Accessibility is overrated! So is context. When I was myself a wee sprat just coming up in the world, most of the comics for sale at the local 7/11 seemed to operate according to the guiding principle of, “climb aboard and hold on tight, you’ll pick up what you need along the way, and if you like what you see then you can dig deeper later.” That kind of structure depended on a couple things upon which, to be fair, readers today can’t necessarily bet the bank. In the first place, as per Jim Shooter but as observed by most creators and editors working during the period, more work was done in the confines of each issue to explain everything contextually. Sometimes that meant big word bubbles where Captain America conspicuously names every member of his team and then adds a little aside about their shtick. And in the second, the books were still cheap enough - 75 cents or a dollar - that if you read one random issue of, say, Suicide Squad, it was a small matter to go back and buy any other issues still on the stands. A good newsstand would have a few months of books, even if the oldest ones had probably been dog-eared a bit by a month or two of casual pawing.
That’s not the world we live in anymore, but by gum those are the parameters under which Michel Fiffe still operates. (I should probably mention in passing - so no one starts screaming at me in the comments -that I’m a loose acquaintance of Fiffe, in the sense that I’m loose acquaintances with a lot of people online. He’s also a Journal contributor as well, and if you haven’t been reading The Fiffe Files you really should.) I appreciate and respect Fiffe’s Copra, which recently released the first issue of a new run at Image, for sticking so squarely and confidently to the ancient ways. Maybe it’s just because we’re about the same age, give or take a year, that I recognize so clearly the format and structure under which the series operates. Copra is, shall we say, “inspired” by certain milestone works from that period, in a manner similar to which the Squadron Supreme was “inspired” by a handful of characters once published by National Periodical Publications.
But, then, they don’t really make ‘em like this anymore, is the thing. A generation of creators within the mainstream came to believe that the genre signifiers of serial fiction were needlessly restrictive. There’s certainly an argument to be made in some respects, but as always, little care is given for what was lost. Copra defies the last twenty years of serial floppy development and absolutely refuses to deliver anything resembling a coherent and discrete story in and of itself itself, but also takes great care to juggle a large cast spread across a number of disparate locations. Perhaps creators may have found the format stifling, and that could be why fewer and fewer series opted to continue with that kind of strict issue-to-issue slow growth approach as the new millennia ticked on. Buying habits changed. It became easier to collect six discrete issues at a time and newer series struggled to make it past single digits. Setting up for a long game wasn’t really advisable unless you were on a book being steered either lightly or heavily by editorial.
All of which is well and good but overlooks a very salient fact: you gotta give them a reason to come back next month. In hindsight the achievement of a series like Ostrander & Yale’s Suicide Squad, which so typified a certain late 80s Realpolitik ersatz realism so endemic to books from the era, seem completely clear and manifest. But it also seems very clear and manifest - to me if no one else - that Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe is the period’s unacknowledged ur-text. (I never would have gone back and read Hama’s run without Tucker’s recommendation, so credit where it’s due.) At the time these virtues weren’t perhaps as clear. But now the unthinkingly jingoistic crap that surrounded them on the shelves has faded. Both series were critical of the use of the American military to resolve diplomatic and economic aims - in ways which seem in 2019 strikingly bald-faced. Both were about men and women who sacrificed a great deal, either willingly or otherwise, to be used as pawns by Uncle Sam. And they were also ongoing series filled with sprawling casts who didn’t have a lot of time for any kind of personal life outside of their jobs.
Maybe that’s an obvious observation? Team books are almost all, to some degree, workplace dramas. Every character has their own drama, and most of the time its in the background - except for occasionally when it isn’t, and that always happens at the most inconvenient times, y’know? Get people invested in a group of characters, and make those characters fun to watch interact with one another, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the military, or even a hospital or a police precinct or an ad agency, people will tune in next week. That’s what does the trick.
All of which is to say: I admire Copra’s insistence on playing it by-the-book even in the context of a brand new number one at Image Comics. Copra #1 is only not Copra #32 because it’s at a new publisher. In every other way that matters, this is the thirty-second chapter of Copra’s ongoing adventure. You’ll like their shtick - a bunch of outlaws and unlucky heroes end up working for the federal government, in the form of their tough-as-nails leader, a middle-aged bureaucrat with a bad attitude. It would be grossly incorrect to say that this new #1 isn’t new reader friendly, however, even as it starts more or less right in the middle of Stuff Happening On an Ongoing Basis. Most comics used to be like that, you know? Remember when “good jumping on point” didn’t mean that the comic would stop in its track for a month to regurgitate the premise, but rather that a new storyline was starting? This is that.
Now, I should also mention at this point that I’m not completely exhaustively versed in the Copra Saga - I’ve read some of it over the years, missed more. That actually isn’t a completely terrible thing. It plays to the series strengths to read it in a slightly patchwork, scattershot way, catching only the emphasis points as various characters cycle through various stages of their respective psychodramas. All these stories are told one sliver at a time, such that even if one or two threads might be resolved or pushed forward, another dozen are always waiting to be pulled. When everything led one into another, it all matter enough that one or two slivers might be all someone needs to get pulled into a much larger story. It’s a format that worked for a lot of era’s best books - Uncanny X-Men, G.I. Joe, Love & Rockets . . .
But so much for this trip down memory lane, y’know? The most interesting thing about Copra for most people is probably not the callback to 1980s serial structures. Although I might be wrong, I imagine the appeal for most is probably Fiffe’s art. It reminds me of a lot of things, but that’s actually a good sign - if I can see a lot of people in your work, it means you’ve got good influences, not just a slavish attention to detail. It’s significant that, for all the the talk about the book’s structure, the art doesn’t really adhere to any kind of nostalgic program. The issue is even built around an Akira riff. Fiffe’s work is influenced by a lot of things, not just one DC book from the late 80s.
Fiffe does everything for the book - as the inside cover reads, Created, Written, Pencilled, Inked, Colored, Lettered, Produced by himself. The book feels, as it is, handmade: you can see each stroke of his colored pencils. Different types of black stick to the page in different ways. Nothing would break my heart more than to learn he does any of on the computer.
What I love about Copra, what I think anyone would love about Copra, is the way Fiffe goes for broke on every page. Because he’s not doing this for a paycheck. The faces in a line-up don’t get to be “good enough” because there’s a lot of shit to draw this month, Fiffe gets to pick what he wants to draw. If he’s going to draw big pages of talking heads, he’s going to make it fun. Every face has a personality. Maybe that personality is similar to that of another character who may have been published by another comic book company thirty years ago, maybe it’s a modernized version of the same. I admire the book for understanding that format is one of the hardest aspects of fiction to successfully replicate. There’s no way to approximate a long-running and Byzantine continuity thicket but by planting and tilling a patch for yourself.