Just Add Capes

You know your week has turned off the main road when a writer like Ed Brubaker’s success is getting on your nerves, but I couldn’t help myself. When I heard how well Incognito was selling, I should have been delighted for one of my favorite writers, but in spite of myself my first reaction was to let out a great big Snuffleupagus sigh.

The week Incognito had its debut, I was lucky enough to be guest hosting iFanboy’s Pick of the Week Podcast (you may remember it as that week you tied the angry letter to that brick). On the show, we talked about the book, and one of the guys mentioned he’d seen several people write, “I can’t wait for this book. Finally, Brubaker’s back to doing superheroes!”

I couldn’t quite get that in my thinker.

“Really?” I asked. “Is that really who we are? We don’t want to read it without the domino masks?”

The thing that made it such a craw lodger, of course, was that Incognito was about three proteins shy of having the exact same DNA as Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ other book, Criminal. The same writer and artist. The same colorist. The same publisher and back matter. The same sex and violence and profanity and drug use and worldview. I have it on good authority that the staples come from the same factory. In blind taste tests, it has been confirmed that both have a pleasant new paper Criminal smell. In fact, there was only one element that kept the creators from just calling the damn book Criminal: the capes.

Well, there haven’t actually been any capes in the book, just one of those little masks that would conceal your identity from absolutely no one who had spent more than a dinner party shmooze with you in real life, and a mad scientist or two. I’m just sticking with “capes” as the broad generalization we’re all comfortable with as a shorthand for the trappings of sci-fi superheroics. Still: if Incognito and Criminal are so nearly indistinguishable– at worst, they’re like Luke and Owen Wilson– then the sales for both books would be nearly identical, surely?

Perhaps that’s happening even now on Earth-341, the Earth where things that make sense happen. We have to live here.

I was chatting up my local shopkeep about the books’ sales last week, and  of course Incognito is selling its brains out. They overprinted #1, and it still sold out in shops across the country in a matter of days. It’s on a rocket to the moon Criminal can no longer see with the naked eye. Second printing’s already on the stands with a variant cover. This is an Icon book, mind you.

Did I mention the entire creative team and point of view of the books are exactly the same? One is selling out; the other one’s not. That… is irritating.

I could understand if Incognito were a return to beloved characters that people had been pining for while Brubaker had been typing away at the lives of Criminal‘s rotating cast of nobodies. Conor tells a story that I’ve quoted before about seeing a guy in a comics shop with a copy of Brubaker’s Captain America in his hand point to an issue of Criminal and ask, “Who buys this crap?” That makes my teeth clench reflexively, but I get it. Cap is a known quantity for that guy; he’s buying the book for Cap. Hell, he may not have even known who wrote the comic he was buying. Fear Agent struggles to stay afloat, but the exact same creative team shuffles over to The Punisher and the non-sequential tens and twenties come rolling in. It’s the same in other media too; I couldn’t tell you who wrote a given episode of Battlestar Galactica, but I’ve watched them all. At the same time, I’ll follow Joss Whedon no matter which characters he’s writing for, even if he wants to spend his time wondering what it would be like if Eliza Dushku were the Winter Soldier and no one ever said anything clever. Sometimes it’s the writer; sometimes it’s the character.

But… the genre?

People don’t know the Incognito characters any better than the Criminal characters. All they know is that the guy on the cover has one of those Lone Ranger dealies on his face. It’s not like the superheroics inside the cover are spectacular and bombastic, either. The main character’s not blasting through the sky with a vapor trail behind him. He’s not shooting lightning bolts from his nether regions (although I imagine it’s only a matter of time before Powers prominently features wanglightning of some kind). He’s just punching people. Exactly like people get punched in Criminal. Just harder.

As someone whose reading habits tend to be split 65-35 between following writers and following characters (I couldn’t have imagined a Ghost Rider comic making contact with the skin on my hands, but then Jason Aaron signed on to write it) to me the concept of following one genre seems like following music for one instrument. “Sorry, dude. I don’t know what to tell you. I like dulcimers. Deal with it.”

I hope I’m not talking about you, dear reader. If I am, it’s time for an intervention. Let me put it this way: you know your mom’s friend with the cats, who only reads romance novels? You are that. That’s you. You’re the reason Warren Ellis has to drink so much.

How different am I, though? Brubaker’s Gotham Central (which I think is how I was introduced to his work) was one of my favorite books of the last ten years, but would I have tried it if it hadn’t been set in Gotham City? Didn’t I buy that book for its concept? Alias got me on a Bendis buying spree that could now wallpaper my home, but will you find a copy of his Jinx on my shelf anywhere? Jason Aaron wrote my favorite arc of Wolverine comics ever… so where are those Scalped trades? Not in la Casa del Jaimeski. Hell, I wanted credit for branching out because I normally don’t read Wolverine.

But branch out I did, and hopefully that will be the upside of all of this. I bought Gotham Central and Alias because they were atypical takes on the same old superhero stories; I wanted something new, but I was only ready to dip a toe in at that point. Alias led me to Powers which led me to Torso. Gotham Central kept me around for Criminal. The Queen & Countries and Fear Agents and Scott Pilgrims and Jonahs Hex would follow. They say Incognito readers are starting to circle back and pick up Criminal trades. I hope that’s true. For my part, I’m going to take my own medicine and try to branch out a little when I hit the shop this week, and I hope you do too. I’d rather just be happy the next time Ed Brubaker sells a crate of books.


You can get on Jim Mroczkowski‘s nerves without trying very hard. Give it your best shot at Twitter or Jimski.com.



  1. I didn’t read Criminal.  I heard good things about it, but it’s not my bag.  I just don’t get into gritty crime dramas.  I picked up Incognito because it was described as classic pulp stories being mixed with noir.  It’s not that the guy has superheroes.  This isn’t superheroes like Batman or Superman.  My understanding is that it was more like Doc Savage and the Shadow.  It is coming off a little more Superman than his progenitor Doc Savage, so I’m less into it and may drop it.

    Everybody has a pet genre they’re a sucker for.  Some people love kung fu movies or Rom-coms.  They don’t only read it, but they’re more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

  2. I think the success Incognito has more to do with the fact that it appeals to cross genres rather than the domino mask alone. People who mostly read crime stuff and love brubaker are reading it and people who mostly read capes are reading it because it’s both. It has that gritty hardboiled vibe but it also has super powers. It’s like how romantic comedies tend to make a lot more money than just straight romance moves. Some people go for the laughs and others go for the sappy stuff.

  3. @ dshramek- If you like classic pulp stories mixed with noir, then check out Criminal.  It screams noir, because something bad happens to the main characters all the time.  I think of crime dramas as cops vs. robbers.  Criminal has the main character experience a crappy situation then tells the story of dealing with it.  But if you want noir with superheroes, then Spider-Man Noir is a great comic book.

  4. Maybe some of the sales have to do with people who wanted to get in on a Brubaker noir book on the ground floor? Maybe these are people who had heard about Criminal but for whatever reason were intimidated to start that series a dozen or so issues in. I see the point about how Jason Aaron’s Wolverine far outsold Scalped, but because Incognito is non-Marvel U I’m hesitant to agree that superheroics have a LOT to do with its higher sales figures vs Criminal. Would Incognito #1 have sold as much, or 95% as much, if they had replaced the domino mask on the cover with a horizontal shadow falling across the character’s face? I’d guess so, but maybe I’m too optimistic.

  5. To give some benefit of the doubt on this subject — I think there’s a perception that there are a lot of media where you can get crime stories (movies, TV, prose novels) but that comics are the ‘home’ medium for superheroes.  Not that I would use this as a reason for avoiding non-superhero books, but I can see that being a reason.  Part of the selling point for ‘Criminal’ seems to be, ‘This is a lot like the novels and movies that our target audience likes.’  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say, ‘I’d as soon stick to the novels and movies.’   

  6. If I look at my collection, I think I lean more towards pulp or retro styled storytelling than super heroes.  And the cape books I do read most zealously are associated with the golden or silver age.  My favorite super hero books are things like JSA, Action Comics, and the like.  So, for me, it’s not really the genre that attracts me, but the sensibility.  

  7. I’m not interested in "Criminal."

    I am very interested in "Incognito."  It may not end up being as good as "Wanted," but whatev.  That’s just how it is.  I like the superheroes.  Read 3 issues of Criminal, didn’t like it.  Going for the trade of Incognito ’cause it looks cool.

  8. I think the death of Steve Rogers and the book’s continued success has demonstrated that at least some of us are buying Cap for Brubaker’s writing.  I’m sure that Incognito was launched after Brubaker got name recognition on Cap from the guys who were buying it just because of the name on the cover helped it a great deal.  Further, I think that a lot of people had heard Criminal was really good but aren’t really comfortable jumping on a book mid run, so this book is a result of multiple factors.  I think that proposing that Incognito is more successful than Criminal because it focuses on Super Heroes, while iinteresting, is a gross over-simplification.

  9. I must say I’m simpatico with Jimski on this. And I know I posted my misgivings about Incognito replacing Criminal when it first happened, partly because I expected it to sell better, and worried that these sales would compel Brubaker to do more Incognito than Criminal. I’m still bracing myself for that. I find myself less excited for a new superheror series these new days than a new horror book or, say, Darwyn Cooke or Vertigo doing crime GNs. About 40% of what I buy these days is capes-based, and declining slowly over time.

  10. You can’t say that Criminal is daunting to jump into.  Each arc is a jumping on point.  And the trades are absurdly cheap.  

  11. I picked up the first issue of Incognito and it didn’t do it for me.  That being said, I have wanted to pick up Criminal for a while, have just been lazy about it.  And I honestly think I will enjoy Criminal far more than I did Incognito *because* it doesn’t have capes. 

    @Jimski-The mask had me fooled…:-(

  12. I hope Incognito saves Criminal from being axed.

    I don’t understand why people would continue to buy a comic for the character except for an obsessive collecting impulse.

    The thing that makes a character good is the writing.

    A bad writer would only make a reader angry if they love a character that much. So why follow a character?

    I understand the basic components of a character can be to your liking, but not when it is poorly written.

    That being written, I will buy everything that Brubaker writes until he becomes a writer I don’t like anymore.

    Same goes for genre. I might be more likely to think about checking out a horror book than I would be about checking out a romantic relationship book, but I will not just buy it because it is a genre I like or not buy it because it is a genre I don’t like.

    I’d prefer Criminal, but I will definitely buy Incognito when it is collected.

  13. I just bought Criminal over the weekend based upon all the critical acclaim and ifanboy praise surrounding the book. I plan to pick up Icognito in trade if I enjoy Criminal.

    As for swaying for cape related books I am finding myself going into more non-traditional non superhero books lately and have been enjoying them immensely: Battlefields, Scalped, and Ex Machina are all great non-superhero books(Ex Machina to some extent) that I have had the pleasure to read very recently. It seems like these type of books have more depth to their story since the story isn’t so dependent on the fact that its a "spiderman" book or a "wolverine" book.

  14. I think it just has to do with, and forgive me if I sound like I’m diminishing this site in any way but, we are just a small minority to the entire comic book fandom.

    Not also to say that the majority of comic fans are simple in any ways, no they have opinions and thoughts as much as anyone on here. But the majority of the comic fans, I would imagine, care more about superheroes then a gritty crime drama or a teenage kid trying to win over a girl. They want Wolverine killing a group of criminals, or Batman fighting the Joker, or even the Avengers fighting Skrulls.

    That is probably what the majority of the crowd wants. So it’s not surprising to me that all Brubaker needed to do was make ‘Criminal, but for Superheroes’ with Incognito and that became a best seller.

  15. I follow Spider-man even though there’s a new writer every few issues.  If they’re generally good, why not stick with it?  Spidey operates almost like a television show, where everything is one story but different writers take each arc.  And television is one where everyone follows characters over writers.  In both cases, however, we’re following something higher.  In the case of Spidey, it’s the editorial staff and in shows, it’s the showrunner.  But, if a character has a good editor, I might follow the character regardless of the writer.

  16. TNC has a point. I work at a major video game publisher so comics are discussed openly and often, but too often have I had to leave a conversation cringing because the consensus was that the latest X-Force was "what we’ve been waiting for comics to get back to". I can count on one hand the amount of times where i’ve recommended an indie or 2nd tier book that we’ve lauded on the site to someone at work and they had heard of it or were reading it already.  

  17. I’d go with something consistently excellent over something generally good.  

    Take chances, kids! 

  18. I read anything that is good. Most books I jump on I jump on because of the hype. There are some things I will read because they look cool. It is not easy to jump onto a non-superhero book when most of those books are over 2.99. If the big publishers wanted to put out more non-superhero they could and it would sell, soley on the basis that it would be a big name publisher, 2.99, and most likely have a well known writer. 


    Personally I would like some more Peter Bagge and Evan Dorkin in my life. 

  19. Dark Horse titles: $2.99.  Do it.  

  20. Both books are excellent, and I hope Incognito inspires people to buy Criminal.  Criminal is nothing more than returning comics to its roots before superheroes took over the pages.  Criminal is an amazing book that delivers each issue.  And speaking of, both Criminal and Incognito are things that should be purchased in issues.  The backmatter and overall aestethic of the issue are fantastic.

  21. Paul Montgomery, I will, as soon as soon as Blackest Night is over, then I’m out of the big tie in event books and strictly reading small titles that have nothing to do with the big hub-bub

  22. @Neb- I really think that Criminal can work well in trade or issues, it’s just a matter of taste.  I have picked it up in issues so far (although I think I bought at least one trade?), but if/when it returns, I may switch to trade.  I don’t read the backmatter (I’ve tried, it doesn’t interest me) in the issues.  Also, I find I have a heck of a time remembering what’s going on, who everybody is, etc. in issues– I imagine I’d follow it much better in trade.

  23. i was listening to the old podcast the other day and when i just logged on i was so surprised to see this article. this is exactly what i was looking for!! i think that criminal can be good in trades and issues. Many of my favorite comics are not all superheroes. Scalped, Young Liars, Criminal, Scott Pilgrim, blue monday, echo, and Scud the disposable assassain. We dont need capes all the time to have great comics. they just sell better with a cape.

  24. People want their superhero comics, plain and simple.  I was discussing this with a guy who works at my LCS when Incognito #1 came out.  No matter how good a non-superhero comic is, people rarely want to leave their comfort zone.  Even here, there are people saying they picked up an issue of Criminal or Scalped and didn’t like it.  Perhaps they need to read an entire storyline before deciding?  I guess I would also ask if they usually only give superhero comics one issue to "wow" them?  I recall someone on here saying how they read all of Jason Aaron’s books, except Scalped because they didn’t like it.  I kind of wondered why, since it’s clearly the best thing he’s writing, so I lookedk at this person’s pull lists for the past few weeks at that time and sure enough, they only read superhero comics.  Perhaps it’s not that they don’t like non-superhero stuff, perhaps it’s more the fact that they’re not used to reading a comic outside the superhero genre and if they gave it a bit more of a chance, they would appreciate those comics more.  But really, it’s like this in any medium.  There are people who refuse to watch foreign, black & white or independent films, even if they are excellent movies.  People want to stay in their niche and sometimes try very hard to do so.  What I find interesting about this article is that last week at CHUD.com, Devin Faraci posted a "Devin’s Advocate" article about how the recession is going to kill superhero comics and non-superhero comics will rise.  I personally don’t agree even though I’d love it to happen as while the non-superhero market survives on lower numbers, if the entire market shrinks, then the big two will likely alter their perception of a "big seller" comic.  Sure, maybe a few superhero comics would go, but not all of them.  There would still be plenty to choose from.

  25. As Augie de Bliek of Pipleline fame often states, comics fans are a cowardly and superstitious lot. I think he called us "spineless pansies" a couple of weeks back. If it’s something new and different or if it doesn’t fit into our narrowly defined little genres we ignore it. Sometimes, retailers do more than ignore it and take active steps to avoid the weird, unusual products that would confuse or frighten their customers, the aforesaid cowardly, superstitious lot. E.g. not only NOT ordering copies of Fear Agent for the shelf but, when asked to add it to a pull list, counsels the customer: "you know, that book doesn’t come out on a regular basis; you might just want to wait for the trade or something." An then when the trad DOES come out, doesn’t stock that either. Aaaarrrggghhh!


  26. Why add substance to stereotypes?  Take chances, try new things, don’t be boring.  

  27. I agree with the general thesis that readers benefit from being willing to try new things, but is interesting that the conversation often seems to move into negativity toward those who primarily like superhero books, which leads to defensiveness from people who perceive themselves that way.  And honestly, if a book like ‘Criminal’ is positioned as an ‘alternative’ to superhero comics, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people who *like* their superhero comics to say, "I don’t feel the need for an alternative, so that’s not for me."  I think it’s more beneficial to focus on a message that ‘People can like all kinds of stories’ — being inclusive instead of divisive — a focus which I think is generally a strength of this community. 

  28. @ScorpionMasada – possibilities. An interesting character or world or concept are sometimes worth the gamble, even if they sometimes are clunkers. I only read one Swamp Thing TP but I want to read everything ever written about that character. The world and the character and the genre appeal to me enough for me to gamble.

    As for the superhero "genre" – it’s not a genre. They can be romantic, comedic, crime, drama etc.

  29. I was right with you until the "haven’t read Scalped" part.

    I mean…you just…I…it’s…


  30. I’ll get there! We just did Stack Week! You see what I’m up against! Jayzis.

  31. I’m with Josh.  If you like Jason Aaron that much, and you’re not reading ‘Scalped’, you need to be taken out behind the wood shed.

  32. Yes, yes, you taskmasters! It’s on the to-do list. Which is labeled "2008."

  33. I just like the story (so far) that’s why I’ve been pullin it.  I never read Criminal, or even heard of it until Incognito started, so that definitely isn’t why I am reading it  I like all different genres of comics, and every other kind of media so I’m not sure what it is about it I like most.  I really enjoyed how that guy stole the passed out dude’s Santa suit and went and banged that chick in the office closet though!!  Now that is good comic writing!

  34. What Josh said. 🙂


    And, for a second, I thought you were talking about me, but then I realized that I do my branching out in trade. That’s how I’ll pick up Incognito, after I get caught up on Criminal trades…*after* I get caught up on Exterminators trades. 🙂

  35. did you guys just delete the comment i left? the comment where i provided the sales figures that shows the article isn’t exactly accurate?

  36. sorry, that sounded a little more conspiratorial and snippy than i meant it.

  37. Post those numbers (as well as where you got them)! I hope they’re true. I loves me some data. Although I think my store owner may have just been talking about his store.

  38. I read Criminal in trade.  I decided to hop onto Incognito in singles for two reasons:

    a) It’s a mini.

    b) The delicious back-matter.

    Had I known about the back matter when Criminal started, I would have gone singles there too.  Haven’t switched simply because of how trades look on the shelf.

  39. I got into comics through the Vertigo and Image books. Namely Fables and Powers(and Local). I hated the fact that Brian Bendis gets a lot more sales through telling the same old stories in Ultimate Spider-man than he gets in Powers. Untill recently, I hated almost all directly "superhero" books(stuff like Powers and Gotham Central doesn’t count)  for really stifling the growth of a medium that I had really fallen in love with.

    Of course, my opinion has changed in the past year(Damn you Robert Kirkman and Geoff Johns!*fist shaking*), but I still believe that if comic-books are to survive as a medium, the audience needs to branch out.  


  40. incognito #1 sold 19k in its first month, while criminal #1 sold 28k.

    criminal issues average about 14k, so a brand new #1 selling 19k makes sense.

    got the numbers from pwbeat. 

  41. A part of me would like to think that Incognito’s success will be helpful to Criminal.  Maybe it’ll pull in the superhero-only crowd, and introduce them to an entirely new sector of comics they would have never otherwise looked into.

    …either that or they won’t.  : ) 

  42. Given the choice between a good superhero book and a good book of another genre. I’m gonna go with the former. I like superheros. I don’t see a big deal with that. I don’t shut the door to any genres (as evidenced by my pull list this week) but I have my preferences.

  43. Oh, and there’s only so much money to go around.

  44. I have mixed feelings about this article. Yes, i am now reading Incognito and have never read an issue of Criminal.

    HOWEVER, i did not read it just because Ed Brubaker was writing a superhero comic, case in point, im not reading his Captain America. I read it simply because Ed Brubaker is a writer whose work i have consistently enjoyed and while i love superheroes i prefer the more street level urban superheroes like Batman, Daredevil, Catwoman, The Question etc so I thought this book would be right up my alley. Why have I never read an issue of Criminal? Well from what I’ve heard is that the series doesn’t follow one character but instead each issue follows a different one which didn’t really appeal to me, plus Im not even sure where would be a good jumping on point unless i went to the very beginning.

    Plus, with all brutal honesty, superheroes and villains just make a story more exciting. I have to agree that if Gotham Central had not been set in the supervillain infested Gotham City I might not have found it as interesting as I did but I think many would agree that was possibly Brubaker’s(and Rucka’s) best work.

  45. Whoever disputed my central assertion– that Incognito was wildly outselling Criminal– might want to give this a looksee:


    You’ll want to skip ahead to the 44:20 mark or so.