Michel Fiffe’s Copra: The Most Well-Known Secret in Comics

Copra is the most well-known secret in comics. Everyone seems to know its name, one repeatedly shouted from digital rooftops in choruses of “all hail!” by ardent fans and critics alike, and it’s a roar that grows in volume and fervor with every new issue. A highly sought-after comic, one that boasts frequent sell-outs and pricey flips at online auction, Copra fans never seem to have anything but praise to offer to the conversation surrounding it, as if reading Copra essentially is a privilege.

To its point, Copra sort of is. Not available in most stores or digitally via popular apps like Comixology, Copra is available only via creator Michel Fiffe’s Etsy webstore (in singles or via an arc-based subscription service) or the Bergen Street Comic Shop. Even with the first trade appearing in Previews and potentially gracing shelves in more shops, I wouldn’t wager that this method of release will be changing; the self-published DIY method works very well for Copra, and it gives the book a certain mystique, as if the only way to read it is to slay a dragon or follow a map only illuminated by moonlight.

The drawback to this is that it can make discussion about Copra somewhat limiting. When I ask people what they thought of the latest issue of Copra, for example, the amount that seemingly respond to the question is discernibly less than those that can give me 2000-word essays on the merits of All-New Hawkeye #1, even if one probably deserves more discussion than the other. Sometimes it feels like talking about Copra only allows you to speak to a limited audience, while everyone else attempts to play catch-up every time there’s a new article about Copra online, like this one.

That’s exactly why Copra is the most well-known secret in comics. Even despite the fact that fans of the book like myself seemingly never shut up about it, no matter how many times we buy the trade for friends and urge them that, yes, they can just hop into the latest single issue and read along, it just doesn’t seem to be in as many hands as it should. And with the recent 20th issue arriving in mailboxes around the world as of now, the book’s momentum and the reasons to continuously celebrate the title does not seem to be diminishing—nor should it. So that’s why we’re here today: for yet another article discussing the wonder of Michel Fiffe’s creator-owned, self-published superhero comic book masterpiece Copra, with the addendum that you’re urged to stop reading right now and just go by it (links available at the bottom).

If you have the book, this article will mostly result in you nodding your head. If you don’t, you’ll most likely grind your teeth at its lack of availability. Either way, this is Copra.

Let’s set the stage: written/illustrated by Brooklyn-based Michel Fiffe and inspired by/a paean to John Ostrander’s famous Suicide Squad run for DC Comics, the book follows the eponymous COPRA team, a band of anti-heroes and general misfits doing government dirty work. When a seemingly routine mission goes haywire and the team finds themselves betrayed, seen as enemies of the state, they’re left with only one option: clear their names at all costs with a hail of bullets. Violence appropriately ensues, as the book transforms from a first issue of chaos into a mind-bending odyssey of a book chronicling the non-stop adventures of this team against an assortment of brilliantly insane villains, full of dimension-hopping and world-altering superheroics.

As a story, Copra is rather sneakily complex. From the first two arcs that comprise a 12-issue epic to the more recent and personal one-off issues that followed, Copra is about a group down but not out in an underdog story of “everyone vs. us” (with a good dose of “us vs. us” in the mix as well). Those first 12-issues do an excellent job of setting up the stage, spinning various plates and creating a rather labyrinthine and unpredictable universe for the characters to inhabit; we meet people from parallel worlds while exploring the lives and strange intimacy of the members stuck with COPRA. While it’s a continuing story, no issue feels the same; each comes with its own rhythm or tick throughout, exploring what can be done in a comic book just as much as it pushes the characters to various breaking points, and the final result is as personal as it is epic.

By the end of the 12th issue everything and everyone is left in disarray. Copra has become a fairly multi-threaded book at this point, and it can sometimes be a surprise to (re)discover where a certain team member has wound up. For the past eight issues we’ve been following the disparate adventures of ex-COPRA members, each put in their own environments and left to flourish, flounder or fight on their own. And while these issues operate as tributes to specific artists or styles, breaking up the main action of the central narrative (only slightly), the story never loses its intensity; Fiffe give us not only a neo-classical ‘80s story, but also some of the most well rounded characters in comics to boot. You come to know and care for each of their lives pretty intimately, with every voice coming clearly alongside the other—whether we’re spending time with the Deadshot-esque Lloyd, the man behind the WIR Mechanoid or the dimensionally displaced Rax, each member of Copra comes across as an actual person of interest, which is not an easy feat to manage.

One of the first things I ever really came to notice about Copra as I read it was how drawn to the characters I was, and it comes in part from Fiffe writing them as real people. We tend to see writers in comics attempt to inject “realism” into their books, something that can be translated as “dark” or “gritty” reboots and otherwise forced drama to make the story more tragic, but that’s not what Fiffe does here. Fiffe writes the characters as flawed people, yes, but without the overlaid sense of personal and aggrandized grief that fuels certain famous anti-heroes; there are no drawn out soliloquies, no staring out of windows or sitting atop buildings perched on gargoyles. The characters and their motivations can be as pedestrian or mundane as ours, and that doesn’t hold them back from being fascinating.

Add to that the interpersonal dynamic on display in Copra and you find something that has been fairly missing from comics of this kind for some time now. The people in the room are just that, discussing their lives, fears or what have you as much as they may talk about who is trying to kill them today, and it brings the reader into Copra’s world on a closer level. Even if the team doesn’t necessarily all get along, that added element just makes their journey together all the more worthwhile in following—sometimes to the rather bitter end, in fact, as this is a Suicide Squad tribute at its onset after all. You come to know these characters so well that you’d swear you’ve been reading about them for years, and while everyone comes with a slight familiarity (as they are somewhat based on or inspired by previously established DC/Marvel character archetypes) their growth within the narrative is very impressive.

Of course, Fiffe is quite a talented artist as well. Seemingly fueled by a mix of ‘80s exploration and ‘90s cliché, Fiffe has found a solid middle ground for his work. The characters excel, of course, as they show off a mix of fragility and power, a strange balancing act that helps to embrace the flawed nature of our protagonists. You can see the parts of these characters that could break or are breaking, and as they clash in various forms Fiffe plays up the potential of the comic page as they’re tossed around like ragdolls smashing against one another. The character designs also play a big part in making these figures appealing. Sure, as mentioned, you have a character like Lloyd who is designed on purpose to look similar to Deadshot, but characters like Gracie or Xenia allow Fiffe to explore interesting shapes and form on the page as they move about and contort or use their powerset on the page—and some character designs are so ludicrous that it’s just impressive Fiffe can keep it straight and consistent in the first place. Everything that comes from the characters—both internal and external—offers up unique experiences, allowing different ways for Fiffe to explore magic, weaponry, acrobatics and more.

This then leads into the actual design of the pages themselves, which are always a sight to behold. Copra becomes rather unique visually right off the bat for the way that Fiffe breaks down and builds up pages, utilizing story-based magic to de-construct pages into the minutia of what makes sequential art so interesting in the first place. Panels don’t just tilt or angle but rather crash from side to side, and characters break out and weave around the boundaries that surround them—not in a meta way, but rather as part of a strange multi-dimensional ballet, one that is breaking down around us. Fiffe employs such creative architecture throughout the story alongside a keen sense of design, and this inevitably helps to play-up the experimental and improvisational nature by which the story is told.

That’s one of the most fascinating things about Copra to me. The nature of the book as a place for Fiffe to practice and learn more about the craft is something very few other titles seem to even attempt, and Fiffe’s continued development of his own talent is a joy to watch issue to issue. Fiffe has stated that he knows what he’ll do, but the roadmap to how he gets there is subject to change; as such, Fiffe doesn’t work off a script, doesn’t layout issues and often puts pen to paper for the final product, working around that, which in turn leads to a fair amount of structural learning and story development being visually apparent on the page. Copra #1 is a discernibly different beast than the recent Copra #20, for example, and gone are the shaky, frantic lines angled around mind-bending and fast paced action, now replaced with a more even tone and consistent rhythm that accentuates the book’s spirit and captures within it a particularly bold form of artistic wizardry.

The third arc is where we really got to see Fiffe shine, as while he was already an incredibly talented artist with a keen and unique approach to the page, the one-shot aspects of the books allowed him to try out different storytelling methods or play with the ideas of tributes to comic greats; we saw a Lapham-esque grid issue, a sleek and magical Ditko ode and the most bombastic Kirby tribute this side of a Tom Scioli comic recently, and all of them were done through Fiffe’s interesting and progressive lens for comics. Fiffe’s various tribute-long issues also play a key role in the series, as the experimental one-shot based third arc has now fed into a fourth arc that just got away with one of the biggest sneak-attack moments in the series yet, a door-buster of a last-minute, high-impact finale.

(As an aside: while I’m doing my best to avoid specific spoilers, I do have to note that the ending of #20 caused me to actually shout “oh shit!” to no one in particular, a visceral reaction that very few comics get out of me. There’s something to be said for a comic that creates such a passionate fan base around it, but it’s rare that a comic can a vocal rise out of an otherwise “I’ve been reading comics too long and am now otherwise jaded” reader—and yet here we are.)

It should also be noted that creators making various plays on established styles via tribute is something we see regularly in comics (whether intentional or not is probably up for debate). The difference here is that Fiffe is using these issues not just as an excuse to Kirby it up but to actually learn what it is that made Kirby or Ditko or others great in the first place. It’s comparable to Dave Sim and Cerebus, if you look at the first issue of that and the last, and see the way that Sim has learned to master his cartooning; Cerebus featured so much imitation on the pages, whether visually as parody or even with the way certain characters spoke, and by the end of the series Sim had transformed from a talented artist into an absolute master. I’d wager that by the end of Copra, the Fiffe we’ll see illustrating the pages will be a force to be reckoned with, and following that issue to issue is one of the greatest joys in comics today.

The interior content is only a fraction of the reason to talk about Copra, though. Simply put, when people say that there is nothing like Copra on the shelves, it’s neither hyperbole nor an exaggeration; as an actual artifact Copra is a unique entity, one designed to be held. As previously mentioned, Fiffe’s earnest DIY ethics for the production of the book cause the book’s audience to potentially be limited, but that doesn’t seem to deter the growth of its audience, even with that limited availability.  In fact, while perhaps an odd comparison, Copra’s production is similar to that of Cartmanland, the fictional perfect theme park owned and operated by Eric Cartman (South Park, Season 5, Episode 6); despite being against what Cartman inherently wanted, having purchased the park to be a place for him alone to go, the park became a booming success due to the limited amount of people that were allowed to attend. (The park’s doors were only opened so Cartman could pay for upkeep) Copra seems similar, in that this is clearly a book Fiffe wanted to create for himself as a fan of comics and Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, but as appealing as it is for you or me, the book is done for him first—which is notable in that many comics today seem like they’re done for specific audiences, even if the writer or artist doesn’t care about the content (see: half of Marvel’s and DC’s lines, at least).

But the more people hear about it the more they want to find, acquire and enjoy it—and this turns Copra into a big success, even if it’s not hitting the kind of sales numbers that other publishers who goose up sales numbers with a trillion variants see as valuable. Each issue has a limited release and is priced at $5 a pop, something that fans of mainstream books inherently find as sheer lunacy (“$4.99 for 32 pages?! Are you kidding me?!”), yet the book repeatedly sells out (with no follow-up printings), and when “compendium” editions of three issues a pop are released, those too sell out; the eventual turnaround of Copra on eBay is fairly ridiculous to say the least. Fiffe has created a book that’s so universally praised by its audience that those who can’t acquire it seem to bend over backwards to try and get a hold of it, made all the more difficult by no digital versions being available, and those that already have the book covet it. Fiffe holds strong to the comic being a physical entity, one that needs to be held in your hands to be enjoyed properly, and it very much keeps the unique experience and spirit of comic books alive and solidifies Copra as a culturally important book.

(Which, for the record, isn’t to say that Copra is unique in its existence as a self-published indie book. There are plenty of books and creators worth lobbing affection towards; Sam Bosma’s recent Ignatz-award winning “Fantasy Basketball” comes to mind almost immediately, let alone other Ignatz award winners. However, the multitudes of fans and critics that fawn over Copra does boggle the mind how it’s not a more mainstream success, specifically because Fiffe doesn’t seem the need to follow certain unspoken rules about how to publish your own comic to the masses in 2015—and I have to imagine some publisher has knocked on his door and offered a bigger publishing deal at this point. If they haven’t, they’re all stupid.)

Finally, Copra retains the one element that most modern superhero ongoing stories relish: the ability to pick up at any issue and work out the narrative with ease. This may seem like a blasé comment to offer, but this is something that has very real value; in an age of comics when knowledge of past volumes is everything and not starting at #1 means most people will avoid a comic altogether, Copra stands above the crowd as one of a few books that effectively balances the ongoing nature of its story with the serialized nature of its delivery. The recent release of the first trade (the second, at the time of this writing, has just gone up for pre-order) may have certainly opened up the book for new readers, but you could pick up the just-released Copra #20 and, with just a passing familiarity of comics, find a lot to enjoy in the issue (especially if you’re a fan of the Flash).

To continue breaking the objective wall before us, I’ll note that my first purchased issue of Copra came at #13. I’d reached my breaking point of waiting for trade/compendium releases (after the announcement of the first trade) and Scotland’s own Colin Bell insisting I subscribe to the series, so I just joined in—something I’ll admit I’m beyond hesitant to do with 90% of the ongoings released today, company—or creator-owned. Not only that, but it should be noted that Copra #13 begins in media res from a plot thread I only learned after the fact; the action literally picks up from the final panel of Corpa #12, and it’s a huge moment for the series. Yet I didn’t feel lost. Instead I was fascinated by the craft employed on the page and the way in which Fiffe explored the relationship of motion against a static page; that I enjoyed the story itself seemed like an added bonus. From there I worked backwards through the first twelve issues, and now I stand before you as a full-fledged member of the Cult of Copra.

So when we finally get past the intense multitudes hiding within this book to be discovered, ultimately the main reason Copra inherently works is because it’s honest. One of the most grating trends found in modern superheroic comics is that almost all of them are seemingly trying to “do” something with their narrative—whether that’s appeasing to a gimmick, trending towards a specific crowd, offering dissertations on the very nature of capes and masks or some other form of otherwise clichéd storytelling. This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, and I’m happy that there are comics designed for everyone in all walks of life, but as a big reader myself it all tends to get lost in waves of white noise. Copra has yet to fall into those traps, though, instead edging more towards the days when cape comics focused on telling their stories while not adhering to specific toed lines to align with “continuity” or “public perception” —the ones that set the stage for years of copycats to come (making Copra’s existence as a Mobius strip of sorts rather fun to muse over). Where other books fight for purpose, Copra’s existence is sufficiently self-sustained by simply being itself.

And while this might not seem like a noteworthy accomplishment of its own accord, looking at the wider market of superhero-oriented comics causes Copra to stand out. Even if we push past the generic nature and never-ending soap operas found at Marvel and DC, both the books that seem like they’re setting up the next event or getting ready for a film as well as books trying to make a difference while waiting for their cancellation, even most creator-owned or indie-published superhero books seem to fall in practically circadian rhythms. Dark Horse created an entire line of superhero titles, Image publishes a fair deal of creator-owned superhero dramas and we frequently see alt-superhero books from publishers like BOOM!, IDW, Avatar, Oni and more—yet all of these books so often lose their focus by trying too hard to stand out from the crowd, resulting in more of a muffled cry than a triumphant shout. Even Valiant, arguably publishing the best company-owned superhero comics today, has books and a publishing line that flirt too much with familiar tropes for better or worse, though they handle it better than others.

We can enjoy cape comics for what they are in the same way we can throw down $12 to see a blockbuster on the big screen, but for every “new” or “edgy” take on superheroes, none of those books are like Copra. The simple explanation is that they try too hard to stand out; the better explanation is that Copra doesn’t. For all the multitudes of titles and talented creators behind them, Copra is the one book that has captured the essence of domino masks and capes in such a pure, distilled way that it’s remarkable more books don’t follow suit. Sure, there’s deconstruction of tropes and yes, despite my avoidance in talking about them here, the book does have its flaws (the narrative becomes slightly disjointed in the second arc), but Copra remains a title that seems defiant to whatever rules these other books can’t break past. Whether that comes from a close study by Fiffe of what used to make comics work twenty years ago or some kind of specific genius in Fiffe that other books have yet to mimic off of him is up for debate, but I’m waiting for the day when someone smart enough finds the book and calls up their cousin to show them that the new sound they’ve been looking for is on the other end of the receiver, because that’s the jam Fiffe is playing.

Anyway. I know it’s kinda been a roundabout way of saying it, but I guess the point I’m trying to make here is: while the book has only just hit its 20th issue (the second issue of its fourth arc), it’s easy to see that Copra matters. When people say that there’s nothing else like it being published right now, they’re not just talking about the content; we have plenty of superhero comics, let alone books surrounding anti-heroes. No, Copra is different in that its value is so multi-layered and multi-purposed that everything about it begs to be discussed on a greater scale as a grand pedestal holding up everything that made us love superhero comics in the first place. I imagine it’s not far off, but I look forward to a future where Fiffe’s work on this book enters the same hallowed halls as Sim’s Cerebus or Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, epic comic tomes that deserve to be discussed both for what’s on the page, what’s under it and how it all came together in the first place while giving the respective creators a chance to grow from highly talented artists into absolute masters of the craft.

Plus: 4000 other words aside, it’s just a pretty fucking awesome comic.

If you’ve made it this far and are ready to get the book that will ruin all other superhero comics for you, you can read the first issue of Copra here and buy the first two trades here. And if I were you, I’d follow this up by buying every single issue you can get your hands on here.

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Matthew Meylikhov is perhaps best known as the founder and former Editor in Chief of the Eisner-nominated Multiversity Comics, and for his in-depth annotations for the New York Times Best Selling Image Comics series Morning Glories, found in the back of each issue. However, Matthew Meylikhov is also notable for his works as a cat trainer and beard grower. A writer, editor and letterer, Meylikhov was once referred to as "okay enough" by his closest friend and strives daily to be a little bit less disappointing than the day before.

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