Money Well Spent: Brubaker discusses the 'refundable' 'Sleeper'

Tue, March 18th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Sleeper #5]
Sleeper #5
While the reviews for writer Ed Brubaker's new DC Comics/Wildstorm series "Sleeper" have been universally positive, it almost seems that the series gets more press for the author's "money back" guarantee that was placed on the first two issues. Brubaker challenged readers to pick up the first two issues of the mature readers series and if they didn't like it, to e-mail him for a refund. But with word of mouth spreading and press on the series increasing, the acclaimed scribe is hoping that fans will be rushing in droves to pick up the series regardless of his promotional plans and he spoke with CBR News to give readers everywhere a better idea of what "Sleeper" truly represents.

"'Sleeper' is the story of Holden Carver, a deep cover agent left out in the cold, literally," explains Brubaker of the series' central concept. "He was planted in an elite criminal organization four years ago, has been working his way up the ladder, and now the only person who knew he was really a good guy is in a coma. So his one phone call out can't be reached. So, he's essentially living a life as a villain, doing what he has to survive. And the things he has to do are starting to wear on his conscience.

"That's the main theme of the book, really, delving into the soul of the double agent, because he has to be good at his job to maintain his cover, and at the same time, the job he does goes against everything he believes. And as he gets farther in, he begins to doubt his own beliefs."

One of the defining characteristics of "Sleeper" is the characters, specifically that it's hard to define any of them as heroes or villains. Holden's forced to commit many of the same acts as his boss, Tao, and his fellow agents, putting blood on his hands, and asking the reader to truly look at the characters more deeply. Even Holden's co-workers, with names like Genocide and Nihilist, are shown to have some integrity and honor, while also being cold-blooded killers. Despite the potential for some readers to be turned off by a book that could be perceived as "about the bad guys," Brubaker believes readers won't have a hard time rooting for the protagonists.

"Not at all. No one seems to have any trouble rooting for Tony Soprano, so in a mature readers book, I don't think it's too much to expect people to like some very bad people. 'Sleeper' is an exploration into that world, where everything is ten different shades of gray. Sure, there are some real scumbags in the book, too, but I think that makes it easier to like the other characters who may be murderers, but they have more charm and appeal. For me, it's always about seeing what makes the most flawed characters tick that makes a series intriguing."

[Sleeper #3]
Sleeper #3
Keeping with the theme of promoting shades of gray over the traditional hero vs. villain conflicts that one would expect in a series featuring super powered characters, Brubaker explains the super powers are really just vehicles for moving along an exciting espionage drama. "Well, I think the coolest aspect of the Wildstorm world that Jim Lee and his early collaborators developed was the cloak and dagger stuff, how you never knew which side a lot of people were on, and the superpowers stuff was just window dressing to a more contemporary setting for telling adventure tales. I mean, there are some heroes and villains fighting in Sleeper as the book goes on, but for me, the way to approach it was as a story of espionage, with a fringe of superhero thrown in. It's also got the flavor of Mafia stories sometimes, too.

"And besides that, to me the mature readers banner says, make this book more complicated and adult in the way it tackles its characters and themes, so with that in mind, the simple concepts of good vs. evil seem really childish. As they do in real life, honestly."

With each issue of the series, Brubaker's introduced a new character in "Sleeper," though readers aren't sure how long the character will last and they've also been treated to some unique origin stories, especially the origin of Miss Misery in "Sleeper #3." Some may believe that the writer's imagination for super powered character origins may reach its limits soon and force him to stop introducing new characters. As a matter of fact, that couldn't be less true- Brubaker plans to introduce a lot more characters in "Sleeper" and the only question is, will they survive? "We'll meet new characters in the book all the time, some don't survive the issue we meet them in, though. The main cast grows a little bit, but it's really all centered around Holden and whoever he's coming into contact with, so I try to keep it free. If I introduce someone new, I explain who they are and why you should care. But, as we get farther into the story, characters that seemed unimportant initially start to have more significance."

It's almost hard to call "Sleeper" a superhero series, though it has some of the common elements- super powers, a fit male lead and a good helping of action. But there's also a lot of intrigue and espionage, a focus on exploring characters first and using the powers as something to further the story rather than as the focus of the story, so it breaks a lot of the conventions of normal superhero comics. When asked to define the series, Brubaker answers, "I don't know how to answer that, really. I think it's a pulp noir spy story mostly, like the TV show 'Alias,' with elements of science fiction and fantasy, and at its heart, that's exactly what the superhero genre is. So, yeah, it's a superhero series, in the same way that 'Buffy' and 'Angel' are. The superpowers at that point become a metaphor for the characters, instead of just a device to propel the plot. Like Holden's powers -- he can't experience pain; he just stores it up and passes it on to other people. The symbolism of that, though unintentional, is pretty blatant. He can't touch the world, and he's getting pulled farther away from it, but he can still hurt other people. It's a reflection of who he is inside.

[Sleeper #3, Page 9]
Sleeper #3, Page 9
"I guess that's part of what I hope to do differently with 'Sleeper,' to create a pulp series that uses the elements of the superhero genre without becoming a slave to them. To defy the genre in many ways, without abandoning it."

Also helping to differentiate the series from many other comics, "Sleeper" is actually a finely planned series and Brubaker says that there is an end in sight…sort of. "I have the basic story mapped out to 12 or so issues, and I know how this part ends, but if the book is successful enough to warrant it, I'd like to take a break for six months or so after that and come back with another run," reveals the writer. "Like an HBO show, which is kind of a model I'm using in my head for 'Sleeper,' thinking of this as being the first season. I thought there would be only one, and there may be, but I'm starting to have ideas for where to take the book after that, so maybe we'll get a chance to do that."

Of course, this would make many readers question what the series could possibly be about after Holden takes down Tao's organization, because it's what most would assume to be the "point" of the series. "That appears to be what the series is about, but there's a lot more going on beyond the surface," smiles Brubaker. "More than that, I can't say."

"Sleeper" has been told in single-issue stories so far and while all the stories have been interconnected loosely, they've also been stories that a new reader can pick up and read with ease. Brubaker says that he plans to continue the series this way and buck the trend of forced cliffhangers. "There are issues coming up where one leads right into the other. Like issues 3 and 4 are closely linked, but they aren't part one and part two. I decided early on that I wanted to model the book after an HBO show, or something like the Shield, where there are continuing plots, but each episode mostly stands on its own and explores a specific plot or theme. I think it's a novel way to tell an episodic story, to jettison the idea of always needing a cliff-hanger or a hook at the end of each issue and just build the drama around the characters. It may make the book a little more different than what fans are used to, but I think it was an appropriate move. It stakes some territory and tells people we're doing things differently here. It's the same with using more layers to tell the story than usual, using jump-cuts and flashbacks and an internal monologue all strung together, so you have to pay close attention to pick everything up. For me, that's what makes this book mature, more than the sex and violence."

Though the series is set in the Wildstorm universe and utilizes two well known characters from Gen13 and Wildcats history, Brubaker says he plans to keep the book free of too many entanglements in Wildstorm history and use it when it enhances the story for all readers, not just a small segment. "The connections we have are so minor that I usually tell people to just pretend I made up Lynch and Tao, too, and not worry about anything that came before," says Brubaker. "I'm approaching their characters the same way I do everyone else in the series, just assuming they've never been seen before, and explaining what you need to know to keep moving forward. If I use any other Wildstorm characters, I'm sure I would do it the same way, explain who they are as if the reader has no previous awareness of them. But, really, I'm trying to stick to my own little world here, much as Warren Ellis does on 'Planetary,' which is technically in the WSU, as well.

[Sleeper #4, Page 1]
Sleeper #4, Page 1
"I wouldn't really mind using some Wildstorm characters, either, but the problem with that is that fans start thinking they can't understand the story unless they know everything about whatever character you bring in, and read his back-issues. And that seems to stop them from enjoying the story on its own, so I try to stay away from it. Thinking on that problem, though, I guess it's really lucky that 'Watchmen' didn't star the Charlton heroes instead of analogs of them, because there would have been an awful lot of people complaining they couldn't get into it because they didn't know enough about Blue Beetle or the Question."

There are some who might say that series such as "Sleeper," which lie under the mature readers "Eye of the Storm" banner, could be just as effective comic books by toning down the language and sexual content, creating an intelligent comic for all ages. When asked what Brubaker thinks of that sentiment, he confidently replies, "I don't think of it at all. I enjoy the freedom to explore uncomfortable topics and delve deeper into morality and concepts of good and evil, and if I had to tone down the language, nudity and violence, it would lose some authenticity, I think. I mean, can you imagine 'OZ' on CBS? It would be so defanged. Personally, I think the subject matter really fits the label. And let's face it, most of the readership for comics is in their 20s and 30s, so what's the harm in aiming books at them?"

It would be unfair to discuss "Sleeper" without discussing the talents of Sean Phillips, whose work on volume 2 of "Wildcats" and "Sleeper" has brought him a lot of attention and acclaim. "From the minute I wrote the pitch for the book, Sean was lined up to be the artist," says Brubaker of how Phillips became involved with the series. "We'd been talking about doing something together again after 'Gotham Noir' for years, and I knew he wanted something more character-driven and that would be challenging to tackle, and that's what 'Sleeper' was designed to be. And thank god he agreed, because I couldn't imagine the book without him on it. He makes everything feel so real I want to reach out and touch it all."

As previously mentioned, Brubaker made comic book news headlines with his money back offer on "Sleeper #1-2" and he says it's because he just felt the book wasn't ordered enough by fans and retailers. "I did the moneyback offer because I saw how poorly the book had been ordered, and I felt like this series was really some of my and Sean's strongest work and it seemed so wrong that people weren't even planning to give it a chance, and that a lot of stores obviously hadn't even ordered it. So I did everything I could think of to get people to talk about the book and notice it and ask for it. I mean, the direct market is so harsh on new ideas and new series right now that I just wanted Sleeper to have at least a fighting chance. I still do.

"And hey, only two people wrote to say they wanted their money back, but neither of them actually sent the books in. So, I haven't had to give any refunds so far."

In that same vein, Brubaker says that in his discussions with fans and critics, he's found that people are thoroughly enjoying the book and he's glad to see the series striking a chord with readers, even if he would like there to be more of them. "The general reaction has been phenomenal. People seem to be really digging the gritty look at life on the wrong side of the law, and really liking how much story is packed into each issue. How you get more out of the book with multiple readings. That's also the only complaint I really hear, that some things in the series are too subtle, and you have to read the issue a few times to pick up everything about the story. I don't mind that, though, because that means we're giving people their money's worth."

While "Sleeper #3" introduces a lot of new concepts into the mix for Holden to worry about, Brubaker hints that the worst is yet to come for the series' protagonist. "Starting with #5, we get to see a lot more of Holden in action, going on missions and trying to reach out to the good guys a little, struggling with himself and taking some big risks. The action amps up quite a bit too, as the missions start to get darker and darker."

If you're someone who isn't quite convinced that "Sleeper" is the book for you, Brubaker reminds fans that each issue is self-contained for the most part and with only three issues on the shelf, it's an easy series to get into and offers some other reasons to try the increasingly popular series. "There are a lot of reasons, really. It's a comic aimed at a mature audience that still likes adventure and intrigue. It's got beautiful art and well thought-out characters. It explores dark themes about the morality of our actions, and at the same time, it's an intelligent spy-thriller wrapped in the jacket of superhero fiction. But, ultimately, I guess people should pick up 'Sleeper' because they're tired of the same old thing every month, and want to try a new book that a lot of people are buzzing about, even Wizard."

 
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