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By Kiel Phegley
Plenty of big name super heroes work hard to keep their secret identity under wraps. But the super villain lead of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' INCOGNITO deals with a different kind of dilemma: hiding his explosive super-powered past in the form of the witness protection program. And the twists don't stop there.
The Icon limited series the creators will unleash starting January 2 in between arcs of their Eisner-winning CRIMINAL serves to re-imagine the concept of the super hero universe through the lens of old school pulp fiction heroes.
"The world that the character lives in really grew out of the same place that super hero comics grew out of if it had gone in a different direction," Brubaker explains. "Super hero comics all grew out of the pulps like Doc Savage and The Shadow and Flash Gordon. You can trace almost all of early comics to those pulp characters to some degree or another. That's a lot of what this story is about is looking at the way comics evolved, and what if there was a world where characters like that existed back then. I'm trying to build from a different angle to see a different way things could have gone. That's the world this guy operates in.
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"I've always loved that era. I love pulp fiction and how dark so much of it can be and at the same time how ridiculous and sort of apocalyptic it was. I just thought we lost some of that in the 50's in comics."
The writer promises that readers who have followed the Brubaker/Phillips team in the past can count on the street level point of view and darker themes seen in CRIMINAL but with the over the top action only super hero stories can provide.
"The goal of INCOGNITO was to take that world building and that pulp fiction element that super hero comics grew out of and bring a noir twist to it, bring the story to a smaller level where it's not about the entire world," Brubaker continues. "It's not about a ton of characters even though there is a wide cast like any crime story. It's about this one guy who used to be powerful and used to be somebody but is now forced to be nobody. What do they do?
"The whole first issue is about the dilemma of being a person who used to be somebody else, and now you're in witness protection and it's like the end of 'Goodfellas'—'I'm a shnook. I'm a nobody.' That kind of life taken to the extreme sets up what this character will do, and that will be the thing that draws attention to him from the people who are protecting him or the people who think he's dead. By the end of the first issue, you see
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why he's going to get noticed, but he doesn't go back to being a bad guy. That's the flip of the idea. He's a person who has absolutely no moral compass or faith in humanity or the world. He thinks society is a big lie and that the only honest people are criminals, yet he knows if he does anything bad, he's going to get caught immediately. So the idea was, 'What if you're a bad, completely amoral person and you start helping people? Will you actually start changing as a person?'"
In a different kind of turn for the writer, Brubaker says that with INCOGNITO he crafted an entire mythology and history for his new characters and their world in a way he's never done before.
"The whole thing is something that's been percolating for a number of years. It had all been sort of growing in my head, and I felt it was this little alternate universe that was building itself. I finally got to the point where I had to go, 'Ok, I've got to get this story down on paper.' Over the course of the last three years, I've built an entire world with a history that goes back to the 1920's up to now and figured how the whole super structure worked out. It's really back story. We barely ever see any of it.
"It's funny. I don't normally consider myself that kind of writer who builds a world up. But for some reason, I kept jotting this stuff down every couple of years, so I have this rich canvas to paint this whole story on, and really the story is just about one guy."
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And one guy who connects just as strongly to the premise as Brubaker should come as no surprise: Sean Phillips. The writer explained that his longtime collaborator turned in some stunning work to cap off the long-gestating story.
"He's experimenting because he always changes up his style a little bit with a new project," reveals the writer. "The things he does well in CRIMINAL he's still doing well here. He and I were talking about it the other day, and I think this is actually some of the best stuff he's ever done. It's a little bit slicker, and there are no panel borders. It's all just gutter space and very slick. Everything is blocked off and the word balloons are hand drawn. Every thing is really mechanical except the art and the coloring, and it really highlights what's great about his stuff."
INCOGNITO #1 hits comic shops on January 2 and features a bonus section full of articles and interviews on legendary pulp fiction icons.
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