I bought the first issue of Deep Sleeper at a discount bookstore for 75 cents. I had never heard of it, nor did I, at that time, have enough experience with either of its creators to recognize their names. I bought it because the cover was attention-grabbing, the pages I flipped through looked dark and twisted, and it cost less than a dollar. I have purchased countless stray comics this way, which mostly ended up being read once, bagged, boxed, and forgotten. But Deep Sleeper #1 stuck in my mental craw, and something like two years later, while at a comicbook store other than my usual one looking for something else entirely, I noticed the hardcover collection of Deep Sleeper on the shelf and snatched it up without even checking the price. It did not disappoint, and continues to be a title I regularly reread, recommend to friends (comic fans and non), and sometimes just sit and ponder, turning over a particular scene or concept in my mind. On my most recent visit to the familiar four-issue series, however, I began wondering what, precisely, I find so lovable about the book. I mean, it has powerful art, compelling characters, and a lot of hauntingly poetic language, but...so do any number of other comics that I hold in lower esteem than Deep Sleeper. What is it that so immediately gripped me, and why does it keep reeling me back in?
Firstly, I don't want to just say "it has powerful art" and leave it at that, because whatever other treasures Deep Sleeper may contain, Mike Huddleston's carefully-constructed and gorgeous drawings are doubtlessly a significant factor in my adoration. Working entirely in black and white, Huddleston does so much with shading, careful use of empty space, and dynamic page layouts that there is as much life and energy in these pages as any full-color book. And he brings a bizarre, somewhat raw style that utilizes what I can only describe as selective pointillism---some of the panels are really just collections of dots, some are dotless, and most lie in between---to highlight the surreality and, when appropriate, the horror of the story's events. There are numerous monsters and other creatures of the dream world seen throughout the series, and Huddleston fills them all with such intricate detail that they often look more lifelike than the human characters. Add to all of this the deep and nuanced emotions his cast displays, and the overall tone of controlled chaos in the artwork: use of ink splatter, fading images, crumbling panel borders. Deep Sleeper is certainly a singular artistic vision and accomplishment, but again, this is not necessarily unique praise. Other titles, even titles Huddleston has worked on since, have had equally original aesthetics, so while the art of Deep Sleeper is worth study and appreciation, it cannot be that alone which has me hooked.
So that leaves me to dive into Phil Hester's script. It's not easy to summarize without glossing over a lot of important details, but the long and short of it is that our hero, Cole Gibson, is pulled into the middle of an ancient conflict because, he comes to discover, he has a great but as-of-yet-untapped power. On one side of the fight is Ramman, an insane, self-serving, immortal monk with plans to pierce the barrier of reality and come out the other side a god. He needs Cole's help with this because Cole, he believes, is a bridge between the dream world and the real one, and the barrier exists in both. Working against this are Tulsa and Dar, members of Ramman's former sect who believe he is on a fool's mission and want to save the innumerable innocent souls he plans to burn up as a part of it. Both sides try to recruit Cole, but he's not interested in being a cog in anyone else's machine. So, seeking his own answers, he explores the workings of the dream world and, ultimately, reaches the understanding that there is no difference between it and reality. For Cole at least, whatever he imagines becomes real, and he uses this discovery to defeat Ramman once and for all and lay rest to an age-old struggle.
No individual element of this narrative is, on its own, especially groundbreaking. Stories that exist partially or even primarily within dreams are fairly common, and Ramman isn't much different than any other megalomaniacal evil genius. Even the final message of dreams being as real and as powerful as anything in our waking world is one I've heard elsewhere, before and since my discovery of Deep Sleeper. Part of what holds this story above the rest is how Hester structures it so thoughtfully, delivering a lot of exposition in relatively small spaces so that the action and/or dream sequences have all the room they need to be as grandiose and spectacular as possible. And in Cole he creates an instantly relatable and likable protagonist, but also one who we learn right away is flawed and unhappy, struggling to succeed as a writer and, in many ways, as a father and husband. He has a tremendous, obvious love for his family, but that love alone is not enough to keep him from making mistakes, from sometimes failing to protect them. Then we watch him grow into his full potential, and ultimately sacrifice himself to save not only his family but numerous faceless strangers, too. It is a sacrifice that feels earned, and allows the story to land on a note of hopefulness without being needlessly cheesy or tidy. So, yeah, it's a fantastic script, to be sure. But like Huddleston's art, I'm not convinced that it's anything specific to Hester's writing that so powerfully impressed and impresses me still.
I come back to that first issue, then, the initial three-quarter purchase that sucked me in and has yet to let go. What did those original 32 pages do that inspired me to buy the hardcover edition all those months later? Obviously, everything I've pointed out above is a part of it, but I believe the true secret of the series' success lies in one particular aspect, with the rest of the high-quality work acting as gravy on an especially delicious graphic meal. Where the core of my affection for Deep Sleeper lies is in the delicate balance it strikes between the confusing and the clear, the real and the surreal. Cole as a character is largely in the dark about what's going on and why he's involved in it for a decent chunk of the series. Then, even when he begins to get answers, they are often lies, half-truths, or just incredibly cryptic. However, even in the face of all these question marks, Cole never fully drowns in confusion, and neither does the reader. Hester provides enough insight at just the right times to keep propelling everything forward, and both he and Huddleston, from the very first page, make it abundantly clear that dreams and "real" events are just as important as each other in this series. We open on one of Cole's dreams, spend several pages in the thick of one of his short stories, and see details from both spilling out into reality all in that first issue. So even though it isn't said out loud until the story begins to wrap up, we know from the beginning that imagined things hold power in this world, and it makes any hard-to-grasp moments easier to swallow. In a sense, everything we see is real, everything is true, so if Cole or the reader ever has a question about something that just happened, they can pretty much take it at face value for the time being and hope for a fuller explanation down the line. And, more often than not, that explanation does arrive, but in those cases where it doesn't, it's a safe bet we know as much as we'll ever need to.
I think I can best express this point with an example, and the strongest single example is the character of Jahi. On his first fully-lucid visit to the dream world (in the second issue), Cole sees a dreamshow put on by a mysterious, possibly-human woman named Jahi. It holds some of the most captivating and beautiful pages, visually, of the whole book, and is an important moment in Cole's journey, because watching the show distracts him enough for another dream traveller to steal his physical body while he sleeps. But who Jahi is, whether or not she also lives in the waking world, and the hows and whys of a "dreamshow" are never explained. We never see Jahi, her performance, or anyone else's for the rest of the story. While it is unfolding, though, there is no need to question it, no impulse to wonder what the point of her captivating dance might be. By then we understand that just by existing, just by being something which Cole experiences, Jahi's dreamshow has weight and power, and will matter to our hero in some way, because literally everything does. Whether it takes place in an imagined space or not, Hester and Huddleston make it all equally important, so by the time Cole decides there is no border between his mind and his world, it feels inevitable.
Deep Sleeper is a brilliantly crafted tale, strange and layered yet filled with familiar ideas and still easy to follow. Perhaps I am taking away from it somewhat by trying to pinpoint one characteristic that keeps it so high on my list of all-time favorites, but when I love something I always want to understand why. And like most things having to do with Deep Sleeper, the reasons for my love are seemingly elusive but, in actuality, are relatively simple to understand.