Sometimes a comic just exudes an air of class in your hands, before you’ve even opened to the first page. Despite the fact that the pairing of Brubaker and Phillips didn’t immediately excite me as much as some – I’ve read neither Criminal nor Sleeper, while the writer’s work-for-hire hasn’t tended to overlap with my own reading habits – the combination of almost universal exhortation to buy it from creators on Twitter (yeah, I’m cool, I Twit with the comicscenti), and a high-concept hook to die for (the story of what happens to a former supervillain on witness protection when he suddenly gets his powers back), this screamed “must-read” as soon I heard about it. And feeling that this was a book to pay attention to was only helped by picking up a decent-sized package ($3.50 isn’t cheap, but that’s for twenty-three pages of story plus some nice backup material – and, this being Icon, no house ads) with a lovely, classy cover.
And thankfully, Incognito does come pretty close to living up to those lofty expectations. It’s confidently constructed, with a gradual peeling away of its premise that leaves the reader eager to learn more (aside from a first major plot beat, there’s not a huge amount of story that unfolds here, mind – it’s more about establishing mood and setting), and natural if unshowy dialogue with a strong sense of narrator’s voice. If there’s one thing that it wants for, though, it’s an array of characters with whom to identify. There’s no supporting cast to speak of – only Zack’s former and incumbent “handlers” stand out, and then by virtue of being the stereotypical “grizzled nice guy” and “young asshole” types respectively – and Zack himself, while clearly intended to engage our sympathies at some point, struggles to do in this first issue by virtue of being a former super-villain and… well, a bit of a jerk himself (not to mention one who, while you could call it a grey area if you were feeling charitable, essentially rapes a woman in the opening pages).
That’s not to say his story isn’t intriguing, merely that he’s far from the “hero” – and since there’s nobody else in the book to act as our way in, the reader is far more a detached observer than an engaged participant. That doesn’t make it a difficult read, though, and key to that is an absolutely superb turn on art from Sean Phillips. I should probably know his stuff a bit better than I do – the odd issue of Hellblazer is about all I really recall – but this is terrific, highly atmospheric stuff, helped by some great colouring from Val Staples. I’m not sure it really captures the “pulp” feel that Brubaker explains initially inspired the book – save for when Zack puts on his mask – but it’s a moody noirish look, all thick black inks, that suits it well anyway.
While lacking the “instant classic” feel of other contemporary hits like Casanova or Phonogram, there’s a definite sense that Brubaker and Phillips are on to something here – and as the opening issue of a series that looks set to put a grown-up sort of twist on superhero storytelling tropes, it feels a bit like being in on the ground floor on something like Powers or Ex Machina
. It’ll have to work hard to steer clear of too much cliché (the “mysterious” Doctor Lester already has a rather heavy whiff of Gargunza about him), but on this evidence, Incognito is one of the first essential comics of 2009.