kept the world at peace and kept the supers out of the news.
Yeah… Professor Zeppelin. And if that wasn’t a sweet enough name, he’s got a daughter named Zoe. Oh yeah,and there’s Dick Deadly and Ava Destruction too, proving that Brubaker’s got a good handle on the more absurd elements of the superhero genre as well as their darker elements.
So anyway, Overkill winds up working for the SOS fighting the evil world he was once a part of. Now, if that sounds like a pretty simple set-up for a pretty simple comic, you obviously don’t know Ed Brubaker. These characters aren’t just one-dimensional cyphers – Overkill doesn’t just flip a switch and go from evil to good… it’s more like completely amoral to various shades of grey. In fact, Brubaker manages to not only create a cast of fully realized and subtley nuanced characters, he puts them directly into a world full of classically-inspired pulp and noir clichés and archetypes. The story is full of twists and turns and real-life tension while being completely over-the-top and insane. It’s dark, gritty and grimey and will leave you cheering for more by the end of every single issue. It’s violent and vile and full of blood and sex, loose women and loose morals. It’s Doc Savage in the world of the Justice League as written by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It’s badass.
Sean Phillips artwork on the series has a decidedly Wally Wood flair to it, which is totally fitting for the story (and is a statement meant as high praise) while Val Staples colors are packed with raw emotion that completely suits the mood, no matter what is being depicted. In all honesty, we can’t think of a better creative team for a book like this and we can’t think of a more perfect book on the shelves of your local comic shop. And in addition to all this awesomeness, every issue has a backup feature written by Jess Nevins which focuses on vintage pulp characters like Doc Savage, Fu Manchu, Phantom Detective and Captain Future. So not only are you getting a kickass story, you’re getting a history lesson too! These backup articles are not featured in the collected edition, so it’s actually well worth your time to dig up the individual comics if you can find them for a decent price.
The first Incognito series has already been collected and the second one is underway as we speak. If you’ve enjoyed Ed Brubaker’s work on Batman, Daredevil, Catwoman or Captain America, don’t you think you owe it to him to give his creator-owned work a shot? As Brubaker himself said about the series, “… I could do an issue of Cap that was about the Red Skull’s daughter living in Witness Protection. But what couldn’t I do? A lot. And that’s where the fun stuff begins.”   We think you owe it to yourself to find out exactly what the fun stuff is. 
And if you’ve already enjoyed Brubaker and Phillips’ work on Criminal or the similarly-themed Sleeper… well, you’re probably reading Incognito, aren’t you? And if you’re not, what the hell are you waiting for? 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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Wiseguy 2/23/2011 4:32:16 AM

Nicely written Chad. I loved Incognito and his Criminal series too. I think Incognito isn't getting it's due because Brubaker isn't a big self-promoter like that Millar guy. But at least his Criminal did win some awards if I'm not mistaken

samurai1138 2/23/2011 4:48:48 AM

Ive never read this. A mistake soon to be rectified. Thanks for the suggestion.

Bryzarro 2/23/2011 7:43:39 AM

 I have heard the name of this title but until I read your summary didn't realize how awsome it sounds.  I'm so pumped for lunch to hit the comic store to grab the trades that are available.

Thanks for the heads up Chad. Keep them coming.  I'm always up for new series to follow.

krathwardroid 2/23/2011 9:57:05 AM

With two series of Incognito out now, I really think this should be recognized a lot more than it is. Bad Influences was an excellent follow-up to the first series. I enjoyed them both very much.

Rockhead 2/25/2011 11:46:31 AM

I'm wth you 100% I can't remember if I read Cap or Criminal first, but it wasn't long after that I realized what a great writer Brubaker is. I think Incognito is easily his best stuff. I love it. if you're not reading it, go out and buy it. You won't be disappointed!

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