That comic-book superheroes currently dominate pop-culture is undeniable, but do these big screen creations really capture the imaginative wallop the books they sprung from once brought? For Brooklyn comics creator Michel Fiffe, the migration from page to multiplex has not been entirely welcome. “It’s to me, the most boring thing. It’s so fucking dull.” says Fiffe. “Comics do certain things better than anyone else, but now movies are kind of catching up to what those things were, especially in the look. What if these things existed in real life? But what do comics do well? They’re drawings, right? At their peak, that’s what they clearly are. They’re not trying to sucker you into pretending this is the real world. They’re their own world and they have to convince you that you’re in it.”
Fiffe was sucked into those alternate universes as a five-year-old living in Spain. Of all the things his parents threw at him to keep him occupied, it was translations of old DC comics that outshone games, films, TV shows, and toys. “I didn’t learn English until I was about seven and I think comics had a huge part in that. They helped me break down a story, break down a specific narrative,” he says. “Comics were always my favorite. There’s just a quiet intensity to them.”
A grown Fiffe built a cult following for his own comics, like the surreal, pop-art adventure series, Zegas, which resembled eccentric indies more than the Green Lantern Corps. But he never quite shook his childhood obsession with John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad comics from the 1980s. Fiffe weighed a series of essays or pin-ups to show his appreciation, but ended up with a loving tribute comic called DEATHZONE! that played like a stray back issue pulled from a comics shop long box. That itch, still not sufficiently scratched, led him to his ongoing self-published series COPRA, a clear homage that blurs the details and sharpens the edges of the original, often sliding gleefully into sci-fi psychedelia. Though both draw from the same pulp source material, reading a briskly paced, technicolor arc of Fiffe’s comic is likely to be very different experience than watching Margot Robbie and Will Smith camp it up in the dimly lit Suicide Squad movie later this year. “COPRA isn’t a funny comic, but it fully knows that it’s taking a comic about weirdo mercenaries in other dimensions seriously, as serious as that can be.”
Fiffe self-published COPRA #1 in fall of November 2012 through his Etsy store, in a limited run of 400 copies. “I felt like if I could sell to this set amount of people that will buy my work and my friends, then I’m good.” But when rave reviews rolled in and issue #2 sold out, it was clear that demand would far outstrip that supply. Fiffe found a web of comics stores in hip urban centers interested in carrying issues. Bergen Street Comics, the shop where he worked part-time as a clerk, stepped in to publish collections. The physical store closed in 2015, but the publishing arm they started with COPRA continues on.
“There’s a charm to thinking that Marvel Comics were created by a bunch of middle-aged dudes in the 60s, trying to get by in a dying industry,” says Fiffe. “Even guys like [Chris] Claremont, doing The X-Men in the 70s and 80s, people were still talking about the end of the industry. Same thing with Daredevil and Frank Miller. They just gave him some C-list title on the verge of cancellation, and he made something cool out of it, that’s lasted. They were left alone to do their weird little books, and something just struck.”
There was a subversive quality to those stories that went beyond bursts of violence and flashes of titillation, unsettling young readers with real moments of failure and unexpected narrative rhythms that two-hour film arcs with billions riding on them can’t allow. At times, COPRA plays like a fever dream, misremembering all of those seminal comics runs at once, co-mingling ideas and archetypes, throwing characters resembling the Marvel and DC second string together across corporate lines. “I recognize how COPRA could be seen as a sort of gross fan fiction,” he jokes.
An insane amount of work goes into making a monthly comic, from writing, to pencilling, from inking to adding the book’s gorgeous colors, made with a mix of watercolors, oil paint, ink, and colored pencil shading (not to mention actually getting the issues to shops and subscribers). It makes sense that the average DC or Marvel monthly title has long been the product of an assembly line of creators. For a control freak like Fiffe, that won’t do. So he works, and largely lives, in the back room studio of his Carroll Gardens apartment, until he can come up for air. “It’s a pretty brutal schedule that I don’t wish upon anyone,” he says. But now, up to issue #26 of a projected 50, the once-chancy passion project has become his full-time job and the thing that supports him.
“When it comes to those old comics, I think there’s just an immediacy to them that’s so obvious. Not because they were rushed or it was done on a deadline, but it was a lot less self-aware. Old Steve Ditko comics, I can see the guy drawing it. I can imagine him drawing these cityscapes and wonderlands, and figures out of nothing. It just has this real bite to it.” Fiffe’s illustrations, his bold lines and graceful, fluid action, stand out among the hyper-muscular glean of much mainstream art. There’s something about it that feels pure.
“I wanted COPRA to be a regular comic book, using the standard format that is being used today. It’s very specific. It’s twenty four pages, you can bag and board it, you can put it in a box, you can put it on the shelves next to regular comics,” says Fiffe. “That was the point of this whole thing, to just sort of blend in.” On that one point, he failed by succeeding.