Copra: Round One

Copra: Round One

A red-shirted man with a shotgun mounted to his arm, a stout black woman who functions as team leader: Some readers will see these images and know them by their trademarked names. In Copra, Michel Fiffe continues an artistic project that began with an unlicensed tribute to the 1980s DC series, Suicide Squad, but here he has created something that can be legally sold, with a handful of remaining surface similarities too few to bother the lawyers at DC Entertainment. Its title is pronounced like "Cop Rock," I believe, although in my initial reading it sounded more like "copacabana." These associations are incidental, but align nicely with its origins and inspirations, springing from a trash pile of things mouldering since the Reagan era: action movies and the superhero comics directly influenced by them.

Many of these works had aesthetic eccentricities and textures that hold up well to the modern eye. Walter Hill's Streets Of Fire, Michael Mann's Manhunter, the comics of Bill Sienkiewicz and Kevin Nowlan: all made stylistic decisions that are perhaps better understood in retrospect. Fiffe is a student of these works, conducting interviews with Tony Salmons discussing his work on Dakota North, getting John Ostrander to speak about his anthology Wasteland. Few of Fiffe's mainstream comics touchpoints seem to post-date the moment in 1990 when even the cheapest comics were no longer printed on newsprint, but deluxe-formatted comics pushed the limits of the printing press to convey the gleam of paint. Copra milks the latter works for their color, and the former for their perceived unpretentiousness. Here higher-end production values are utilized to achieve Fiffe's own unique look, a full-color process that shows the brushstrokes in black areas, and allows for backgrounds to appear a default off-white. Thus, a brighter white can be deliberately deployed to function as a color, for a woman's hair, say—a character design detail some may recall from the character of Ice, in Kevin Maguire's Justice League.


That was a comic beloved in its day for its scripting, a comedic approach to characterization that Maguire's skill with facial expressions helped to sell. Reading Copra, you get a sense for how comics craft has shifted over the years. Freed of any obligation to help teach younger audience members how to read, and aware of how much weight an image can carry with a comics-literate audience, modern artists have moved away from expository dialogue, and now frequently approach pacing so that it takes a page to get across an idea that would once have taken two panels. While fight sequences used to be punctuated by constant quippy banter, this convention has been decreed "unrealistic," and so the only dialogue encountered now is the sort of tough talk that would be at home in a movie trailer, functioning primarily to convey tone through genre signifiers.

Copra is a comic built, refreshingly for some, around action sequences, with the visual artist pushing himself to experiment and find an approach for each that feels new and worth the reader's dollar. The large cast of the team means that often many small fights are occurring at once, and as each set of players in conflict moves through space, the placement of bodies needs to be tracked through a series of page-turns. Straight panel-to-panel storytelling falls apart through an attempt to convey something larger and more frenetic. Sometimes images are stacked atop each other on the page, the widescreen ratio approach seen in many superhero comics over the last fifteen-odd years, but while those most often tracked an individual movement or action, in Copra the visuals are so dense with figures that the eye needs to follow each participant individually, and take in the page as a triptych.


At other times, a sequence will be composed so that one character throws something, unseen in one panel, but the object is then seen making contact in another. However, these panels are positioned near each other in such a way so that, even though things have happened in panels coming between them, the reader can understand what must have happened. In terms of actual panel-to-panel storytelling, the choices being made sometimes hinder rather than guide the eye forward. The design and decorative elements give short shrift to ideas of negative space and shadow. The jutting movement of each figure's motion, taken from Steve Ditko's approach to anatomy, sits askew against the wider uncramped vistas of Fiffe's images. The action, while understandable to a slow and deliberate reader, is unintuitive, and inappropriate to the speed at which these scenes seem intended to move.

The narration tells its own story, and is likewise marked by elisions that make it difficult to follow. Initially, a set of characters are introduced through a narrative voice describing them as they sit within a room; but this voice is not identified, nor does the character voicing it sit inside the space. She is revealed only at the end of the first issue, and the familiarity with which she introduced the cast turns out to be at odds with the alien way in which she sits outside the story. Because Fiffe feels his way through form first, confusion emerges as a byproduct of his prized sensation, and the elements that might lend storytelling coherence are absent.

Perhaps it does not matter that the storytelling falters, because there is no real story being told, no point to get across. All ideas contained within Copra's pages are strictly visual, with no thoughts on the world outside the longbox. In this way it is the same as most superhero comics, but here what is taken as justifying tradition is artistic lineage, rather than continuity of tales told about the same characters over and over again. What was once workmanlike escapist fiction, made on an assembly line, and sparked to life in the minds of children primarily through professional craft, is here recreated by way of enthusiastic amateurism for an audience of nostalgic adults. Bearing the mark of being made by hand, without computer gloss, it stands in contrast to most of the mainstream comics that have followed. Fiffe's full-color process allows for a more direct approach to color-hold techniques for background line art, glimpsed in the 1980s only in rare moments where Klaus Janson was allowed to color the work he drew. Here the lines are colored all the time, calling attention to the technique, and to Janson as an innovator. The flame is kept going, with the intention to inspire. It carries spirit, but still the question of "Why?" remains.

The decision to tell a superhero story is perhaps first and foremost a commercial decision, and Copra, originally self-published on a monthly schedule, was Fiffe's go at making a living as an artist, an attempt to make work that, if not as profitable as a day job might be, would at least not be a money-losing proposition, the way one assumes that his previous comic, Zegas, appearing irregularly with no marketable hook, probably was. The goal of making Copra beyond the financial was the exercise of the monthly comic form, using the structure of cliffhangers, and hoping to "break through the Kirby barrier," working at a high speed and ignoring the self-consciousness the creative mind can succumb to without a deadline. This collection then works with a completely different set of goals than informed the work's original creation. But it appears on the market because that is how the comics industry works twenty years on from the out-of-print Suicide Squad comics that inspired it, for there are many readers completely disinterested in the serialized form as a reading experience.


For these readers, the instinct, after reading an initial opening that does not really tell you that much about who these characters are or why things are happening or give much in the way of anything narratively satisfying, is to read on, thinking that the book will soon try to present more pleasures than just an idiosyncratic approach to action storytelling. What they get in the next chapter does not clear anything up, but instead offers a riff on Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange approach to the abstraction of higher dimensions through page design, and stylized anatomy. If the reader wants more from character than simply costume design, they will not find it here; instead, there will just be more character designs. Adjust expectations accordingly. This collection is composed of six issues, and by the end, the story seems to in some ways conclude, but in most ways it has only started to cohere, and only through the sheer weight of accrued pages' momentum.

Throughout the reading, it is hard to make heads or tails of character relationships, stakes in the plot, etc. Rereads make the action sequences more understandable, but character motivations remain opaque. "Action/Superhero/Revenge" is listed on the back cover as a genre, as if to say that is all the motivation you need. Whereas Suicide Squad could use its government agency backdrop in the late '80s as a premise for all sorts of world-traveling skullduggery, here the MacGuffin of crystal embedded in a skull sets in motion the drudgery. It's a superhero comic for an age of never-ending conflict, one where battles just seem to be happening, and their only reason for existence being that they always have existed. Where are things taking place? Sometimes South America, sometimes Japan. Copra once worked for the government, but they have gone rogue by the end of the first issue. Perhaps this is done to distinguish its premise from its Suicide Squad origins, but this shift from one set of understandable ground onto another only serves to make things excessively complicated. (This seems fairly common to genre comics these days: Matt Fraction's Casanova is a riff on conventions of the spy genre predicated on hopping from one parallel world to another, just a small mutation in its DNA to avoid the simplicity of the super-criminal stories that go back to the dawn of the twentieth century that would otherwise be its most obvious kin.)

Reading Copra we see these elements plainly inspired by superhero comics of the past, minus the explanation of context that would be offered up by dozens of books published every month for decades on end. Here it is always the first time, although there are no introductions to set out ideas of any limiting parameters. Everything is in media res, as if Fiffe is trying to capture the feeling of reading a random comic-book issue and not understanding who all the characters are meant to be- but somehow he forgets that those old comics, when well-made, were constructed so that a first-time audience could find them, and be provided with introductions to characters and recognizable stakes. In other words, they told an actual story, and didn't just demonstrate the artist's approach to color and page design.

I acknowledge that to a practitioner of the form, the artist's approach to the labor of their job might be the most interesting element. This is a twenty-dollar collection of a comic explicitly designed for people whose ideal comics reading experience is paying fifty cents apiece for old Norm Breyfogle comics, and who feel as if the stories and scripting mostly just get in the way. Those readers are out there, and I hope they find Copra, if they have not already. But other readers, seeking a comic they can actually read, may hearken back to the early '90s, and wonder, “How is this particularly different from the first wave of Image Comics?” The only real answer is that Fiffe is comparatively disinterested in splash pages.