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Incognito

Incognito #6

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incognito06It’s fair to say that Incognito hasn’t quite managed to live up to the promise shown by a thrilling first couple of issues – never really seeming quite sure what sort of story it was trying to tell, nor what its tone should be, nor how much of the wider backstory and world that Brubaker has clearly come up with should be thrown in together at once (a lesson it could perhaps learn from its Icon stablemate Powers, which eked out the major players in its superhero world in a careful manner for a good year or two). It’s led to a preceding couple of issues in which an almost bewildering array of characters have shown up and backstory been explained, but where very little of the “here and now” plot has actually felt like it’s progressed in a compelling manner.

This final issue makes clear that pacing, really, has been the problem all along – because this is probably the best issue since the first, but it also works its way through as much actual story as the previous four or five issues managed put together. It’s as if Brubaker spent so long dithering on where he was going with the book that he suddenly realised he only had an issue left to actually go there (indeed, his admission in the closing notes that the delay and extended page count were due to simply not being able to reach the end of the story quickly enough would seem to testify to this). As such, while being filled with twists and turns aplenty, the final chapter almost leaves a reader of the previous five issues feeling a little cheated – it turns out we weren’t really reading a noir drama filled with uncomfortable moral decisions. We weren’t even reading a complete character arc (I’d made the assumption that Zack Overkill’s tale would be relatively self-contained).

It turns out, in fact, that these six issues are an origin story. Brubaker’s introduced us to a creator-owned, open-plan ongoing setup involving a morally ambiguous but essentially root-for-able Punisher-esque anti-hero. And there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly not as it plays out here – it just doesn’t feel like the point (and I mean that in two senses of the word) we originally thought we were heading for. Incognito initially promised to do something new, but you can see the obvious influences seeping out from every page – and again, that doesn’t make it a bad comic (it’s so well-crafted, particularly visually, that it’s impossible to say that), just a little bit of a letdown. Although perhaps my expectations were unfair – Brubaker filled the series’ backmatter with essays on classic pulp for a reason, so perhaps he can’t be blamed for revealing that he was actually setting up a pulp hero of his own all along – but the book’s style in those early issues certainly didn’t suggest that in any obvious way. The mini as a whole is merely a flawed, rather than failed experiment – and a cautiously positive introduction to the future adventures of Overkill – but I can’t escape the feeling that it could have been rather more special.

Seb Patrick | 4th September, 2009

The Sunday Pages #63

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This week’s capsule reviews cover Ex Machina, Incognito, X-Men Origins: Gambit and (ugh) “Ultimatum” Spider-Man : Requiem.

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The Sunday Pages #47

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This week’s capsule reviews are of Captain Britain #10, DMZ #39, Green Lantern Corps #33, Batman & The Outsiders Special #1, Nightwing #153 and Incognito #2.

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Incognito #1

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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

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. 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.

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Seb Patrick | 5th January, 2009

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