When it comes to most comic book stories, it's easy to tell who the heroes and villains are, but the creator-owned works of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips are much more morally complex. Their creator-owned series"Criminal" often focuses on stories about bad men with noble intentions. In last year's "Incognito," Brubaker and Phillips examined morality in a pulp fiction-styled world of super-powered people through the story of Zack Overkill, a former super-powered enforcer for a secret criminal conspiracy called the Black Death. Raised Zack from birth and trained by the Black Death, when the organization murdered Zack's twin brother and tried to kill him, he turned State's evidence and was placed in a witness protection program for supervillains. Life in witness protection proved to be excruciatingly mundane for Zack, and he eventually donned a mask and became a superhero, not out of a desire to do good, but for his need to regain the thrill of living on the edge.
This week, Brubaker and Phillips bring Zack back for another morally murky exploration of good and evil with the five issue miniseries "Incognito: Bad Influences." This time, however, Zack must venture back into the criminal underworld he left behind. CBR News spoke with Brubaker about the book, published through Marvel Comics' Icon imprint.
Picking up a year after the events of the first "Incognito" series, "Bad Influences" finds Zack Overkill working for the "good guys" in the SOS. As an SOS Agent, Zack is allowed to use his superhuman physical abilities to go on missions and fight all sorts of weird menaces, but life is not all good. He's still wrestling with many of the same problems he faced in the first "Incognito" series, including what to do when you don't have a mission and must confront the everyday challenges of the "real world."
"When Zack was a bad guy in witness protection, he was supposed to become a nice, normal person and integrate with society and all of that, but how do you do that? In this series, we take it to the next step where he's actually working for a government agency and having to get regular psych evaluations," Brubaker told CBR News. "That seems like it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Also, his nature and the way he was raised by the Black Death is really going to smack up against it, so that's one of the things I'm trying to explore. What does a few years living among regular people do to someone like that?"
At first glance, it seems like his new life has not affected Zack's moral compass at all. In fact, it's currently unclear if he even has one. "Zack is working for the SOS because in his mind, there's no way he's going back to being a complete nobody. Now, his only real option is to work with the good guys. The question, though, is if he believes there's any real difference between the good guys and the bad guys," Brubaker explained. "That's always been the basic theme for this character. Is it possible for a person who was raised with no concept of morals or ethics to develop a kind of conventional sense of right and wrong?"
The plot of "Bad Influences" involves Zoe Zeppelin ordering Zack to go back to the super-criminal underworld that birthed him for a secret mission that will bring him into contact with an organization that we didn't see in the first series. "Level 9 is a fanatical group comparable to HYDRA and other fanatical organizations from comics and pulp fiction, and Zack isn't going to infiltrate their ranks. He's not going undercover or anything like that," Brubaker revealed. "It's more that he's metaphorically heading down the River Styx of the super-criminal underworld. He's literally the best man to go down into the super-criminal underworld and try to do this job.
"Using Level 9 was also a fun way to examine the consequences of the events in the first series," Brubaker continued. "After the first series, the Black Death organization has started to fall to shit, so other organizations are rising in their place."
The concept of a good man who has lost his moral compass while undercover in a super-powered criminal organization was the central theme of Brubaker and Phillips first major collaboration, "Sleeper" from DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint, and fans of that series will certainly want to check out "Bad Influences." "'Incognito' and 'Sleeper' are told in completely different ways. Thematically, though, they're like flip sides of the same coin," Brubaker remarked. "One is about a good guy who's forced to pretend he's a bad guy and lives that life for so long that he forgets what right and wrong actually means. The other side was a story about a bad guy living among regular people, and the question there was, does that start to make you feel sympathy for people or feel even more alienated?
"So they're flip sides of the same coin. With this volume of 'Incognito,' I was trying to put Zack in a situation where we didn't spent a lot of time in the first 'Incognito' - the criminal underworld," Brubaker continued. "I knew I wanted to do a story where he had to go back into that world, like a soldier on a mission in a very 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Heart of Darkness' kind of way. It occurred to me that it would be fun to see what happens when the two sides of the coin meet, and Zack's mission grew from that impulse. There's a new character, who's very important to this story, who is inspired by some of the same ideas I used in 'Sleeper,' but going in a totally different direction."
Rounding out the supporting cast of "Bad Influences" are SOS head Zoe Zeppelin, Zack's immediate superior, Colonel Von Chance, and several surprise villainous characters that are homages to classic pulp villain archetypes. The way these supporting players interact with Zack is an important thematic element. "The name 'Bad Influences' is important to the story. It's sort of what the story is about as it progresses," Brubaker revealed. "It's about how these superheroes and super villains have impact on the people around them. I was looking for a title for this volume and I asked myself what the theme of the story was. And it's ultimately about questions, like, is Zack a bad influence? Are certain people a bad influence on him?"
The first volume of "Incognito" was about the personal choices made by Zack Overkill, but Brubaker was able to use Zack's story to illuminate the background of his world as well. For instance, he tipped his hat to Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton concept when Brubaker revealed that the origin of many of the super-powered and fantastic aspects of "Incognito" was an unknown object from outer space that crashed into New England 200 years ago.
"We'll have some more of those type of revelations in 'Bad Influences'. Zack is our way through everything, but I think with all my stuff, the things that happen around the main characters are definitely as important or more important than what the main characters are doing," Brubaker stated. "That's how I've always written my stories. The supporting cast help define what the main character is about in a lot of ways. Right now, I'm stuck on a point about something that may or may not happen in issue three or four because it just occurred to me while working on issue #2 that I should do something with a possible new character. I'm not sure if I have room, though."
One of Sean Phillips favorite aspects of "Incognito" is that it affords him the chance to draw all manner of weird pulp characters and concepts. Brubaker is well aware of this, so he's populated "Bad Influences" with many fantastic and frightening characters. " With 'Criminal,' everything we do is seven to nine to twelve panels a page. Very rarely do we have less than seven panels on a page. Every now and then, we'll have four, or maybe five," Brubaker remarked. "So giving Sean pages with three or so panels on them so he can do the really widescreen elements is something he really enjoys. I think he really digs into that stuff."
Brubaker realizes economic times are tough, so he believes in giving his fans more than just a good story and great art. Readers of the individual issues of "Criminal" get bonus essays on books and films related to the crime genre, and with "Incognito," the writer provided back matter material by celebrated pulp fiction scholar Jess Nevins on famous characters like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Fu Manchu. In "Bad Influences," Nevins returns for short pieces on some important, but lesser known pulp characters including the first issue's spotlight on the Phantom Detective.
"The character covered in the first issue is an especially good example of that. I think that the underlying narrative to the article in issue #1 really mirrored what we've seen in the last decade of comics publishing," Brubaker explained. "The way this character sort of stuck around and all his various iterations was very interesting for me to read about. It made me think about what's going on in the comics industry even now."
Brubaker is currently hard at work finishing up "Bad Influences," and once he completes that he'll probably turn his attention to the next volume of "Criminal." But that doesn't mean he's done with "Incognito." In fact, the writer already knows what his and co-creator Phillips' follow-up is going to be.
"The 'Incognito' story after this one won't actually involve Zack Overkill at all. I actually have an 'Incognito Annual' issue that I'm trying to figure out what format to do it in. I'm debating doing it as a European style hardcover; a 48 or 60 page one-shot and see if our fans will go for that. Either way, that will be the next 'Incognito' story after 'Bad Influences,'" the writer revealed. "It's actually a story that's more about the heroes. I've been sitting on this story ever since I was about halfway through the first 'Incognito.' It was something I was going to do as a sequel. Then I realized that I really wanted to spend more time with Zack first, so I thought 'Bad Influences' would be better as a sequel since it helps build the world a little more before we expand it."
Brubaker has also begun to imagine what the story of "Incognito" will look like in other mediums, since Fox is currently developing a film adaptation of the first series. Brubaker's friend Robert Schenkkan, who scripted the film adaption of Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American," is currently working on a script. "You never know until there's actually a director and a star attached, but everything looks really positive moving forward. We're still a couple weeks away from anything like a really tight first draft of the script," Brubaker said. " From that point, though, things could and should start moving a lot faster."
While the screenplay is still in the process of being written, Brubaker has had meetings with the producers of the "Incognito" film. He was left with the feeling that the adaptation of his story was in good hands after one producer told him that he wants the film to be very faithful to the source material. "I was kind of shocked to hear that, just because the source material is pretty hardcore in some ways. I'm sure they'll have to soften some of it here and there or leave some stuff out. The producers really got what the book was about, though. They really got the dilemma of the main character and how he can't be a guy who just becomes a hero," Brubaker stated. "It's the dichotomy of what he's doing and how he feels about it, which actually makes him an interesting lead. He's got utter disdain for people and yet he's so bored by his life that he has to go out and save people. His response to saving someone is, 'Don't be so stupid.' [Laughs] So they know he has to be a darker guy and I think that's really cool."