Monday, January 5, 2009

Incognito #1

Marvel Comics/Icon, 23 pages, extra content, $ 3.50

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist and letterer: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Val Staples

Ed Brubaker, who says he's wanted to write this series for a long time, describes Incognito as "apocalyptic pulp noir." Which, as it turns out, is a fancy term for another post-Watchmen superhero narrative, only now told with all the crime noir trappings familiar to readers of Criminal, Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Phillips' other creator-owned series at Marvel. Which, as far as it goes, is fair enough, really. It sounds unique, in theory. But very much unlike Criminal, this one doesn't quite work, I'm afraid.

There is no shortage of good ideas in Incognito. In a nutshell, the protagonist, Zack “Overkill” Andersen, is a retired member of a super-villain syndicate who, after testifying against his boss, has been in a witness protection program for three years. Rather than to enjoy his brand-new life as a file clerk, however, Zack sneers at his co-workers – and everybody else, really. Because ordinary people, to Zack, are pathetic. And so, when he discovers a way to bypass the government’s power-inhibiting drugs, he begins a life as a masked vigilante. There are clues that all may not quite be what it seems, too. On a purely technical level, as you might expect from Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Phillips, this is all perfectly fine.

And the story does raise some intriguing questions, certainly. What if all our hopes and dreams, all the things we tell ourselves to make our lives more bearable, are nothing but delusions of grandeur? What if, contrary to what we keep telling ourselves, our best times are behind us? Where does "pretending to be a drone" stop, and where does being that drone begin?

Unexpectedly, though, the two-page teaser (page 1, page 2) released in advance deals more exhaustively with these questions than the sum total of the first issue does. In Incognito #1, the writing is more concerned with dishing out plot and backstory. But, frankly, neither the plot nor the backstory are all that interesting: sweeping government conspiracies, mad scientists, rivaling cabals of superhumans. It's well-trodden ground and, to be honest, it's probably been done better. By the time I get to the last page, I'm a bit bored.

There's a more significant reason why Incognito doesn’t amount to much yet, though: It never allows its protagonist - and whatever he happens to be doing - to gain traction in any way. The story tries so hard to sell Zack as an insufferable prick that there’s nothing else to him. This could work, too, mind you, if he were at least a terribly original prick, but he’s really not.

Intellectually and thematically, I’m sure Incognito is as deliberate and well-crafted as anything Mr. Brubaker has written. But it lacks an emotional anchor. As long as something as fundamental as that is missing, the story seems awfully shallow. Right now, Incognito might as well pass as a slightly more grown-up version of Mark Millar and J. G. Jones’ Wanted, and I sincerely doubt that this is what Mr. Brubaker had in mind.

Grade: C

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