Direct Message 02: Sleeper: Part One

If you may recall, Chad Nevett and I host a little discussion series called Direct Message, in which we chat about comics. Five months ago, we kicked off DM by discussing the DC Comics relaunch, and now, some time later, we return to you to present a lengthy conversation centered around Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Sleeper, a maxiseries the duo produced for Wildstorm between 2003 and 2005.

The discussion has been split into two parts; part two is over on Chad’s blog. Without further introduction, here’s our conversation …

Alec Berry: Sleeper ran for 24 issues and spanned two volumes; the book belongs to that special, influential era of WildStorm comics that set the stage for what we know today, and in some ways I think it’s safe to say Sleeper marked the end of that era, running alongside Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.S. 3.0.

What’s also important to note is the collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. The team had worked together previously in smaller ways. Phillips inked two issues of Brubaker’s 1999 Veritgo Comics mini series Scene of the Crime, and he illustrated 2001’s Batman: Gotham Noir with Bru at the helm of the script. Sleeper, though, really meshed these guys together and transformed them into the A-team they are today. Sleeper is where the voice and the attitude found their feet.

Chad and I want to make Sleeper the focus of our second Direct Message conversation. Originally, we settled on Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal, which I’m sure would have supplied plenty of good discussion, but after thinking on it, I changed my mind and proposed to Chad we do Sleeper. He happily agreed – although, I believe he had to move a few boxes in order to re-read it.

So, yeah, Chad, there is where I’ll stop talking to the audience and turn toward you. I’m sure we’ll touch upon Point Blank at some point in here, but I just wanted to start off with your personal history with this book. I know you love this era of Wildstorm. Were you reading Sleeper at the time, or was this something you came to later in trades?

Chad Nevett: The Wildstorm of this era, beginning mostly when Wildstorm was bought by DC and sort of relaunched itself at the start of 1999 and ending… well, pretty much with Sleeper (although The Intimates started after Sleeper Season Two and, then, there was Desolation Jones…), is probably my favourite publisher (or imprint) of all time. So many comics that I love came out during that time — and, since I turned 16 in January 1999, I was the perfect age to have all of those greats comics hit me.

I came a little late to Sleeper. With a lot of Wildstorm stuff, I read my dad’s copies since he bought almost everything they put out. He had gotten Point Blank, but didn’t get Sleeper for whatever strange reason. So, I missed out on it for a while until I got the first trade shortly after it came out (a combination of positive buzz and Sean Phillips art got me aboard) and, then, bought up the second half of the first season in singles. I think that was when issue 11 came out. Not too far behind the times, then. Right? From that point on, I bought the book as it came out and, eventually, went back and got Point Blank as well, making for an odd collection where everything is in singles except for Sleeper #1-6. And, yes, I had to move boxes to get at this. Not as many as I feared I might, though.

How about you? You’re almost ten years younger than I am, so I assume you came to this after it ended. Right?

AB: Way after. I think it might have been 2008 or whenever Wildstorm decided to recollect the series into two, thick volumes. I read it right in the heyday of my Ed Brubaker obsession, when I would have easily declared him the greatest writer ever and named my potential child after him (boy or girl!). My absolute enjoyment and attention to his work came from the fact he was the first writer who I noticed explored consistent themes and wrote in a certain fashion across works- things that were eye-opening to me at the age of 16, which I guess is still kind of sad because that wasn’t so long ago …

Seriously, though, I did little reading when I was younger. Harry Potter was as far as I went, and the rest of my time was spent running around the neighborhood. High school is what put me in the closet, so I finally turned to some form of reading, as in comics. I’m still trying to make up for what I’ve missed, and you know, read actual fucking books, watch David Lynch and listen to Depeche Mode. I’m probably a shitty “pundit” or whatever because of that, to be honest. I was pretty sheltered up until, like, my junior year of high school (strict mom).

But, yeah, Brubaker introduced me to the concept of the writer’s individual voice, and because of that, I latched onto him. One, because of the discovery, but also because I liked what his voice and style had to offer. The whole noir, espionage thing in his Captain America comics, and how it’s paired with the sly voice overs – that spoke to me. I think the aesthetic of all that was perfect for the age range I was in at the time because the whole thing was just so cool, and it felt “mature.” Sleeper sort of amped that whole thing up, and even reading it again now I’m taken away by the atmosphere and tone this comic puts forth. I’m sucked into it in a way not many other comics can do to me.

CN: This will sound harsher than I mean it to, but I never really thought of Brubaker as the sort of writer who would be so big to someone. A completely strange thing to say considering how many fantastic comics he’s written and how many of his things I buy on a regular basis. I guess he came too late for me to really fill that role, so I never think of him as the sort who could fill it for others. I’m so used to guys like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Garth Ennis being that that it doesn’t occur to me often that, yeah, there’s a whole mess of people like you that are the right age for guys like Brubaker and Bendis to be the comic book writer. Brubaker, as we’ve established, sort of entered my consciousness at the tail end of the big ‘movement’ that made its impression on my late-teenage self.

Also, I want to support people reading actual fucking books. That’s how I got to where I am today. We should make the next Direct Message be about some prose book.

Well, we’ve got the introductions over with, let’s get down to the business. I want to start with what came before Sleeper, because it annoys me that everyone focuses so much on Sleeper and completely forgets Point Blank. What the fuck, people? After all, Steven Grant wrote in a Permanent Damage column from 2004: “So what’s the best superhero story ever told? WATCHMEN? DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? This week I’m swinging toward Ed Brubaker and Colin Wilson’s POINT BLANK.” Those are some bold words from Mr. Grant and, while I wouldn’t go so far, I do think it’s a damn impressive comic. So controlled and methodical that I’m not sure Sleeper ever quite matches it on a pure craft level of storytelling. But, that’s also an advantage a five-issue mini has over a possibly open-ended story. Brubaker may have had small endings in mind should the series be cut short, but that’s not the same thing as setting out to tell a short, focused story about a man trying to solve a crime he committed and not only failing, but never actually remembering that the crime occurred!

I assume you’ve read Point Blank, right?

AB: I have, and I remember just how hard the ending hit when I originally read it. It’s just such a mean fucking ending. But after a reread, I will be honest, Point Blank doesn’t hold up as well for me. I still find it a good, solid comic, but it ultimately feels like the work of a young writer; one key aspect of PB supports my argument.

Like how Brubaker writes with a bit of a heavy hand. I mean, it’s a procedural, but I saw this comic kind of slipping into Scott Snyder narration box territory at times (he even uses the issue opening anecdotes). Not that narration is bad, or that words in a comic are bad. It’s just heavily used, and the story seems to hinge itself on that rather than letting the other elements tell the story.

It’s certainly key to view the situation from Cole’s perspective, and the style of writing gives you that, sure … I just would have enjoyed a bit of a balance, though. Because Cole doesn’t necessarily always have an interesting tidbit to tell me. Much of his narration keeps running through the steps, and when it’s not, Brubaker hits certain points over the head. Like how the bar Cole hangs around messes with his head. The whole thing feels so obvious when you read it back.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy procedurals. I do. Point Blank just needed more subtlety because it’s way in your face at times. That type of writing signifies a young writer to me because that type of writing is so forced and only exists to insure the point is made. A skilled scripter trusts the subtle marks he makes. Brubaker’s not doing such a thing in PB. Instead, I think he’s still in the process of learning to tell a mystery plot, and that’s why Cole constantly reviews the steps and highlights things he learned in “spy school.”

Although, PB does manage to keep the super hero stuff out of your face, and that’s what I dig the most about it. Because the whole thing takes place in the Wildstorm universe, but Brubaker and Wilson play it up like it’s Mean Streets or something. The notion of Grifter not wearing the mask really gets that across. Cole even says in the comic he’s not a big fan of masks. Point Blank entertains because its technically this grand tour of a super hero universe, yet it does such a good job of hiding the super heroes. And not by taking away the costumes or simply making them invisible – if anything Wilson and Brubaker put them up front in one, easy-to-find place with the bar set piece. No, they just convey super heroes in a very nontraditional way, so you kind of forget they are super heroes. That’s how they bury them.

I really dug the approach, and it’s something that obviously carried over to Sleeper and Incognito. But that’s kind of what the Wildstorm of this time was doing, right? I’ve read very little of it, but it seems like what’s done in Point Blank sums up the Wildstorm approach. I feel like a lot of writers and artists were working in this somewhat traditional super hero setup yet were doing all they could to go against the tradition. At least, that’s what The Authority and Casey’s WildC.A.T.S. sell to me.

CN: The ‘in your face’ nature of the comic never felt like the work of a young writer, it has always come across to me as the work of a writer letting the character dictate how the story is told. Cole Cash is not subtle. He’s sloppy in his investigation and that’s how the story is told. More than that, he’s also a nostalgic sort of guy, making the style of the captions make more sense. You mention the ‘Scott Snyder captions’ like using that anecdotal style of captions is bad when, really, Snyder is associated with that type of narration because he uses it a lot across a variety of books. That approach works with a character like Cole, because everything about the man is looking back to the past. He’s an old soldier with no war to fight who spends his time getting drunk — and, here, one of his oldest ‘friends’ is shot and he’s determined to solve the case. The past is what drives him in this story. He doesn’t like Lynch, but their past connects them.

It’s that approach that makes this such a tight, compelling read. Brubaker doesn’t just deliver a procedural about solving a crime, he tells it very specifically from the perspective of a character and everything we see is determined by that perspective. So often in comics, writers use first-person narration to offer ‘insight’ into the characters while telling a third-person story because we can see what’s happening. There isn’t a single scene in that comic that Cole doesn’t experience first-hand. It may be faint praise to talk up Brubaker for that because so many of his ‘peers’ get that wrong so often…

You’re right that it’s an odd little tour of the Wildstorm Universe in its way — and that’s part of the point. Like I said, this is a character and a story rooted in the past. It needs to go through history a little and touch on different areas, if only to make Cole feel even more distant from his comfort zone. Nothing is like what it used to be and he’s struggling hard with that. Brubaker picks up the ball on what Joe Casey was doing in volume two of Wildcats in that regard. It’s a story about the pain of memories with the twist being that Cole can’t remember the most important thing in the story.

It’s always struck me as better crafted than Sleeper because it’s a more cohesive whole. Sleeper, because of its nature, slips into a very episodic structure that Point Blank avoids. There’s a throughline in Sleeper, sure, and it’s one that reminds me of TV. Point Blank is more a movie or novella, while Sleeper is a TV show. Ultimately, for telling a large story, I find that the former lends itself to a stronger structure than the latter, if only because the needs of telling semi-self-contained chunks of story isn’t there as much. I love that Brubaker made an effort for most issues of Sleeper to tell a complete story in every issue in some way, I just think that, when looking at the whole, that detracts in a way that Point Blank’s issue-by-issue structuring and pacing doesn’t. In some ways, there is a higher level of skill and craft in writing a series that functions on self-contained chunks like that while telling a larger story. I guess it’s what you’re looking for.

AB: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it is a matter of what you’re looking for.

What you wrote about the craft of the story supporting the type of story it is makes a lot of sense, and most likely that’s probably how the process went down. And maybe the tight-knit nature of the writing suggests the work of a skilled author, showing that he, Brubaker, can get from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way possible.

Something about that, though, bores me and supports my idea of a young writer crafting Point Blank. I feel as if Brubaker laid out an outline for this story, noting up some sheet of notebook paper, scribbling down how and when he’s supposed to hit certain scenes rather than, say, going with it, trusting his own talent. Granted, I don’t really know how he wrote it, and I’m sure most writers tend to outline their stories in some fashion, but that’s what I interpret when I read Point Blank. Some guy over-preparing a story, containing it to something. Some guy relying a bit too much on the rules of a procedural story rather than writing it how he feels it should work.

I think that’s where Sleeper excels and beats out Point Blank as my area of interest and favor because it is such a sprawling, as you said, episodic, go with the flow type of narrative. And as you said, the structure does leave more room for mistakes, and you’re right, but I also think the room and open spaces in Sleeper make it a very atmospheric, organic work rather than a list of bullet points, which is what I feel Point Blank is.

But as you pointed out, Point Blank is a five issue mini series. It really doesn’t have the room to run like Sleeper, so Brubaker probably just wrote how he needed to. So, maybe, I don’t really have an argument.

But you were starting to explain why you think Sleeper slightly fails structurally. You mentioned that the approach to telling a complete story in each issue didn’t necessary work for you, and that it ultimately detracted from the overall work. How so? (Not trying to be defensive, just interested in your thoughts). How does that approach fail, and what do you think is lost in Sleeper because of it? Just pure craft points, or do you feel it affects the voice and style of the comic in some way?

CN: I’m thinking more of the first twelve issues of Sleeper, I guess. The pacing of those twelve issues seems geared very much to the monthly reading habit. Threads are picked up from last time, but issues stand on their own, tell their own little story. Reading those issues together, there’s a very stop-and-start feel to it. Less like chapters in a novel, more like episodes of a TV show. Which isn’t bad, I’m just the sort of guy who’d more interesting in novels, I guess. Season Two wasn’t quite so bad in that respect. It improved upon that area of the craft, making things a little smoother issue to issue.

On a pure craft level, there isn’t a lot that drives me forward while reading Sleeper. Brubaker makes me care about Carver, but that’s it. It’s all character. The plot, pacing, and structure don’t push me forward at all. Brubaker does some fantastic character work and that’s what makes me keep reading. Point Blank has a story that’s much more geared towards moving forward, reading on. In many ways, Sleeper’s plot could easily have become something entirely different had Carver just accepted his role in Tao’s organization and not fought against it at all. Now, that would have been a different character, obviously — not one SO different, though. Especially once he realizes that there isn’t much difference on either side, he could have shrugged and just gone with the flow. Because that option was always there, the series was definitely executed in a very step by step fashion to provide reasons for Carver to not give up and resign himself to being one of Tao’s best men.

You basically said the same thing about Point Blank, but Sleeper seems to run off an outline a lot. Each issue is another step in pushing Carver in a certain direction. Hell, I can remember individual issues of Sleeper and Point Blank runs together as one big story.

Goddamn, it sounds like I don’t like Sleeper much, doesn’t it? I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that that isn’t the case — Alec just suckered me into being the ‘negative’ guy through his overwhelming praise and positivity. All sides must be represented, right?

AB: I only brought out the ever-present crank.

Nah. I think your critiques of Sleeper are fair ones, and I think it’s clear you enjoy the work. Why else would we be writing this?  And honestly, I don’t really believe Sleeper is a perfect work. I may have set this discussion up to spell out a feeling like that, but in all truth, there are issues with it in terms of plotting and direction, and they are quite obvious when you read the entire story in a sitting (or two).  Especially when you read Season 2, which is clearly where the story lost it’s tight focus to adopt a philosophy of “we gotta keep this rolling because Jim Lee likes it and wants to give us money.”

I think that in the end, yeah, there was a clear point to Season 2, but I definitely felt the stretch reading those 12 issues.  It’s really not until Carver decides to pit Lynch and Tao against each other and abandon “sides” does the narrative gain any sense of point. Until then, it’s just more of the same of what we read in Season 1. Carver working for Tao, only he’s not entirely a double agent anymore. I don’t know, it just wanders about a bit in this first few issues of Season 2.

Season 1 was such a determined thing told in a loose, relaxed fashion, and I think that’s what makes Season 2 a bit jarring because I didn’t sense a determined path from the get go. The only thing that sort of inhibits Season 1, I think, is the ending – revealing Lynch alive – because it carries on a story I felt was at a solid enough end point. But Season 1 does have such a strong drive from start to finish, and I’ll agree with you in that Brubaker and Phillips perform some excellent character work – which absolutely propels the reader forward. But I also feel the team creates such a tone, and offers such a cool aesthetic, that Sleeper gets by on more than character work alone. If anything, this is one atmospheric comic where the vibe goes from extreme paranoia, to straight noir, to pulpy vitality in such a smooth fashion, making up for some of the more technical flaws.

But enough of this court session. I no longer want to prove Sleeper’s worth. We both like this comic, Chad, so let’s talk about what works in it and why this has stood out for us.

Let’s take this conversation somewhere new.

Check Chad’s blog, right now,for Part Two.

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2 responses to “Direct Message 02: Sleeper: Part One

  1. Pingback: Random Thoughts! (May 1, 2012) | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources

  2. Pingback: Spandexless Reads | 05-03-2012 | Spandexless

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