Matthew J. Brady
While it might be unfortunate that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are taking a break from their excellent series Criminal, they're really only taking a bit of a step sideways in this new mini-series, combining their noir stylings with a gritty superhero (or supervillain, rather) milieu. And while it's not as good as the brutally human stories in the previous series, that examination of people's dark impulses is what makes something like this unique and worthwhile.
And that's the best part of this series: the look into the mind of a criminal in exile. Former supervillain Zack Overkill makes a fascinating case study, miserable in his new life in witness protection and looking for some kind of escape. We saw in the first issue how he holds the powerless "normal" humans in contempt, but given the chance to regain some sort of power, he starts acting as a sort of superhero, since that's the closest he can come to the way he used to feel. Now he's pushing the limits of his confinement, and it's obvious that it's going to get him in trouble.
There are some other interesting characters, including the closest thing Zack has to a friend: a self-destructive addict who is obviously going to cause plenty of trouble with his hard-partying ways. And then there's the woman who ignores Zack in the office, but is obsessed with him when he's dressed up in his makeshift costume. Both of these characters are examples of how Brubaker seems to think humanity will see themselves when surrounded by superpowered beings. Feeling pathetic in comparison, they put themselves in increasingly dangerous situations in an attempt to experience something larger than their mundane lives.
But the character bits aren't the only thing going on here; a standout scene sees the criminal mastermind who used to employ Zack rotting in prison and still trying to manipulate things from behind the scenes. He's incredibly creepy, and Phillips sells him as such, covering his head with weird lines that could be wrinkles, burns, or tattoo-like markings, which, along with his purple eyes and commands delivered telepathically via scary black word balloons, give the whole scene a freaky air, making this man seem like a formidable person that everyone else is rightly terrified of. It's an effective scene, and along with the grimy street and rooftop surfaces that fill much of the rest of the issue, Phillips brings it to life beautifully. I wouldn't have expected anything less; he's a great talent, and he works with Brubaker like they're joined at the hip.
As of this second issue, the story is still in the preliminary phases, only just beginning to set up the events to come. But the final three issues promise much in the way of excitement, and since Brubaker is great at spinning a twist-filled yarn, it will certainly bring much more that is unexpected and satisfying. It's not Criminal, but it's a worthy diversion that will definitely suffice in the meantime.
Plot: After several years Zack begins using his powers once again. However, word of his exploits has started to reach interested parties on both sides of the law.
Review: In a lot of recent interviews writer Ed Brubaker has said that Incognito is "pulp noir." The first issue demonstrates aspects of that genre: a protagonist whose morals are questionable, scenes bathed in shadow, and topping it all off pulpy edge, mad scientists. With this second issue Brubaker and Phillips ratchet up those elements even more.
It opens literally in the middle of nowhere, int
roducing its cover star, "The Black Death." Zack's former employer is now locked up, thanks to our protagonist's testimony. The issue begins with a scene between the villain and his lawyer. Straight away we see the well practised deceit between lawyer and client. The guards monitoring the two see and hear them talk mundane legal mumbo jumbo. But the reader is privy to the psychic conversation going on between them via the use of disembodied speech balloons. It's a nice touch with the secret conversation being served by the normal one and vice versa. The scene also serves as a great introduction to the Black Death himself. Remember that this is a guy who named a cabal of super-villains after himself! Phillips and Val Staples present him always in shadow and in the last panel of the scene he exudes menace, literally without saying a word. Right away we get the impression that this is not a guy you want to be on the wrong side of. A side Zack will surely find himself on, now that Black Death knows who betrayed him.
This issue focuses on the consequences of leading the life Zack chose for himself. He and his brothers' decision to lead a life of crime ultimately ends up killing one of them. Hinted at in the last issue we finally get to see what went down and how Zack's brother was killed. Ultimately, it was this act that caused Zack to testify and give up his old life. But as we know, old habits die hard, and it's not too long before Zack gets the urge to don the mask once more. But this isn't your regular super-hero world. There are consequences for pulling that uniform and mask back on again. His recent nightly forays have already resulted in the Black Death finding out about him. Now Zack's actions (and by extension his past) threaten to seep back into his supposedly mundane "new life." We get a hint of what's to come when we find out that Amanda, the office bitch from the last issue, is almost as immersed in Zack's old life as he is, though not in the way you think. Just then, when you think things can't get any crazier, Brubaker shows us that no matter how hard he tries, Zack can't escape his past.
One of the great unsung heroes of Criminal is colourist Val Staples as he does great work here. Zack's "new life" is one of muted tones, all grey and beige. This is in contrast to the shadows and neon of his nightly patrols. Then there's the torture sequence bathed in various shades of red bringing an almost "Grand Guignol" air to the scene.
All in all this was a great second issue. It amped up all of the story points introduced in the first issue and threw a hell of a lot more spanners in the works. Brubaker, Phillips and Staples are all at the top of their game right now with this book, and I can't wait to see where they take it next month.
Also, as before, Incognito provides some excellent back matter in this issue. This month brings an article on one of the pulp greats, Doc Savage!
Final word: A great second issue and like Criminal, it's good comics through and through.