Working within, or at the fringes, of the Marvel and DC framework, many of the early collaborations between Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips worked with elements of superheroes. Sometimes taking those superheroes out of their element and dropping them into something with more pulp or noir sensibilities. Other times operating at the periphery of a superhero universe, bringing thriller and espionage conventions there. Taking a more adult approach to superpowered criminal organizations.

Mature readers superheroes can be a mixed bag.


No disrespect meant to anyone who has done the superhero genre under a mature readers lens, but they often come off as an adolescent’s idea of what mature is. Which actually makes sense given that superheroes are typically an adolescent power fantasy. This usually means sex, violence, and swearing. A focus on it, to the near exclusion of anything else. The line between adult and mature can be blurred, kind of like the difference between a television show on Cinemax or one on HBO.

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, books like Wildcats and The Authority laid the groundwork for something akin to the latter. Using the adult content to keep people engaged, but working through corporate espionage, extinction-level events, and the ramifications of superpowered folks in all corners of society. Eventually blossoming into the short-lived Eye of the Storm imprint.

…it appears we have a spy in our organization.”

Naturally building off of Wildcats and Point Blank, one of the series that worked best under Wildstorm’s new mature readers lines was Sleeper, from Brubaker, Phillips, Tony Aviña, Randy Mayor, Wildstorm FX, Bill Oakley, Ken Lopez, and Rob Leigh. It followed Holden Carver, an International Operations agent, in over his head in deep cover because his handler was in a deep coma, trying to find out which side of the line he was really on.

The moral ambiguity through the series is off the charts. Holden has to reconcile his role while undercover in Tao’s criminal organization with previous actions on the side of the “good guys”. And whether it makes a difference. Coupled with potential betrayals all around, revelations of who’s really running the world, routing out other moles within the organization, and personal attachments. It’s a compelling mix of intrigue and crime drama. With superpowers.

And wholly complicated characters. Genocide and Miss Misery in particular really make you question the shades of grey. They use a game of origin stories, playing with the conventions of the superhero genre, to flesh out their backstories and it really makes you think. Yes, they are criminals doing reprehensible things, but are they maybe justified?

Pop culture is just another way to control the masses, Holden…”

The art here is fairly unique even among Sean Phillips’ body of work. Although there are some similarities to his work on Marvel Zombies, Incognito, and Kill or Be Killed, the layouts here are taken to a different level. Many of the pages have a large background image. On top of that are a flow of inset panels with a negative border gutter. It’s an incredibly impressive design choice that makes it stand out from pretty much every other book. There aren’t many I can think of that have done similar approaches.


Phillips shifts style as well for the origin stories. Similar to what he does later in Criminal: Last of the Innocent, adapting a bit in the structure of the page and art style. It’s not quite as extreme as the later work, but it definitely evokes more old school comic vibes.

The tone and atmosphere is further enriched by the colours from Tony Aviña, Randy Mayor, and Wildstorm FX. There’s a muted colour scheme, often working with blues and greys, that give it an overall kind of moody, noir feel. That’s also brought out through the letters from Bill Oakley, Ken Lopez, and Rob Leigh. Oakley sets a general style in the beginning, including a torn journal like dialogue box for Holden’s narration from Brubaker.

So what the hell am I supposed to do? Where else can I turn?”

The first twelve issues of Sleeper from Brubaker, Phillips, Aviña, Mayor, Wildstorm FX, Oakley, Lopez, and Leigh, I really consider a must read. I definitely recommend the preceding Point Blank series, Coup D’état, and the concluding Season Two as well, all as top tier mature superhero books. The story and actions are of a character on the wrong side of the fence and it’s enthralling how Brubaker, Phillips, and co. take us down the villainous rabbit hole.



Classic Comic Compendium: SLEEPER

Sleeper: Season One (#1 – 12)
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colourists: Tony Aviña, Randy Mayor & Wildstorm FX
Letterers: Bill Oakley, Ken Lopez & Rob Leigh
Publisher: DC Comics / Wildstorm – Eye of the Storm
Release Date: January 22 2003 – January 21 2004

Available collected in Sleeper: Book One and Sleeper Omnibus

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!