Review by Karl Verhoven
Sleeper was the first regular series produced by the now quality-assured partnership of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and in many ways the series that brought them both to wider attention, although they certainly had track records beforehand without being go-to talent for editors.
Much of what makes the subsequent Brubaker and Phillips collaborations so satisfying is present in Sleeper, despite it being set in the darker corners of what was then the WildStorm universe. Holden Carver is a prototype for their later characters also, particularly the types populating Criminal, as someone who’s in over his head despite being smart and resourceful. To all intents and purposes he’s a loyal third tier agent in a criminal organisation run by Tao, which operates on a global scale, but always behind the scenes. However, he’s actually been planted by John Lynch at International Operations, ostensibly the good guys, although their methods don’t differ much from Tao’s. In order to maintain security, he reports solely to Lynch and only Lynch knows he didn’t really switch sides and betray his former colleagues. Carver’s problem is that Lynch is now in a coma. Still, “if Lynch had taught me anything, it’s that a good operative could turn any situation to his advantage”. Or so Carver kids himself.
Over 24 tight chapters Brubaker continually turns the screw ever tighter on Carver, constantly wrong-footing him and readers alike in closing off one option after another. The first six chapters are standalone stories with connecting threads, and the remainder play out like an episodic TV drama. Phillips keeps things dark, the visual embodiment of Carver operating in the shadows, and supplies further allegory by frequently setting small panels over larger ones, reflecting the layers upon layers of the plot. Those panels also connect, often just slightly, which again echoes the plot.
Anyone knowing about the WildStorm connection and expecting bold super-powered action will be disappointed. Super powers feature, and Grifter has a part to play in the late chapters, but the style is definitely spy thriller. By the end Brubaker and Phillips are slight victims of their own success. Time and again the rug has been pulled away, meaning readers will learn, like Carver himself, to question everything. It’s a labyrinthine hell, which leads to the evaporation of belief, so the surprises may no longer surprise. However, before then, they have, and frequently. Sleeper doesn’t just offer twists and turns, it also writhes around, and still stands up well enough to merit considering buying the entire story in one expensive Omnibus.
But wait, there’s more. The collection begins with Brubaker collaborating with Colin Wilson on Point Blank, a solid mystery better read before diving into Sleeper than as an afterthought, and parts of Coup D’Etat, the messy crossover occurring roughly halfway through the series with Carver’s involvement. Although written by Brubaker, it’s entirely out of tune with the remainder of the book, and artwork from Jim Lee more accurately reflects the superhero blood and thunder.
The remaining content was previously available as four paperbacks titled Out in the Cold, All False Moves, A Crooked Line and The Long Road Home, before being combined in pairs as Sleeper Season One and Sleeper Season Two. The first of these was subsequently reissued in thicker paperbacks as Sleeper Book One, but Sleeper Book Two was never published.