Copra Round One (2014)
Reprints Copra #1-6
Written by Michael Fiffe
Art by Michael Fiffe
I had to close my book a few pages into Copra Round One because I needed to check something. A quick search online confirmed I was seeing what I saw correctly. This is a fan continuation of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad series with all the serial numbers filed off. Character designs and personalities make it evident that this is a love letter to that 1980s DC Comics classic from top to bottom. Also, they throw in analogs for Marvel’s Doctor Strange & Clea just because they can. The name “Suicide Squad” is never used; there’s no mistaking this is written by someone who loves those characters but couldn’t get a job at DC writing a revival. But, in true indie comics fashion, Michael Fiffe did it anyway, resulting in a wild trip.
Copra is a covert ops group composed of super-powered and/or highly trained killers. They are transporting a skull with a magic lightning bolt stone lodged inside it when a rival group attacks. Some Copra members are killed in the process, while others live to fight another day. They return to HQ, grab some more scoundrels to fill their ranks, and jump back into the thick of it. It is challenging to explain this comic’s narrative because it doesn’t progress much in this first volume. Fiffe is far more interested in style over substance, and if you know that going in then, I think it’s unfair to complain about the book. If you didn’t know, then fair enough, you were expecting something more traditional. While Jeff Lemire has made a very obvious homage to DC Comics in the pages of Black Hammer, Fiffe is doing something much more niche, catering not even to a small audience but himself. Fiffe is making the sorts of comics he wants to sit back and read.
If someone has come across Copra in their comics reading journey, which started with the Marvel films, you will be disappointed. The type of storytelling in Copra is a pastiche to an older era. Fiffe isn’t trying to write in a highly sophisticated manner; he’s calling back to how our brains worked when we were preteens devouring comics off the grocery store racks. The story isn’t meant to be simple but the sort of over-complicated arcs you would imagine while smashing your action figures together.
The beauty of Copra comes from the amount of detail and the cinematic scope of the action sequences. They are drawn in widescreen or splash pages, a sense of momentum palpable on every page. These fights occur between moderately large groups of colorfully costumed characters, so there’s a lot of cutting between pairings. The focus of a battle in one panel might be in the background of the next one. Movement in the space is meticulously tracked so that you always have a clearly defined sense of the geography. This means Copra can have profoundly dense fight sequences but make it extremely easy to keep up with where everyone is and what happens to them. You might not remember the characters’ names, but you will never lose track of them in a fight.
Fiffe is a genuine comics lover, and his art style is reminiscent of classic Jack Kirby work but also traces of Steve Ditko in the weirdness of his figures. It makes sense because he does include an alternate version of Doctor Strange in the story, one of Ditko’s major co-creation during his tenure at Marvel. Fiffe isn’t trying to communicate any pressing themes in his work, so this truly is an instance of style over substance, but unashamedly so. I can appreciate something that is pure style if the aesthetics are creative. You need to show me something surprising and inventive, and the story won’t matter so much. Too often, creative types try to pour as much style as they can onto the page or screen, but they don’t truly love what they are making, so it rings false. Fiffe has no such problems; each panel and page comes from a genuine love of the form.
The feeling of being lost in the story, unable to get your bearings, is also a nod to the sense of reading comics as a child. Often, you read whatever the manager at the grocery store decided to stock. This meant there was never a lack of Batman or Superman books. It was most exciting when something strange or unfamiliar appeared on the racks, a promise of something fresh. If you bought your comics in this way, like I did, then you weren’t really able to follow too many ongoing runs for too long. Part of your reading experience was trying to infer what came before based on dialogue between characters and who these people were, and their relationships with each other. Copra begins in media res for that very purpose, we’re in the middle of a story with characters who feel familiar, but we don’t really know what the situation is or why everyone wants this particular MacGuffin.
Copra is an exercise in nostalgia & style that actually works. As long as you know what you are expecting, then it shouldn’t throw you for any loops. This is pure comics fun, taking pleasure in complicated interpersonal relationships developed over decades and across different comics titles. You are just entering the middle of the story. This comic world existed long before you, and when you pass away, it will keep going with stories you’ll never get to read. I find this way of approaching comics very soothing. Unlike other people I know, I don’t care if I don’t come in on issue one. If the writing is entertaining and the art is good, it doesn’t matter. Comics do not always have to justify themselves as art; they can just be what they have always been.
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