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Sleeper Offers Classic Noir Pessimism

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Now that it's being turned into a movie for Tom Cruise, DC Comics have issued a new edition of forgotten superhero classic Sleeper. But how does it hold up, seven years later? Plus, an exclusive Q&A with writer Ed Brubaker.


The sleeper of the title is Holden Carver - dig the dual allusion to Catcher In The Rye and Raymond - a superpowered intelligence agent whose undercover position in a criminal organization filled with supervillains has started to go wrong... and will continue to do so, to increasing degrees and with increasing complications, throughout the course of the book. Within that overarching plot, we're given some insight into the kinds of people who choose to be part of a criminal underworld, a love affair doomed by its very nature, and a moral ambiguity still unusual for superhero comics... In other words, a perfect noir story that just happens to star people who can do fantastic, unusual things.

I admit, I may have already tipped my critical hand by calling Sleeper Season One a "forgotten classic" above, but it doesn't feel like hyperbole; Sleeper - and particularly the first year of the series, which this book collects - offered not only a new take on superhero tradition and cliche, but the story and execution to back that shock of the new up, making this seven-year-old series feel as fresh and contemporary now as it did when it first appeared. Creators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips both give some of their best work on the series; Brubaker's tense narration, double crosses and cruel streak finding a home years before his Criminal series, and Phillips' art coming across atmospheric but with crystal clear storytelling nonetheless.


Click here to read writer Ed Brubaker talking about the series.

This is, at heart, a book (and a series) that could never end happily, but that's not to say it's a joyless read; the "secret origins" that characters tell each other to pass the time offer grim laughs (especially Miss Misery's), and there's some strange sense of satisfaction to the way in which everything falls apart, and yet goes to plan, at the same time throughout, complete with last minute turnaround that makes the release of the second volume in September seem at least two months too long to wait.

The idea of "superheroes for grown-ups" has been promised many, many times in the twenty-plus years since Frank Miller made Batman old and Alan Moore took the underwear away from his glowing blue radioactive man, but rarely achieved. Sleeper manages it by downplaying the superheroics almost altogether, and instead concentrating on telling a story about people in desperate situations doing whatever they have to to survive... and then finding out that they made matters worse anyway.


Sleeper: Season One is released today by DC Comics/Wildstorm.