Incognito #1-2

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
32 pages, color
Published by Marvel Comics

I’m an unabashed fan of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’s Criminal, their crime-centric from Marvel. And so, I’ll admit that for a split-second, I was a little disappointed when I heard they were temporarily setting Criminal aside so they could create Incognito, a mini-series about a former super-villain living in a witness protection program. Then I remembered that before Criminal, Brubaker and Phillips had last collaborated on Sleeper, a series about an agent in deep cover in a super-villain organization. So that’s why that disappointment only lasted a split-second, because I knew how good Sleeper was. And surprise, surprise, Incognito is well worth its delaying the next Criminal storyline.

Zack Overkill was once a super-villain, operating with his brother Xander to commit hundreds of different crimes—or, as the government refers to them, "acts of domestic terror." Not that the public ever knew what really happened in any of those attacks, of course, always covering up any super-powered moment with talk of freak tornados or other impossible events. Now, though, Zack works in an office as Zack Andersen, trying to lay low in his new life that he received for testifying in court against his fellow super-villains. Then the office Christmas party hit, though, and Zack’s life began to change as somehow his powers started resurfacing. But that’s not the end of Zack’s problems, not by a long shot.

What I loved right away with Incognito‘s first two issues is that it’s a very smart, carefully deliberate take on idea of superpowers and what our world would be like with these larger than life elements, but taking a slightly different tactic than we’re used to. This hidden, secretive world of powered people hits all the right beats, maybe because it feels believable in this day and age of governmental cover-ups. From the regular interviews with his handlers, to the pills being used to suppress his powers, you can see it all happening. It’s more than just a story about powers, though. Just like in Criminal, Incognito gets into the mind of its less-than-stellar protagonist and digs deep, shaking loose for the reader his drive and motivations. It’s hard to not enjoy reading about Zack because Brubaker lets us understand just what pushes him through; so while his swiping someone else’s outfit at the holiday party in order to have sex with a co-worker is reprehensible, you see so much into Zack’s mind that it’s hard to actually hate the character. Not want to be him, certainly. Not want to even associate with him, definitely. But want to read about him? Oh yes, please bring more for us to look at.

At the same time, Brubaker’s also created a large backstory for both Zack and all the other super-villains, one that we’re learning about piece by piece (as it connects with the main story), and it’s interesting enough that I am dying to see more. In the same way that the Minutemen in Watchmen aren’t the main part of the story but their flashbacks set the tone of the world to come, Zack’s past with shady figures like Doctor Lester or the Black Death is absolutely engrossing and makes you almost want to see an entire prequel set in those earlier years. I’m not entirely sure something like that would really work (in the same way that a Minutemen comic would have problems), but it says a lot about Brubaker’s care and attention to every element in Incognito that the idea of something like that seems so right.

Phillips’s art, as always, is handsome and striking; he knows just how to draw people in a way that makes you feel like you’re looking at the real world, not the printed page. He and colorist Val Staples work well together, using just the right amount of detail to bring characters to life, from wrinkles in a shirt and the monotony of a cube farm, to an unguarded moment of peace and bliss on a character’s face. It’s funny, because there are a lot of artists out there whose hyper-detailed art is heralded as looking so realistic, but I think Phillips is much more of the real deal. Posture, facial features, shadows, movement, everything just seems to come easily to Phillips’s art in a way that feels much more natural and believable. Heck, Phillips even makes the "person wearing a domino mask looks different" trick actually work, so I’m really impressed.

One last bit about Incognito that I like so much is that Brubaker takes the basic idea—a super-villain in the witness protection program—and doesn’t use it as the sole idea of the mini-series. So many other writers would simply stick tightly to that singular plot point; Brubaker uses it as a springboard for everything that’s to come. Zack’s situation has been changing with each issue, and this is a real journey that we’re going on with him. Zack’s final destination is still unknown to the reader, and it makes Incognito that much more enjoyable. Brubaker and Phillips have hit another home run with Incognito; this is a comic that everyone else will wish they created for years to come. Highly recommended.

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