Monday, April 30, 2012

Direct Message 02: Sleeper Part Two

[Alec Berry and I have finally returned for another discussion in our Direct Message series. This time, we're discussing Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Part one is available on Alec's blog.]

Chad Nevett: I love the way Sean Phillips approaches page compositions in Sleeper. I think that’s what I love most about the comic. The way he stacks panels on top of a page-large shot. That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course; he switches to straight linear compositions for the ‘origins game’ and some flashbacks. But, that approach to layouts is so different, such a unique way to build the visual look of the series. A bunch of small details that obscure the big picture. You can see glimpses of what lays beyond, just not the whole thing. It’s not a perfect analogy for the series, but it’s still inventive and shows a bit more effort and thought that you usually see in comics like this. He really works those pages. It doesn’t always work since there are three or four times the way he stacks the panels leaves it unclear about what order to read the panels in. If there’s any part of Phillips’s post-Sleeper art I don’t like, it’s that he’s stuck to a very grid-based approach to page compositions since then. That straight ahead linear approach is good for clarity, sure; I just like to see ambition and pushing things. He did that in Sleeper.

That new enough for you?

Alec Berry: I think so. Of course, I’m typing this response months later, so I’m pretty sure little of this is new at this point. But, hey, I’m back! 

Phillip’s page designs were also something I considered when reading, and like you, I noticed how they play into the story, which, like you said, came off as a nice switch from Phillip’s usual orthodox layouts. I’d also agree with what you wrote - that the pages can sometimes inhibit reading - but for the most part I found them unique and functional rather than pointless. They really complement what Brubaker’s doing in terms of what I mentioned before … that the story sort of acts like this jam band song, twisting and turning and all of that. They’re also Phillip’s most notable contribution to the comic, other than his actual style, and they show he really took charge on his end and found ways to push the story forward rather than just show the script. You mentioned that there wasn’t much to push you through Sleeper … that nothing, besides characters, was really pushing the story. I kind of think Phillip’s page designs were his way of picking up some of that slack, but more importantly, the designs emphasize the series’ attention to attitude by providing the comic some flash and a visual hook. His pages here almost resemble the visual of a dossier - like someone threw a manila envelope full of shit onto a table and the possessions inside of it landed randomly in a pile. Which would back up the idea you mentioned … random bits of info lying beneath the surface.

If anything though, the pages are dynamic, and that goes hand-in-hand with the pulpy tone Sleeper presents, which, oddly, is something I missed the first time around. Originally, this was such an espionage story to me with all of its shadows and grimy marks, but now all I can see are the adventure qualities and almost cartoon-like expressions. Don’t get me wrong - there are certainly some twisted elements to the story, and the subtext holds some substance, but at it’s heart Sleeper really is this celebration of genre fiction, blending spies with super heroes. The duo wouldn’t really return to such a project until Incognito where they took the idea even a bit further.

CN: I’d argue that the two are pretty different and I’ve never really seen Incognito as an extension of Sleeper. Maybe I should... but I don’t. Then again, I’m not really high on Incognito, so...

Something that always bugged me about Sleeper to a certain extent was Tao. I rather like that character and I never quite got past how base Brubaker eventually made him (the whole thing being his attempt to get back at his ‘father’). I can understand why Brubaker would go in that direction, because, unless the character is brought down a bit, he basically stands there, invincible, outthinking everyone all of the time... and, yet, that’s part of the appeal of the character. A ‘superior’ being fucking up the world, because there’s nothing else to do is much more interesting to me than ‘superior’ being fucking up the world to get back at some guy he decided is his ‘father’ because that guy signed a piece of paper authorizing his creation. It seems like a stretch to me, like there was no other way for Brubaker to make Tao vulnerable so he went with this just because.

AB: Incognito always struck me as a blatant Sleeper sequel. I wouldn’t make it out to be a must read, as it’s just some run of the mill Brubaker/Phillips project with a terrible lead character, but a lot of the ideas running in that comic propose the opposite scenario to Carver’s situation in Sleeper (especially volume two). There’s even a character in volume two who basically shows what would have happened to Carver if he had lost his shit, and Phillips pulls out the Sleeper page layout whenever he shows up. I don’t know, from that standpoint, Incognito’s interesting, other than that though, I’d agree in that it’s really not worth checking out.

Although, Incognito probably has some of my favorite Val Staples color work with all the garish neons and pale pinks.

The Tao point is a good one, though, and on a re-read his ending did annoy me in that it seemed like a weak conclusion for a character who really seemed above it all. A cheap shot, more or less, pulling the daddy issues card. You could argue, though, the event serves a purpose as Tao against Lynch in a father-son relationship sort of continues the origin motif sprawled throughout the comic and takes it to a combative level, having a cast member actually fight where he comes from. Which, I guess, lines up with Carver’s conflict, fighting the idea of who he may be.

That may be a stretch, though, but I could see it. Ultimately, Tao’s demise comes off as a poor example of humanization, and it takes, as you said, a particularly interesting scenario and dulls it a bit. Tao fucking shit up for no real reason suggests no sides taken, in a way, kind of fucking with the whole black versus white concept of the series and even suggesting something bigger a.k.a. chaos. The line “nothing is true; everything is permitted” runs nicely with that.

What do you think of Sleeper being a pulp, though, versus just a seedy espionage tale?

CN: I forgot all about the explicit Sleeper references in the second mini. Then again, I didn’t think they really went anywhere at the time, so maybe that’s why they slipped my mind. Or it’s because I’m getting old and I’ve finally hit my mental limit on ‘useless shit’ I can retain at any given moment. Either way, yeah, the second Incognito series directly references Sleeper. I suck.

I’m not sure I quite understand your question. Can’t a ‘seedy espionage tale’ be a ‘pulp?’ What the fuck does ‘pulp’ even mean here? Is that a genre? I thought it was, you know, a reference point for a bunch of cheap magazines printed during a specific time period. I’m not trying to be a dick, but what is a ‘pulp’ in this day and age, and what separates it from any other genre descriptor? (At least in your mind for the purposes of this conversation...)

AB: Fair enough. You’re right. ‘Pulp’ does refer to a long, lost form of publishing and really doesn’t make up a genre, per say, but I think someone could make a case that the idea of pulps have transcended shitty magazines and moved on up to something similar to a state of mind or general aesthetic or vibe. Sleeper possesses that vibe of exploitation and melodrama, and there’s something about that feeding Sleeper this, I don’t know, almost cartoonish tone, in some ways.

I’m not trying to make a case for pulps being a genre, but I do feel pulps were made up of certain qualities and those qualities can be passed on, almost in a genre type of way. Pulp was a format containing multiple genres, yes, but the format seemed to have textual traits beyond the physical package, like sensationalism and exaggeration. So by ‘pulp,’ I mean offbeat or fantastical (but, of course, taking that into consideration, I guess you could classify all genre comic books as pulps, so maybe I’m just completely out of my wheelhouse).

The real point of my question was to say that I tend to find Sleeper more of an offbeat story now versus this realist commentary, which was the reaction I had to it reading the thing when I was sixteen. It’s certainly still a seedy espionage story, but to me, it’s no longer just that. Sleeper has a light-hearted adventure drive to it. It’s not just some outright serious story, although it does contain some interesting subtext which can get pretty deep.

Do you want to talk about that in any way, shape or form? I mean, there is a subtext we haven’t really touched on.

CN: I see what you’re saying about ‘pulp’ and that’s what I thought you were getting at to a degree. But, yeah, considering how much of comics came out of the pulps, it’s hard, for me, to look at one comic and say that it’s more ‘pulp’ than another. I wonder if we do that because Brubaker references the pulps more vocally than other writers. Were people using that word when Sleeper was coming out or is it something we say now because of Criminal and Incognito? Questions that require no answers...

Sleeper is a serious book, sure. It’s got some silly moments, but most serious works do. I don’t think genre limits that. It’s a book that questions the difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ what self-identity means and how fluid it can be, the use of power... There’s a lot in the book. I always latched onto the good/evil stuff the most, because I think there’s something there. I mean, Carver is acting like a ‘bad’ person and the only thing that makes it ‘good’ is that he’s supposedly doing it for the ‘good guys.’ His actions would be the exact same whether or not he was actually undercover, so do his motives really change anything? I don’t think they do -- and I don’t think that he does either. That choice at the end of issue twelve seems to be one where he accepts that he’s always been a ‘bad person’ because he’s always done ‘bad’ things and used an easy justification to convince himself otherwise. He’s always been a hired thug and killer, and he’s finally realised it. But, maybe that says more about me than the book and character...

What I don’t entirely understand is why you’re backing away from what this comic is, man. What makes it less serious to you now?

AB: It’s not that I think Sleeper’s suddenly now a joke or bad. Very much the opposite. It’s just no longer some sacred cow for me, as the above discussion shows. As for being “less serious,” I still see Sleeper as a great story about the grey area and feel it contains a strong universal core. It’s just not some straight as fuck drama, anymore, as I can see the lighter elements in it now.

But, yeah, the book.

Sleeper does illustrate a common ground between ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and it even goes as far as to sort of destroy the idea of ‘good’ entirely, or at least make a joke of it. I like what you point out - about the lack of difference between Carver working for Lynch or Tao - but I feel volume 2, as Carver goes from sadly accepting that truth you mention to obtaining a very “burn everything,” self-focused attitude, drives shit home. The dude goes from caring about the bigger picture to simply living for his own survival, and all of this becomes so because he realizes the bigger picture’s a joke, more or less. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ don’t exist but rather the agendas of men and what makes agendas so different from one another when all they simply are are desires and beliefs?

Lynch and Tao both desire to shape the world a specific way, and they both implement violent, backstabbing techniques to meet the goal. Supposedly, one of these goals makes things a little better, but as Carver may tell you, casualties arises still the same. Any scenes with the alien sell this thought. Or, hell, any scenes of Carver under the interrogation of the ‘good guys’ works just as well.

The work gathers a cynical tone from this choice, bringing in the noir influence, but simultaneously it’s not so cynical in which it makes the work seem unbelievable. If anything, you could consider something like Guantanamo Bay and see this comic as sensible.

While the core of the book goes to big places, I like that a thug stands trapped in the middle of it. Granted, he’s a trained operative - a smart one at that - but, for the most part, I feel Carver could be any of us. He’s a working man simply trying to do his job, go home and be happy, but, because of the world he lives in, finds himself sucked into scenarios which cause him to ask the big questions. We’ve all been there, and I think in this age of people versus corporations, Carver’s story gains this new light. He’s a guy working for an entity and eventually realizes this entity may have intentions of its own rather be on the look out for his own best interests or the peoples’.

Also, as an aside, Carver’s a total blueprint for Tracy Lawless.

CN: I get what you mean (and, really, got it before, but felt like being a bit of a jerk). Things that seem groundbreaking and life-altering when you’re younger usually seem less so as you get older and come into contact with more and more things. If you want disappointing, try rereading the Millar/Quitely Authority sometime...

Is there anything left to say? Probably, in the sense that you can always find more things to say about a work. But, do we have anything left to say? I think I’m good. This conversation has been going on far too long, mon ami. Any final thoughts/words?

AB: This has been a long one. We’ve been writing since November, I think … (delays are on me).

Could we say more? Probably. In some ways, I feel we only scratched the surface on this one, and I’m sure someone reading this has sludged through what we’ve written and feels we’ve missed shit, but at this point, I feel it’s best we move on and tackle something else. If anything, this has been a nice exercise of you and I butting heads. We did a lot of that.

To sum it all up, though, Sleeper still holds a spot on my must read list. Out of all the Brubaker/Phillips collaborations, it’s the one of the more interesting for its structure, and thematically, Sleeper goes to some places which can only leave you thinking, whether they’re real world scenarios or comments on comic books themselves (a point I didn’t even touch on).

Ok. I’m done. Next time I promise a quicker turn around with less burnout. Oh. And more Moon Knight.