Tuesday, December 02, 2008

CRIMINAL and INCOGNITO.

The final chapter of "Bad Night" is due in stores this week, and so we continue to draw nearer to the release of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Incognito. The two-page teaser, which we mentioned earlier, was published in the back of Issue #6 of Criminal, as well as Issue 62 of Marvel Previews -- the October issue, for products shipping in December -- which has been available for $1.25 or free with Diamond Previews. Marvel's January solicitations have been released, and they not only include the trade paperback for "Bad Night," they include the second issue of Incognito and reveal what appears to be the primary antagonist for the five-issue mini-series.

Early in October, Sean showed us the full cover art for the second issue, which we reprint below, after reprinting the full cover art to the first issue. Mid-November, he revealed the first pencils of interior art for what is presumably the first issue, and he has followed up with more artwork, including the pencils and completed art for the cover for the third issue, which we are also reprinting, further down.

Now seems as good a time as any for me to write about my initial thoughts about Incognito and what the mini-series and subsequent side projects might mean for Criminal.



When Incognito was announced, my first reactions were the sort of things that lend an unfortunate amount of credibility to The Simpsons' "Comic Book Guy." I wondered how I was going to file the mini-series in my longbox, and where I would shelve the subsequent trade paperback. Almost simultaneously, I became a little frustrated at the prospect of having to wait another five or six months for the next chapter in the story of Tracy Lawless, since it's already been a year since "Lawless" wrapped up -- to say nothing of our not seeing more than a brief cameo of Leo since the end of "Coward" in March of 2007.

Both reactions were probably a bit short-sighted and immature.

How I organize my small comic collection is a minor thing, and the problem of accounting for the Incognito is easily rectified by making my box's "Criminal section" more comprehensive: the collection is, now, no longer just the one series, it's a chronological archive of all of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' work released under Marvel's Icon imprint.

And, the wait for the next arc of Criminal is short in comparison to other comic books, those that often have higher profiles while being of much lower quality. (Frank Miller and Jim Lee's long-lived and relatively unproductive collaboration comes immediately to mind.) What's more, Ed and Sean aren't taking a vacation: they're releasing a mini-series that could be just as entertaining as their crime noir saga and their earlier work for Wildstorm, the phenomenal Sleeper.

Still, my first reactions aren't nothing: in them I recognize that Incognito is changing the nature of what Ed and Sean are doing at Icon, and this mini-series -- what Ed says could be the first of many occasional side projects -- could have a more direct impact on the series to which this blog is primarily devoted.



The scope of Criminal has proven to be wider than I expected. In an interview with our own Alan David Doane, highlighted in the first entry for this blog, way back in August 2006, Ed Brubaker revealed that the soon-to-be-released series would have an ensemble cast, "a bunch of different people who all live outside the law, or under its radar, at least." By the time the first two arcs wrapped up, I gathered that we would be focusing on the two generations of criminals: Teeg Lawless, Tommy Patterson, and Ivan; Tracy and Ricky Lawless, Leo Patterson, and Jacob Kurtz.

My understanding of what this series is, was turned on its head with the second volume, as the trio of stories collected under the heading of "The Dead and the Dying" not only reached back thirty years, it also reached out to other characters who weren't (apparently) in the core group of criminals around which Leo and Tracy grew up: Gnarly the boxer and his old flame Danica.

Ed talked about how his canvas is unlimited, and we're just beginning to see what he means. A dramatic television series is limited by casting and other production considerations, so it typically limits its scope to a core cast as in Mission: Impossible, a central setting as in ER, or both. But, while the stories in Criminal have thus far been loosely connected by family ties and familiar locales like the Undertow, a comic book series isn't necessarily limited to either. Location, time period, and dramatis personae: this series is limited by none of these and is restricted only by what Ed can imagine, what Sean can bring to life, and the ground rules that they've set for this universe.

When they have a story that doesn't fit those ground rules -- apparently, crime noir set in a naturalistic world over the past half-century or so -- they'll break out of the Criminal universe to tell the story. Since Incognito features super-powered villains, it won't apparently be branded as "a Criminal edition."

I'm personally ambivalent about the completely independent branding of this upcoming mini-series: it could have been called, "a Criminal intermission," and having "Criminal" in the title would have made it easier for shops to know to order the book for its Criminal subscribers. On the other hand, any such branding would have implied certain limits on these side projects -- I could hardly imagine a romantic-comedy comic with "Criminal" on the cover -- and could have given new readers the wrong impression that the side project wasn't a truly independent stand-alone story.

Even without branding to tie everything together, we have the beginnings of a larger body of work for Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, what I think can broadly fall under the heading of their collaborative work for Icon.

With any luck, the work will have some constant features -- wraparound covers, extra content -- whose consistency further highlights the differences. Either way, this is the sort of body of work that I don't think is all that common in comics, a medium dominated by for-hire work and editorial diktat. There aren't that many media where two or more artists collaborate for a series of unrelated projects at their own discretion, with full freedom from editorial control. Music is the only other example I can think of: the rhythm section of Weezer formed The Rentals; and when, around 1995, their experimental (and ocassionally beautiful) work with Brian Eno strayed too far from the core of what U2 does, the four Irish musicians and Eno presented their completed album under the group name of The Passengers.

But what about narrative work? Can you imagine if, on their own, the writers and cast of an ensemble television series like Frasier spent the summer hiatus making a movie completely unrelated to the series -- a murder mystery or a historical drama?

That's sort of what we have here: Ed and Sean will be able to flex different artistic muscles with these occasional side projects, which might give us better insight into the work they do and a chance to see both grow at their craft, all while we enjoy another great comic book. The crime epic Criminal will be punctuated with these other tales.

Imagine if Loeb and Sale produced creator-owned works together, between working on Batman: The Long Halloween, Daredevil: Yellow, and their other larger works for DC and Marvel. Or imagine Bendis and Bagley "punctuating" their lengthy run on Ultimate Spider-Man with other, independent stories. In both hypothetical situations, the entire body of work would be worth examining.

So, collectively, Criminal and Incognito and whatever else comes along could become very interesting.

Hopefully, Criminal won't be adversely affected by all this.



It seems to me that the occasional side mini-series could be a double-edge sword in its effect on Criminal. On the one hand, flexing their creative muscles could further sharpen Ed and Sean's already impressive skills and keep their minds fresh, and it would be better to have an outlet for stories that don't fit this established universe -- such as a story involving a superpowered villain hiding in witness protection -- than it would for Ed to try to twist and cram the story to fit Criminal.

On the other hand, these side projects could overshadow Criminal, either in quantity or attention. The "main event" could become more rare if something else grabs the creators' interests, or the public's. A short high-concept work like Incognito might take the public by storm, and it would probably be easier to sell and develop as a film. If the mini-series became a smash hit, or if a subsequent film ever went into production, would that alter Ed and Sean's view of their Icon projects?

The mere fact that Criminal might take a half-year hiatus every two or three years might decrease the total number of issues that we would end up seeing. I would gladly trade quantity for quality -- compare the short-lived Firefly with the increasingly frustrating Battlestar Galactica -- but I would hate to know that there will be stories that will remain untold.

This gap could cause some timing issues with the main, present-day story. So far, the story arcs could (roughly) coincide with their original publication dates: "Coward" could have occurred in late 2006 to early 2007; "Lawless" could have occurred in Christmas, 2007, giving Leo time to recover from his wounds; and Jacob's increasing independence from his crutches could put "Bad Night" sometime in mid-to-late 2008. If the arcs become to tightly coupled in terms of events and are published too infrequently, the series might face the same problem that Marvel and DC monthlies face: the story might be logically stuck in one decade while its readership has moved on to the next.

And, there's always a risk that reader interest would wane with each hiatus. A friend at my local comic shop noted that a mini-series like Incognito would have made more sense between the first and second volume of Criminal, but that would have only postponed problems with interrupting the second volume until another mini-series is released. Creator-owned comics have a smaller amount of breathing room for readership, but they also probably have a more patient and understanding fanbase. Filling these gaps with new stories will almost certainly help, but I think the best think Sean and Ed can do is continue producing stand-alone arcs without any serious delays within each arc: the six-month wait between story arcs in Mouse Guard was much less noticeable than the nine-month wait between issue #3 and issue #4 of this second, most recent arc.

All in all, I think the risks are worth the rewards. Some of the risks, like the timing issue, are probably minor, and the potential benefits for Criminal are significant: an already excellent book could be made even better.

And all this is to say very little about Incognito itself. It'll probably be quite a beast in its own right, and I'm looking forward to it.

We will see, and we'll be here as the story unfolds.


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