As this past week saw the restart of the critically acclaimed Incognito series, writer Ed Brubaker acknowledged the comics he creates with artist Sean Phillips are a vital part of his psychological well-being.
"It's like a running joke, that Marvel gives us the Icon line so that we'll be happy, but there is some truth to that," Brubaker said with a laugh. "I don't think I realized how much it mattered to my sanity until earlier this year when Sean and I took six months off working together. I really felt the absence of this creative chemistry."
Now starting its second volume, Incognito is the latest work by Brubaker and Phillips, who also teamed on the now classic WildStorm series Sleeper, and Icon's Eisner Award-winning comic Criminal.
Incognito is set in a world of super-powered pulp heroes and villains, focusing on former villain Zack Overkill as he enters the witness protection program.
In last week's Incognito: Bad Influences #1, which kicks off the series' second volume, Zack's time in witness protection has ended, and he's now working with the "good guys" in the SOS agency.
"It's about a year later in the life of the main character, Zack Overkill, and he's basically been a bad guy working for the good guys for the last year," Brubaker explained. "And he's had to deal with the government bureaucracy. And we see where his life has evolved to now that he's no longer in witness protection."
As Zack is forced into a mission that puts him back into the underworld, Brubaker sets up the moral questions that serve as the central theme for the main character, who struggles to distinguish the difference between those working for good and those in the villainous world where he was raised.
"I wanted to put him in a place, now that he doesn't have to deal with witness protection, I wanted him to deal with the things that the government would make a guy like him have to do," Brubaker explained, "like keep a secret identity and get psych evaluations and things like that, as opposed to getting to do whatever he wants, which is the way he was raised."For Brubaker, getting to write Incognito despite being a Marvel-exclusive writer gives him a creative outlet for ideas that fall outside his work in the Marvel Universe.
"The freedom to create stuff that you totally own, and that's published through a line created by the biggest publisher in American Comics -- that's pretty astounding, if you look at comics even 10 or 15 years ago: the idea that Marvel would have a line like this, where creators could do whatever they want, with no editorial interference," Brubaker said.
The writer said his partnership with Phillips is among the most important collaborations he's ever had. "There was a period a few years ago where I was working with Steve Epting and Michael Lark and Sean Phillips, and I felt like all of them could pretty much read my mind in terms of what we were creating," he said. "Hopefully I'll work with Steve and Michael again soon, but Sean's probably the most important one I've got going now.
"With Sean, for the longest time, our relationship has been creating new stuff and doing our own thing. We've only done one or two projects together that were company-owned things. It's always been stuff where we just made up our own stuff.
"I always know what I'm going to get from Sean, and I always know how to write for him," Brubaker said. "It's a really simple relationship that way. We try to keep each other excited about the working process and I'm always excited to see pages."After Incognito: Bad Influences finishes up, Brubaker hopes to continue the creative relationship with Phillips. "I hope to do more Criminal. And I have an idea for an Incognito Annual," he said. "Depending on how I feel by the time I finish Issue #5 of Bad Influences, we may do an Incognito Annual first, before we go back to Criminal, but we'll be going back to Criminal as the next thing. Right now, it's looking like it's going to be the sequel to Coward, which is Leo in prison. But until I actually sit down to write it, it could change. I've had that mapped out since before I wrote Coward. I've had the idea for three stories with that character. "With Criminal, it's such an odd animal that we can do any crime story we want to do. Sometimes, you sit down to write one story and you say, 'You know what? I'd rather write this story instead,'" he said. "After Lawless, I wanted to do some short stories, and they ended up being three interlinking short stories. I had no plan to do that originally. I just decided to do some single issues stories. For a lot of people, that's actually their favorite thing we've done.
"That kind of freedom can sometimes get in your way, because you can't figure out what the plan is," Brubaker said, "but most of the time it works out really well."
The writer said he and Phillips took a year to produce another volume of Incognito because of deadline pressures and other projects. But he hopes not to have to do that again, if only for his own sanity.
"We took some time off because I had been dealing with a lot of family medical stuff related to my dad. It had been hard keeping up with all my work. I got so far behind that I had to take a break on Incognito so I could get caught up on Marvel stuff instead," he explained. "Then we had to wait awhile for Sean to finish up on Dark Tower."Having six or seven months go by where I didn't get pages in my email every week from Sean was really weird," he said. "Now we're back up and running, but it's been hard to get back into the swing of things. For me, this was always stuff I fit in around all my work...
"But it's really the most important stuff," he said. "It's a partnership I hope will go on for the rest of my life."
Check back later this week as we talk with Brubaker about his other Marvel releases from last week, including new issues of Secret Avengers and Captain America.