Nice, Even When Not Playing Nice: ‘Incognito: Bad Influences’

If you haven’t noticed, pulp and noir comics are all the rage. They are the fashionable comics to make currently. DC has their “First Wave” with relaunches of “Doc Savage” and “The Spirit”; Marvel had their “Noir” line, plus Marvel’s creator owned imprint Icon has found success with Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ “Criminal” and their first volume of “Incognito.” Now “Incognito” is back for a second volume. Could it live up to the fan hype?

Going back to the roots of superheroes in the crime and sci-fi pulps of the 1930s and 1940s, the creative geniuses behind “Sleeper” and “Criminal,” devise a world where superheroes and villains never started playing nice.

The capes and cowls of the last 50 years didn’t always behave with a set-in-stone code of ethics. Back during the great depression and the World War II years, comic heroes were dark, mean-spirited protagonists. These heroes knew that to battle crime, sometimes you had to be worse than the bad guys. It wasn’t until the comics code of the 1950’s did superheroes become pre-adolescent fantasy, and you could tell the good guys always wore bright colors and the bad guys always wore dark.

The dark roots of superheroes are at the core of Brubaker and Phillips’ “Incognito.” Like many of the titles at comic shops today, it’s a reflection of our dark times. While darker tone comics in the 1980’s were a reflection on excess, greed and gothic sensibilities, today’s noir tone are a reflection of political polarization, constant war and economic turbulence. It’s not surprising that many of the characters being introduced are not solid good guys. They’re shades of gray, reflecting a cynicism that has become so entrenched with our shared cultural experience we are often unaware of its influence.

“Incognito: Bad Influences” picks up shortly after they left it off. Former villain Zack Overkill is now working for the good guys and adjusting to having a secret identity and living daily amongst the mundane. Really, nothing much has changed, as Zack still shows his contempt for regular life, but his character’s progression is nonetheless evident when compared to his witness protection days.

Overkill is the perfect protagonist for today’s sensibility. He’s not a good guy, but he works for them. He’s not a hero in the classical sense, but he plays one pretty well. His motivations for what he does are centered on his own survival. There is a limited amount of concern for those around him, but he’s just as likely not to care. He’s honest to a point, though his best soft skills are lying, attempts at manipulation and personal survival. He’s a 21st century hero inspired by a mid 20th century aesthetic. He’s us in a sense, but with superpowers.

“Incognito” as a series is the opposite side of the coin from Brubaker and Phillip’s hugely acclaimed “Sleeper” series. In “Sleeper” a good guy has to descend into a villainous world, while Zack Overkill in “Incognito” is forced to come up from the lawless underworld and live in a world with rules. “Bad Influences” flips the switch again, as Overkill’s new mission is to re-penetrate the criminal underworld and get to the bottom of a sleeper agent (pardon the pun) going native.

Series writer Ed Brubaker has never shied away from a good crime story. His work from indie books to mainstream superheroes has always been anchored by pulp and noir. Unlike DC’s “First Wave,” Brubaker’s “Incognito” is a world wholly created for this series. It of course is inspired by a slew of characters, comics, movies and TV shows, but the main thrust of its universe is wholly original. That is what sets the book apart. The universe is created from the ground up, yet it has a sense of its own depth that spills far beyond the pages of each issue.

Phillips’ art captures all the grimness, grittiness and darkness of a noir thriller, with just that slight ray of hope to make it so gripping. From back alley fight scenes, to office doldrums; from roof tops, to a bordello full of mind controlled beauties: each panel of “Incognito” is a story onto itself. The energy from scene to scene ebbs and flows, pausing only for readers to catch their breath as it weaves around the turns of the script.

Fully realizing the pencils and inks of Phillips’ is the color work of Val Staples. Good color work is typically described as not getting in the way, but Staples raises the bar with his moody palette that is pointed and subtle in certain panels, while stark and aggressive in others. Brubaker, Phillips and Staples have worked together often and their styles, intuition and abilities are well matched. If there is such a thing as a three-man all-star creative team, they are it.

There is something vaguely satisfying about “Incognito.” Through volume one and the first two issues of volume two, the comic has never left readers with that underlying feeling of wasted time. Compelling plots, sharp dialogue and wonderful art have created a nearly perfect comic book. We should all be so lucky with everything we read.

RATING 8 / 10
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