Written by Charles Meier
As you may know, one of the many, many titles of DC’s 2011 relaunch was a series called Suicide Squad. That’s it’s the sequential-art equivalent of Krokodiil lesions will come as a surprise only to those of you reading this article while remaining somehow unaware of the New 52. Juggalo Harley Quinn is only the most visible of its problems–there’s also the dumb costumes (pretty standard for DC nowadays), the reimagining of Amanda Waller as a Halle Berry clone, every single character being an idiot/asshole, and the overall ickiness of tone. Pretty lousy stuff, to be sure.
Buuuuut…it wasn’t always this way. Like many New 52 books, Suicide Squad is a remake/reboot of an earlier book, in this case the 1987 series written by John Ostrander. That was a different beast altogether, achieving almost the polar opposite of its ill-begotten reiteration. The premise–a team of incarcerated supervillains take on all the secret, dangerous missions the capes won’t touch/can’t know about, all as a bizarre work-release program–sounds like one destined to failure, especially when you factor in how Ostrander made a point of having at least one member of the team die and get replaced every story arc.
But somehow, that’s not what happened. Instead, in reading the original Suicide Squad you find yourself actually caring about what happens. First and foremost among its many other virtues, I think of this series as evidence that you can make a good comic about anything. Ostrander displayed a remarkable facility for fully realizing his characters, many of whom had previously been one-note throwaway villains at best. Just as an example, this series is quite possibly the most character development Deadshot has ever gotten. Prior to this, he’d been about as flat as characters get, being a one-shot Batman villain whose one notable trait was “being good with a gun”. Afterward, he became a fascinating admixture of any number of psychological issues–he may well be the first clinically depressed supervillain. The best evidence of the strength of his Suicide Squad portrayal, I think, is the fact that Gail Simone chose to lift him more or less unchanged for Secret Six. Perhaps even more impressive–he remained distinct from his Marvel counterpart.
Considering this depth of characterization–especially within its leader, possibly the single brassiest woman in comics history –it’s unsurprising that this series would stick out in the minds of DC readers of the era. As we all know, one era’s comics readers are a later era’s comics creators. In the case of the example I wish to discuss today, one such reader-turned-creator was Michel Fiffe (Zegas). Seeking to stretch his creative/work ethic muscles a bit, Fiffe took it upon himself to write, draw, and self-publish his own Suicide Squad homage, Copra.
Everything I’ve ever wanted in a goddamn comic.
I’m not saying that just to say it, either. Rather, I mean to denote that Copra has transcended the bonds of being merely a “good” comic, or even a “great” one, to become something more archetypal, one of those series that springs to mind when I think “comic”. Copra is not the first book to achieve this pinnacle–Tintin, Watchmen, The Spirit, The Sandman and Fraction’s Hawkeye also count among them, to name a few–but to achieve it at all is quite the feat. To achieve it with a comic that’s at best a knockoff and at worst outright copyright infringement? Well, if I believed in miracles, this would be one.
It’s fitting, I think, that Copra draws its inspiration from an Eighties comic, as it harkens back to that era of comics in more ways than one. This was, after all, the era in which self-publishing and third-party publishers saw their heyday. While non-Big Two comics had certainly existed prior to then, most notably in the underground movement of the Sixties and Seventies, the Eighties was when creators who weren’t drawing a paycheck from Marvel or DC finally slipped the bonds of Crumbian reverse-hagiography and took the excuse to go truly nuts. Unlike many of their underground predecessors, the Reagan-era indies had grown up reading the Big Two’s Silver and Bronze Age offerings, and many were eager to follow in those footsteps. And if they couldn’t tell those stories better, well, they could certainly tell them weirder. Or they could have a few laughs at the very least–Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out essentially as a Frank Miller parody. A parody which took off somehow and turned into what it was supposed to be making fun of, but that’s another article. It’s appropriate I mention TMNT, actually, as it behooves me to mention that Eighties indie comics weren’t all Nexus and Usagi Yojimbo–as with any other era of comics, there was plenty of crap to be had, most of it from folks who failed to understand that TMNT’s success was a fluke. It’s hard to ride a bandwagon that didn’t really exist to begin with.
Anyway, my point is that Copra is a callback to the exact opposite of those coattail-tuggers, those who took their influences and stretched them to the breaking point. While still recognizable as a Suicide Squad homage, Fiffe has made a point of taking that exploiting that series’ capacity for strangeness (seriously, dudes tried to invade Apokolips). The most recent story-arc had the team traveling to a parallel dimension to battle a feminine brain-jar crimelord, guided by Shade The Changing Man. Or his non-union Mexican equivalent, at least. There’s room for growth in this concept, is the point.
It helps that Fiffe’s art is more than up to the task. He’s mastered the trick, seen so rarely in indie comics, of using abstraction to the benefit of narrative, rather than to its detriment. All too often you see independent creators (not naming names–there’s so many of them anyway) losing track of the story they were telling in favor of drawing weird, cool stuff. Fiffe’s art is indeed often very cool and very, very weird, but he doesn’t forget to tell a coherent story in the process. You can admire the vertiginous spires of that extradimensional city even as you worry about whether or not the Copra team will make their evac in time. Most of them, anyway–Fiffe carries on the Suicide Squad tradition of a high casualty rate. There’s violence a-plenty in this series, and Fiffe’s art has the weight and “oomph” to back it up–each punch and gunshot has you sympathetically flinching right along with its target.
These are all just the most obvious reasons Fiffe’s art works so well, however. There’s any number of small things to round the artwork up from “pretty good” to “memorable”. For one thing, there’s the lettering; I typically only notice lettering if it’s done really well or really badly, and Copra gives us an example of the former, infused with a personality which seems like it should fit the dialogue not at all, but somehow does. I’d also be remiss not to mention the coloring, which Fiffe apparently does with colored pencils right on the board. I didn’t even know you could do that, but now I wonder why more people don’t. Again, Fiffe’s choice of palette seems like it shouldn’t work–I don’t ordinarily like this many pastels–but somehow it does, infusing the proceedings with a naturalistic warmth you don’t often see even in the best-colored books. That you can see every pencil-stroke plain as day also adds a great deal of character, even if it results in a dirtier line than I usually like. The most amazing thing about Copra’s art, I think, is how it systematically redefines all my notions of what constitutes a well-drawn book.
Click to Enlarge
With all this going on, Fiffe could perhaps be excused for neglecting the writing, but thankfully doesn’t. Unlike modern-day DC, Fiffe doesn’t overlook what made Ostrander’s Suicide Squad more than a generic kill-fest, namely the attention towards character. In that series as well as Copra, the team members are living, breathing characters with understandable, relatable motivations, elevating them beyond mere grist for the mill. Even if you want to see a team member die horribly, his/her well-rounded nature just makes their end all the sweeter. (One of the many, many issues with the New 52 Suicide Squad is that the characters are so unpleasant that even their deaths don’t garner much reaction–it’s like stepping on a particularly ugly bug.) What’s more, Fiffe has an incredible knack for naturalistic dialogue, entirely bereft of the declarative bombast common to the genre. Even with all the crazy shit going down around them, people in Copra talk to each other like just that–people. Not to say they’re boring or one-note–they’re very much not–Fiffe just doesn’t feel any need to prove to you how special they are, being content to let them speak for themselves. Just as an example, Copra probably has the single best iteration of Amanda Waller, and she’s not even the real Amanda Waller. That’s the state of the industry right now–the fake Suicide Squad is miles better than the real Suicide Squad. Muse on that, why don’t you.
Once you’re done musing, go ahead and buy this thing already. It might be slightly hard to find, depending on whether or not you live near a top-quality comic book store or not. (I live near several, but then my city has more comic book stores than several states.) Copra is entirely self-published and distributed, Fiffe having no truck with those unpleasant people at Diamond. As a result, many stores may not carry it at all, and some issues are mostly sold out–the early issues were limited to 600 copies each, though they’re still available in the three-issue Compendiums. If nothing else, you can find them through Fiffe’s website. It’s definitely worth it–on top of everything else, Copra is even an attractive package, being published on top-quality open-grain paper. The mere weight of each issue is enough to give me a slight thrill, before I even start to read the thing. To buy an issue of Copra seems to represent not a purchase so much as an investment.
And I look forward to investing for some time to come. The most recent issue, #12, was originally intended to be the series’ last; however, Fiffe has chosen to make Copra an ongoing series, setting a tentative date of Spring 2014 for its return. A technicality prevents Copra from entirely sweeping my year-end list (the series began in late 2012), but this takes “Best News Of The Year” in a walk.
As you can probably tell, I really, really like this series, and I think you will too. In fact, if you’re not already reading Copra, why are you still wasting your time reading this? Click over to Fiffe’s site and start buying issues already. You’ll be glad you did.