Incognito is another comic book about superheroes.
It’s strange how one genre has defined the entire medium of graphic storytelling. Imagine a world all movies were westerns, or if all novels told Harlequin romance stories. In this world, fewer people would go to the cinema or read books—just like how not many people read comics because most of them tell recycled stories about super-empowered beings in spandex punching each other.
But even in overused genres, stories range from good to bad. Incognito is one of the better superhero stories in recent years. Unlike most of those, this book features new and original characters, and a noirish twist on the tired genre. It’s tightly plotted and well drawn; this book is entertaining. Its creators—writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips—are two masters of their craft who work with synergy.
Incognito tells the story of a man named Zack Overkill, which is a clever name as far as names for superhumans go. Zack, along with his twin brother Xander, used to be a super-strong villain. The brothers were part of a mafia where all the members had superpowers. Their job was to punch people. Then the Overkill twins were double-crossed, Xander was killed, and Zack went into witness protection. His testimony put the Black Death—a superpowered version of Tony Soprano—behind bars.
This story is sheer noir. It examines how a former criminal reflects on the days when rules and laws didn’t apply to his life. That the characters have superpowers is just a convention of the comic book medium. But the plot resembles Raymond Chandler’s stories more than Stan Lee’s.
Before and after they did Incognito, Brubaker and Phillips worked on a book called Criminal, which was a noirish book about criminals. Before that, they worked on a book called Sleeper, which was another superhero noir blend. Incognito plays to their paired strengths.
Phillips does a good job of illustrating this book. His inked art is not breathtaking, but he uses shadows and thick black lines to great moody effect. His renderings have a jagged quality. He is an illustrator of grit and darkness, and an effective storyteller. His strength lies in making his characters emote believably.
This book’s biggest flaw is that all the characters other than Zack Overkill are two-dimensional at best. Brubaker places Zack as the narrator of the story. His hatred of his mundane office job and his yearning for violence are well realized. But other characters like his brother’s former love interest, a mad scientist nemesis, and a Zack’s asshole parole officer all parade through the book like the tropes they are. But Brubaker paces the book fast enough that it’s easy not to notice that not all of the characters are fully realized.
Incognito is one of the few recent superhero comics worth reading. It’s entertaining, well-drawn, well-paced, and it makes for an interesting blend of superhero and noir conventions.
At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what comic books would be like if every story didn’t have to have super-empowered beings punching each other.
To scratch that itch, I’ll have to read Criminal.