Comics with established universes love to do “what if” stories. Everyone loves these because they are fun and because they are an excuse for intellectual conjecture. You can just sit and spin your wheels about what would have happened if things had gone differently (without the usual I’ve-wasted-my-life that comes when we ask those same questions about real life). In academic world there are historical “what ifs” that have the same thrill. “What if Germany had won WWII?” Or “What if the Roman legions colonized Central America and the Aztecs could control dinosaurs with alien technology?” In between are genre what-ifs, like Alan Moore’s “Tom Strong” and Warren Ellis’s “Ignition City”. Essentially, the idea is to explore what stories would have been like if specific genres had developed differently. The core questions of incognito are about what would happen if the themes and concepts of pulp novels were brought through to a modern sensibility by way of the noirs.
It is as though the goodness and the badness of the pulps have been living together behind closed paperback covers for decades, and now Brubaker and Phillips are opening up those books and seing how things have turned out.
What works: Brubaker and Phillips know how to work together to tell a good story. You can see the trust that has built up in their relationship on the page. Brubaker tells the story he needs to tell and trusts Phillips to bring it home. That is certainly over simplifying it, ut I am not going to sit here and try to describe the intricacies of a years long working relationship. What I can see on the page is the result. Two men who are great at their jobs and know when to trust the other to do his thing. It works. The script is almost sparse, letting the art do the work, and the art supports the text, keeping it popping even when the story slows down. .
It is monochromatic and moody, but fast paced and fun.
Maybe the protagonist will eventually develop scruples and honor, but he hasn’t yet, and that is making this a hell of a lot of fun to read. At one point he passes a beautiful woman (downright fatale) in tears, and he just doesn’t give a hit. He notices, but it just is not his problem. That’s fine, though, because he’s got plenty of other problems coming at him from every angle.
I still do not know exactly why he paused the way he did over the crying woman. And that is what is making this book such a thrill. I don’t know why he is doing what he is doing, he doesn’t know why he is doing it, and neither do any of the various parties who are keeping tabs on him.
It is interesting to look into the minds of conflicted characters in other, more introspective, comics. But, it is straight-up fascinating to watch that conflict play out, not knowing if you are one step ahead of the character or one step behind.
What did not work: There is some kind of rich back-story full of double crosses and interwoven origins that has driven our main character into hiding. If it comes out the the specific details o who did wht to whom and when are essential to how this story plays out, then it could be that there are too many story points with too little framework to hang them on.
Effectively creating a new genre for this book works against Brubaker here because there are standard structures and useful cliches to fall back on. Every relevant detail must be explicated.
If, however, all we end up needing to know is the emotional content of these relationships,then we should be fine.