Review of Michel Fiffe’s Zegas

Writer/Artist: Michel Fiffe
Publisher: Fantagraphics

While reading Copra, Michel Fiffe’s ongoing tribute to 1980s team comics, it’s easy to just bask in the art, because it’s truly spectacular. At once a summation of many major artists in the West (from Paul Pope to Steve Ditko to Mike Zeck) and something completely unique unto itself, Fiffe’s work is both immediately identifiable yet never slacking. He is always on the move to find something new, something different. Yet one must never let the man’s technical acumen as an artist obscure his chief strength as a writer: his humanism.

All the characters in Copra, heroes and villains and supporting cast, end up being fully realized beings. What might appear, on the surface, to be just a fresh coat of paint over a familiar archetype (“Here’s the Deadshot clone”…“This is the Punisher guy”…“She’s meant to be Amanda Waller”) swiftly reveals itself to be full of life and yearning and meaning. Boomer’s desperation in issue #20 (on the run and stuck with people he can’t really stand, possibly because they remind him how much a disaster he is), would have been easy to write in a mock-ironic distant tone – Boomer had started off based on the already joke-y Captain Boomerang – but there’s truth to his words, to his actions, to the sad look on his face, beyond the mask of self-satisfying jerkassness.

Likewise, the angry Lloyd – roaring for vengeance with bullets flying all over issue #21 – seems like such a cliché at first glance that you almost don’t notice how in you are with his rage. You want Boomer to survive and you want Lloyd to get his payback. Empathy is one of the hardest tricks to pull, and one cannot help but cheer for Fiffe as he pulls it again and again. Possibly this has something to do with his first inspiration: original Suicide Squad writer John Ostrander nearly became a catholic priest before becoming a comics scribe, and his 1980s writing shows all the qualities of a good shepherd to his flock. But I think there’s something more there, some deep connection to humanity that is the mark of superb storyteller: characters are never just simple machines for him, a means to move the plot onwards, but always complex mechanisms of conflicting desires.

Which bring us to this this new collection of some his earlier work: Zegas, a three-issue deal involving very little super-heroes and monsters and strange dimensions, but rather mostly people chatting about the small stuff of life, like jobs, love, food, and music. The Zegas in question being a sister (Emily) and a brother (Boston) navigating the poor life in a cramped apartment with crappy jobs, while trying to find avenues to express themselves artistically. (He’s a writer, she’s a designer.) I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how close any of this is to Fiffe’s own life story, but the big picture of it is familiar enough to be the stuff of a thousand sorta-kinda-maybe-ish biographical comics.

But Fiffe, like God, is in the details; and while the general “plot” (it’s mostly a collection of shorts staring the siblings and their various friends) could be copy-pasted by any aspiring alternative cartoonist for next month’s solicitations, he would never be able to conjure what Fiffe does, because what Fiffe does is surprise you. There is a certain athleticism to each and every page in Zegas – changing moods and styles and perspectives between scenes and sometimes even between panels. He can do stark realism and then move to something akin to abstract expressionism. Check out the Club scene for a mad collection of dots and lines and colors – all swiveling to create the desired effect of one being immersed within the world of music, while the DJ is transformed into a Kirby-esq celestial, a conductor on choir of humanity with a massive hand raised in judgment. It shows both the audience submitting and the artists commending; two conflicting notions, two different styles, yet the page never collapses from the weight of it all.

It’s also important to note that for all the mad technical skill at play Fiffe never appears to be trying to simply impress you. If he’s showy, he hides it very well. The scenes shift and change not because the artist wants you to know that he can do all those different styles but because every scene needs, nay demands!, these changes. They are tied to the emotional development of the characters within every single scene. When Boston gets angry and assaults an old man at a bar, his moving arm is submerged within deep red, his eyes become blank-white, and there’s even a small sketch of an explosion atop his head. It’s a cute bit of cartooning that should, by rights, feel incongruous with the more down-to-earth subtlety of the previous page. (Note the careful shifts in Boston’s facial expression throughout that page.) But in the world Fiffe creates, it works.

Likewise the more magical realist touches of the story (such as the vanishing multi-headed thief Emily tackles at the end of her own story) never feel like they’re intruding on the more grounded aspects of the story. The thief is this bizarre apparition, instead of being a regular hoodlum, because Emily needs to finish the scene by venting out on something more abstract, a representation of all frustration against the rich client who had just got her fired. “It”, the thief, is the unkindness, the uncaring, the inhumane part in us all. It is something she must end the chapter by killing, reaffirming to herself that her inner truth was worth standing up for, even if it cost her employment.

The world inhabited by the Zegas family is our world – it’s just that some aspects of it have become highlighted by the process of comics making. Just because these comics operate within the genre of “real stories,” they successfully show that there’s no point in being limited to an illustration style that rejects a more fantastic presentation. There is a never clear line between the real and the fantastic, which allows the pages to flow more freely. When the reader never has to worry “Is this a dream scene?” or “Did that really happen?” we simply learn to accept that this is the way Zegas expresses inner and outer lives, and thus the artist is free to draw in a more flowing manner.

Just as it never really starts, Zegas never really ends – there is no formal arc, only bits and pieces, snapshots of life once lived. Yet, as an experience, these comics feel complete.

Bottom line, Fiffe is a wonderful creator. Whether it’s the interesting slice-of-life stories of Zegas, or the postmodern beat’em, kick’em, shoot’em, stab’em of Copra, I’m quite glad for what Fiffe’s comics future will bring.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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