The wait, as Eric Bana said in the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, is over. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have returned with a new Incognito story, picking up a year later from where the first six issues left off, and, just like Star Trek, it was completely worth the wait. Unlike Star Trek, though, Incognito doesn’t have to lean on its characterization to carry the day when its script moves onto shaky ground. With a world expansion that brings Incognito to the point where it’ll rival Sleeper (sorry for continuing to beat the references into the ground, but I honestly think understanding Sleeper is key to getting at the core of Incognito) by the end of this storyarc, a couple of turns that twist that freshly broadened world around from what we used to know, and the patented Brubaker cliffhanger ending, Bad Influences will do a spectacular job of carrying comic book readers through the end of 2010 and into 2011.
Towards the end of the first Incognito story, villain-turned-reluctant-hero Zack Overkill learned that he and his brother Xander were not orphans turned to evil as the result of mad science, but were actually among the few remaining duplicates of the legendary hero Lazarus, who kept coming back to fight the bad guys, no matter how many times they killed him. Now that Zack’s joined the S.O.S., he’s spending plenty of off-hours in laboratories scattered all across New York, as the good guys try to unlock the secrets of what makes him, well, him. Zack continues to march down a mirror version of the path already well-trod by Sleeper’s Holden Carver as he shacks up with fellow agent Zoe Zeppelin (except that Holden got with supervillainness Miss Misery mostly by chance, and by virtue of a lie, whereas Zoe knows full well what kind of person Zack is – in each story, though, the women are the ones with the real power in the relationship), and continues to live a variation of the nondescript life he led while in witness protection.
It only takes one little bad break to blow an operation wide open, and that’s what happens when Zack has the misfortune to walk past Ignatius Beekman on the street. Beekman, you see, was one of Lazarus’ unwilling operatives way back in the day, who had the further misfortune to get knocked into a coma that persisted from 1943 until 2009. Harboring a certain amount of resentment towards Lazarus, the instant he saw Zack on the street, he began plotting his revenge against the man he thought was his enemy. Since Zack’s pretty well indestructible, he doesn’t get slowed down by anything as small-scale as a bomb in his apartment, but it does manage to take apart the thin film of anonymity that kept him from fighting other “science villains” for his life around the clock.
The issue ends with the S.O.S. trying to turn this rotten chain of events to their advantage, sending Overkill in undercover to extract a rogue agent of their own. It doesn’t look like he’ll return willingly, so Zack may well finally get to cut loose again soon…
As usual, the line between virtue and vice is blurry enough that the only thing separating the good guys from the bad is the uniform they wear, or the immediate superior to whom they report. By his own admission, the S.O.S.’s attempt to acclimate Zack to normal society only makes him despise the average person on the street even more, and none of the people who work with him appear particularly fascinated at the prospect of turning him into a productive member of society, simply in using his abilities to further their own ends.
Brubaker’s story, awesome though it may be, wouldn’t be nearly so were it not brought to life by Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Phillips’ art work meshes the shadow world with which he and Brubaker are so comfortable with a flair out of science fiction serials. The design of the costumes, the settings, and particularly the villains take on a more fantastic edge this time around, bringing Zack Overkill’s world into more specific detail. Val Staples’ coloring matches Phillips stride for stride, applying more brightness to a story I’d fully expected to be muted and gritty (which it certainly is, only it includes Asian wizards and yellow-suited crime syndicate flunkies this time, too).
Fortunately, the great reading experience that is Incognito: Bad Influences doesn’t end with the story. Jess Nevins’ short essays about pulp storytelling make a return at the back of the book; this time, he writes about a mostly-forgotten fellow called The Phantom Detective.
Bad Influences, if anything, improves upon its predecessor in every way. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.