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Under the Influence

This week, our friends at Marvel publish the Classified Edition of Incognito, collecting, with bonus material, the first two volumes of the acclaimed, hard-boiled series that Joe Hill describes as “what the albums of the Black Keys are to rock and roll and the pictures of Quentin Tarantino are to film.”

Hill’s essay on INCOGNITO follows. Go check out INCOGNITO now! We’ll have more from Brubaker and the INCOGNITO series as the week continues.

I hate it when comic creators get bitching and moaning about how their art form doesn’t get the respect it deserves, isn’t honored the way theater or painting or mainstream literature is honored, and all that blah-de-blah-de-fucking-blah.

Oh, go cry a river somewhere over your twenty-year-old copies of Maus and leave me alone.

Then there are these card-carrying boys of Fanboy Nation who want to establish a “read-comics-in-public” day, to make comics seem more socially normative.

Fuck that.

I don’t want comics to be respectable. I don’t want everyone proudly looking at them in public. I want reading comics to feel dirty and unhealthy and transgressive, to feel like sin, like a visit to the whorehouse, or a secret fight club, or maybe both at the same time.I don’t read comics, I do comics, like shots, four-color grain alcohol slurped out of the White Queen’s dainty navel; afterwards she can slap me around  a little and tell me how she’s going to punish my wrongdoer. I didn’t put my money down for a moving literary epiphany. I dropped my cash to see badass women cavort in fetish costumes while fighting evil, to watch brutal men strangle monsters with their bare hands, to see a city block leveled (if not a whole city), and to have a front-row seat as malformed monsters of evil are sliced in half by their own death ray machines.

Don’t get me wrong. I am often engaged, enthralled, and moved by the redemptive experience of high art, as it is found in films like “Rules of the Game,” a book like Malamud’s “A New Life,” or a comic like “Fun Home.” It’s just that I don’t seem to be compulsively drawn to that kind of thing. What really gets my pulse jacked are stories of grime and punishment, lawlessness and disorder, the bad and the ugly(hold the good).

Stories of this ilk grab me like a magnet grabs iron shavings. The creators of such work are blood-slicked  MMA fighters, in a world where to fight at all is increasingly seen as barbaric, and embarrassingly out of step with the times. If I was a more sensible man, governed by more sensible, forward-looking notions, I’m sure I would invest my time in better mannered, more tasteful art forms. But my deepest enthusiasm has always been reserved for the creators that speak to my nerve-endings.

I suppose it’s a failing; I have always had compassion for the wrong people.


Speaking of the wrong people, let’s talk about Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

INCOGNITO: BAD INFLUENCES is their latest crime of passion, but it is only one outrage in a five-year spree that dates back to their first creator-owned book together, CRIMINAL: COWARD. I recommend the entire CRIMINAL and INCOGNITO library without reservation. CRIMINAL and INCOGNITO are to comics what the albums of the Black Keys are to rock and roll and the pictures of Quentin Tarantino are to film. That is to say, they are willful efforts to explore a given medium at its most primal, most unthought state; to get down to the id of a particular kind of art. The id of film is, no doubt, the American grindhouse cinema of the 70s; the id of rock is Muddy roaring that he’s got his mojo working; the id of comics may be viewed in the blood-spattered crime and horror books of the early fifties, and here it is again, unadulterated and pure, in the work of Brubaker and Phillips.

I hasten to add that these are not coy, artificial, wink-wink attempts at homage. INCOGNITO is not the kind of work that operates from homage, a parasite living on nostalgia and borrowed time; it is the kind of elemental work people pay homage to twenty years on down the road.

BAD INFLUENCES is the second book in the story of Zach Overkill, a nearly indestructible man who spent years using his powers to get rich, get laid, and lay waste (Didn’t read the first book yet? Stop where you are. It’s not that you can’t read this book if you didn’t bother with book one. It’s that you shouldn’t. Go and get it, read it and come back).

Only one thing could endanger our (anti-)hero: growing a conscience. Zack is never going to be on the side of the angels, but in the course of his two-fisted travels, he catches a bad case of humanity, and is never quite able to shake it. While searching for Simon Slaughter, a former hero, who went deep undercover among the bad guys, and who has apparently gone native, Zack finds his own soul…and isn’t very happy about it. It was, frankly, a whole lot more fun whoring and kicking-ass, in the days before he learned how to think. In this way, Zack’s inner struggle is a perfect analogy for the comic business as a whole: is it better to work for a noble, elevating, occasionally boring goal…or to get away with murder?

Ed Brubaker’s answer to that important, even necessary question is right here in this book. I don’t want to give anything away, or to speak for him, but it’s probably worth noting: Ed didn’t name his protagonist Zack Overthink.

At a pivotal moment in the story, Zack catches himself feeling bad for all the outlaws he’s crossed and destroyed, and ruminates: Maybe my problem is I have compassion for the wrong people. Caring about, rooting for, and getting off on the dirty dirty lives of the bad guys…that’s just sick.

Oh, you too?

Joe Hill

New Hampshire, April, 2011