Some of Sleeper doesn’t age well. There’s a whole plot line about the secret society running the world and, in 2020, it seems like a very dated trope. To be fair, it was dated in 2003 when Sleeper came out, but writer Ed Brubaker was at least utilizing the trope to sabotage it. There’s also the lack of Internet-backed technology in the futuristic setting, which was apparently where what all futurism somehow missed. And when they try to mainstream the book in the last few issues, brightening up Sean Phillips’s blacks, slimming his lines, it’s a mistake. Ditto going from the handwriting font for the protagonist’s narration to a really slick italicized font. Doesn’t read well in the context of a collection; there ought to be a footnote about how they were desperate to save the book from cancellation.
I’d also forgotten the book takes place in the Wildstorm universe, featuring TV news cameos from The Authority; Brubaker does a great job of not making those connections matter much, outside providing an established universe with super-powered good guys and bad guys. The crossover character is Machiavellian crime boss Tao (created by the Original Writer himself!), which doesn’t come up much throughout and even when Tao’s giving his origin story it’s barely a footnote.
Origin stories are a big deal in Sleeper, something the protagonist, Holden Carver—good guy spy turned double agent, posing as a bad guy super-powered spy for Tao’s organization—and his colleagues do when they’re bored. The villains sit around and tell their stories. Except it’s only for the newbs and Holden hangs out with the seasoned veterans so it takes a while to coax their origins out of them, whether it’s Holden’s best bud, Genocide Jones, or his lady friend, Miss Misery.
Where Sleeper doesn’t age—can’t age—is in Brubaker’s plotting of the series, which spends the first nine or so issues with a two steps forward, one step back approach to revealing Holden’s story. We don’t find out how exactly he got roped into the super secret mission—and we still don’t know how his handler, Lynch, got put into a coma right before the series started. Issues take place weeks apart, sometimes following up on the previous issues’ cliffhangers and finales, sometimes not. Brubaker and Phillips end each issue for effect, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic. So it really burns when the narration lettering gets cheesy at the end, just as Holden’s having some big moments of revelation. You want the personality of the character in those passages, not feeling like you’re being handled so DC can try to sell the book to its stupider readers.
Sorry, it’s been sixteen years but I’m still not okay with how badly they bungled this series.
The first issue does a fine job establishing Holden and some of the world, enough about his mission, enough about Tao’s villainous organization, but focuses on Holden’s friendship with Genocide. Genocide’s an indestructible big lug thug. After Holden starts sleeping with Miss Misery—a chainsmoker who needs to inflict pain or damage in order to live, literally—Genocide’s the only one he can tell about it because Holden shouldn’t be sleeping with his coworkers. Especially not when she’s an occasional squeeze to Tao and Tao’s right hand man, Peter Grimm, mad crushes on her and already hates Holden.
Holden’s basically indestructible, thanks to an interdimensional artifact. His body heals, but builds up a charge of pain energy (he doesn’t feel physical sensations anymore, unless there’s some kind of pleasure and pain mix, which makes him perfect for Miss Misery). He zaps people with the pain energy; it can be lethal. Otherwise he shoots people a lot. There’s a lot of shooting in Sleeper. It’s not the most exciting visual (at some point you wonder how Phillips is still ginning up the enthusiasm for the action sequences, given none of the main characters is actually capable of being hurt).
The book starts getting really good in the last third, after the illuminati subplot, as it becomes clear just how much Holden is breaking down undercover and what’s going to happen when a lifeline appears. He’s got to question whether the lifeline’s real, but then the further question becomes… is it better or worse if the lifeline’s real. Has Holden crossed the line in his undercover operation. Sure, Genocide Jones and Miss Misery are far from the worst compatriots in a hive of scum and villainy—Genocide’s likable and even sympathetic, while Miss Misery gets the very odd combination of female tragedy and male gaze (even if it’s arty Phillips male gaze… there’s a lot of it in the comic)—but what does it say about Holden.
Brubaker’s character development work on Holden is somewhat ramshackle, thanks to the fractured timeline and narration, but once he reveals himself to be something of a softy, it’s not at all unexpected. Or unwelcome. A little sincerity goes a long way in Sleeper, which is effective, engaging, excellently executed (enough Es), but definitely feels like commercial product. Brubaker’s scripts reward the reader’s attention without ever dragging things out too long. Holden’s narration cushions the plot twists and reveals, with Phillips art capturing what usually ends up being sadness in the moment. He’s really good at tragedy and desperation. Less so the super-powered gun fights or the occasional superhero fights. They’re not bad in any sense, but they’re not where Phillips excels in the book. You can tell he’s not interested in them. The supervillain outfits, for example, get a good setup panel and then otherwise seem like a chore.
But there’s a lot for Phillips to draw in this book and it’s impressive how well he gets through it all. Like, he’s got to be doing supervillains and superheroes one panel and then Disneyland two panels later. It’s seriously globe-trotting, which isn’t always great as far as the character development goes but… delayed gratification on that front. Brubaker and Phillips don’t work to make Holden a sympathetic protagonist even after things start falling apart. He’s presented matter-of-factly, which probably hurt the book’s commercial potential to some degree. Though who knows. If the last sixteen years of DC Comics has revealed anything, it’s they actually didn’t have a chance with their dedicated reader base.
Sleeper was also one of the first comics to do the “Season One” thing, even though it wasn’t intentional… they had to try for a new number one to get the series some interest because trying to force good comics to become hits is difficult. The “season” ends on an interesting narrative note for what’s to come for sure, even if the thinner Phillips line work and the gaudy lettering leaves it in a visually far less interesting spot than it started.
Did it read better month-to-month back in 2003 and 2004? Probably. But it holds up rather well, especially given the many aforementioned caveats….
Like, I think there’s at least a boob every issue, which makes you wonder if it was an editorial mandate… did DC have data on how many copies they sold based on bare boobs? And while they’re sometimes arty boobs—Phillips is classically trained, after all—sometimes they’re just boobs for boobs sake, maybe three lines. It gets to be an eye-roll after a while.
Though… it’s not like there’s much characterization to the (two) female characters in the comic, which maybe you can get away with because it’s Holden’s perspective and all, but them both being exhibitionists is a little weird. No fetish shaming just… what are the odds. Are there odds? Do female espionage agents prefer exhibitionism? It, like an apology for that second lettering font, needs a footnote at least.