Michel Fiffe has spent the past 12 months writing/drawing/publishing his own monthly supervillain black ops crew on the run comic Copra. Beginning as an extremely low print run Suicide Squad tribute comic and evolving into its own original story. The series, side-stepping the trap of being an exercise in nostalgia, has been the most consistently masterful and vibrant action comic being made in 2013. Driven by rich characters, fight heavy, smart and fast and dense as the best comics of the 80s could be. But the series thoroughly modern, done in Fiffe's equally direct and abstract flourish-filled style. This is the kind of comics that tricks you into thinking that the off-brand, "made out of pure love and fandom" version of a thing could outdo the officially licensed version. Instead, it's a showcase of Fiffe's commitment to quality and delivering on the demands of the genre in a way nothing has outside of the classics of the genre. This is comics as alive as anything, brought to the world every step of the way by one person, that live and die on a glance or a punch or a cacophony of lines and colors. Nothing else this year even came close.
Michel Fiffe: You know I wasn't expecting anyone to see Deathzone, right? It was supposed to be this... not a joke thing, but a light thing to get me out of my glut. I thought making Suicide Squad as the vehicle to do that seemed ridiculous. It seemed like nothing good could come from it, which compelled me further. And by "joke" I don't mean that I was doing it ironically or anything like that. That's absurd. However, I thought that working on an old DC title that time forgot would be fun. I remember one of the first conversations I had with Tucker was about Captain Cold in SS #18, and I thought he was fucking with me at first. Not the case; we both cradle our Deadshot comics with the same amount of tenderness. Tucker dropping Captain Cold's name is the definition of deep cuts.
So there I was, finally done with this massive second issue of Zegas and feeling exhausted. I put all of my efforts into this one book, this one Zegas issue, so I wasn't totally excited to jump back into #3, y'know? I needed a break, I needed something totally different. Deathzone came out of that desire/frustration.
Michel: No, the writing on that is exemplary. I've been revisiting those issues for the past few years and falling in love with them all over again. I saw this "break" between Zegas issues to be a good opportunity to do... something. I don't know, I was planning on maybe reviewing every issue on a blog or something. Then I thought no one would read it, because who cares? Then I considered doing pin-ups of every character in my style, throw them up on tumblr or something just as practice. I've never been a pin-up guy, so I thought making an actual narrative would be more interesting to me, but I didn't want to make an original story. I just wanted to draw and write the specific details of what I loved about the Squad. So I made a fan comic, bona fide fan fic, right? I knew there were a couple of unofficial-type comics by indie guys, but they were usually demented version of those characters. I wasn't interested in doing that, I wanted to make a "real thing". I wanted to pretend I was given the assignment by Robert Greenberger in 1988 or something. My aim wasn't to make it look weird, I wanted to play it straight all the way.
I wanted to do this thing, this unofficial thing that people would potentially ridicule or ignore because only Tucker and me like this old comic and you know, they weren't mine to play with. So I didn't want to spend too much time on it, the way I labored over Zegas. I had to knock it out and I did. I liked the results and I had a lot of fun doing it. I had them printed up and it was well received! I was proud of this little thing that I lovingly did in tribute to the comics I liked as a kid. The seed was planted, and that's what led to Copra. I treated Copra, again, as if I was being hired by DC and given the keys to the car. How would I do this if I had complete control? Since that would never happen, especially now in this current climate, I took that impossible daydream and spun my own thing out of it. I hammered out schedule logistics, plots points to make sure I had enough story to carry 12 issues, and enough money to at least fund the first issue.
Michel: Ostrander is such a smart writer, he plays the characters just right. He just nails their voices consistently. I never cringe reading his stuff. There are modern comics that make me physically cringe. Like they're trying so hard to impress you, they're self-consciousness is really off putting. Ostrander, back when these comics were for young people - little kids - wrote confidently, he didn't need to impress shit. You have to understand, Ostrander came from acting, he came from improv and the stage. He entered comics when he was 33; this was a man with a life, not some putz who'd been fed on pretentious Grant Morrison comics all his life. Once his wife, Kim Yale, entered the picture, the tone really took off. She balanced him out. She was just as sharp with dialogue as he was, and could write convincing meanness, or pathos, or humor. So, yes, the writing is what really hooked me, because it was profound without trying to be. It was just trying to entertain kids, and the creators were just doing their jobs. Plus, I have a soft spot for Luke McDonnell. He was their straight man.
Michel: No, I knew Ditko through his Daredevil fill ins & an old Spider-Man reprint. I was nine at the time and to me, Shade was just another cool Squad member. I discovered the Ditko connection later on.
Michel: Yeah, about a decade later. I somehow got his address and immediately hit him up for some answers. I wanted to know about craft and aesthetic issues dealing in comics and their potential content, the sort of thing an inquisitive pain in the ass wonders about. I asked, he barked, I asked louder. It went on like this for years.
Michel: I know what you mean. This is the sad truth: I conditioned myself, when I began making comics almost all the time, to not create genre comics in my attempt to "expand the form". I still allowed myself to like what I liked without guilt or regret, which included tons of genre, but I felt I had a responsibility to push past that when it came to my work. I really bought into the ethos that comics can only be True Art by not transcending genre but by completely sidestepping it and that's the rub. I was going against my nature by restricting myself and dressing it up as intellectualization. I stifled myself. There was - still is in a sense - this constant tug and pull form both ends on my part. Always aware that I was participating in junk culture but rejecting the notion that it's junk. Zegas was my first serious response to those concerns. Zegas was me taking all the challenges I placed on myself and dominating them. I wanted human stories but I wanted to draw fantastical things, too, I wanted to experiment with color, I wanted to package it nicely, draw it finely and carefully, write and re-write the hell out of it. It was supposed to by my shining example of what I thought comics could be while not giving too much of a fuck. Copra is not me giving less of a fuck... I DO care. I care about it just as much as I do with Zegas. The difference is that it's easier for me to not be aware of whether I'm making junk culture or not. That concern is completely useless to me now. I'm not making comics to prove anything, or to get Gary Groth or Steve Ditko or my friends or the internet's blessing. I acted on an impulse and exploiting it is the most natural way to honor that impulse.
Michel: Right, right. I wanted to work within the parameters of the old mainstream comics I was inspired by. For example, it had to be standard size, it had to be 24 pages, have a letters column, be as affordable as possible, it had to have hooks and cliffhangers and forward momentum. I also had to work assembly line with myself so when it came down to me sitting and dedicating my life to a thing, I wanted to have a good time doing it, I wanted to be challenged. The thing I was measuring against was the production aspect of it and some of the aesthetic ones. The saving grace of it all was that I had no editor or publisher to answer to. Given that, and to answer your question more directly, yes, Copra involves more extreme physical absurdist violence and action that requires a balanced touch. I wanted the script to have heart and a point of view, but it had to move efficiently and in service of the larger arc.
Michel: Right... Benny, his narration was very specific. Even then, it would drop in and out when necessary. You're right, though, they're all tools. You can restrict the tools, but they exist. Same thing with SFX or thought balloons or color choices.
SW: For the characters - are you spending a lot of time on developing their voices? The strongest ones seem to be the ones you spend the most time with, sometimes with narration -- Sonia, Benny, Lloyd, Rax -- but sometimes not. Guthie and Wir and Harkness are fully differentiated.
Michel: Sometimes in groups. Since Copra is a team, I wanted them to pit them against other teams instead of just one source of tension. Plus it's more fun to draw everyone get their own little spotlight. I also wanted to throw new things at them without letting up and that required an army of characters. I wanted to give them that sense of urgency, that chaotic force that works best under pressure. The reader didn't know the threat, Copra didn't either.
Michel: I like them both. The group scenes are very time consuming, there's some heavy orchestration at work. And these are just drawings, I cannot imagine staging a real fight and making it flow while being hard hitting. A one-on-one fight is good because you can really get in there, you can dig a little deeper, you can make it personal. So each one works a different narrative muscle.
Michel: Since issue two.
SW: Oh, man.
Michel: I had to keep it to myself. Almost gave it up in issue 7 during the "Personal Files" story. But as a reader, I would've hated having that knowledge. It paid off I think.
Michel: Yeah, he's a favorite of mine. I sometimes feel like I underwrite him, but that's me confusing underwriting with absence of words. I actually write the shit out of him, but it's all in the restraint with him. Looking back he has very little dialogue. So #10 was a gift to myself. Even then, there's such a reluctance in his voice that I had to be careful not to overplay that either.
Michel: It makes it more relatable for me to write, certainly. Especially dealing with the unreal, with multidimensional landfills or talking brain crime lords in giant size glass bulbs. That's a built in tension right there, in the man-out-of-place setting. That's a standard storytelling thing, right? I'm the wrong guy to ask about certain rules or standards. There are classic, time honored guidelines to go by, then there's Save The Cat. I will never get that time back.
Michel: After reading the last page, someone should've snuck up behind me and taken me out with a silencer.
SW: Whispered as you fell backwards into their arms.
Michel: Yeah, I'm aware of certain rules but I can't... It's like that "22 panels that always work" thing, that Wally Wood thing. That's not theory, it's not critical analysis, it's lazy fucking garbage that Wood did cynically, as a joke. You get these generations of people following that. "Story"... why would I want to read about Star Wars? How to draw the John Buscema Way? That book didn't have Ditko in it - why the fuck would I care?
Michel: Sounds better than having to come up with an elevator pitch.
Michel: It was way easier but man, I really wish I could just slow the fuck down. Not so much to draw more but to just consider things more. To not feel the rush would be great. That's been a good thing for the most part, the rush, but there were points where I was like "fuck all this". I got close to losing my shit but it mostly had to do with the production side of the schedule, not the creative. I have no staff, no shipping department, no accountant. It was me up at 2 am writing the nicest e-mail to my printer asking them why I have a box of damaged copies of my comic. Whatever, no complaints, it had to get done. But it came close to affecting me. I don't think that changed the way I worked on the book, though, at least not on a direct creative level. In that regard I got faster, I condensed all the steps and moved quickly.
Michel: It feels bittersweet, like it's not really over, you know? It's a huge relief, though, and I'm super proud. I welcome the chance to actually sit and think. I miss the comfort of having a goal, of having a monthly quota to meet, but I'm very glad to step away for the moment. It'll only benefit the future of Copra.
SW: Are you going to be going back to Zegas in the interim?
Michel: I have plans for Zegas but they're gonna take a while longer than I expected. Right now I'm just drawing commissions and drafting scripts.
SW: So you're definitely heading back into Copra? You still excited about doing it?
Michel: Oh, yeah, I have this larger arc that I cannot wait to work on. I'm also gonna enjoy getting there, like those deeper beats we were talking about. I have a few more characters to introduce... man, I wish I can just tell you then ending. Can I? Can I just ruin something for you?
Michel: The guy from Drive dies.
SW: Dumbeldore DIES! Okay final question: why is Don Dimelo funding a squad of cyborg merc bounty hunters?
Michel: He's got a broader entrepreneurial spirit than we give him credit for, but he's no longer funding anything. He tried to hustle Klaus out of a slow dance with a donkey and one of his girls, so Klaus snuffed him and kept his warehouse.